Nov 29, 2010
A new book shows how the genius, greed, need to control, and egomania of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley built and destroyed a baseball dynasty.
Charles O. Finley, who owned the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics from 1961 to 1980, was the most innovative baseball owner since Bill Veeck (who disliked him), according to his new biography, Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman. by G. Michael Green and Roger G. Launius.
Fun Changes: Green Uniforms, Harvey the Rabbit, and Charley O., the Mule.
Several Finley innovations simply made the game more fun for the fans. He was the first to dress his players in brightly colored uniforms, and allow them to grow facial hair. In Kansas City, he installed an electric rabbit named Harvey to come up from a hole in the ground with fresh baseballs for the umpire.
He replaced the old mascot of the Philadelphia A’s, an elephant, with a Missouri mule he named Charlie O. He wanted a mascot related to “Missouri” for the Kansas City fans, and he learned that Missouri mules carried heavy artillery shells to the front lines in World War I. Mules were better suited for the job than horses or oxen.
The Designated Hitter and the World Series
Some of Finley’s innovations changed the game fundamentally.
He was the first owner to advocate for the designated hitter, to bring more offense to the game at a time when pitchers dominated. Fans wanted to see more hitting, he said. The DH also extended the careers of famous sluggers like Henry Aaron, who played his final seasons in front of American League fans who had hardly ever seen him.
It was Finley’s idea to maximize the audience and revenue in the World Series by starting on Saturday, and playing the weekday games at night.
A Finley innovation that did not work out was the orange baseball. He thought colored baseballs would be easier for fans to follow, and they tried them in three spring training games. But pitchers said they were too slippery, and hitters said they could not see the seams, which meant they could not pick up the spin on the ball.. So the experiment was abandoned.
Alienating Oakland and Kansas City
The authors say Finley was the first owner of a sports team to blackmail a city government and taxpayers into building him a free stadium by threatening to move the team. He did it in Kansas City, and tried to in Oakland. He started trying to move the A’s almost as soon as he arrived in Kansas City, when the city fathers refused to renovate the stadium to his specifications.
His stadium lease in KC had a clause that allowed him to move the team if attendance fell below 850,000 a year, He made a big show of releasing the city from that clause, even held a public ceremony to burn the lease that contained the clause. But he really burned a blank piece of paper, and kept the real lease with the attendance clause in his safe to exercise when he needed to.
He tried to move the Oakland A’s to New Orleans and Denver, but the city would not let him buy out of his 20-year lease on the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. Having seen what Finley had done in Kansas City, the stadium authority insisted on a 20-year lease. In the end, after several sales and moves fell through because of the stadium lease, he was forced to sell the team at a fire sale price to a buyer from the Bay Area.
Finley Equals Connie Mack
Becoming his own general manager violated another promise Finley made to Kansas City fans, to let baseball professionals run the team. KC would have forgiven him for that if he had stayed in their city long enough for the young players in his minor league system to develop and become a Major League dynasty.
But by the time Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Blue Moon Odom, Gene Tenace, and Sal Bando started winning in the majors, Finley’s A’s were playing their home games in Oakland.
Turning perennial losers like the Kansas City A’s into a dynasty by developing young players in the minor leagues is the greatest accomplishment any general manager can claim. Finley did that, and was on the verge of doing it a second time when he was forced to sell the team.
Winning three consecutive World Series with homegrown players put him on a par with Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s, the only other modern team owner who was his own general manager. And like Mr. Mack, Finley tried to solve his personal financial problems by selling the best players on his championship team for cash. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided all those player sales.
Finley and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn
Finley and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a visceral hatred for each other. Finley was the crude, lewd, loud, self-made kid from the Indiana steel mills. Kuhn was a buttoned up, blue blood Wall Street lawyer.
Voiding Finley’s player sales was just one of many examples of what Finley saw as interference in his business, and Kuhn saw as protecting the best interests of baseball.
Catfish Hunter Wins in Arbitration
Finley’s two most important innovations, that changed everything permanently, were unintentional. They ultimately forced Finley out of baseball.
He was the first owner to lose a player in salary arbitration, Jim “Catish” Hunter, and the first to lose a superstar to free agency, Reggie Jackson. The best pitcher and hitter of his Oakland dynasty in the early 1970s became the best players of the Yankee dynasty in the late 1970s.
The book details the legalities of Hunter’s contract dispute with Finley, which arbitrator Peter Seitz called a breach of contract. Seitz surprised everyone when he declared Hunter a free agent allowed to negotiate with any team. Even Hunter thought the arbitrator would simply force Finley to pay Hunter what he owed.
Hunter’s salary went from $100,000 a year with Finley to $1.25 million a year for three years with the Yankees. The average player’s salary at the time was $47,000. It changed every player’s idea of his own worth and earning potential in the game.
For the first time, a player met an owner as an equal, represented by counsel, with witnesses and evidence, to have a salary dispute decided by a neutral third party. There was no appeal from the arbitrator’s decision. The book gives all the details of the contract dispute and the arbitration hearing, where Finley represented himself, and found that the melodrama, sentimentality, and appeals to emotion that made him a great salesmen did not work in a legal proceeding.
Reggie Jackson, the First Superstar Free Agent
Hunter’s arbitration victory did not affect baseball’s reserve clause that bound players to their original teams for life, or until they were traded, sold, or released.
Marvin Miller, leader of the Players’ Association, put an end to that after years of effort. He interpreted the standard player’s contract to mean that a player became a free agent after playing an entire season without a contract. The owners could not unilaterally extend a player’s contract year after year, as they always had.
Miller then found two successful, financially secure pitchers near the end of their careers who were willing to risk the rest of their careers to test Miller’s theory in court. Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith won their cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, and became free agents after playing a year without a contract.
1976 was the first year players knew they could become free agents by not signing contracts for that season. Reggie Jackson, survivor of many bitter one-sided salary disputes with Finley, announced he would play that year, become a free agent, and never play for Finley again.
Knowing that Jackson would leave the team at the end of 1976, and that the A’s would get nothing for him, Finley traded Jackson to Baltimore. When the 1976 season ended, Jackson became a free agent and signed with the Yankees. His salary went from $125,000 to more than $1 million a year for three years.
Ironically, Finley was one of only two people to figure out how to kill free agency before it started. The other was Marvin Miller, the union chief and arch-enemy of all owners. They both saw that the law of supply and demand would ruin the market value of free agents if every player became a free agent right away, as the new law allowed.
The owners ignored Finley when he told them to make all the players free agents. They despised him. He had gone from being a pain in the neck to costing them a fortune and destroying their absolute power to determine players’ salaries.
Miller convinced the players to make a “magnanimous concession” to the panicked owners by creating a system that bound a player to his original team for six seasons. There would just be a few free agents each year, and only a few of them would be stars..
An All-American Rise and Fall Story
Finley bought the A’s in 1961 when he was 40. He grew up poor, and made his fortune as an insurance broker, selling products to large corporations and professional associations. He specialized in medical malpractice insurance. At the height of his power the insurance business made money, the Oakland A’s made a profit every year, and he owned professional basketball and hockey teams.
In the late 1970s, he went through a series of financial and personal reverses he never recovered from. He needed cash to pay for a bitter, very expensive divorce from his wife. He began losing insurance clients as industry changes made brokers less important. When he was not allowed to sell his star players for cash, he tried to raise money by moving or selling the A’s. The 20-year lease on the Oakland stadium killed several opportunities to move or sell. He had a heart attack that he never completely recovered from.
He was forced to sell the team to Bay Area buyers for $12.5 million, a fire sale price that barely covered the cost of his divorce and other debts. His final years make a pitiful story when these writers tell it. In addition to failing health and everything else, he was estranged from his sons because of the divorce.
It’s hard to believe neither co-author is a professional writer. Roger Launius is a space history curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum, and G. Michael Green is a senior planner at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Both are members of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), a confederation of data bugs who use modern statistical analysis to analyze baseball strategy and evaluate talent . They have given us a well-written, compelling story that shows every side of the most complicated personality in modern sports.
Green, G. Michael and Launius, Roger D., Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman, Walker and Company, ISBN 978-0-8027-1745-0, 2010, 350 pp.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.