Eckersley trade redefined Athletics, bullpen use

Written by: Aidan Shephard

Dennis Eckersley was one of baseball’s most successful starting pitchers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But on April 3, 1987, the Athletics acquired Eckersley from the Chicago Cubs in a trade that would ultimately reshape the landscape of elite relievers in baseball.

Dennis Eckersley pitching for Athletics
Dennis Eckersley recorded 20 shutouts and 100 complete games over 12 seasons as a rotation mainstay in Cleveland, Boston and Chicago before transitioning to the bullpen in Oakland. (Doug McWilliams/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
 

Eckersley, having played with Boston, Chicago and Cleveland prior to arriving in Oakland, cemented himself as a solid starter with an ERA of 3.67 over his first 12 seasons. But after arriving in Oakland, he was sent to the bullpen – a decision that did not thrill him at first.

“When I got to Oakland I still wanted to start, but Tony La Russa [A’s manager] put me in the bullpen,” Eckersley told Herb Crehan of Boston Baseball History. “They used me to close in the second half and I had something like 13 saves but I still thought I could start.”

In this new role, Eckersley would flourish and become one of the best relief pitchers in the game. Just two seasons after assuming the bullpen role, he would lead all major leagues in saves with 45 in 1988 along with securing top-five voting finishes for both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award.

Fueled by Eckersley’s superb results on the mound, the Oakland Athletics would reach the World Series that season after defeating the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, a series in which Eckersley would close every single game. Ultimately, the A’s would fall short in the World Series against the Dodgers – a series defined by Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run against Eckersley in Game 1.

But the following season, Eckersley would continue his dominance as a closer, finishing with 33 saves paired with a 1.56 ERA. This time around, the Athletics would fulfill their championship dreams after defeating the San Francisco Giants in four games.

But the victory celebration was understandably muted. Prior to Game 3, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco area, resulting in the death of 63 people with more than 3,000 injured.

“I’m happy, but I feel guilty for being happy,” Eckersley told The Post Star when asked about his reaction to winning his first championship.

Eckersley’s tenure in Oakland would hit its peak in 1992 when he led the major leagues in saves with 51 and he would be named the American League Cy Young and MVP. He is one of only 11 pitchers in MLB history to win both awards in the same season, joining fellow all-time greats such as Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.

Following the 1995 season, the Athletics would deal Eckersley to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Steve Montgomery. Three seasons later, he would eventually hang up his cleats for good.

Through nine seasons with the Athletics, Eckersley posted 320 of his 390 career saves with a 2.74 ERA. He would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004, with the team retiring his jersey number the following year.


Aidan Shephard is an intern in the Jim Murray Sports Communications Scholars Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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On May 30, 1977, Dennis Eckersley pitched a no-hitter against the California Angels.

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