The Oakland A's of the 1970's were the dominant team of the decade with a cast of characters large enough to fill a Broadway production. With tremendous talent such as Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers leading the charge, it was difficult to imagine the struggle it took to reach such a star-studded lineup. While the team already had a reliable catcher in Dave Duncan, he soon became frustrated with his meager contract and would eventually hold out. In his place stepped Gene Tenace who immediately made a name for himself in the 1972 Fall Classic, launching a dynasty. While it took him some time to stay in the major leagues, once he got his chance, Tenace took advantage of it. This is his story.
Gene Tenace was born on October 10, 1946 in Russellton, Pennsylvania. After moving to Ohio when he was young, Tenace starred on the baseball diamond as well as one the gridiron while he attended Valley High School in Lucasville. He worked hard at his craft and earned all-state honors at shortstop. After being selected in the 20th round of the 1965 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Athletics, Tenace meandered around the minor leagues for the next four years, struggling to find his place in the game. He once grew so desperate that he even played all nine positions in one game.
By 1969, Gene Tenace had yet to find his place in the game when he moved on to the Birmingham of the Double-A Southern League, coached by one of the game's most respected catching developers, Gus Niarhos. Under Niarhos' guidance, Tenace became adept behind the plate and soon found his way to the major leagues where the A's were now located in Oakland.
In his first three years in the major leagues, Gene Tenace struggled to stay in Oakland. IN 1969, he played in16 games in Oakland before returning to the minors, in 1970 he played in 38 games, in 1971 he played in 65 and in 1972 he played in 82 games. Despite his struggles, Tenace still participated in the postseason with the A's. By 1972, the club had reached the World Series for the first time as Oakland residents.
Up until this point, Gene Tenace had tried and failed again and again to make a name for himself in Major League Baseball. All this time, he had searched for that one series, that one moment that would forever link him to one of the biggest stages in the world. Going into the 1972 World Series, few gave the Oakland A's a chance against the mighty Cincinnati Reds. Gene Tenace delivered, collecting eight hits, bashed four home runs and batted in nine runs. His four home runs in the first five games tied a World Series record which has since been broken by the Phillies' Chase Utley in 2009. Additionally, in Game 1, Tenace became the first player in World Series history to record home runs in his first two at bats When the A's claimed the title after seven hard fought games, Tenace earned the World series MVP.
With an increasingly disgruntled incumbent catcher Dave Duncan holding out for a better contract following the 1972 World Series, that first championship proved to be Gene Tenace's true starting point in the major leagues, as he seized the opportunity and remained the team's top catcher for the rest of his time in Oakland and beyond. Emboldened by his great performance in the World Series, Tenace hit 24 home runs in his first full year as the Athletic's starting catcher, following that up with 29 and 26 home runs respectively over the next two years.
The A's continued to dominate as well, winning two more World Series title in 1973 and 1974, establishing themselves as the decade's premier ball club. In 1975, Tenace earned his first and only All Star nod when he hit a career best 29 home runs. Two years later, he was traded to the San Diego Padres
After their founding in 1969, the Padres struggled to win and had finished 73-89 the year before acquiring Gene Tenace. While they still struggled, Tenace shined, leading the major leagues with 125 bases earned. However, he struggled at the plate, only hitting .233 for the year. However, he did throw out 523 players from his catching position.
The following year, the Padres produced their first winning season, posting an 84-78 record. Tenace was a force from behind the plate that year, throwing out 668 players. Unfortunately, the Padres failed to make the playoffs that year and Gene Tenace's last two years in San Diego ended without a single postseason appearance. By 1981, his time had run out in San Diego and he was traded to Saint Louis.
When Gene Tenace arrived in Saint Louis, the Cardinals had not won the World Series in 14 years. In 1981, Tenace's first year with the ball club, the Cardinals finished the strike shortened year 59-43-1 but failed to make the playoffs. Despite the disappointing finish, the future looked bright for the ball club.
So much went right for the Cardinals in 1982. They won 92 games, claimed their division and made it to the World Series for the first time since 1968. While the Cardinals flew to victory after victory, Gene Tenace began to experience the effects of a failing body. He battled a broken right thumb and hand for much of the year and rode the bench as a reserve, lending his voice when necessary to those willing to listen. Against the Milwaukee Brewers in the Fall Classic, Tenace failed to make a hit in six appearances at the plate. Despite his offensive discrepancies, the Cardinals prevailed in seven games.
After failing to hit a single home run the following year with the Pirates, Gene Tenace retired as a player and went into coaching. In subsequent years, he spent time coaching the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Toronto Blue Jays (where he won two more World Series rings in 1992 and 1993), the Boston Red Sox and the Cardinals.