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The Story of the First Two Oakland A's Dynasties â" and the Building of the Third
By Glenn Dickey
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2002 Glenn Dickey
All rights reserved.
The One and Only Charlie Finley
Charlie Finley stood at the rostrum in a conference room at the Oakland — Alameda County Coliseum. It was October 1967. Sports in Oakland and the entire San Francisco Bay Area would never be the same again.
Until the late sixties, the professional sports scene in the area had been almost entirely located in San Francisco. The 49ers had begun in 1946 and joined the National Football League in 1950. The Giants had moved to San Francisco (paired with the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles) in 1958; though they had won only one pennant, they had one of the most exciting teams in baseball history, with future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Orlando Cepeda. San Francisco also had a franchise in the National Basketball Association; the Warriors had moved from Philadelphia in 1962.
Oakland had had the Raiders since 1960, but neither the team nor the league — the American Football League — had been taken seriously. Their home games were being played at a junior college field named after an undertaker, for heaven's sake. But in 1966 they moved into the newly built Coliseum, and in 1967 they were on their way to the Super Bowl.
Now Finley was telling listeners that he would move his team, the Kansas City Athletics, to Oakland to play in the Coliseum. Nobody was quite sure whether he could be believed, because Finley had gone to other cities, seeming to promise each time that he'd take the A's there. He had even signed a contract with Louisville, but could not get permission from the American League's owners. But Finley was serious about Oakland, and this time he got the permission he needed from the owners and moved his team.
Nobody knew quite what to expect from the team either. The A's had been bottom feeders in Kansas City, never finishing higher than sixth in a 10-team league in 13 seasons. Finley had gone through managers like Kleenex, seven in the seven years since buying the team in December of 1960, but his final season in Kansas City was more dismal than most, a 62 — 99 record and a last-place finish.
That record disguised the fact that Finley's scouts, among the best in the business, had signed a number of good young players, including two future Hall of Famers, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. But few baseball fans in Oakland knew of these players, because Finley was such an overpowering figure. When people thought of the A's, they thought of Charlie Finley, not his players. That was exactly the way Finley wanted it.
Charlie Finley was a man of many despicable qualities. His wife testified in divorce proceedings that he beat her regularly, and she had the sheriff's office bar Finley from visiting after they had separated for fear he would continue his beatings. Living most of his life in an era where sexual harassment was not yet an issue, he made obscene remarks to waitresses in restaurants and would often pinch or pat them on the rear. He browbeat employees and players, using the power baseball owners had in the era before free agency to keep salaries artificially low. "Even after we started winning, he wouldn't pay," said star reliever Rollie Fingers. "After we won our first World Series, he sent me a contract for a $1,000 raise. I thought, 'Thanks a lot, Charlie,' and I hired an agent. I never talked to him after that."
In 1973 baseball enacted arbitration, primarily because of Finley; there were more A's in arbitration than players from the rest of the teams combined. "I went to arbitration twice and won both times," said Fingers. When free agency came "It was bye-bye, Charlie," said Fingers. "Can you imagine Charlie paying these salaries today? He must be rolling over in his grave." Because the reserve clause had been interpreted to mean players were bound to a team as long as that team wanted them, owners had complete power before free agency. But Finley wasn't content with simply holding down a player's salary. If a player challenged him, he ordered him benched, as he did with Reggie Jackson, or ordered his manager to keep him in the bullpen, as he did with Vida Blue. He also threatened critical journalists with lawsuits (more than once with this writer), or banned them from the A's plane, as he did with Oakland Tribune beat writer Ron Bergman. Once he even raked his fingernails across the cheek of Jim Street, then a beat writer with the San Jose Mercury. He routinely withheld payment to those doing business with him, often forcing others to settle for 25 cents on the dollar. On one memorable occasion he tried to do that with the company printing the World Series programs in 1973. But the company refused to deliver the programs until Finley paid. Grudgingly, he did so, but his payment came so late that the programs were not even available by the time the first game had started.
Yet even with all this, he could also be charming when he chose to be. He had a salesman's ability to convince people that he was the most important person in the world. Knowing all the brutal facts about Finley's character, it was still impossible to resist the man when he turned on the charm.
The best example of that was probably Frank Lane, the legendary general manager who had had the misfortune of working for Finley in Kansas City. It was oil and water from the start. They disagreed on trades, they disagreed on managers, they even disagreed on spring-training sites. Finley fired Lane and refused to honor the rest of his contract. He had given Lane a Mercedes but had not transferred the title, and the car sat in Lane's garage. Lane sued for the money left on his contract and finally settled out of court for $113,000.
Shortly after the A's had moved to Oakland, however, Lane said that he and Finley had become friends again. "Maybe I'm as crazy as he is," said Lane, by then a scout for the Baltimore Orioles, "but it's hard to hate Charlie. He's quite a salesman. He can sell himself to his own worst enemy. He can talk himself out of any tangle." That night, Lane sat with a telephone for several hours relaying a pitch-by-pitch account of the game to Finley.
For sportswriters, Finley was an ongoing contradiction. He was always available and he spoke in short bursts, 3 — 4 words at a time, to make it easy for writers to take down every word. But he had no tolerance for criticism. In Kansas City he had had a ceremony in which he "honored" well-respected sports editor Ernest Mehl with a "poison pen." In Oakland, those of us who criticized him were in a constant battle. After one of my critical columns, Finley told me, "I don't want to ever talk to you again." When Reggie Jackson heard of that he said, "I hope you got that in writing."
Not surprisingly, it was his ability as a salesman that originally made Finley's fortune. Growing up poor in Indiana, he had gone to work in the steel mills in Gary. Then during World War II, he worked for the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant in La Porte, Indiana, after being declared 4-F because of a perforated eardrum. While still working at the ordnance plant he started selling insurance for first Equitable and then Travelers. Though he was working only part-time, he led Travelers in the sale of accident and health insurance for three years.
In December 1946 he contracted tuberculosis, which almost killed him. While recovering, he realized that doctors needed health insurance but seldom had it, so he concentrated in that area, eventually interesting the Continental Casualty Company of Chicago in underwriting a national plan for the American College of Surgeons. According to the U.S. Tax Court records, he earned $441,563 in commissions on that plan in 1952, the rough equivalent of $3 million today.
With the money pouring in, Finley turned to baseball, which had been an abiding interest since he had been a batboy as a child. He was rebuffed four times, first trying for the A's when they were still in Philadelphia, then the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago White Sox, and the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Finally, in December 1960, after owner Arnold Johnson had died, he made a deal to buy 52 percent of the Kansas City A's.
Finley's years in Kansas City were an unmitigated disaster, with very bad teams and low attendance. His years in Oakland would be much more successful on the field. But the attendance problems continued, partly because he was never able to stop promoting himself rather than the team.
There was never any shortage of ideas from Finley, many of them borrowed. Good and bad, he had a considerable influence on baseball because of his ideas. Here's a sampling of those he proposed, most of them during his Oakland years:
Playoff and World Series games at night during the week, an idea that was also pushed by the television networks for the obvious reason that the ratings would be higher. Finley's reasoning was that having the games at night would give many more people a chance to watch. Despite the nostalgia of old-timers for the day games, it's hard to argue with that. However, there have been some obvious disadvantages to night games. To be on prime time in the east, games on the west coast have to start shortly after 5:00, when the setting sun can cause problems for hitters. Even then, because the pace of baseball seems to be continually slowing, the games go too late for children in the eastern and even central time zones to watch the end.
Colored uniforms. The green-and-gold uniforms Finley had his team wearing were derided for making the A's look like a softball team. In truth, they were awful. They were in colors that should have been used only as an accent, as they were in the uniforms termed "wedding gown white." But the emergence of those gaudy uniforms pushed baseball away from its old baggy wool flannels to more contemporary, better-fitting uniforms with a splash of color.
The designated hitter. This one was adopted by the American League in 1973. The AL was falling behind the National League in attendance, perhaps because scoring had dropped. The change accomplished its main purpose, increasing offense and attendance, but it has been controversial since its adoption. National League fans insist that the DH has ruined the purity of the game, though minor leagues and colleges have adopted the rule, leaving the National League alone in its insistence on making the pitcher bat.
Finley also campaigned for orange baseballs similar to the "optic yellow" tennis balls that have been adopted because they're easier to follow than the white balls. He advocated a three-ball, two-strike count to hurry up the game — but when it was used in spring-training games, there were more walks and a slower game. He pushed the idea of a designated runner; when it wasn't adopted, he tried to use sprinter Herb Washington in that role, with generally bad results.
"We had to work with all of Charlie's experiments in spring training," remembered Dick Williams, who lasted three years as an A's manager, a record for a Finley-owned team:
One time I remember we were playing Cleveland and those orange balls were just jumping out of our little park in Mesa. We had traded George Hendrick to the Indians in the off-season and the first time he came up against Cat [Catfish Hunter] he hit one out to left. The next time, he hit one out to center. I don't remember who was pitching when Hendrick came up the third time, but he hit it out again, this time to right field.
[Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn was at the game and after it was over, he asked Hendrick what he thought of the orange ball. "I didn't like it," Hendrick told him. "I couldn't pick up the spin."
With Finley, there was never a dull moment. There was the mechanized rabbit popping up behind home plate to give the umpire fresh baseballs. There was Charlie O the mule, which Finley paraded through the media lunchroom at playoff time. There were the constant weird promotions, the most notable being the one that promoted the growth of facial hair; so many A's sprouted moustaches that they became known as "The Moustache Gang." There was Finley dancing with his wife on the dugout roof after the 1972 World Series win, and Finley sitting with Miss California when his wife was not there. One time, Finley spotted a 12-year-old boy and, noticing a resemblance to "Hammerin'" Hank Aaron, nicknamed the boy "Hammer." Though he was only a gofer for Finley, he was listed as a vice-president in the media guide. That 12-year-old boy later became rap star MC Hammer.
Though Finley's promotions and antics always drew tremendous attention, there was never a stampede at the box office. Even as the A's were winning three straight World Series, they could draw more than 1 million fans only in the middle year of that stretch. Though baseball people liked to picture Oakland as a bad baseball city, the problem lay much more with Finley. When Walter Haas bought the team, the A's drew 200,000 more in the first year of the Haas ownership during their best attendance season under Finley, even though the first Haas season was cut by a third because of a strike. More evidence: Finley owned two other teams, the Seals hockey team in Oakland and the Memphis team in the American Basketball Association, and both those teams also had dreadful attendance. Watching the A's firsthand in those days, I identified three main problems:
1) Lack of staff. Finley had no marketing director, nor any marketing staff. Since there was nobody out in the community marketing season tickets, very few were being sold. That meant that the A's depended on walk-up sales. But when they had big games this caused a problem, because Finley never had enough ticket sellers. Fans would wait in long lines to buy tickets and then not get into the games until the third or fourth inning. Few of them returned for other games.
2) Despite his reputation as a promotional genius, Finley actually knew very little about what it took to build attendance. In the highly urbanized Bay Area, he had promotions like "Farmer's Night," which drew more ridicule than fans. He instituted half-priced "Family Nights" for one game in a three-game series, which was a fundamental marketing error. The crowds for those games were relatively high, but they came at the expense of the other two nights, as could have been predicted. Since the opponent was the same, why come for a game that was at full price? So, the A's would draw about as much for the series as they would have without the half-price night, but the bulk of the tickets would be discounted.
3) He always put himself above his players. That just doesn't work, anywhere at any time. Fans come out to see the players. They don't come out to see a coach or manager, and they especially don't come out to see an owner. Finley had great players the fans really wanted to watch, but as soon as a player poked his way up from the crowd and threatened to take the publicity spotlight away from Finley, he suffered.
The first three young players who reached the heights in Oakland would soon learn that harsh lesson.CHAPTER 2
Players Grab the Spotlight ... Temporarily
The first sign that the Oakland A's might be something special came on the night of May 8, 1968, when Jim "Catfish" Hunter threw a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. However, this was not the first sign that Hunter might be something special.
Hunter had been one of the top prospects signed by Charlie Finley when the club was still in Kansas City, getting a $75,000 signing bonus in 1964–very big money for the time. Hunter had been 23–2 in his final two high school seasons, throwing five no-hitters, one of them a seven-inning perfect game.
Finley loved to give nicknames to players. The one he came up with for Hunter was "Catfish." Though nobody had ever called him that before, it seemed to fit Hunter, who would head back to his native North Carolina to hunt and fish at the end of each baseball season. In the clubhouse, his teammates shortened it to "Cat."
Hunter never pitched an inning in the minor leagues. A hunting accident that cost him part of his foot kept him on the disabled list in 1964. But he was 8–8, 9–11, and 13–17 (with a 2.81 earned run average) during the next three seasons, pitching for very bad teams in Kansas City.
Hunter's perfect game came with a caveat. Because the game started in twilight, at 6:00 p.m., hitters had trouble picking up the ball in the early innings. For the first six innings, neither team scored.
Still, Hunter was in complete control that night. After the game he said that he had thrown only one bad pitch the whole night, a hanging curve that Harmon Killebrew swung at mightily but missed. A's catcher Jim Pagliaroni stood up and started out to the mound, but stopped when Catfish signalled that he'd got the message: no more like that. In fact, it was the only curve he threw in the entire game. There were only four hard-hit balls off Hunter: liners to left by Cesar Tovar and Rod Carew; a fly deep to right by Ted Uhlaender; and a one-hop grounder to third base by Bob Allison that Sal Bando gloved, throwing Allison out.
Excerpted from Champions by Glenn Dickey. Copyright © 2002 Glenn Dickey. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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