Obituary: Sal Bando (1944-2023)

RIP to Sal Bando, a three-time world champion with Oakland and the captain of one of the greatest baseball dynasties of the 1970s. Bando died after a five-year battle with cancer on January 20, on Oconomowoc, Wis. He was 78 years old. Bando played for the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics (1966-1976) and Milwaukee Brewers (1977-1981). He was also the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers from 1992 to 1999.

Salvatore Leonard Bando was born in Cleveland on February 13, 1944. His younger brother, Chris, would follow him into the major leagues as a catcher. Sal Bando attended Warrensville Heights High School in Ohio and also represented Cleveland in the 1961 National Amateur Baseball Federation tournament. Cleveland ultimately lost to Detroit in the championship game, but Bando had two RBI singles in the 7-6 loss. He also played basketball and football in high school and was a talented enough quarterback that he received several scholarship offers. Following his graduation, Bando went to Arizona State University, where he was one of the top freshman hitters in coach Bobby Winkles‘ baseball program. As a sophomore, he hit .458 to lead the Western Athletic Conference Southern Division batting title.

The Sun Devils won the College World Series over Ohio State in 1965. The club also featured future major-leaguers Rick Monday and Duffy Dyer. During the tournament, Bando set two records, racking up 12 hits and 21 total bases over 6 games. In the final game against Ohio State, he doubled and tripled. His .480 batting average earned him the tournament’s MVP Award. The Sun Devils were decimated by the pros in the first ever Amateur Draft, held that June. Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City A’s, drafted both Monday and Bando — Monday in the first round and Bando in the sixth. Bando, assigned to Burlington of the Class-A Midwest League, started off slow but soon adjusted to professional pitching. Burlington manager Gus Niarhos also praised his defense at third base. “We won’t have to worry about Bando — he’ll make it,” Niarhos said.

Bando batted .262 with Burlington in 1965 and then hit .277 with 12 home runs for Double-A Mobile of the Southern League. Mobile played the Southern League All-Stars in the annual All-Star Game, and Bando fell a triple short of the cycle. Jack Reed, manager of the Yankees’ Columbus (Ga.) affiliate, said that Bando had the “best arm I’ve ever seen on a third baseman.” Finley wanted to bring Bando to the majors as soon as possible, but Mobile manager John McNamara talked him out of it — the A’s were talking all of Mobile’s talent, and Mac got Finley to wait until after the team won the Southern League pennant. Bando reached the majors that September.

Bando debuted as the starting third baseman on September 3, 1965, against Boston. He was 0-for-3 in that game, but he piled up enough hits to finish with a .294 batting average in 11 games. His first major-league hit came as part of a historic performance by Kansas City on September 6. The team used 24 players in the 4-3 loss to the California Angels, setting an American League record for most players used in a 9-inning game. Bando pinch-hit for reliever Catfish Hunter in the bottom of the fifth inning and singled off Clyde Wright. He saw more action in 1967 with Kansas City, appearing in 47 games in a couple of stints with the team, but he batted .192. The evolution of Bando into an everyday major-league player — and then into an All-Star player — happened as the Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968. Bando looked to be destined for another year in the minor leagues, but then he hit 10 home runs in spring training and earned a spot on the Oakland roster. His future in the majors seemed pretty secure, at least in the opinion of the team’s batting coach — Joe DiMaggio.

“That fellow at third base looks like he’s going to be a hitter,” DiMaggio said of Bando in June of 1968. “He asked me only one question in the spring. You don’t have to tell him a thing the second time.” The question Bando asked was if he was lunging too much. “I had a feeling I was lunging. Joe told me to wait back a bit more with my hands and the bat. It certainly helped.”

In his first full season in Oakland, Bando led the AL in games played, appearing in all 162 games. It was the first of four times that the durable third baseman would led the league in games played. Oakland was just starting to see some of the top players from the team’s incredible farm system start to make an impact, such as Monday, Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Blue Moon Odom. Others, like Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers, were just reaching the majors. Bando batted .251 in ’68, and while he homered only 9 times, his 67 RBIs were second on the team to Jackson’s 74. The power was there — he hit 3 home runs in a doubleheader loss to Detroit on July 7 — but it took a year to become evident.

Bando had a career year in 1969, reaching career highs in home runs (31) and RBIs (113). He slashed .281/.400/.484 as the A’s started to rise up the standings, finishing in second place. Bando also was named as the AL third baseman for the All-Star Game, getting an infield single off Bob Gibson in 3 at-bats. He had two 5-for-5 games, and they both happened to come against the Seattle Pilots. Bando crushed the Pilots all year long, hitting 8 of his home runs against them and batting .405 with a 1.301 OPS.

For the first few years of Bando’s career, he may have been thought of as “the other player from Arizona State.” Monday, after all, was the higher draft pick — the first-ever draft pick, in fact — and had the higher signing bonus of $100,000. Even Reggie Jackson, another ASU alum who went in the first round of the 1966 draft, had a $75,000 bonus. By comparison, Bando signed for the relatively low price of $35,000 and had the much lower profile. He didn’t mind, though. “I think all the notoriety Rick and Reggie got last season (1968) was good for me,” Bando said. “People left me alone, and I could concentrate on improving Sal Bando… I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a super-star, but I do want to play very well.”

Bando leaps on Rollie Fingers and Dave Duncan after the Athletics won the World Series in 1972. Source: Albuquerque Journal, October 23, 1972.

Bando was a favorite of A’s manager McNamara, who said that if the schedule was 300 games long, he would want Bando at third base for all of them. He also had the respect of his teammates, and was named the team’s captain in 1969, when he was only 25 years old. He described himself as a quiet leader, though he wasn’t shy about speaking out if he saw a pitcher getting careless on the mound. The A’s, under “Captain Sal,” finished in second place in 1970 again, and Bando hit .263 with 20 home runs. The team reached the playoffs for the first time in 1971 with a first-place finish in the AL West, officially starting the most successful era in Oakland history.

The 1971 A’s won 101 games under new manager Dick Williams — the third manager since the team had moved to Oakland. With all those changes, Bando’s role as captain was the most stable leadership position on the team. He delivered on the field as well, with a .271/.371/.452 slash line and 24 home runs. He finished second in the MVP voting that year. Bando’s teammate, Vida Blue, won both the Cy Young and MVP after winning 24 games and sporting a 1.82 ERA. The A’s were swept in the AL Championship Series by the Baltimore Orioles. Bando had 4 hits in the series for a .364 batting average; two of the hits were doubles, and one was a solo homer. In the losing locker room, he was far from despondent. “Baltimore is the best team in baseball,” Bando admitted, before adding, “They’re good and we’re going to get better. We’ll win our share of championships. We have a young team and will be a contender for a long time.”

It only took a year for Bando to be proven right. The 1972 A’s win 93 games to finish first again, and then they beat the Tigers in five games in the ALCS and the Cincinnati Reds in seven in the World Series. It was the franchise’s first championship since 1930, when it was the Philadelphia Athletics. Bando had a surprisingly down year; he batted .236 with 15 home runs, though his OPS+ was an above-average 116. He was named to the All-Star team for the second time, and he would repeat the honor in each of the next two seasons. During the World Series, Bando batted .269, and his sixth-inning RBI double in Game Seven gave Oakland a 3-1 lead. It ended up being the deciding run, as the A’s beat the Reds 3-2 to win the Series.

After the game, Williams accepted the championship trophy from commissioner Bowie Kuhn and handed it right to Bando. “I saw one of those trophies five years ago,” he said, referring to his 1967 Boston team that lost the Series to St. Louis. “It’s a beautiful thing. It belongs right here, and I’m glad to see my captain holding it.”

Oakland won the next two World Series as well, beating the New York Mets in 1973 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in ’74. The A’s became the only major-league team besides the New York Yankees to ever win back-to-back-to-back championships. Supporting players came and went, but the core of the A’s stayed essentially the same, with Bando as captain. He bounced back from his off year in 1972 to hit .287 with 29 homers, 98 RBIs and a league-leading 32 doubles in 1973. His batting average slipped to .243 in 1974, but he drove in 103 runs and hit 22 long balls. Along with his hitting and fielding, Bando helped keep the team together mentally, even as rumors swirled about owner Finley gutting the team at any moment. Williams departed after the 1973 World Series, and the A’s key players took Finley to salary arbitration. When asked who would be the best pick to manage the team, Williams offered up Bando, saying he was one of the few Athletics not in Finley’s doghouse. Bando said he wasn’t ready to manage… yet. “Yes, I would like to manage some day. I’d welcome the challenge, but that’s down the road sometime in the future. At present my only aim is to help the championship.”

Bando pitched in one game in his career, allowing 2 runs in 3 innings. Source: Wasau Daily Herald, August 30, 1979.

Bando remained captain under new manager Al Dark, and he helped maintain order in a high-stress clubhouse that saw the occasional fight. Eventually, even Captain Sal had enough of the A’s owner. His breaking point came after the 1975 season, when his contract for 1976 came with a 0% raise. And he was one of the lucky ones. The only A’s players who were given a raise were Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi and Ray Fosse. “I’m mad as hell. So are more than half the guys on the club,” Bando told the press. “He’s sending out contracts that are cutting guys the maximum 20%. If you had a good year, he offers you the same thing you got last season. You win the third straight World Series, and you don’t get a raise. Can you believe that?”

Bando theorized to columnist Dick Young that Finley’s low contract offers were the result of him losing Catfish Hunter as a free agent. Bando expressed his admiration of Hunter, who came away with a high-priced contract with the Yankees. “Charley Finley must have a challenge in everything he does. It there is none, he creates it,” Bando said. “Everything he does, there must be a battle — and I’m sick of it… I want out.”

The disintegration of the Oakland A’s dynasty didn’t happen overnight. Oakland finished in first pace again in 1975 but were swept in the ALCS by Boston. Bando had a season almost identical to his poor 1972 campaign — a .230 average, 15 home runs, 78 RBIs. He batted an even .500 in the ALCS, with 6 hits that included 2 doubles and 2 RBIs. The 1976 Athletics won 87 games and finished in second place, in spite of the players being in near revolt against the owner and Finley attempting to sell Rudi and Fingers to Boston and Blue to the Yankees. Bando played in 158 games and hit 27 home runs, with 84 RBIs and a .240 batting average. He also stole a career-high 20 bases. The true death knell for Oakland started on November 4, 1976, when baseball held its “re-entry” draft — the proto-free agency. Free agents were selected by teams, and then the player could negotiate with those teams and those teams only for a contract. Bando was selected by 12 teams, making him one of the most popular free agents. The A’s were gutted, losing Bando, Don Baylor, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace all to free agency. Finley, who made no attempt to re-sign any of them, called his fellow owners a “den of thieves” trying to “cut one another’s throat.” The A’s fell out of competition quickly with the loss of their stars.

One of the teams to claim Bando was the Milwaukee Brewers, and they ended up signing him to a 5-year contract worth more than $1 million. He said that other teams offered him more money, but he liked the people in the Brewers organization, from owner Bug Selig to manager Alex Grammas. Having seen the best and worst of Charley Finley, it’s understandable that the people made a difference to Bando. “As a ballplayer, naturally you look to be rewarded for your efforts financially, but having a good relationship with the owner, someone who recognizes that ballplayers are human beings too, is more important than money.”

Bando’s presence at third base caused the Brewers to move Don Money over to second base. With Robin Yount at shortstop and Cecil Cooper at first base, the Brewers had a talented infield. Bando, at 33 years old, wasn’t quite the power hitter he had been with Oakland. He hit .250 in his first season with the Brewers and homered 17 times. The addition of Paul Molitor, Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie, to name a few, would give the Brewers a potent offense over the next few years, and the team started to compete for a division title in the AL East under new manager George Bamberger. Bando had his last really good season in 1978, with a .285/.371/.439 slash line. He added 17 home runs and 78 RBIs. Starting in 1979, he began losing more playing time to Jim Gantner. Bando played in 130 games in ’79, which was a career low for him as a full-time player. He hit .246 and dropped to single digits with 9 home runs. He played a little at first base and a couple of innings at second base, and he even pitched for 3 innings during an 18-8 loss to Kansas City on August 29. He allowed 2 runs, which was better than pitchers Jim Slaton, Reggie Cleveland or Paul Mitchell could do. Gantner and catcher Buck Martinez also threw scoreless innings for the Brewers. “I told George I could go three, but if I went any more I would not be able to comb my hair tomorrow,” Bando said.

Bando transitioned to the role of a player-coach for 1980 and 1981. He played infrequently and didn’t hit particularly well, but it was considered the next step in a career that would eventually end up with him as a manager. Everyone thought he was perfect candidate. “He’s made to manage. The job is made for him,” said Reggie Jackson, who by then was playing for the Yankees. “When we played together in Oakland, he was the guy everyone would listen to. Even me.”

Bando returned to the Brewers in 1981 after considering retirement. After spending most of the season as a pinch-hitter, he was thrust back into the starting lineup over the final few weeks of the season when Money was injured with a bad sciatic nerve. The Brewers finished in first place in the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season, and Bando ended up as the starting third baseman for the AL Division Series against the Yankees. And he was great. The Yankees won the series in 5 games, but Bando had 5 hits, including 3 doubles, and 2 walks for a .294 batting average. Only Yount reached base more than Bando did for the Brewers. With that series, Bando ended his career on a high note.

Bando played for 16 seasons in the majors and had a .254/.352/.408 slash line for a .760 OPS and 119 OPS+. His 1,790 hits included 289 doubles, 38 triples and 242 home runs. He drove in 1,039 runs, scored 982 runs and drew 1,031 bases on balls. He had a .959 career fielding average at third base, 6 points better than league average during his career. Baseball Reference credits him with 61.5 Wins Above Replacement. On the Oakland franchise Top 10 lists (including their time in Philadelphia and Kansas City), Bando is 9th in home runs with 192, 5th in RBIs with 796 and 6th in bases on balls with 792.

Despite everyone’s belief that he would be a natural as a manager, Bando chose against a full-time job in baseball. He and former Milwaukee Bucks player Jon McGlocklin were partners in an investment firm, and it became his full-time concern. He also wanted to spend more time with his family — wife Sandy and sons Sal Jr., Sonny and Stefano. “I think I’ve really cut them short of a lot of things in life being gone half the time.” He ended up staying with the Brewers as a special assistant to the general manager. His duties included throwing batting practice and coaching first base for home games. He did some scouting and advising — he was the person who told pitcher Tom Candiotti that he needed to come up with some kind of trick pitch if he wanted to stick in the majors. Candiotti developed a knuckleball and pitched in the big leagues until 1999.

Source: Wisconsin State Journal, July 13, 1986.

Bando was promoted to the role of Milwaukee general manager on October 8, 1991, replacing Harry Dalton, who had run the team’s day-to-day operations since 1977. The Brewers, outside of a trip to the World Series in 1982, hadn’t been very competitive, and Bando brought in a new manager, Phil Garner, to help shake up the team. The Brewers finished with 92 wins in 1992, 4 games behind eventual world champs Toronto in the AL East. That was the best record Bando would have as the team’s GM. Over that offseason, he and Selig made the decision to let 35-year-old veteran Paul Molitor leave via free agency. It was a cost-saving move that backfired. Molitor signed with Toronto, won a World Series there, and had six more productive seasons with the Blue Jays and Twins before retiring in 1998. The Brewers, under eventual MLB commissioner Selig, had to keep payrolls low, and Bando was never able to go after big-market free agents. After battling through the players strike seasons of 1994 and 1995 and mediocre years after that, Bando stepped down on August 12, 1999. Garner was fired that same day, and Bando remained with the team as a special assistant to team president Wendy Selig-Prieb.

“I’m a Brewer, and I’ve been a Brewer since 1997. We needed to make a change for the sake of the organization, and that’s always my first priority,” Bando said at the press conference announcing the shakeup.

Bando had a busy retirement. He stayed involved in the investment field and worked with various charitable organizations. He served on the board for B.A.T. — Major League Baseball’s Baseball Assistance Team. He is a member of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, the Milwaukee Brewers Wall of Honor and the Oakland Athletics Hall of Fame.

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