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Gene Tenace

The walking man

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

According to Google, there are only 37 people in the United States with the first name of Fury. Fury Gene Tenace is one of that very exclusive club. Tenace’s given name was actually Fiore Gino Tenace, but his grandfather, an Italian immigrant, wanted to Americanize the family name, so Fury Gene it was. That grandfather also tagged Tenace with a nickname, Steamboat. Every great ballplayer needs a nickname, and Steamboat is a solid choice.

Whenever I hear the word Fury, I think of the Brad Pitt World War II movie of the same name. Is it possible that Pitt, despite his success, could be the most underrated actor of this generation? He has won two Oscars but think about his performance in his movies: A river runs through it. Excellent. Legends of the fall. Excellent. Benjamin Button. Meet Joe Black. Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Once upon a time in Hollywood. Seven. Fight Club. Inglorious basterds. World War Z, and of course, Moneyball. That’s just naming a few. He’s outstanding in all of them even if the film he’s in blows chunks. In baseball terms, he’s a sabermetric darling.

Gene Tenace was an All-State football and baseball star at Valley High School in Lucasville, Ohio. In the summers, he played on the same American Legion team as Al Oliver and Larry Hisle, who both became outstanding hitters in the majors. That must have been some team.

After his high school days ended, the Kansas City A’s drafted Tenace in the 20th round of the inaugural 1965 baseball draft. Say what you will about Charlie O. Finley being a bad owner. He was. But he and his staff absolutely nailed the amateur drafts while they were in Kansas City. That 1965 draft yielded Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Tenace as well as Joe Keough, Bob Stinson, Pete Koegel, George Laurerique and Bobby Brooks. Monday, Bando and Tenace combined for over 141 career WAR. Any way you look at it, that’s an excellent draft haul. They added Reggie Jackson in 1966 and Vida Blue in 1967. Those two combined for 119 career WAR. They stole Joe Rudi in a trade and signed Rollie Fingers as a free agent. That’s another 51 WAR. That’s seven major players in a three-year span. Just incredible. It’s easy to look back on that and think, “what if that team had stayed in KC…”

Tenace bounced around the Kansas City and Oakland minor league systems for four seasons before getting his callup on May 29th, 1969. He collected his first hit, a single off Luis Tiant the next day. He stroked the first of his 201 career home runs on June 6th off Earl Wilson. Those weren’t cheapies. Tiant and Wilson were both formidable pitchers in their era.

By 1970, he was in Oakland for good, splitting time behind home plate and at first base. Tenace was always a versatile player, having once played all nine positions in a minor league game. He played at least one game at six different positions in the big leagues.

Tenace also had a unique skill that was very underappreciated at the time: he knew how to draw a walk. In fact, he knew how to draw a lot of walks. Over 5,527 career plate appearances, he collected 1,060 hits and drew an impressive 984 walks. His career on-base percentage of .388 is outstanding. Tenace would make a lot of money in today’s game. He drew more than 100 walks in six seasons, including two in which he led the league.

Tenace wasn’t really on my radar as a young baseball fan until I saw him in the 1972 World Series. That series matched the upstart A’s against the powerhouse Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were loaded with future Hall of Famers and most baseball people expected them to sweep the A’s.

Tenace came into the series having collected only one hit in Oakland’s five game victory over Detroit in the ALCS but it was a huge one. His 4th inning single drove home the series winning run in Game five.

In his first World Series plate appearance, Tenace deposited a Gary Nolan fastball into the left field seats for a 2-0 Oakland lead. In the 5th, he barreled up a hanging curve from Nolan for dong number two. The three runs were enough for a 3-2 Oakland victory. I remember being shocked at the A’s win and asking myself who this Tenace guy was. After all, the A’s were without Reggie Jackson, who had been injured early in the Detroit series. It was the first two home run game of Tenace’s life. He later added home runs in Game Four and Game Five to help the A’s vanquish the Big Red Machine. Tenace hit .348 in the Series and drove in 9 runs. That earned him the Series MVP and a new sports car. His four big flies tied Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Duke Snider and Hank Bauer for the most in a World Series.

Tenace spent most of the next four seasons splitting time between first base and catcher as the A’s won three consecutive World Series titles. He made his only All-Star team in 1975 as the American League starting first baseman. He picked up some down ballot MVP votes in 1975 and ’76. Prior to the 1976 season, with the Reserve Clause in jeopardy, Charlie Finley sent all of his players contracts with a 20% pay cut. Tenace, along with many of his teammates, had grown weary of their skinflint owner and was counting down the days until he could get out of Oakland. Sensing that free agency was coming, Tenace signed a final one-year deal with Oakland. He made $40,800 in 1976. Free agency did arrive, and Finley greeted it by either trading or selling what remained of his dynasty. In the off-season, Tenace waded into the free agency waters and signed with San Diego: 6 years for $1.85 million. Good money for that time period. Unfortunately, the Padres owner, Ray Kroc, was a lot like Finley. Tenace’s time in San Diego was what you would expect for a player with his skill set. He played outstanding defense, hit a few home runs, drew a ton of walks and was an excellent leader. Over 573 games in San Diego, his on base percentage was an outstanding .403, yet Kroc felt the need to criticize him in the press for not hitting for a higher average with more power.

In December of 1980, Tenace was part of an 11-player trade between the Padres and the Cardinals. In two seasons with St. Louis, Tenace primarily backed up Darrell Porter and Keith Hernandez. He also played a major role in mentoring younger players and his leadership helped the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series championship. After being released by the Cardinals, he signed with Pittsburgh. He only appeared in 53 games for the Pirates and after hitting only .177 he decided to call it a career.

One thing I find fascinating about Tenace is that from 1974 to 1983, the last ten years of his career, he collected 790 hits and drew 806 walks.

In retirement, Tenace got into coaching and established a reputation as an excellent hitting coach. He was a bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays when they won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. That gave Tenace six rings. Not a bad haul for a 20th round draft pick.

Tenaces’ career often intersected with Kansas City. Once the A’s moved to Oakland, they became public enemy Number One for Kansas City Royal fans. Those games between 1969 and 1976 were intense as the A’s-Royals rivalry was every bit as good as the Yankees-Red Sox or Cubs-Cardinals. To add insult to injury, Tenace hit the final home run in Municipal Stadium history, a two-run jack off Monty Montgomery on September 30th, 1972. Oakland won that game by the score of 10 to 5.

Tenace ended his 15-year career with a slash of .241/.388/.429 with 201 home runs, 674 RBI, 653 runs scored and 984 walks good for almost 47 WAR. Not enough to get him into Cooperstown, but absolutely enough to get him into the Hall of Very Good. Bill James has him ranked as the 23th best catcher in baseball history. And who can forget Champ Kind’s line in the film Ron Burgandy? “Gene Tenace at the plate, and Whammy!”

Overall, a very solid career. One can only dream of what might have happened had the A’s stayed in Kansas City.