You've got to hand it to the Oakland A's. They're a small-market team, easy to ignore, and currently in last place. Yet they have produced three -- maybe four -- of the most memorable teams of the last 50 years.
There were the dynastic Swingin' A's, winners of three straight World Series in the '70s. There were the Bash Brothers of the late '80s, appearing in three more World Series. And there were the Moneyball A's of the early 2000s, who changed how everyone views baseball. Throw in the BillyBall days of the early '80s and that's quite a bit of history packed into one green-and-gold team.
Also, the A's have managed to pull off something that no other major league team has been able to do as successfully or for as long a period of time. I'm referring to their gloriously brief nickname.
You can cite the Seattle Mariners being called the "M's" here and there, and particularly the Orioles being called the "O's". But there is no comparison to how ingrained the "A's" are in baseball culture. It is an informal nickname that has become "formal." They are the "A's".
There is no other team that is getting away with this. We don't call the Yankees the "Y's" or the White Sox the "W's" or the Dodgers the "D's" (thank goodness). Sure, maybe a few friends in Milwaukee might say, "let's go see the B's tonight," but it's nothing that you see posted on every program and baseball card. Baseball nicknames have their own nicknames -- Sox, Tribe, Blue, Twinks, Fish, Cubbies. But nothing is as wonderfully brief -- both expressed and written out -- like A's. The Oakland A's. It's what everyone calls them.
But nobody calls them the "Oakland Athletics". "Let's go see the Athletics play." Who says that? "Athletics" is awkward to say and really, what is that? "Athletics" is like track and field and jumping over bars and tossing heavy discs, right? And even if we're using the broader term of "athletics," then that's like calling a sports team "The Sportsmen," who play in a stadium called "Field," and feature concession stands with signs that say "Food".
No, I prefer "A's," thank you.
Part of this is because of the time when I grew up. The first baseball cards that I saw, from 1974 and 1975 Topps, referred to the Oakland team as "A's":
That's how I knew them. It was right there on their caps. I enjoyed saying it: "A's." Like Fonzie, except with an "S".
And throughout the '70s, that's how Topps described them on all of its cards each and every year.
Even through the 1980s, Topps kept calling them the "A's," because why not? That's what they were called.
That's what I believed and I don't think I even knew that this was a shortened version of the team's nickname until I saw an earlier card from way back before I was collecting.
It might have been the 1971 Jim Hunter card here. I practically stuttered over the word "Athalet-athletic-athletics?" What kind of convoluted, hard-to-pronounce kind of nickname was that?
Where was the giant A? Where was the apostrophe?
I soon discovered that "A's," was an informal version of the team's nickname, and that on most of Topps' cards prior to the '70s, they were referred to as "Athletics".
The early '50s Topps cards of the team, back when they were from Philadelphia, said "Athletics." And then when they moved to Kansas City, most of the mid-1950s cards referred to them as "Athletics," too.
In the 1956 Topps set, both nicknames appeared:
In the 1957 and 1958 Topps sets, the franchise is referred to, almost exclusively, as "A's".
But after that, and deep into the '60s, it's all "Athletics".
In 1968, the Kansas City A's -- er, Athletics -- moved to Oakland. It didn't take long for the card collector to see a change.
This must have been strange to collectors because it had been a decade since Topps had last referred to the franchise as the "A's".
And, in 1969, Topps was back to "Athletics," probably causing some to figure Topps only used "A's" in 1968 because it couldn't squeeze "Athletics" into the small purple circle.
Boy would those people be surprised.
Oakland was the "A's" again in 1970, took a break for that very wordy nickname in 1971, then went back to the A's for the rest of the decade.
By the early 1980s, there was really no question in my mind that Oakland was called anything else. It'd been nonstop A's for 10 years.
Then 1983 arrived.
These are the first two cards in the 1983 Topps set. There is no team reference on the front. But on the back, Topps mentions some outfit called the "Oakland Athletics." Horrifying.
Sure enough, every A's card in that set calls them something that they hadn't been called on a baseball card since 1971.
Lord have mercy, they're all "Athletics".
This happened again in 1984:
Of course, the design may have had something to do with it. That's an awful lot of white space if you're going with "A's".
Much to my relief, the "A's" returned in 1985 and 1986. Perhaps, I thought, sanity had been restored.
But, by now, you're probably wondering about the other card companies (you're probably also wondering how I can talk about the joy of brevity and go on for so long). What did they call this team?
Well, in 1981, the first year for Donruss and Fleer, they smartly went with "A's".
They did the same in '82 and Donruss held out with "A's" through 1984.
But then Fleer and Donruss got wise and started using team logos to identify the team. No more pressure to decide what to call them, the logo did the work for you.
When Score and Upper Deck arrived in the late '80s, they did the same thing -- let the logo be their guide (although 1989 Score does refer to Oakland as the "Athletics").
Topps even did that with the 1987 set.
But in 1988, it was back with the clumsy "Athletics," and, sadly, that pattern has continued for far too long.
Through the late '80s and into the '90s -- when a logo wasn't used as the team identifier -- Topps called Oakland the very formal, and very clunky, "Athletics".
It's been that way ever since.
And for other card companies.
I'm thinking that at some point, it started to be a branding/identity thing, and perhaps Oakland required card manufacturers to refer to them as the "Athletics".
I still don't like it.
The logo says "A's," but the words say "Athletics".
The cards continue to call them what nobody calls them.
They are the "A's." It's right there on the cap.
Do we need to start listing every card of a New York Met as a member of the "New York Metropolitans"?
Do what you got right in the '70s, what made them cool in the '70s, what made them memorable in the '70s.
Call them the A's. Period.