NEW YORK — The rookie sensation is a captivating character for sports fans, a blank canvas for the imagination. The young ballplayer with uncommon talent inspires awe, even among the greats.
So it was for the teenage Claudell Washington, who joined the Oakland Athletics in the summer of 1974, when he was 19, and fit seamlessly into their lineup. That October, he hit .571 in the World Series to help the A’s win their third championship in a row, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“He’s the best player for his age I’ve ever seen or known,” the future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson raved to The Sporting News that September. Jackson, a fellow Oakland outfielder, said Mr. Washington should be a .300 hitter and easily capable of 20 home runs per season. His swing, Jackson added, reminded him of that of Carl Yastrzemski, another future Hall of Famer.
Mr. Washington, who died on Wednesday at 65, never reached those heights. He batted .278 with 164 home runs, topping out at 17 for the Atlanta Braves in 1984. But he was named to two All-Star teams, compiled 1,884 career hits, and stole 312 bases as a durable mainstay for seven teams across 17 seasons.
His death was announced by the Athletics. The announcement did not say where he died or give the cause, but he had been treated for prostate cancer since 2017.
“He had a great skill set — he could steal bases, he could do it all,” the former A’s pitcher Mike Norris, who roomed with Mr. Washington in the minors and majors, said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I don’t know if his personality had anything to do with him being traded, but his bat spoke for itself.”
Claudell Washington was born on Aug. 31, 1954, in Los Angeles and grew up in Berkeley, Calif. He did not play for his high school baseball team because he had wanted to play outfield and the coach wanted him to pitch, but an Oakland scout, Jim Guinn, knew Mr. Washington from the local sandlots. Guinn signed him as an undrafted free agent for $3,000 in 1972 (the equivalent of about $18,500 today).
Mr. Washington was in the majors within two years, never to return to the minors. In his first start after a promotion from Class AA — where he had hit .361 — he tripled and stroked a game-winning single off Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry, a grizzled spitballer who had won 15 decisions in a row on his way to his fourth 20-win season.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Mr. Washington said of Perry after the game, according to The Akron Beacon Journal. “I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Charles O. Finley, the mercurial owner of the A’s, gave Mr. Washington a $500 bonus on the spot. According to Norris, Finley later told Mr. Washington that he would build the team around him. But instead — as Finley grew weary of rising salaries and players’ newfound free-agent rights — he traded Mr. Washington to the Texas Rangers in 1977.
“He was such a macho type guy, but he actually shed a tear,” Norris said of Mr. Washington. “That deeply hurt him. Being from Berkeley, that was home.”
Mr. Washington later bounced to the Chicago White Sox, the Mets, the Atlanta Braves, the Yankees, and the California Angels before a final stint with the Yankees in 1990. He never returned to the World Series after that rookie season, but one of his later swings ranks among the most widely seen in major league history.
On June 5, 1985, Mr. Washington came to bat at Wrigley Field against Lee Smith of the Cubs. Before flying out, he flicked a foul ball into the seats down the left-field line. It was a routine baseball moment, except for this: Producers of the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” released a year later, used footage of that swing for the foul ball caught by the title character during his famous romp through Chicago.