Finley’s Swingin’ A’s
How many more World Series titles could the Oakland A’s have won in the 1970s if free agency had not entered baseball?
The club had won three straight in 1972, ’73 and ’74, with a team as colorful as their gaudy green and gold uniforms.
The pitching staff alone would have kept them competitive: Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue anchored the rotation, and Rollie Fingers came out of the bullpen to save the games.
At bat, they boasted Reggie Jackson, Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, speedy Bert Campaneris, and speedier Billy North.
Then there was the owner Charlie Finley, who became as famous – and yes, as infamous – as his players. But mostly for the wrong reasons.
The A’s might have hugged and laughed and drank champagne together after winning a trio of World Series titles, but they also fought and cursed each other. And they mostly wanted to play for other teams. But one thing held them together: their collective hatred of the owner.
Writers use the word “complex” to describe people who are contradictory in behavior or outlook. Finley was as complex as calculus. He frequently tried to low-ball his players at contract time, yet handed out bonuses for special achievements (he paid $5,000 to Hunter after he pitched a perfect game). When the team appeared in its second World Series, the usual red-white-and-blue bunting throughout the stadium was not to be seen: Finley wanted to save money.
There are books written about this Oakland team, and feature Finley in detail. But what’s really needed – and it’s possibly too late – is a biography of him. He was the dark side of Bill Veeck when it came to promotions– he bought the A’s while they were still in Kansas City, and Finley had a bus driven on the field and set afire; it was to signify the end of the A’s sending all their best players (such as Roger Maris) to the Yankees. He was George Steinbrenner before there was George Steinbrenner and the Yankees. In the first 11 seasons the A’s played in Oakland, Finley hired and fired 11 managers; firing and rehired two of them.
He grew up near Birmingham, AL, then a steel town. He went to work in the mills, as did his father, starting at 47 cents an hour. But he had the entrepreneurial gene. He was described as a natural salesman, the type who could sell air conditioners to people in Greenland. As a boy, Finley collected misshapen eggs from farms and then sold them at a lower price to customers. He won an award for selling the most subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post. Finley was a young man in a hurry, until he became ill with pneumonic tuberculosis and was given a 50/50 chance of survival. He was in and out of a hospital for more than two years. At one point, he weighed less than 100 pounds. He survived, of course, but Finley didn’t have health insurance, and he noticed that neither did the doctors who treated him. He founded the Charlie O. Finley & Company, Inc., to sell life and malpractice insurance to physicians, and moved the business to Chicago.
Finley had cheated death – or avoided it for the time being – and devised a formula: sweat + sacrifice = success. How his near-death experience, his roots in a steel mill, and his obsession with business deals (which later included deals for baseball players) shaped his thinking won’t ever truly be known, but there had to be something that drove him, possibly the need to prove he was right.
He became rich enough to buy the Kansas City Athletics when its owner, Arnold Johnson, died. In December 1960, Finley paid $1.975 million to Johnson’s widow for 52 percent of the team.
After buying the Athletics, he spent money fixing up and enhancing the club’s stadium. He altered the dugouts so fans could see what was happening there. He hired a mule as the team’s mascot (which enabled Finley to say, ‘kiss my ass’ to fans and foes) and named it Charlie O. Kansas City politicians and baseball lovers wondered if Finley would relocate the team. He gave conflicting signs: why would he pour money into the stadium if he intended to leave? On the other hand, newspapers reported he contacted officials in Dallas about relocating there.
The owner got into a feud with the sports editor of the Kansas City Star – Finley even sponsored a poison pen award for him at a game. This and other issues culminated with Finley moving the team to California in 1968.
The front scenes of the A’s (Finley altered the name on the uniforms from Athletics to A’s) had fans reading about player squabbles, managers who said they were constantly harangued by Finley about their strategy and choices. Behind the scenes, things were possibly worse. Team executives – including his brother – would get calls at all hours of the night as Finley raised a point about finances, or attendance or why weren’t the team’s radio announcers mentioning his name more often during games. He went through marketing directors, public relations staff, ticket managers and even switchboard operators faster than a Saturn V rocket breaking away from the Earth’s gravity on its way to the Moon.
He also argued with his fellow baseball owners, who rejected his suggestions for a designated runner, an orange-colored baseball, and a three-ball walk. They did, however, adopt his suggestions for a designated hitter and playing World Series games at night,
But there was something else about Finley’s background, aside from his business acumen: he knew the game. He played on his high school team and American Legion baseball, and even played for a semi-pro team in Indiana until he was 28. So, if a manager made a move he wouldn’t have done, and it didn’t work, the manager would hear about it. Finley also scouted top prospects and personally visited their homes to sign them.
And into this vortex of a personality were 25 ballplayers, the manager, coaches, broadcasters, traveling secretaries, ticket salespeople, switchboard operators and publicity staff.
Having dinner at a restaurant, Finley was serenaded by a barbershop quartet, and was so taken with their appearance he offered his players a $300 bonus if they grew a moustache. Practically all the players and even the manager sported facial hair, breaking a nearly 70-year old tradition of baseball players being clean-shaven.
Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley talks to newsmen in his office June 18th after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn issued a landmark decision by overturning the $3.5 million sale of three Oakland superstars. Finley promised a lawsuit and said that Kuhn ``sounds more like a village idiot than the commissioner of baseball.``
With a productive farm system and shrewd trades – Finley never tried to hide the fact that he was the team’s general manager – the A’s started winning, claiming its first AL West Division title in 1971, before being swept by the NL East champion Baltimore Orioles for the pennant. The next year, Oakland repeated in the west, and took out Billy Martin’s Detroit Tigers to advance to the World Series in five tough games. How tough were they? There were brushbacks, and Campaneris, after being hit in the ankle, threw his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow, which led to all of the players on both teams fighting each other. The A’s went on to face the National League champion Cincinnati Reds, who were not quite the Big Red Machine they would be in a few years, but were still a formidable squad.
In addition to his all-star talent, Finley had a secret weapon – manager Dick Williams, who somehow kept his job for consecutive seasons. The A’s won the World Series in seven games, and repeated as champions in 1973 by defeating the New York Mets. But after the series, Williams stepped down – he couldn’t take Finley’s meddling any longer. For the 1974 season, the A’s were led by Alvin Dark, who had been manager in the 1960s but fired by Finley, only to have the owner hire him again.
The turmoil behind the scenes affected the players. Catcher Ray Fosse hurt his back trying to break up a fight between Jackson and North. What started the fight? North accused Jackson of trying to steal his girlfriend. The taunting and fighting were as much a part of the team’s legacy as its championships. Maybe dealing with Finley and financial issues made them feel like they were walking on eggshells, and the player’s skins grew thin.
And with all this trouble both on and off the field, the team won. Sure, it had great hitters, great pitching, and were fundamentally sound – but they managed to rise above the fray and play winning baseball.
Then a new era of baseball began: free-agency. Hunter became a free agent when an arbitrator ruled Finley had violated his contract with the pitcher, and Hunter became the first player to sign a multi-year deal worth millions. Knowing he could not sign his top players to big contracts, Finely traded some, like Jackson, and tried to sell others for $1 million, until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn nixed the sales as he said they were not in the best interests of the sport. Fingers, Bando, Blue, Rudi, Holtzman and Tenace all left for greener pastures. Finley finally managed to revive the franchise when he hired Billy Martin as manager, who ushered in his “Billy Ball” style of play. Eventually, a divorce, failing health and tax issues became too much for Finley, who sold the team to the family that owns the Levi Strauss company (and still owns the club).
Baseball: Portrait of Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley. Chicago, IL 3/18/1972 CREDIT: John F. Jaqua (Photo by John F. Jaqua /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
A big fan of the team lived 3,000 miles away, in the city where the Athletics began. Irv Slifkin is a film writer in Philadelphia whose father was a big fan of the Philadelphia A’s. His son became a fan of the Oakland incarnation of the team in the early 1970s.
“The A’s rebelliousness appealed to me. They were a team filled with colorful characters with great names: “Campy” Campaneris. Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, “Blue Moon” Odom, “Cartfish” Hunter, Rollie Fingers. Many of them had cool retro mustaches,” he said.
“And they wore those colors—attention-getting green and yellow combo with white shoes. They seemed to click as a team, but each player had a distinctive personality. I had a poster in my bedroom — I was in my mid-teen years — that read ‘The Swingin’ A’s!’ with pictures of the stars: Bando, Jackson, Blue, Hunter, Monday, Hunter. They were great players but somehow, they seemed to always be underdogs, which I loved,” he noted.
” On a personal level,” said Slifkin, “I connected with players like Reggie Jackson, who was from the Philadelphia area where I lived, and I remember seeing his father’s tailor shop in Center City Philly where pictures of Reggie adorned the windows. I believe he had a sign in the window that read: ‘Reggie Jackson’s Dad.’
“Mike Epstein, a first baseman in ’71 and ’72, was nicknamed “Superjew”—I was Jewish, and other than Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, I wasn’t aware of any other Jewish ballplayers at the time,” Slifkin added. (Even though Epstein led the ’72 A’s in home runs, Finley shipped him to Texas because of a dispute with Epstein.)
“And since the A’s were originally from Philadelphia — my father kept scrapbooks of the A’s, rather than the Phillies when he was young– there was that connection as well. I never thought of this before,” Slifkin said, “but my father passed away when I was 13, so I likely felt connected to him through the A’s in some way. I proudly wore that green hat with the yellow brim!”