Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's

by Jason Turbow


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Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's by Jason Turbow

How the Oakland A's of the 1970sa revolutionary band of brawling Hall of Famerswon three straight championships and knocked baseball into the modern age

The Oakland A's of the early 1970s were the most transformative team in baseball history. Never before had an entire organization so collectively traumatized baseball's establishment with its outlandish behavior and business decisions, let alone an indisputably winning record: five consecutive division titles and three straight championships. The drama that played out on the field was exceeded only by the drama in the clubhouse and front office. But those A's, with their garish uniforms and outlandish facial hair, redefined the game for coming generations.

Under the visionary leadership of owner Charles O. Finley, the team assembled such luminaries as Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue. Finley acted as his own general manager, his insatiable need for control dictating everything from the playlist of the ballpark organist to the menu for the media lounge. So pervasive was his meddling that one of his managers, Dick Williams, quit in the middle of the championship celebration following Oakland's Game 7 victory over the Mets in the 1973 World Series. The advent of free agency spelled the end of Finley's reign; within two years, his dynasty was lost.

A sprawling, brawling history of one of baseball’s unforgettable teams, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic is a paean to a turbulent, magical time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781328570079
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 365,652
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JASON TURBOW is the author of the best-selling The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime and Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and SI.com. He lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

Welcome to Oakland
Bob Kennedy was feeling good. The 1968 season, the A’s first in Oakland and his first as their manager, had wrapped only minutes earlier. Despite a loss to the Twins, the A’s final record was 82-80, 20 victories better than the previous year and their first winning mark since 1949. It was by any reasonable measure a fantastic success. Kennedy spoke easily with reporters in the postgame clubhouse about his hopes for ’69. With a roster laden with up-and-comers like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Campy Campaneris, the manager couldn’t hide his excitement about achievements yet to come.

Unlike previous lost campaigns, in which Charlie Finley’s ax swung inexorably toward the managerial chopping block as early as June, the room was upbeat after the season finale. Kennedy offered warm goodbyes to his players, wished them productive winters, and urged them to keep in shape. Then he made a quick round of the gathered media. “Thank you for everything this summer,” he said, shaking each reporter’s hand. “I’ll be seeing you next year. But right now I have to go up to see the big man.” With that, he hopped the elevator to the third-floor executive suite, where he and Finley had a full agenda of off-season prep work to discuss. When the elevator returned, a contingent of newsmen followed.

They arrived to find Kennedy in the hallway, struggling with the locked glass door to the owner’s office. “Where’s Finley?” one of them asked. “We want to talk to him.”
“I can’t even get in,” replied the bewildered manager.

His confusion didn’t last long; a moment later the lock rattled open, the door swung ajar, and Kennedy slipped inside. When reporters attempted to follow, however, an assistant cut them off. They might have grown suspicious if given some time, but within a minute Kennedy stormed out, unexpectedly jobless. The team’s PR man, Val Binns, emerged and read a handwritten statement: “Bob Kennedy has been relieved of his duties as manager and has been replaced by Hank Bauer.”

Welcome to Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s. The man’s perpetual need for shifting sands was ever in play, with managers, with players, with cities themselves. Kennedy had succeeded, but not enough for Finley’s tastes, and so the churn endured—another odd decision in an ownership résumé packed full of them.

At least the man was decisive. Hell, it’s what landed the A’s in Oakland in the first place. So determined was Finley to move his team from Kansas City to Northern California in 1967 that no measure of contrary advice could sway him. It might have been the cutting-edge allure of the brand-new, 50,000-seat Oakland Coliseum, but just as likely it was the chance to buck every owner who insisted that the Bay Area was a one-team market. Finley hired a firm to research the pros and cons of the East Bay, and then ordered it to “tell me to move to Oakland.”

So firm were his convictions that he signed a 20-year lease agreement and at the team’s welcoming luncheon said that the A’s would forever have Oakland printed across their jerseys as a symbol of civic pride. “I bought the team in Kansas City,” he proclaimed. “I have brought it to Oakland. There is a difference. I took the only team I could get. I had no choice over where it was. Bringing it to Oakland was my choice. Once I make a decision, I stand by it, I give my word of that. I will move to Oakland. I will move my family to Oakland. I will keep my team in Oakland. And the A’s will succeed here.”

Finley did not move to Oakland, nor did his family. He showed up a few times each season to watch the A’s, and caught them when they visited Chicago. After a year he removed the city’s name from the jerseys and replaced it with the letter “A,” a precursor, perhaps, to perpetual rumors that the team was preparing to move someplace else.

The Coliseum’s debut—opening night, April 17, 1968—was as grand an affair as Finley could have hoped. The stadium of his dreams was packed to overflowing. The team’s mascot, a mule named Charlie O, rolled in with a police escort. Baseball commissioner William Eckert and American League president Joe Cronin were in attendance, as was California governor Ronald Reagan, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The arena went dark prior to the National Anthem, a lone spotlight homing in on the American flag. Fans, fully invested in the experience, spontaneously fished matches from pockets and turned the ballpark into something between a candlelight vigil and a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Finley’s last-place Athletics were in Oakland now, and things were about to change.

The very next night they did. It took only one game for all semblance of new-team sheen to dissipate, as only 5,304 fans found their way to the ballpark. “Oh my God,” gasped traveling secretary Tom Corwin, eying the nearly empty grandstand. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” The following day, the first Friday night contest in Oakland’s big league history drew 6,251.

Just like that, a decades-long conversation of Why? began. Why did people stay away in such terrific numbers? Why wasn’t an exciting new team enough of an attraction? Why couldn’t people recognize the gift they’d been given? The answers were myriad. The A’s were a second-division club, and had been for more than three decades. It was too cold. It was difficult to get to the stadium. It was the Giants siphoning fans across the bay, not to mention University of California sports right there in Berkeley, plus a panoply of local entertainment options, plus working-class Oakland residents with a shortage of disposable income, plus . . . plus . . . plus . . .
Finley’s hard-edged attitude did not help. When he refused to give in to the local musicians’ union—which wanted him to match the Giants’ use of a live band on weekends—he was forced to use recordings of the National Anthem, unable to find so much as an organist willing to work for him. The shortcomings of the Coliseum itself also became quickly apparent. The A’s shared the field with the turf-shredding Raiders of the National Football League. The infield dirt was too soft for solid footing. Finley’s lauded “million-dollar scoreboard,” an awesome display of ballpark messaging, was inoperable, and would stay that way, he was told, until June.
Within his first month on the job A’s farm director Art Parrack, theorizing that any more time spent working for Finley would be too much, resigned. Soon Finley would fire or have quit on him vice president Bill Cutler (a protracted legal battle over back salary followed), director of scouting Ray Swallow, traveling secretary John Fitzpatrick, sales manager Bob Freitas, and 11 scouts, bringing the number of front-office personnel to leave his employ since he bought the club in 1961 to 130. The only one to stick around from the beginning was his cousin, Carl Finley.

On the field, however, the A’s grew ever more stable, following that 82-win season with 88 victories in 1969, then 89 a year later. In the process Finley did his best to transform the Kansas City Athletics into his Oakland A’s, adding an apostrophe-s to the “A” on the cap and shucking away almost everybody who’d made the trek from Missouri and was older than 25. In a coup, he convinced local resident Joe DiMaggio to come aboard as an executive vice president, then overlooked assigning him a desk or much work, all but ensuring that the Hall of Famer would end up as the team’s de facto hitting coach and part-time spokesman. (Reported Sports Illustrated: “Of all the possible answers to the question, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’ one of the least heartening is, ‘To the Oakland dugout, wearing gold pants and white shoes.’ ”) Finley realized that Midwestern promotional holdovers like Farmer’s Day, featuring hog-calling and cow-milking contests, did not play in the Bay Area, so he swapped them out for events like Hot Pants Day. He hired a couple of leggy coeds from nearby Bishop O’Dowd High School to wear short-shorts and tight tops and scoop up foul balls during games. Despite his efforts, fans continued to stay away in droves.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Part 1 Ascendance 1961-1971

1 Welcome to Oakland 3

2 The Owner 19

Part 2 Pinnacle 1972-1974

3 Vida's Blues 29

4 Sweet Smell of Success 42

5 Teetering in Tiger Town 60

6 World Series, 1972 79

7 Springtime for Champions 112

8 Defending Your Flag 121

9 Beating the Birds 138

10 Scapegoat Nation 150

11 Wherefore Williams? 180

12 Another Run 186

13 Hello, Hollywood… Goodbye, Catfish (prelude) 234

14 Catfish Gone 261

Part 3 Descent 1975-1980

15 Retool 275

16 Housecleaning 289

17 Long Slope Down 309

Epilogue 315

Cast of Characters 325

Acknowledgments 345

Notes 348

Index 372

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