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The Charlie Finley Story, Part I (or "The Movie that Should Have Been")

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As you all wait for Billy Beane's next transaction to unfold and be tweeted about, here's a tale of a man who knew a thing or three about trades.

Also read here for this year's A's Holiday Caravan!


So you think your team’s front office has commitment issues?

Baby, you don’t know commitment issues.


Let me tell you about a man named Charlie.  Though he’s been dead for nearly fifteen years, he’s not hard to find.  There have been several publications written about the man who orchestrated the A’s transfer from Kansas City to Oakland following the 1967 season, including the recently released "Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman".




I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of the book earlier this year- ah, the perks of AN- and it’s taken me this long just to get a third of the way through.  I assure you it is not because it is lacking in the entertainment department.


As I have said on more than one occasion, Hollywood missed the boat on Charlie O.  Instead we get Brad as Billy.  Yay.


The skinny on Charles Oscar Finley is that he was a self-made man who, it was said, worshipped his creator.  Other ways to portray him: promoter, innovator, meddler, bully, and winner (his teams won three consecutive World Series during the early 1970’s).  Per my contract I am not allowed to mention the other words to describe Finley.  At least not on the front page.  Perhaps Kansas City sportswriter Joe McGuff said it best:


"If you try to figure Finley out, you’ll only succeed in confusing yourself.  His capacity for turmoil is incredible.  He thrives on it.  He enjoys tough times so he can work his way out of them and give himself credit."


Another scribe, Wells Twombly, agreed: "He seems to have a basic need for controversy."


(Would he fit in here, or what?  I kid.  No really.)


All joking aside, Athletics Nation would have fallen all over itself at Finley’s every move.  And there were a lot of them.  Some of them actually involved baseball players.  Hell, AN would not even exist were it not for Finley’s most significant move (to Oakland), not to mention the ones he didn’t make (Denver, New Orleans, the moon).  At least AN as we know it.


More than 30 years after he sold the A’s to the Haas family, Finley’s influence is still felt around baseball.  He brought white shoes to the game.  Playing the World Series at night was his idea. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Finley’s story begins- as I suppose all stories do- with his birth, on February 22, 1918.  The second of three children, he was the son of a steel worker, who was also the son of a steel worker.  But Charlie Finley wanted a little more out of life, and one thing in his favor was his wonderful ability to pitch a sale. He also liked to toss a certain ball around every now and then.


It was the former that turned out to be his saving grace when his dream of pursuing a career in the latter was derailed in December 1946.  Finley, at the age of 28, was hospitalized with tuberculosis.  Having made a nice living for himself selling health and life insurance, he somehow did not have insurance for himself.  As the bills piled up, the Finley fortunes crumbled.


It was during his stay at Parramore Hospital in Crown Point, Indiana that he struck gold with a new insurance plan, a plan that would pave the path to multi-millions and ultimately to Major League baseball.  His idea was to sell group disability insurance to doctors, and all he needed was someone to back him up financially.  Provident Life and Accident Insurance turned out to be that someone.  Finley created an insurance empire, one that would cover more than 50 medical associations, with memberships of more than 70,000 doctors, and generate 20 million dollars worth of business annually.


Although fully recovered from his own illness, doctors warned him to slow down.  But there was no stopping Charles Oscar Finley.  As luck would have it, his insurance offices in Chicago happened to be in the same building as the American League offices.  Finley would soon seek out league president Will Harridge, who encouraged the insurance magnate to pursue the purchase of a big-league ball club.


Finley’s first target: the Philadelphia Athletics.  (And you were wondering if there was ever going to be a point to this story, hmm?  Silly reader).  Finley was up against Arnold Johnson who had plans of relocating the woebegone A’s to Kansas City, and a group headed by oilman Clint Murchison, who had his eyes on Southern California (until the Dodgers and Giants left New York in 1958, there was no Major League baseball west of the Mississippi).


On November 4, 1954, a meeting was scheduled with Connie Mack, the 91-year old owner of the Athletics, for each group to submit their final bid.  Finley showed up at 8:50 for the 9:00 meeting.  He was 50 minutes behind Arnold Johnson, who upon having his credit verified, became the new owner of the soon-to-be Kansas City Athletics.


Said Finley later, "I had a check, just as big as Johnson’s, but I never got the chance to wave it."


Undeterred, Finley increased his efforts to purchase a big-league team, often attending MLB meetings where he would toss ideas around to make baseball more appealing to the "working man".  Too often his words fell on deaf ears, as most of the league owners were turned off by his unorthodox approach to baseball and business.  He was seen as pushy, and desperate to join their exclusive club.  At one point, it was advised that "under no condition should this person be allowed into our league."


But as he demonstrated at nearly every stage of his life, Charles Oscar Finley was persistent.  And that persistence- as you will learn in my next post- eventually paid off, forever changing the course of the baseball team we love and care about today.