Charles in Charge

Charles O. Finley's Oakland A's once took a vote on the team plane to determine whether they would throw their boss out the emergency door. He was spared, one of the resident physicists later reported, out of fear that the cabin might depressurize and disturb the players' card games.

At the time, the A's were in the middle of winning their second consecutive World Series.

But when Finley died last week at 77 from vascular and heart disease, the traditional prohibition against speaking ill of the dead seemed firmly in place. The baseball owner who inflicted the designated hitter on the American League and circus-clown uniforms on his own team, who toyed with the hearts and souls of Denver baseball fans with a bogus deal to sell the team to then-Denver mogul Marvin Davis, the guy who once called commissioner Bowie Kuhn "the village idiot" and fired sixteen managers in twenty years (three of them twice), and who tried to bring the orange baseball to the big leagues--this is the guy who was eulogized as a man ahead of his time, as a master showman who injected new life into a moribund old game, as the second coming of Bill Veeck.

Even Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, who fled the A's for the greener grass of Yankee Stadium ($2.85 million, unheard-of in those days) after his umpteenth salary dispute with Finley, had grudging praise for his old boss: "Nowadays, a lot of [his] ideas don't sound so crazy."

Well, some don't and some do.
Charlie Finley pioneered free agency and "Hot Pants Night." He suggested that walks be issued on three balls to speed games up and he experimented with his own version of the "designated runner": World-class sprinter Herb Washington scored 33 runs for the A's in 1974 and 1975 without ever stepping to the plate, but his high-speed base-running blunders cost the club more games than they won; meanwhile, Allen Lewis, aka "the Panamanian Express," once tried to score from second base via the pitcher's mound.

Finley, who made his fortune in insurance, began looking around for a baseball team of his own in 1954, but it wasn't until 1960 that he was able to buy a controlling interest in the Kansas City (formerly Philadelphia) Athletics for just under $2 million. Kansas Citians had no idea what they were getting into. Finley staged fireworks displays at the stadium. He put a flock of sheep--and a shepherd--in the hilly pasture beyond the outfield fence to keep the grass neat. For a spell, he marked the foul lines with pink fluorescent lights.

But Kansas City didn't suit the P.T. Barnum of baseball. He tried to take the club to Dallas, then Atlanta, and in 1967 he succeeded in moving to Oakland, California. Said Missouri's fluent former U.S. senator Stuart Symington: "Charles O. Finley is one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports sceneEThe loss of the A's is more than recompensed by the pleasure of getting rid of Mr. Finley."

Even one of the most oversized egos in sports later admitted he'd made the error of a lifetime: A blue-collar football town that has never much taken to baseball, Oakland has stayed away from the park in droves--even when the team started to win. That they won at all is something of a wonder. Finley ran the club in absentia--mostly via telephone from his office in Chicago--and the rising stars manager Dick Williams assembled would probably have been at one another's throats in a different setting. Instead, Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris and the others pulled together in opposition to their owner--just as the New York Yankees would later do when faced with the outrageous dictates of George Steinbrenner. At spring training in 1972, the maverick Finley offered a $300 bonus to any player who would grow a mustache by Father's Day--and a club with great pitching and power hitting also brought a new look to the game.

Between 1972 and 1974, Oakland's brash, scruffy A's became the only team besides the 1936-39 Yankees and the 1949-53 Yankees to win three World Series in a row. But Finley's unpredictable antics never let up: After two errors by second baseman Mike Andrews helped the New York Mets win game two of the 1973 Series, Finley managed to de-activate Andrews through a fake-injury ruse. When their teammate was not on the plane to New York, the team mutinied--that's when they thought about tossing Charlie into the sky--and manager Williams quit after the Series. But the A's beat the Mets in seven games anyway: The parsimonious Finley rewarded them with cheap World Series rings decorated with synthetic emeralds. That was a fitting grace note for an owner who, in his negotiations with players, made Steinbrenner look like Mother Teresa. He once loaned Catfish Hunter $150,000 for improvements on his farm, then almost immediately called in the note: He made his most strenuous demands for the money on the days Hunter was scheduled to pitch.

Two years after their 1974 Series win, the glory days were over. Oakland won another divisional title in 1975, but Boston swept them in three games for the AL pennant. Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman were traded. In June 1976, Finley sold Vida Blue to the Yanks for $1.5 million, and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for a cool million apiece, but Commissioner Kuhn nixed the sales "in the best interests of baseball." Say what you will, but at least there was a commissioner on the watch to make a decision. Even if he was "the village idiot."

Eventually the A's stars all departed, and by 1977, the dispirited, talent-stripped club had dropped into last place. In 1980, this skeleton of a team drew only 842,259 fans (that's sixteen average Rockies crowds) and on November 6 of that year Finley sold out to Walter Haas, the Levi-Strauss magnate, and Roy Eisenhardt for $12.7 million. When the new owners entered the club offices in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, they found dust-covered, nonworking telephones, a staff of three people on the job and a jumble of forgotten junk in a back room. In the middle of the pile, they discovered the Oakland Athletics' three World Series trophies from 1972, 1973 and 1974--Charlie Finley's legacy to baseball.

The A's would rise again under the Haas-Eisenhardt leadership and manager Tony La Russa, averaging 97 wins between 1988 and 1992, reaching the World Series three times and winning it all in 1989. But the ghost of Charlie Finley rides on. Walter Haas died last fall and his family sold the club again--to Steve Schott (no relation to Marge--at least not by blood) and Ken Hofmann. The new owners' first move was to cut the team payroll from $33.4 million in 1995 to around $24 million.

As a result, Rickey Henderson has gone to San Diego and the rest of the team is in St. Louis with ex-A's manager La Russa. This year, the Cardinals will feature five ex-Athletics pitchers, including Todd Stottlemyre and ace reliever Dennis Eckersley, three position players and four coaches--proving the maxim that you no longer need baseball's approval to move a franchise.

Charlie Finley--wheeler-dealer, high-pressure salesman and dedicated cheapskate--must be grinning somewhere at the sheer boldness of it all. "Heaven won't be the same with Mr. Finley," Vida Blue said last week. Neither will the alternative location.

As irony would have it, the 1996 A's, with ex-Rockies batting coach and former Houston Astros manager Art Howe at the helm, must replace their entire starting rotation and all three starting outfielders. They're also shopping their one remaining star, slugging first baseman Mark McGwire, because the remaining two years of his contract are worth nearly $11 million. And the new owners are saying evil things about their beleaguered old catcher, Terry Steinbach, because they'd like to dump him, too. It's no surprise that every baseball pundit on the planet picks the A's to finish dead last again this year.

While we wait for the powers that be to institute the designated runner, the orange baseball and red, yellow and blue bases--anything can happen with an owner in the commissioner's chair--let us also remember that it was Charlie Finley who insisted on night games in the World Series (children haven't seen the fourth inning since) and who once elevated the future MC Hammer from a kid dancing in the parking lot for quarters to vice president of the ball clubEat age 14. It was Charlie who stiffed Vida Blue on his contract in 1971--right after Blue won the Cy Young Award--and traded for washed-up Denny McLain. It was Charlie who made a mule the team mascot and named it after himself--perhaps his most profound act of self-knowledge. And it was Charlie who tricked Denverites into believing major-league baseball was a heartbeat away in the late Seventies. It was Charlie who set a style not just for "innovation," but for corruption. It was Charlie who set a style for arrogant owners, the public devaluation of baseball and the cynicism that now rules it.

You didn't do it all by yourself. But it was you, Charlie. It was you. Makes you wonder why the guys on that plane had to play cards.

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