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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Gene Tenace Stars In the Series of 1972


 

There's a town in Ohio called Cincinnati and in it lives a catcher named Johnny Bench. Just about everybody in America has heard of Cincinnati and Johnny Bench.

There's another town in Ohio called Lucasville and in it lives a catcher named Fury Gene Tenace. There is hardly anyone in America who has heard of Lucasville and Fury Gene Tenace.

That was until the 69th Octoberfest got under way in Cincinnati.”

Fury Gene Tenace, is a former Major Leaague player and coach. He was a catcher and first baseman from 1969 through 1983. He played for the Oakland Athletics, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. After his playing days ended, Tenace coached for several organizations, most notably for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Now, Tenace is considered one of the top catchers of his era. He once said, “I just have a habit of being where the action is.” After all, he attained four World Series rings while playing with his many teammates over the years. That accomplishment, in itself, is phenomenal; however, in the Series of 1972, Gene Tenace attained Ruthian grandeur. This is the story of the week that put him forever among the legendary players of the game.

Fury Gene “Gino” Tenace (The name is pronounced “Tennis” although it was originally Tenacci, pronounced “Ten-a-chi,” from his second generation Italian ancestry.) is the paternal grandson of an Italian immigrant who settled in Russelton, Pennsylvania, where he became a miner. (One commentator quipped about Tenacci, “Heck, Gene's an Italian who can't even speak Italian.”)

“That grandfather died in a cave-in in the mines,” Tenace said. At the time Fiore Tenace, Gene's father, was only nine-years-old. That tragedy didn't keep Fiore from later working in the mines for nine years himself.

By the way, Gene's first name “Fury” is said to be derived from “Fiore,” but Gene likes to tell: “My father liked horses and named me for the horse “Fury” in the movies, I guess.”

Fiore Tenace had always wanted to become a major league baseball player, too. But he suffered an injury when he was 15 years old – a bat swung accidentally by someone cracked him in the base of the skull – and he felt that the injury stunted his athletic progress. In 1939, he joined the Merchant Marines, then entered the Navy when World War II broke out. He also served in the Korean War and was stationed in Philadelphia when Gene was four years old. Afterward, he became a laborer, doing everything from ditch-digging to working on highrise buildings to driving a truck.

Gene said, “My father was a real baseball fanatic. He played some semi-pro ball himself. He was determined that I would play in the big leagues. He stuck a ball in my hand when I was two years old. I ate and slept baseball. I played all day long.”

Tenace admitted that his father, named Fiore was guilty of applying as lot of pressure on him – as do many doting parents.

“Especially when I was in the Little League. My father didn't think I should ever let a third strike go by or make a mistake. If I booted one, he'd call me aside and chew me out.”

“It was embarrassing to me – especially in front of all the other guys. As I look back, I can understand it a little. I had a lot of respect for my dad. He just was determined that his son would make the big leagues.”

Gene's family moved to Lucasville, Ohio, where he played football and baseball for Valley Local High School. Just a little more than a speck on the road map, Lucasville and Valley High School were “a lease on a bigger life to come” for Gene Tenace.

“Yeah, we were small,” Tenace said. “I think my freshman year we had 100 kids (in his class), total enrollment. When I graduated we only had 80. So 20 of them disappeared and know one knew where. But it didn’t seem small to us back then. In the 60s it was all we knew. Everyone knew everyone and everything about everyone. I played football and baseball because it was fun and because it provided the opportunity to do something competitive with my friends. Sports was a big deal to us then, and we had a lot of good athletes in those 80 kids.”

Gene's favorite sport then? Guess again, it was not baseball.

“I played baseball, but you know, my first love was football. I loved football. My sophomore year we were 10-0 and won the SOC (Southern Ohio Conference). My dad was dead set against that. He kept telling me that I’d tear up a knee and never get get out of Lucasville as a baseball player. If I wanted to go anywhere and play professionally, my dad told me that it had to be in baseball. But he left it up to me and I played football for four years. I never got hurt, outside of some bumps and scrapes.”

But, it was baseball that came knocking with golden opportunity.

Tenace admits, “It actually was a dream of mine…to sign and play professional baseball. You don’t know you’re going to make it to the big leagues at that age, but I knew I wanted to play someplace.”

Gene explains his fortune: “What happened was I played Legion baseball in Portsmouth, and we played in a lot of tournaments up and down the river and I got a lot of exposure. There were a lot of scouts that followed those programs back in those days and I was fortunate to get seen.” It didn't hurt that future Major Leaguers Al Oliver and Larry Hisle were playing there also – what a scout's paradise. “We could put some runs on the board, but we just didn’t have the pitching to get past the state playoffs,” recalled Tenace.

And, to add to his resume, as a senior at Lucasville, Tenace played shortstop and led the Valley Indians to the Class A state title game, homering for his team’s only run in a game that they ultimately lost.

After his senior year, Gene was selected by the Kansas City Athletics in the 20th round of the 1965 draft. He signed that coveted professional baseball contract, and he received a bonus of $10,000, not huge but very impressive. It was off the the minor leagues for Tenace.

At first, Tenace “puttered around the Athletics organization as a utility player.” Once, while with Peninsula of the Carolina League, Tenace played all nine positions in one game as part of a promotion. “Once I even started a game as a pitcher and went eight innings before a guy beat me with a home run,” said Gene.

Knowing Tenace's versatility, the wise promoter figured he could put a few people into the ball park by allowing Tenace to play all nine position in one game. His drawing power proved to be lacking.

“I played all nine position in one game and even escaped intact in the inning I pitched. They drew a couple of hundred (fans),” Tenace said, almost embarrassed. That wasn't how many extra they drew. That was the entire crowd.

Later, Gene confirmed that Bert Campaneris did it once in the Major Leagues. On September 8, 1965, as part of a special promotion featuring the popular young player, Campaneris became the first player to play every position in a major league game. On the mound, he pitched ambidextrously, throwing lefty to left-handers, and switched against right-handers. And, speaking of promotions – on July 23, 1964, Campy Campaneris, was introduced on air by Monte Moore, announcer, by explaining a promotional gimmick by Charlie O. Finley, of Campy riding a donkey in from the bullpen.

The A's switched Tenace to the outfield, but that's when his career hit hit rock bottom. He played the outfield and looked on as Oakland signed a couple of kids from Arizona – Rick Monday and Reggie Jackson. The two eventually became big league stars.

Thoughts of quitting entered his mind. The the A's turned Tenace into a catcher. “I figured it was all right with me as long as it got me to the big leagues,” he said.

Converted into a catcher in 1968, Tenace was brought up in September where he immediately faced in succession such glittering pitchers as Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, and Denny McLain. He got one single out of them but hit his first home off his next pitching foe, Earl Wilson, also one of the better pitchers then. However, Dave Duncan kept outranking Gino as the No. 1 catcher.

In 1969, Gene finished the season with an unimpressive .158 batting average, 1 home run and 2 runs batted in, appearing in just 38 games as a third-string catcher.

In spite of that, though, Tenace became the man behind the plate for what the Athletics regarded as their “distinctive” games. He caught Vida Blue when the phenomenal young man spun his no-hitter in 1970 and a year later Gino was at the receiving end when both Blue and Catfish Hunter passed the notable milestones of their 20th victories.

“I didn't even know Vida had a no-hitter until the sixth inning of that game, Gene admitted shamefacedly, “Whenever I went out to talk to him on the mound Ihad nothing to say tohim. He just overpowered them with his fastball and threw practically no breaking stuff.'

Tenace continued to play the next two years as the third-string catcher before serving as Dave Duncan's backup in 1971. Tenace entered the 1972 season backing up Duncan. His big chance could not have come at a worse time. When Duncan failed to extricate himself from a midseason slump, Manager Dick Williams turned to Tenace. "Can you catch?" he asked the bench-warmer. "Yes," said Tenace, who at the time had a temperature of 104 and had lost 10 pounds from his normal playing weight of 190.

But Williams, ever the tinkerer, put Gene at first base that day. He hit a triple, despite his illness, and was given a chance to show his abilities by being make the team's regular catcher the next day. He continued to man that position in the post season. He ended the regular season with only a .225 average. But given his opportunity to play in the postseason, Tenace was ready to take full advantage of the opportunity.

The American League Championship came first. But when the Oakland Athletics played the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs that year, it appeared Tenace was about to be forever remembered as a goat. For 16 at bats in the playoffs he went without a hit. And, even worse, he committed a costly error, dropping a double-play ball at second in the 10th inning of Game Four, which helped the Tigers win and force a climactic fifth game.

Gene had been taken out of a play by huge Gates Brown. Tenace never blamed the fact that he was out of position that particular day. He'd played there often in Dick Williams's platoon system, and he'd played there as a minor leaguer. And, he never blamed Gates for his tough, determined play. To the team, and of course to Gene, the mistake was monumental.

But, Tenace hung in there and was not to be denied. On at bat No. 17 in Game Five, Gene hit a single. It merely won the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs to put Oakland in the World Series for the first time since 1931.

And, he suddenly became a hero. Needless to say, to Gene Tenace, the hero's role was being worn lightly.

“But I didn't drop the ball,” Gene later insisted with a smile as he talked about the critical error that could have cost the team a trip to the fall classic. He was smiling for good reason because his memory about his performance in the World Series is much better. As it should be.

 

World Series of 1972

In 1972 World Series featured the Oakland Athletics against the Cincinnati Reds. It was billed “The Hairs vs. the Squares.” Most of the A’s had grown mustaches and the like because Finley thought it would help the team stand out. He offered his players $300 each to grow facial hair. This was odd, even in 1972, but it was quintessential Finley. He had suggested the designated hitter rule and nighttime World Series games, but he alienated many fellow owners, players and fans with his aggressive, hands-on style. Tenace, himself, an imposing figure with a receding hair line and mustache, fit the Oakland outlaw mold.

Gene had grown up in Reds county. His hometown of Lucasville, Ohio was largely composed of die-hard Cincy fans. But Tenace had hated the Reds. For this reason alone, Gene stood out as a bit of a rebel.

One sportswriter said, “That was as dangerous as living in Brooklyn and rooting for the Giants when the Dodgers and Giants called New York home.”

“I was a Yankee fan,” the 26-year-old Oakland catcher recalled. “Don't ask me why. Maybe I like pin-stripes. But I never rooted for the Reds. I used to watch them on television a lot. And most of my friends rooted for them. Not me.”

His reason was simple.

“What aggravated me was the way they'd trade away their good players,” Gene said.

The Frank Robinson swap to Baltimore was particularly appalling to him.

“That one really floored me,” he said. “I understand why it was probably made, now that I'm in the majors. Not then, though.”

That love for the Yankees, of course, didn't last. Sometime it had to end and for Tenace it ended in his senior year at high school. He had just helped his team to the finals of the Ohio State Baseball Tournament when a Yankee scout came visiting.

“That's when I quit liking the Yankees,” he recalled. “He told me there was not way I could play in the big leagues.” Still, in all fairness, a lot of other people must have felt that way, though.

Whatever motivated the 26-year-old Gene Tenace to play in the Series worked to perfection. With his outstanding performance, he became a name forever recorded in the MLB record books. His explosive play lifted the Athletics to their sixth world championship. By all accounts, Tenace was an unlikely hero who dominated the Series.

Just exactly what did Gene do? He had only five homers all season with the Athletics, but when the World Series came along, his first three hits were homers. At the time, Tenace never realized that he had made baseball history by being the first player ever to hit home runs in his first two times at bat in a World Series.

“You mean that?” he asked a reporter. “I'm not really a home-run hitter,” he said. “I consider myself a line-drive hitter.”

Assured that it was, indeed, genuine, he shook his head and said, “That just makes coming back to my home state and playing in a World Series all the more of a thrill.”

Oakland won the World Series of 1972 in seven games. The victory for the A's was the first for the franchise since the days of Connie Mack when the team was in Philadelphia and had won in 1930.

The star of the event, Tenace tied Babe Ruth's 1926 record (shared also with Duke Snider and Hank Bauer) of four homers in one Series. The catcher-first baseman also set a World Series slugging record of .913 eclipsing the Babe's record of .900 with 21 bases on his eight hits in 23 at bats. He batted .347.

Tenace remained behind the plate until the seventh game of the World Series, when Williams moved him to first again, a move made necessary not so much by Tenace's inability to throw out Cincinnati base runners as by the inability of Mike Epstein, then the first baseman, to hit Reds' pitching.

Gene had two important hits in that final Series game. Still, he was removed by Williams for pinch runner Allan Lewis – the so-called "Panamanian Express" – after he doubled in the sixth inning. For Tenace, who considers himself at least the fifth fastest man on the team, it was a stunning blow. He was deprived of a last chance at Ruth's record, and he would not be in at the finish. Yet he was already the darling of A's fans when he was replaced at second base.

The Reds outscored the A's, 21–16, but lost each of their four games by a single run. Gene Tenace drove in nine of those 16 Oakland runs. He was a Red's killer supreme, almost single-handedly sinking Cincinnati's hopes for a title. Reds fans would never forget his incredible performance.

Game 1: Oakland A's – 3, Cincinnati Reds – 2
Game 2: Oakland A's – 2, Cincinnati Reds – 1
Game 3: Cincinnati Reds – 1, Oakland A's – 0
Game 4: Cincinnati Reds – 2, Oakland A's – 3
Game 5: Cincinnati Reds – 5, Oakland A's – 4
Game 6: Oakland A's – 1, Cincinnati Reds – 8
Game 7: Oakland A's – 3, Cincinnati Reds – 2

One terrible occurrence did happen to Gene during the '72 Series. It is generally said to have occurred before Game 6, but according to Tenace himself, the threat actually occurred during Game 2. The confusion is likely due to the fact that Game 6 was the next game in Cincinnati after the threat was made, so that’s when security was tightest. But according to Tenace himself (and he would have cause to remember better than anyone else), he was called into manager Dick Williams’ office in the Riverfront visitors’ clubhouse after Game 2, where he was introduced to two men who turned out to be FBI agents.In Tenace’s own words:

“One of (the FBI agents) goes into this story that a woman on a concession line early in Game 2 at Riverfront Stadium stood behind this man who was saying to no one in particular, 'If that guy on Oakland hits another homer, I’m gonna put a bullet in his head as he rounds third base.' A couple of people around him laughed it off, but this one woman went to an usher who grabbed security and a police officer. They found the guy, got him out of the line and sure enough he had a .22 in one pocket (loaded, too) and bottle of bourbon in the other.”

The perpetrator was a 32 year old man from Louisville. The man was arrested of course, but there was the possibility that he could have had friends or accomplices who still posed a threat. Tenace described living under 24 hour guard and being hustled out of the stadium via a secret door. He continued to play well under the threat, although he didn’t homer at Riverfront again.

Other visits to Cincinnati as a player apparently passed without incident. It was with the Cardinals that he returned to his fourth World Series in 1982, at which point the story of the 1972 threat received a fairly odd postscript. Again, in Tenace’s own words:

“10 years later, I’m with the Cardinals, going back to the series in ’82 against the Milwaukee Brewers, guess who I get a letter from? "Mr. Tenace, I’m so sorry what I put you through. It was a bad time in my life. In and out of jail, broke. Please forgive me." How about that? He was apologizing. Fine, I guess, but I couldn’t believe, 10 years later, this guy’s still got me on his mind? Are you kidding me?”

A shaken Tenace turned the letter over to the police, and the memories still make him a little nervous.
"If somebody can shoot the president of the United States out in the open, they can shoot anybody," Gene said, recalling the incident in 1992. "If somebody wants you bad enough, they can get you."
For his sterling play, Gene Tenace was named Sport Magazine's most Valuable Player in the World Series. He became an instant celebrity. 



Gene, the Celebrity

There is nothing flamboyant about Gene Tenace, and it was somewhat bewildering to him to be catapulted from relative obscurity to the focal point of press attention during the World Series. In the wake of his nine-day rendezvous with stardom, he handled it in the same fashion he ordinarily played ball – with an unspectacular competence.

Opportunities for speaking engagements, television appearances, and agents' service came with the newfangled fame, but Tenace remained modest in his notoriety. When Tony Perez called and wanted him to do an act with him, Johnny Bench, Vida Blue and others at Las Vegas, Gene passed up the offer that paid $10,000 – a tidy sum by 1972 standards. “There've been a lot of other offers, too,” he confided.

Gene told reporters, “I can sacrifice money for my family. Money just isn't that important to me. My main goal is happiness.”

In the Series, Gene's opposite number was baseball legend Johnny Bench, considered by many baseball historians to be the greatest catcher of all time. Naturally, the press pushed a comparison during the Series and asked Tenace about his sudden stardom.

“I'm not thinking I'm as good as Johnny Bench,” Gene said quietly. “Bench has the God-given gifts of a super player. I'm just having a good World Series. I just try to do what I can. I've worked hard to improve my receiving this season, and it has hurt my hitting. (Not enough, the Reds would testify.)

Tenace credited roomie Sal Bando with giving him continued encouragement. It was the kind of support that encouraged a small town resident to compete on the highest level.

“What kind of a town is Lucasville?” a reporter asked.

“Little Italy,” Bando jokingly suggested.

“No,” Gene said, “it's just a nice little country town. I don't think there is another Italian family there besides ours.”

The fame and fanfare that goes with being the hero of baseball's World Series may seem like a pinch of heaven to the average American boy, but not quite the ultimate to Fury Gene Tenace.

“It's not that I don't appreciate it – I just don't enjoy it,” Gene admitted after flying to New York to accept a new automobile – a 1973 Dodge Charge from Sport Magazine – for winning the Series Most Valuable Player Award. With this honor, he joined the company of such baseball dignitaries as Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Whitey Ford. The prestigious accolade was presented during at a luncheon at famed.Mama Leone's Restaurant.

Attired in a light blue mod suit with a flowered sport shirt open at the collar, Tenace sat at a table – with cameras, flashbulbs and provocative questions popping from all sides – and talked hesitatingly of his newly gained hero statude.

“Nothing's changed,” he said in a subdued voice. “I'm no different. I'm still just me. Naturally it's a big thrill for me. Maybe I'm goofy and it's not that I don't care. I'm not the emotional type. I'm not big on this banquet type of thing. I just take it as it comes.”

“I just want to go home,” Gene told the press.

“I just want to get back to my family. My wife Linda has been through a lot. I was on the bench most of the season and when I did play I didn't do very well.” By the way Linda often called Gene “Steamboat” or just “Boat.” According to Gene, “My nickname was handed me by my grandfather – my mother's father. I was always clumsy as a kid. He said I walked like a big steamboat.”

“I have two small daughters (at the time two-and-a-half year old Stacey and ten-month-old Merinda plus their seven-month-old golden retriever Lance that was afraid of human beings). I'd come home seething inside. I kept my disappointment to myself. But I know Linda had to take a lot of abuse from me. I wasn't very pleasant. I think Linda deserves a holiday and that's the first thing I want to give her is a trip to Lake Tahoe or some place like that.”

Some time after, the press actually came to Lucasville to speak with Tenace. According to an account of the visit, the reporter found no signs of Gene's newly acquired fame. He wrote: “Although a newsman had been given instructions to look for 'the last trailer on the right,' about the only thing that would have given away the location of Tenace's home would have been his 1973 auto. He won the car for being named Sport Magazine's most Valuable Player in the World Series.” The residenc didn't even have his name on the mailbox.

The story continued – “But Tenace plans to trade in the car for a Jeep. Hunting is his hobby and he said he has always wanted a Jeep to get places where hunting is best. 'Besides, I have a chance to win another car from another commercial group,' Gene said, 'Plus, I can win the Hickok belt, but what am I going to dowith a $10,000 diamond-studded belt? Put cartridges in it and wear it hunting?'”

“Gene also said the family intended to purchase a house in Oakland and move in sometime during spring training.'The series gave me security,' Tenace said. 'Before the series there was talk of trading either me or Dave Duncan. After the series, I figured I'd be stayin a while.'”

Gene actually spent much of the winter working on his father-in-law's (Merle Osmeyer's) Christmas tree farm, and hunting just about every day.

Tenace said one of the more meaningful events of the off-season was “Gene Tenace night” in Lucasville. Cincinnati Reds television announcer Tom Hedrick presented him a plaque as part of the ceremones.

“They're also naming the field I used to play on as a kid after me,” he said. “There'll be a monument in centerfield and they've been given an American flag from the Capitol Building to fly there.”

After Gene's magical series, bona fide slugger Reggie Jackson said, "Every time Tenace bats, he will hear the fans. He will feel the pressure of the home run."

"I'm not a home-run hitter," Tenace protested. "I'm a line-drive hitter. But I can't go around telling people that. I know they will be expecting homers. I can feel the people. I know they all saw the World Series."

Fury Gene Tenace ended his Major League playing career as a Pittsburgh Pirate in 1983. He hit 201 career home-runs, but none more important than those he hist in the 1972 World Series. From there, he went on to be a respected coach with the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Toronto Blue Jays. He was part of Toronto's World Series-winning teams in 1992 and 1993, giving him six rings in six World Series appearances as a player and a coach.

One golden October, Fury Gene Tenace put his indelible mark on Major League Baseball. His exploits of 1972 stand because of an opportunity of which Tenace took full advantage. Now, his name forever shares company with such baseball greats as Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax. Knowing Gene, he had no concern for fame and fortune. Instead, he believed he was simply a man on a mission to do a job and return home to his family. In dong so, Tenace lived out a childhood dream. Mission accomplished. 

 
Gene and Rollie Fingers at Honors in 2012

Sources

Hal Bodley “Tenace Blasts Into Prominence.” The News Journal. (Wilmington, Delaware) October 20, 1972.

Arthur Daley “An Almost Forgotten Hero.” The New York Times. June 10, 1973

Will Grimsley. “A's Catcher Surprised by Home Run Feat.” Arizona Republic. (Phoenix) October 15, 1972.

Bill Van Kiekerken. “When the A’s grew mustaches and grew into champions.” San Francisco Chronicle. November 3, 2015.

John Kunda. “Sports Call: Who's the Hero? Gino Tenacci, That's Who” The Morning Call. (Allentown, Pa.) October 15, 1972

Andrew Shinkle. “Not-So-Great Moments in Reds Fan History.” wwwredreporter.com. October 15, 1972.

Ron Fimrite “A Hero Finds There's No One For Tenace.” Vault. April 2, 1973

Sonny Fulks. “Gene Tenace: From Humble Beginnings, His Latest Honor.” Press Pros Magazine.

Ernie Salvatore. “Tenace Gets Revenge.” The Journal News. White Plains New York .October 15, 1972

“Series Produces Unlikely Hero.” Bob Hertzel. Cincinati Enquirer. October 15, 1972

“Series Hero Likes Family Life.” Chillicothe O. Gazette. January 9, 1073.

“Tenace Stands Out” Daily Time-News Burlington Jan 3, 1973

“Tenace Unlikely Hero.” The Hartford Courant. October 21, 1972.



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