Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley
I miss Charlie Finley.
There, I said it.
He was vile. He was vulgar. He was a loose cannon. He was reckless. He was brilliant. He was a great evaluator of talent. And, he could throw that talent away if he wanted to make a buck. He was, as Marvin Miller said, "One part P.T. Barnum and one part George Steinbrenner."
May the baseball gods have mercy on my soul. May Bowie Kuhn put a pox upon my house. May the Lords of Baseball shout, "Bow ye down, as we show you no mercy!"
Yes, I have sinned. Yes, I miss Charles Oscar Finley.
I grew up in the Bay Area taking in the Giants at Candlestick with Mays, and Marichal, and McCovey, and Spahn, and both the Alous -- Matty and Jesus. Pardon me as I rub my hands together as I try to warm my still cold hands from those trips.
Then Finley arrived with the A's and that changed everything.
The drive was shorter, the tickets cheaper, and the ballpark warmer. These things, of course, meant nothing to a kid. What mattered to me were the names on the roster. Names with the likes of "Blue Moon," "Catfish," "Monday," "Blue," "Rudi," "Tenace" and "Fingers." The real and the fabricated names blurred in my mind. Those were all their God-given names, as far as I knew. I saw the bright white, yellow and green uniforms as something that matched the times. The white shoes were something that made my team stand out from the drabness that permeated the other clubs. They all looked like cold damp mildew by comparison. Ostentatiousness be damned, I loved them.
I also loved the promotions. The yellow and orange balls that were given away. Why not use them for night games? The possibilities were not yet stomped down in a kid's mind due to my limited understanding of how the Lords of baseball worked.
Most of all, I loved Harvey. Harvey was the mechanical rabbit that popped up out of the ground behind home plate to deliver the umpire fresh balls for the games. It was a magical time to be a kid at the Oakland Coliseum.
Is it any wonder I chose to follow the business end of baseball as I grew up? Is it any wonder I have that solid dose of pretzel logic required to keep any man from going insane when tackling the "upside-down is right-side up" world of the MLB front office? I can blame it all on Charlie. That crazy maverick, Finley.
A salesman, a maverick, and "disreputable character" is born
Charles Oscar Finley was born to sell. As a child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, a young Charlie once won a medal and a bicycle for selling 12,500 subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post. He loved baseball. He had been a batboy for the Birmingham Barons and played semi-pro ball in his youth. After his dad had been transferred to Gary, Indiana, he followed in his father's footsteps and went to work at US Steel after his graduation from high school. Not content with this life, he sold life insurance on the side. He set the company sales record for policy sales in his first year.
Finley was also unstable physically. He worked himself to the bone, contracted tuberculosis, and spent time in a sanitarium. In classic Finley form, he had broken sales records for life insurance, but he had neglected to take out a policy on himself.
While recovering from his illness in the hospital, Finley had an epiphany: doctors. Sell insurance to doctors. He developed an insurance plan for those in the medical industry. By the time the '40s had waxed into the '50s, Finley was a multimillionaire and set his eyes back on baseball -- and big-league baseball, to be more specific.
Finley made a run at purchasing the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954, but got beat out by Arnold Johnson. Then he went after the White Sox unsuccessfully. Undaunted, he went after the expansion Angels, even to the point of trying to lure Roy Rogers into the ownership group to offset Gene Autry's bid. But, he lost on that deal as well.
Then the unexpected happened. Arnold Johnson dropped dead. Finley leapt at the chance by offering up $2 million to Johnson's widow for the 52% stake in the Athletics. The owners sent Orioles chairman Joe Iglehart to check Finley out. His report to the Lords was, "Under no conditions should this person be allowed into our league."
There was a slight problem. No one -- no one but Finley, it seemed -- wanted to own the Athletics. Reluctantly, the owners approved the sale on December 19, 1960. Charlie O' had prevailed.
Finley turns the Athletics upside down in Kansas City
Finley set right off into turning the baseball establishment on its proverbial ear. He immediately went to work painting sections of Kansas City Municipal Stadium in colors that would have made the rainbow blush -- everything from citrus yellow to turquoise to an eye-shattering florescent pink for the foul poles. Not content with this, he went with the uniform colors in kelly green, "Fort Knox gold," "wedding gown white" and shoes that were white "kangaroo albino" graced the players.
Charlie then decided to become the P.T. Barnum of the baseball establishment. He opened a zoo beyond the right-field fence with livestock ranging from sheep to monkeys to rabbits. The prized livestock addition was the new team mascot, a donkey he named Charlie O.
Finley did theme days to try and drum up attendance. Everything from Farmers' Day, in which an embarrassed Diego Segui was delivered to the mound by hay wagon, to Shriner nights and "Bald-headed men" night.
All of this did absolutely nothing to increase attendance. Finley decided that maybe greener pastures would be available elsewhere. He started not so quietly shopping the idea of moving the A's. He tried moving the team to Dallas-Ft. Worth (voted down by he owners 9-1). He actually signed a contract with the state of Kentucky to move the club to Louisville for the '64 and '65 seasons. The vote to approve that move failed 9-1.
Finley remained undaunted. He attempted six weeks later to move the club to Oakland. That move failed by a 9-1 vote, as well. He seemed driven to relocate to anywhere to get out of, as he privately said, "this horseshit town" of Kansas City. He wasn't opposed to promoting the A's and, more importantly, himself, outside of Kansas City. He shocked the Lords, when he announced that it was his intention to do a tour in 1965 of every American League city with his mascot, Charlie O. They traveled in a special trailer that was, as the AP reported it, a "plush, air-conditioned, radio equipped trailer," complete with an itinerary of stops. April 21: Detroit. April 25: Cleveland. April 28: Chicago. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles rounded out the tour.
The Lords proceeded to ignore Finley when he got in the trenches and did actual business with his fellow owners. This reaction infuriated Finley who thought that the other owners failed to see his genius.
And he was a genius -- if not in reality, at least it was so in Charlie's mind. He had hired Frank Lane as GM of the Athletics when he purchased the Club, and had Joe Gordon as manager. Gordon and Finley clashed. Gordon was shown the door in June of '61. Finley then canned Lane in August. He replaced the latter with F.P. Friday, one who had never worked in baseball, but rather in another area Finley was familiar with: insurance. As the Kansas City Star wrote, "Never has there been a baseball operation so bizarre, so impossible, so incredulous. If an ownership had made a deliberate attempt to sabotage a baseball operation, it could not have succeeded as well."
While other clubs had moved forward with full-time General Managers, Finley continued to work relentlessly scouting, signing and trading players. This, of course, went against the tenet of the old guard, which was to sit back and let others work for you. When John Fetzer of the Tigers approached Finley about hiring a GM, he replied, "When the day comes that I find a GM that can do a better job than Charlie O, I'll hire the son-of-a-gun."
Finley moves the A's to Oakland
Finally, on October 18, 1967 the American League gave in and granted Finley the right to move the Athletics to Oakland for the 1968 season. Senator William Stuart Symington said from the floor of the Missouri Senate, that Finley was "one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene," and said Oakland was "the luckiest city since Hiroshima."
Once the team moved to Oakland, Finley continued to work his magic in terms of PR by hiring Joe DiMaggio as executive VP of the A's in March of 1968. The Yankee Clipper understood how things would be with Charlie. "I'm not exactly the executive type," DiMaggio said. "Only one man makes decisions for this firm, Charlie Finley."
Lane and Finley's signings started to pay dividends. The franchise went from 62-99 in 1967 in KC, to 82-80 for the '68 season in Oakland. And while the attendance didn't look much different than it had in Kansas City, the winning became contagious.
In 1971 they won the AL West, but got swept by the Orioles in 3 games during the AL Championship. In '72, they didn't falter, beating the Reds 4-3 in the World Series.
Dick Williams, the manager of the A's at the time, was recently interviewed by Jeff Angus about that World Series, and a particularly interesting tale involving a suitcase. The team was in Cincinnati and there's this suitcase that came with the team but they can't figure out who it belongs to. No one claims it, and it's really locked up. So a couple of clubhouse guys take it out on the field to try to open it. No luck. Finally, they decide to use a gun. With the suitcase now open, the contents were revealed. It was filled with Charlie's shoes. One suitcase for nothing but shoes. It was pure Finley.
In 1973 they repeated as World Series Champions...and again in '74. The players became stars, and the stars wanted more money. Finley, being Finley, danced around the details of following through with some of those contract agreements. In 1974, however, Finley would meet the enemy, and the enemy was him.
Lords of the Realm - John Helyar
[Editor's note: Be sure to return tomorrow for Part Two of the "Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley."]
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.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]