Designated HitterDecember 30, 2005
Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley (Part Two)
By Maury Brown

Part One

Finley screws Catfish, and Catfish shows the world what kind of salaries players could make in free agency

Finley continued to sign great players that had made the run possible. Not content with just signing them, they had to have colorful nicknames. Johnny Lee Odom had become "Blue Moon" Odom. When it came time to sign another pitcher, Finley came up with another one.

"Do you have a nickname?" he asked.

"No sir," replied the pitcher.

"Well, to play baseball you have to have a nickname. What do you like to do?"

"Hunt and fish," was the reply.

"Fine," Finley said. "When you were six years old you ran away from home and went fishing. Your mom and dad have been looking for you all day. When they finally found you about, ah, four o'clock in the afternoon, you'd caught two big fish...Ahh...catfish...and were reeling in a third. And that's how you got your nickname."

So was christened, "Catfish" Hunter.

James Augustus Hunter may have grown up on a farm in North Carolina, but he was far from a dumb hick. As he grew into one of the best pitchers in the game, he also began to understand how Finley worked.

In 1974 Hunter signed a two-year contract with the A's. Finley, being Charlie O'Finley, had acted as his own attorney in many cases, regardless of his lack of education in law. In the case of Jim Hunter's contract, there was a provision requiring that one-half of his salary was to be paid to an insurance company, named by Hunter, for the purchase of an annuity; the money was to be paid during the season.

Shortly after the '74 season began, Hunter supplied Finley with the name of the insurance company. There was a problem, however. Finley never made a single payment to the insurance company in the name of Hunter during all of 1974. Finley had discovered that the $50,000 wasn't tax-deductible. He wouldn't be able to take the deduction until years later. Hunter's lawyer pressed Finley for the $50,000. Finley started making up a variety of excuses as to why the money wasn't being deposited. With Finley and the A's now in default, Dick Moss and the Players Association sent written notice to the club to remedy the default within 10 days.

It should be noted that the timeframe to remedy the default was not arbitrary. A clause in the Uniform Players Contract, in existence long before the union, read as follows (about being in default and not remedying it within 10 days): "[T]he player may terminate this contract upon written notice to the Club, if the Club shall default in the payments to the Player provided for."

Finley called Hunter to his office. When Hunter arrived, not only was Finley in the office, but AL President Lee McPhail, as well.

Charlie, at this point, must have underestimated Hunter's intelligence. He held up a check for $50,000 and said he would pay the sum now, but refused to sign the application to the insurance company. Hunter replied that he didn't want the money paid to him, but rather as had been agreed to. Hunter then turned around and walked out the door.

The Lords knew they were in a pickle with Finley. The case would go to arbitration. Finley, being Finley, couldn't get the story straight when he and the labor-relations members of management prepared to make the case. When it got to arbitrator Peter Seitz, he was dealing with the same problem. Finley was now denying that he ever received notification from Hunter's lawyer.

On December 13th, the decision was rendered by Seitz. "Mr. Hunter's contract for service to be performed during the 1975 season no longer binds him and he is a free agent," read part of the ruling. Charlie O had screwed over Hunter, and now Hunter was going to benefit from it. He was going to benefit from it in numbers that seemed cartoonish by the days' standards.

The derby for Hunter began on December 19th. It was unlike anything that had ever happened before. The frenzy for Hunter by the owners from December 19th to New Year's Eve Day showed just how much money the owners had and, more correctly, how much they were willing to spend on talent when the constraints of the Reserve Clause were removed.

The two-year contract that Hunter had signed with Finley had been for $100,000 a year with the deferments. By the time twenty-four clubs had jockeyed for the rights to Hunter and the Yankees had finished negotiations, Hunter had agreed to a deal worth $3.5 million.

Finley hadn't just screwed himself over, but the Lords, as well. The seed that had been growing slowly in the back of Marvin Miller's mind about breaking the Reserve Clause now sprouted like Jack's beanstalk.

The Seitz Ruling and Finley's ability to see through it

At the beginning of the 1975 season, Miller decided to test the Reserve Clause by seeing if he could get Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers to hold out for the season without agreeing to a contract. Messersmith had been at loggerheads with the Dodgers on his contract, and had shown up to Spring Training without one. To play it safe, Miller looked to Dave McNally of the Expos as back-up in case Messersmith buckled over the course of the season, when the ever increasing dollars being offered to him would surely arrive from the Dodgers.

Miller had Paragraph 10(a) of the Uniform Players Contract which said, "The Club shall have the right to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same team." Miller's interpretation was clear: If a player was not re-signed within one year of his contract not being renewed, he would be eligible for free agency.

Andy Messersmith never buckled. In October of 1975, the Union filed the Messersmith/McNally grievances. The arbitration case weaved through the off-season and set baseball on edge. On December 23, arbitrator, Peter Seitz ruled, "The grievances of Messersmith and McNally are sustained. There is no contractual bond between these players and the Los Angeles and Montreal clubs, respectively." The Reserve Clause had been revoked.

The Lords were incensed. First thing they did was fire Seitz as an arbitrator. Clark Griffith could only muster, "Oh, shit" when the news arrived.

Free agency would be available, but how would Miller negotiate the terms? As Miller wrote in, A Whole Different Ballgame, "In the wake of the Messersmith decision it dawned on me as a terrifying possibility, that the owners might suddenly wake up one day and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of each year, the market would be flooded, and salaries would be held down."

Charlie saw this advantage. "Hey what's the problem?" Finley said. "Make 'em all free agents!" Miller waited to see if anyone would actually listen to the maverick. "My main worry was that someone would actually listen to him," Miller said.

The result? No one listened.

Finley had said how the owners could actually benefit from the ruling. The owners, through their own stupidity, balked at Finley's suggestion and have been paying for it since.

Finley sees his fate. Vida Blue, and Bowie too

Finley had always worked on the edge. When free agency became part of the new landscape, he knew his days as an owner were numbered.

In early '76, Finley decided that he was going to get something out of the new paradigm. He started by calling the Red Sox. The proposed blockbuster trade was Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Gene Tenace, and Sal Bando for Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk and a couple of minor leaguers.

Not content with just the Red Sox, Finley got the Yankees on the horn. He tinkered with offers and counter-offers, and not just with the Red Sox and the Yankees. By the time he was through, Finley had negotiated with every American League franchise, with Kansas City the exception.

With one day left before the June 15th trading deadline, Finley still hadn't signed his star players. Then Charlie made the shift: "trade" was shelved for "cash."

He also started playing the Red Sox against the Yankees. When Dick O'Connell of the Red Sox got a hold of Finley, the latter said, "I'm with Gabe [Paul of the Yankees]. I'm offering Rudi, Blue, Baylor, or Tenace for a million apiece and Bando for half a million. Are you interested?"

The Red Sox mulled the various options and scenarios. O'Connell phoned Finley and asked, "Are Rudi and Fingers still available at a million dollars apiece?" "Yes, they are," replied Finley.

The Red Sox now had Rudi and Fingers.

The problem was Finley was still working with Gabe Paul on a deal for Vida Blue. As O'Connell got off the phone, he realized that if Blue became a Yankee, the Red Sox deal would be a wash.

To get around this problem, O'Connell got the Tigers in the mix. By getting Detroit in on the negotiations for Blue, maybe the Red Sox could at least get Blue out of the Yankees' hands and into the Tigers'.

Detroit offered a million dollars for Blue. Finley relayed the news to Paul, who, in turn, countered Campbell's offer with a deal for $1.5 million and landed Blue. However, there was one small problem. Blue was still not signed with the A's. Paul had swung the deal, but on the conditions that Blue was signed.

Finley called up Chris Daniels, Blue's agent and said he wanted to work a contract up. Finley and Daniels negotiated back and forth over the terms for the three years, never mind the fact that Finley was not really using his money, but rather Steinbrenner's. It wasn't until later in the day that Blue and Daniels got the news about the Yankees. Finley would make more on the deal to New York than Blue.

The fire sale news was spreading quickly, and finally made its way to the commissioner's office. Kuhn and Finley had been at odds since Day One. They were polar opposites in nearly every manner. When it came to their relationship over baseball business, Kuhn had reprimanded Finley on more than one occasion. Such had been their relationship.

When Finley and Kuhn met face-to-face over the fire sale, the A's owner started off on the commissioner. "Don't butt into this," Finley said. He then went into a long diatribe about how free agency and poor attendance were killing any chances for the A's to be competitive. By the end of the conversation, nothing had swayed Kuhn on the matter.

The next day, Kuhn forbid the Yankees and the Red Sox from playing their newly acquired players. Allowing them to play would send a signal that pennants could be bought outright, and that was something that would create a travesty of the game. Kuhn ruled that the sales be voided.

Finley went off the handle. He called Kuhn, "the village idiot." He then ramped that up to "the nation's idiot," and finally, "his honor, the idiot in charge."

Finley bows out

Charlie never got the memo. He continued to unload players, but was at least wise enough to not do wholesale transactions. He got his front office staff down to six. One of whom was a fourteen-year-old teenager, who was listed on the A's organizational chart as vice-president. The teen, by the name of Stanley Burrell, would grow up and break into entertainment as "M.C. Hammer."

The Lords desperately pushed to get Finley out of the Lodge. Finally, Walter Haas, Jr. arrived on the scene and offered to purchase the club in cash, to the tune of $12.75 million.

At Finley's farewell press conference, he said, "[It] is no longer a battle of wits but how much you can have on the hip. I can no longer compete."

My Ode to Charlie

As I said, I miss Charlie. I can see him with his Kelly green jacket and matching cowboy hat. He's just the thing the starched shirts need today.

Finley wasn't just some kook. On top of owning the Athletics, he owned the NHL Oakland Seals for a bit, another team I grew up loving while watching the likes of Carol Vadnais and Gary Smith. He owned the Memphis Pros, of the American Basketball Association at one point. The idea of using orange balls at night was actually tried in several exhibition games. He toyed with the "designated runner" and hired a sprinter exclusively for the purpose of pinch running and stealing bases.

Yes, this is my ode to Charlie O. May the baseball gods, once again, have mercy on my soul.

Update(01/05/06)

Sources:

Lords of the Realm - John Helyar
A Whole Different Game - Marvin Miller
Numerous newspaper articles culled from ProQuest
Wikipedia
Baseball-Reference

Maury Brown is the co-chair of SABR's business of baseball committee, and the editor of Business of Baseball.com. He's currently a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and pesters another Portland, OR resident, Rob Neyer, far too much for the use of his research library. He's been sourced for commentary and analysis by the Boston Globe, CNN/Money, Toronto Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, San Jose Mercury News, and Oregonian.

Comments

"Finley was now denying that he ever received notification from Hunter's."

Hunter's attorney?

That would be correct, Trey.

I was 8 years old when Joe Rudi made that catch at the wall in the '72 series. I've been hooked ever since.

Thank you.

Thanks..I have loved the A's since 1971 and remember so many of Finley's creations/experiments. He brought the A's to Oakland and he put together a GREAT team...and those teams could've run a real dynasty had he not cheated Hunter and then sold off the players. Those really were glory days in Oakland. Thanks for the memories.

He was something. He certainly was brash, but his ability to evaluate talent and tirelessly try to promote was something that has always captured my imagination.

In reference to a comment that was deleted, Maury submitted the following sources in one of his drafts:

Lords of the Realm John Helyar
A Whole Different Game Marvin Miller
Numerous newspaper articles culled from ProQuest
Wikipedia
Baseball-Reference

Those sources should immediately be made part of the article. Much of the information is pulled directly from Helyar's Lords of the Realm. His name should be up there front and center with that of Mr. Brown.

Many of the quotes certainly are pulled from realms. Many areas were covered from within a good deal of information also pulled from within the articles from the KC Star, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, and Washinton Post archives. Miller's book was highly referenced, as well.

In my submission, I mentioned that the sources should be presented, and due to space constraints, TBA was unable to so at the time. I have requested that they be placed within the article.

On Realms... It is, in many ways, the defacto bible for business of baseball resources. It recounts a vast array of situations from a "fly on the wall" perspective with quotes that can be found nowhere else. The "Catfish" recounting is but one.

Maury, Nice overview of Charlie O. Roger Launius and I have been working on the definitive biography of Charlie for the past couple of years. We've presented several papers over the last three years at SABR events on different aspects of Finley's life. We continue to kick ourselves that we did not start this project while we could have talked to Finley.

A couple of interesting facts, Finley was indeed very tardy with offering to buy Hunter's insurance annuity, but according to sources we've talked with Finley's did have an attorney at the time assisting with contracts and things. Unfortunately, Charlie did not always listen to him. Furthermore, Finley was a terribly disorganized businessman by this time in his life. His insurance business was sliding. He was also going through a divorce and was not as focused on baseball during the 1974 season. Furher, no one within baseball actually thought Seitz would rule Hunter a free agent.

As far as Helyar's book, it is an excellent read and provides great insights into the inner working of MLB. However, Helyar's lack of footnotes or source acknowledgement does diminish its credibility. But believe me, we've used it, but one is forced to take it more on faith in the author than faith in cited facts or interviews.

Thanks on this, Mike. A definitive bio is certainly needed on Finley.

On the Hunter incident...

If an interview with Hunter is part of your research, the question I'd love answered is whether Lee McPhail was in Finley's office and whether Finley said that he wouldn't invest the money in the annuity, but rather offered the money is a check. I have continued looking into Finley since this piece ran, and as you mention, his insurance company was in dire shape, as was his marriage. Neither of those issues would justify his decision after the fact: He should have invested Hunter's money in the manner outlined in the contract.

As an FYI, I will be in contact with Dick Moss shortly to see if he is available for interview. Finely will surely be a key topic within my questions, should he accept the interview request.

Lastly Mike, I hope you will contact me offline at some point. Very much interested in your bio.

I am the Great Nephew of Charles Finley. Many other issues need to b e brought to light as far as the Finley Legacy goes. How about everyone balking at Charles' crazy idea for intra-league ball games. which became famous almost thirty years after he made the suggestion. Yes Charles was eccentric. But he was a visionary. Unfortunately most visionarys are not recognized until they are dead. And all people can look at is the minute failures. Charles changed the face of baseball. Whether it was a good thing or bad, it makes no difference. He bucked the system and won.