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The Reign of Finley

For better and worse, Charlie Finley established the A's maverick persona. His ghost may still haunt the team.

Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

In October, 1967, just after the American League owners granted Charlie Finley the right to move from Kansas City to Oakland for the 1968 season, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington stood in the U.S. Senate and declared, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

If anyone deserved Symington’s bombast, he was certainly Charles Oscar Finley, the Lord of Bombast. Finley earned every syllable.

I was in high school when Charlie Finley first came to town but, frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to the A’s back then. Recently, I came across a book titled, “Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman,” by G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius, a couple of Washington D.C. sabermetricians. It is a fascinating biography of Finley, replete with detail and episode, after episode, illustrating both Finley’s scheming buffoonery and his remarkable prescience. It made me realize what a profound influence on the Athletics organization Finley was.

For better and worse, Finley established the maverick persona of the Oakland Athletics, and their limitations. In their sales and marketing, the present-day A’s exploit the team identity and heritage that Finley established. (How about those gold-vested throwback uniforms!) Even now, Lew Wolff’s relocation saga is haunted by the ghost of Finley. That is not to imply there are any similarities between Finley and Wolff, except that both made their own fortunes. But there are many fascinating parallels between the A’s of Finley’s era and the current club.

Finley the Outsider

Finley tried many times to buy a baseball team. He was the 1950’s equivalent of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur/rich kid, brimming with arrogance and a new fortune gleaned from selling medical disability insurance. He was itching to try out his new ideas on baseball, a hidebound, old boys club if ever there was one. He was just 36 years old when he made a bid for the Philadelphia A’s. At the time, no other owner in baseball was under the age of 60. And the owners detested him, so much so they approved the sale of the Athletics to Albert Johnson, a Chicago businessman who was a pal of Dan Topping, co-owner of the New York Yankees. Johnson quickly moved the franchise to Kansas City, aided and applauded by K.C. municipal leaders. Johnson was roundly scorned by the abandoned Philadelphians, however, just as Finley would be himself when he later jumped the Kansas City ship.

Sound familiar?

Finley tried to buy the Detroit Tigers and then the Chicago White Sox. He knew the White Sox might be available because the co-owners of the Sox, Bill Veeck and Hank Greenberg, were interested getting the new Southern California franchise. Veeck and Greenberg backed off on SoCal when Commissioner Ford Frick declared Los Angeles the Dodgers market territory. Walter O’Malley, the Dodger’s owner, demanded a fortune from any new franchise, driving away the White Sox owners as well as other would-be competitors.

Again, does any of this sound familiar?

Finley himself made a play for the Los Angeles franchise but was outbid by a guy more monied than he, Gene Autrey. Finley ended up owning the Kansas City Athletics in 1960 when Arnold Johnson died of a heart attack. Finley was hailed in Kansas City at the time as the man who saved the franchise from outsiders who wished to move the team.

Finley, Promoter to the Workingman

One of Finley’s many contradictions was his devotion to “the workingman.” The workingman seemed to be the inspiration for most of his promotional ideas. Even before he entered baseball, he lobbied American League President Will Harridge to make baseball friendlier to the workingman. (The American League office was located right next door to Finley’s insurance office in Chicago.) Finley claimed that his promotions were merely an attempt to draw the workingman to the ballpark. Green Collar Baseball anyone?

Finley was a champion of working people only in the abstract. If those working people happened to be his players or front office employees, however, he treated them like chattel. He was constantly berating and firing front office personnel, players, and field managers. In August, 1967, Finley fired Alvin Dark as manager, then rehired him with a raise, and then fired him again, all within an eight-hour period. Years later, he hired Dark again as manager, and fired him. (The whole chain of events makes me wonder more about Alvin Dark than the mini-tyrant, Finley.) Compared to Finley, Billy Beane is a pussycat with his field managers.

Finley really staged his gimmicks and stunts for his own amusement, not for any workingman. Finley was a great admirer and imitator of Bill Veeck, the Babe Ruth of baseball promotional stunt men. Veeck was mightily peeved that Finley was stealing his ideas and his style. He said once, “If I ever run out of ideas, Charlie Finley will be out of business.”

Finley came up with his fair share of promotions, though. He designed the two-toned A’s uniforms of the 70’s featuring Finley’s favorite colors, Kelly green and Ft. Knox gold. The white shoes were his idea. The nicknames, the beards and moustaches, Hot Pants Day, all were Finley’s doing. And the gimmickry often led him to some remarkable foresights. Finley railed about injecting action and accessibility into the game; he lobbied baseball endlessly to institute night World Series games, the designated hitter, interleague play, three-ball walks, and even orange baseballs. He even tried to speed up the game by having an air-jet installed in home plate in Kansas City to save the umpire dusting time. My guess is, if the technology had been available, Finley would have used bar-coding and video replay to dispense with umpires.

Ironically, for all the promotions, Finley was never any good at selling tickets. In seven seasons in Kansas City, the A’s drew more than 700,000 only twice (1963 and 1966). In 13 seasons in Oakland, the A’s managed to draw more than one million only twice (1973 and 1975). In fact, Finley set records for non-attendance in 1979. The A’s drew only 306,763, the lowest attendance since the dark days in Philadelphia. On April 17, 1979, against the Seattle Mariners, the announced attendance was 653. The A’s staff reported the number as 550, but Dave Revering, the A’s first baseman at the time, said, 200, tops. He probably had time to count every single fan.

A lot of the responsibility for that was Finley’s. He insisted on putting the bulk of his advertising money into direct mail which had worked for him selling insurance. He never seemed to grasp that, with insurance, he was selling financial security; with baseball, he was selling an entertainment experience. Finley was constantly undermining that experience with his endless fights with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the press, his managers, and his players. His penuriousness made the Oakland Coliseum experience inconvenient and even annoying. At most games, he employed only two ticket sellers, making it difficult to buy tickets. He opened only one gate so it was difficult to get in and out of the stadium. He maintained skeleton crews of ushers and vendors. Finley himself was the worst enemy of ticket sales, especially season ticket sales which never rose to more than 3,000 in the best years.

Finley Tightwads Baseball into Arbitration

In his early days as an owner, Finley pissed off the other owners by outspending them on signing bonuses for amateur players. In 1964, he spent $650,000 in signing bonuses, the most ever in MLB history to that point. He was making so much money in his insurance business, he needed to run up signing expenses to avoid taxes. (Later, when the insurance business faltered, the bonuses dried up.)

Later on, Finley upset both his players and the other owners by paying his players so little. In 1973, the year after the A’s won the World Series, the team’s payroll was $28,000 per man; the major league average was $36,566. Catfish Hunter was paid $75,000, Bert Campaneris got $65,000, and Reggie Jackson received $70,000. By comparison, other stars of the game (Bob Gibson, Carl Yastremski, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Dick Allen) were all paid well above $150,000 each.

Finley’s cheap and arbitrary payroll (and the 1972 player strike) led the other owners to agree to salary arbitration. Eighteen players on his roster applied for arbitration, and everyone got more money than the previous year. Finley was outraged by arbitration, of course. He predicted at the time that arbitration would drive up the average salary every year. He was right. Later, after the players were awarded free agency, Finley unnerved the head of the players’ union, Marvin Miller, by urging free agency for all players. He argued MLB should mandate that all player contracts be for a maximum of one year. Whoa, whoa! Some free market principles, selectively negotiated, were fine by Miller, but completely free market movement for players? That would be outrageous!

The Paradise of Oakland

When Finley moved his team from Kansas City, he declared to a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that he did so for four reasons: the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum complex provided “the finest facilities for all-round sports in the world,” the “second-to-none” climate, the population growth, and the “overwhelming” enthusiasm for sports. Chances are, Lew Wolff would now cite three of those four points as reasons for moving away from Oakland.

Finley perfected the technique of playing gullible municipalities against one another for better stadium deals. Though declaring his undying fidelity to Kansas City, Finley set about attempting to move the franchise only one year after becoming the owner. At various times, he flirted with Dallas, Denver, Milwaukee, Louisville, Seattle, New Orleans, and Oakland. After just a few seasons in Oakland, Finley again wanted to bolt. Eventually, in the late 70’s when Finley was in declining health, he tried to sell the team repeatedly but the trustees of the Oakland Coliseum wouldn’t modify the length of the stadium lease.

(Today, it seems as if every team in Oakland is trying to leave. The same thing happened in the late seventies. Can you imagine being a Coliseum trustee back then? Two of the most demanding, conniving, capricious owners in all of sports were Finley and Al Davis, and Oakland had to deal with both of them as they were trying to ditch Oakland. Well, when you lie down with dogs, etcetera, etcetera.)

Finley v. Kuhn

Finley’s ghost haunts the A’s to this day. In 1976, after losing Catfish Hunter to free agency, Finley tried to sell off his most valuable players (Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue) to the Red Sox and Yankees. Commissioner Kuhn invalidated the sale “in the best interests of baseball.” Finley sued Kuhn for illegal restraint of trade, but a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Kuhn’s absolute authority. That 1978 ruling is cited by many as the precedent that will ultimately defeat the City of San Jose’s anti-trust lawsuit against major league baseball.

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

By the time the ruling came down, Finley had already lost many of his players through free agency. The Reign of Finley ended when he sold the team to Walter Haas, Jr. for $12.7 million. At his final press conference, Finley said, “The main reason I’m leaving baseball is because I can no longer compete financially. During the time we were winning championships, survival was a battle of wits. We did alright then. But it is no longer a battle of wits, but how much you have on the hip.”

I ask again, does any of this sound familiar?