On June 15, 1976, 40 years ago today, while the nation was gearing up for its bicentennial celebration, an incident arose that highlighted the intersection of two of America’s abiding interests: baseball and money.
On that date Charles O. Finley’s Oakland A’s were sitting at 27-31 as they returned home to host the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were also suffering from the ho-hums with a 26-27 record.
There was a long way to go in the season; it was not panic-button time. But June 15 was then the trading deadline, and the baseball spirit of ’76 dictated that drastic measures were called for. A financial earthquake was about to rock baseball’s world and the Oakland A’s were at the epicenter. How fitting that Oakland was so close to the San Andreas fault line.
The A’s and the Red Sox expected to be contenders in 1976. The A’s had won five straight division titles and three World Series from 1972 to 1974. The Red Sox swept the A’s in the 1975 American League Championship Series and almost dismantled the Big Red Machine in the 1975 World Series before succumbing in seven games. Understandably, both teams were disappointed to find themselves below .500 in mid-June.
Had the A’s gotten off to a good start, Charlie Finley might not have done what he did. But the team’s mediocre start dictated that he look beyond 1976. Free agency was looming and he had already had a preview of it when staff ace Catfish Hunter, who had won 21-25 games every year from 1971 to 1974, walked away after the 1974 season thanks to arbitrator Peter Seitz’s decision in a contract dispute.
Then, after the 1975 season, Seitz dropped the other shoe. He ruled that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had played the 1975 season without contracts, were henceforth free agents. The decision was upheld on appeal. Team owners readily grasped the significance of this decision. So they locked the players out of spring training until a new Basic Agreement could be worked out. When the dust had settled, the new normal was that players could become free agents after six years of major league service.
Since a number of the key players on Finley’s A’s would be eligible for free agency after the 1976 season, and a lot of them were disgruntled with him, he didn’t need a crystal ball to see what was going to happen.
Finley’s first move was to trade Reggie Jackson (who had already proclaimed his intention to become a free agent at the end of the season) and Ken Holtzman to Baltimore just before the start of the 1976 season. But Finley was just getting started. In fact, he was open to offers on all players. The epitome of a wheeler-dealer, he once likened his team to a pawn shop. “We buy, we trade, we sell.”
Finley, however, was more interested in selling than buying or trading. He had to be. Despite the A’s success on the field, they were not exactly packing ‘em in at the Oakland Coliseum. During their five-year run atop the Western Division of the American League, they peaked at 1,075,518 in 1975. Given Finley’s continuing attempts to relocate the franchise or sell the team to out-of-town buyers, East Bay fans’ reluctance to bond with the team was understandable.
But selling players would square the team’s balance sheet in the short run and provide capital to invest in young players in the long run. It might sink the team’s hopes in 1976, but if Finley played out the string without taking action, the players would walk at the end of the season and he would get nothing in return.
Curiously, in his attempt to purge the best players from his roster, he was doing what former A’s owner/manager Connie Mack had done twice before, post-1914 and post-1932, when the team was in Philadelphia. Mack and Finley were both engaging in creative destruction, even though they were probably not aware of that phrase.
Like Mack, Finley was not running the A’s to lose money (he also owned the California Golden Seals of the National Hockey League and the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association), so he put Gene Tenace, Sal Bando, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers and Don Baylor, recently acquired in the Reggie Jackson trade, on the market.
Hoping for a return to the postseason, Dick O’Connell, the Red Sox GM, was interested in Rudi and Fingers. But was he interested enough to pay $1 million each? He was. Since the Sox were in Oakland at the time, what could be more convenient?
The Bosox’ division rivals, the Yankees, were off to a 31-22 start. Yankees GM Gabe Paul and owner George Steinbrenner, who had bought the team in 1973 after a long run of mediocrity, were more than happy to pay Finley $1.5 million for Blue and re-unite him with Hunter (and Ken Holtzman, whom they had just acquired from the Orioles). Blue had won 67 games from 1971 to 1974, so he would be a welcome addition to the Yankee staff and would likely guarantee the team a post-season berth.
Finley’s deal with the Yankees, however, was tainted. He had already agreed to sell Blue to the Tigers for $1 million when the Yankees chimed in with $1.5 million. Obviously, Tigers owner John Fetzer was disenchanted by this turn of events, as he was doing his best to return the Tigers (24-31 on June 15) to respectability, and the acquisition of Blue would have been a big step in that direction. In 1975, the Tigers had finished with an abysmal record of 57-102, including a 19-game losing streak. Fetzer was one of the more influential owners, so when he spoke, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn listened.
Not that Kuhn needed a lot of prodding to take a closer look at Finley’s finagling. During the 1973 World Series, Finley had attempted to get second baseman Dick Green, who had committed two errors in the 12th inning of the second game, to sign an affidavit stating that he was injured so Finley could replace him on the roster. Green’s teammates rallied to his defense and Kuhn ordered Green’s reinstatement. Two years later, Finley led an unsuccessful movement to oust Kuhn from office. So there was a history of bad blood, and it was about to go from bad to worse.
After negotiating the deals for Blue, Rudi and Fingers, Finley announced, “I’m disappointed with the necessity of having to make these sales. But I just refused to let these players drive me into bankruptcy with their astronomical salary demands.”
What Finley considered “astronomical” was a pittance by today’s standards. The annual salaries of the three players he peddled totaled just a bit more than $250,000. Blue was receiving $80,000 per year, Fingers $89,000 and Rudi $81,000 (the average major league salary in 1976 was $51,501). So Finley’s deals made perfect sense. He was gutting his dynasty, but he would have $3.5 million to start a new one.
Unfortunately for Finley, Kuhn disapproved of those deals because they disrupted the game’s “competitive balance.” Surely, Kuhn’s previous run-ins with Finley played no part in the decision. Kuhn was above that sort of thing, wasn’t he?
On June 16, Kuhn ordered the Red Sox and Yankees not to play their newly acquired players (Rudi and Fingers donned Bosox uniforms and engaged in pre-game workouts, however) and called Finley in for a meeting. One can almost see Finley’s Irish mug turning beet red and steam coming out of his ears. As a modest indication of disrespect, Finley wore a yellow golf hat, a yellow sports shirt and a yellow carnation to the meeting.
Perhaps this clash of the baseball titans could have been predicted. Kuhn and Finley were both alpha males, but they had taken different routes to the top. How different were they? Well, the next time you watch Caddyshack, imagine Charlie Finley playing the Rodney Dangerfield role and Bowie Kuhn playing the Ted Knight part.
Born on Oct. 28, 1926 in the D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Md., Kuhn was a graduate of Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School. After graduation, he went to work for Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, a prominent New York law firm. One of the firm’s premier clients was the National League, whom Kuhn represented in sundry legal matters. When baseball owners grew disenchanted with William D. Eckert, a former Air Force general who had been named commissioner in 1965, they gave the job to Kuhn, who assumed office in February 1969. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 240 pounds, Kuhn was an imposing presence in more ways than one.
Soon after Kuhn took office, Jim Bouton began chronicling his 1969 misadventures with the ill-fated Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, the result of which was Ball Four. While many readers were amused, surprised and delighted by Bouton’s book, Kuhn was “shocked, disappointed and disgusted.” He stated that he had removed Look magazine (which was publishing excerpts of Bouton’s book) from his house lest his son encounter Bouton’s work. He stopped short of a book burning, but he warned Bouton about “future writings of this character.” Since Curt Flood had just sued Kuhn over the reserve clause (Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258), Kuhn was probably in a bad mood anyway.
Chronicling his meeting with Kuhn in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, the sequel to Ball Four, Bouton often added the chorus “grumble, grumble, grumble” when he quoted Kuhn. Bouton considered Kuhn a stuffed shirt with too much starch and a buttoned-down mind.
Clearly, Kuhn did not suffer free spirits gladly. And Charles O. Finley had a lot more in common with Jim Bouton than he did with Bowie Kuhn. Often likened to P.T. Barnum, Finley had a reputation as checkered as the loud sports coats he favored. Sure, he was a hustler and a huckster – but he got results.
Finley was born on Washington’s Birthday outside of Birmingham, Ala. in 1918. His father was a steelworker who moved to Gary, Ind. in pursuit of work during the Depression. Finley followed his father into the steel mills but sold insurance in his spare time.
Like more than a few owners, Finley was a frustrated jock, having played semipro ball before an extended bout of tuberculosis took him out of action. Eventually, he made a fortune as an insurance broker specializing in group medical malpractice policies. A millionaire by his mid-30s, he was indeed a self-made man; for better or worse, he was also a hands-on owner.
Finley bought the Kansas City A’s after the 1960 season. He had plenty of ideas on how to run his team – and on what was best for the game of baseball. Long before anyone else, Finley championed the designated hitter, interleague games and World Series games at night. Those ideas worked out; not so the orange baseball, the three-ball walk and the designated runner.
While Kuhn was representing the National League, he was probably no fan of Finley or any of his innovations at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. Nothing wrong with the picnic area, but not so the sheep (dyed in team colors) grazing on the berm, the mule mascot named Charlie O (cremated, whereabouts of remains unknown), and the petting zoo (give Finley brownie points for buying local, as the animals in his zoo were fed fresh food from the local farmer’s market).
Worst of all was the oddly shaped K.C. Pennant Porch, designed to simulate the 296-foot right-field foul line at old Yankee Stadium. After a couple of exhibition games against the Cardinals, AL president Joe Cronin told him that a 1958 league rule mandated a minimum of 325 feet. So Finley brought his right-field dimensions into compliance and rebranded it the One-Half Pennant Porch.
Then there was that subterranean mechanical rabbit (named Harvey, apparently after the play and movie of the same name) that popped out of his burrow with a basket of baseballs for the umpire. That was soooooo minor league. One wonders if Finley might have been happier as a minor league owner, given his penchant for quirky promotions and the looser atmosphere of “lesser” leagues.
But that was American League business and not any concern of Kuhn. Beginning with the 1969 season, however, the A’s were within Kuhn’s jurisdiction. They had moved to Oakland just the season before. Finley had considered Seattle but passed, since the city did not have a suitable ballpark. His wisdom was vindicated after the one-and-done season of the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969.
The Oakland Coliseum was a new facility so Finley didn’t do much to change it. His computer-activated message board was a key innovation, one quickly adopted by other teams. On Opening Day 1970, he thought gold bases would be a great addition to the field. The league felt otherwise, however. Still, the question remains: what is so sacrosanct about white bases? Any reason why the home team couldn’t customize them?
Then there was the physical appearance of the players: facial hair, gaudy uniforms and white shoes. But Finley, who served as his own general manager, was in the process of turning a doormat into a dynasty, and while his methods were sometimes ethically questionable, he was building a winning team. Given his penchant for showmanship, attention had to be paid.
On June 18, 1976, Kuhn proclaimed, “While I am aware that there have been cash sales of player contracts in the past, there has been no instance in my judgment which had the potential for harm to our game.”
Kuhn was shocked – shocked! – to discover that the Red Sox and Yankees were actually attempting to buy a pennant! Surely, no owner of a baseball team had ever thought of such a thing before that dratted Charlie Finley came along, corrupting his fellow team owners by offering them players, much like a pornographer offering French postcards to unsuspecting tourists.
Finley’s immediate response was to keep Rudi, Fingers and Blue on the bench. In a sudden fit of integrity, he argued that they were the property of other teams and it would be unethical to play them. Predictably, Kuhn and Lee MacPhail, the American League president, ordered him to play them, but Finley did not relent until the A’s threatened to strike. Rudi and Fingers did not appear in a game until June 27; Blue did not take the mound till July 2.
Curiously, the A’s had not done badly during the players’ absence. From June 15 through June 26, the team had a 7-5 record. In fact, given all the turmoil, the A’s season was surprisingly successful. Their run of division titles came to an end, but they finished at 87-74, only 2.5 games behind the Royals. Surely, the A’s would not have won so many games had Finley’s fire sale not been extinguished “in the best interest of baseball.”
Finley responded by calling Kuhn “the village idiot.” He had a point. Obviously, Kuhn had flunked Economics 101 at Princeton. At least he didn’t seem to understand the concepts of supply and demand; willing buyer, willing seller; or buy low, sell high. One wonders if Kuhn would have nixed similar deals initiated by another owner who was more respectful and respectable. Also, one wonders if Kuhn would have reacted differently if Finley had received prospects, instead of just cash, for Rudi, Fingers and Blue.
True, there is something demeaning about a player being sold, perhaps because it connotes slavery. Can’t help but notice that the word “sold” has all but disappeared from the current transactions listings, while “trade” is still acceptable. Instead, the phrases “traded for cash” or “traded for cash considerations” have achieved some currency. Quite a triumph of circumlocution.
It was hardly surprising that the All-American pursuits of baseball and money were joined by another star-spangled specialty, namely litigation. Finley hired sports attorney Neil Papiano to sue Kuhn for restraint of trade. So Finley filed suit in federal court in Chicago and asked for $10 million in damages.
The trial began on Dec. 16, 1976, and involved 21 witnesses and six depositions. The transcript ran for more than 2,000 pages. Ever the showman, Finley’s embellished his courtroom appearance with two long-legged blondes, predictably dubbed Charlie’s Angels.
Meanwhile, the A’s roster was hemorrhaging players. Blue remained under contract, but Rudi signed with the Angels and Fingers with the Padres. Finley also lost Sal Bando (Brewers), Bert Campaneris (Rangers) and Gene Tenace (Padres) to free agency.
In February 1977 Finley sold reliever Paul Lindblad to the Rangers for $400,000. Kuhn held up that deal too but eventually relented. Lindblad had been a key member of the A’s bullpen during their glory years, but he was 35 years old and the team was going nowhere in 1977, so there was no reason to hang onto him. What reason would Kuhn have for holding up the deal, other than sheer spite? Well, Finley had backtracked on his “village idiot” remark, but he then asserted that Kuhn was “the nation’s idiot.”
In mid-March 1977, Federal Judge Frank McGarr ruled in favor of Kuhn. The ruling was not about whether Kuhn’s decision was a good one. McGarr wrote:
The fact that this case has commanded a great deal of attention in the vociferous world of baseball fans and has provoked widespread and not always unemotional discussion tends to obscure the relative simplicity of the legal issues involved. The case is not a Finley-Kuhn popularity contest. Neither is it an appellate judicial review of the wisdom of Bowie Kuhn`s actions. The question before the court is not whether Bowie Kuhn was wise to do what he did, but whether he had the authority.
According to Judge McGarr, Kuhn did have the authority. Remember, in 1922 the Supreme Court ruled that baseball had an antitrust exemption, so restraint of trade was not at issue. (Attorney Papiano was on the losing side this time, but a few years later, he prevailed in his collusion case against major league owners.)
Predictably, the A’s sank to the bottom of the American League West in 1977. Their 63-98 record was a half game worse than the expansion Seattle Mariners.
Meanwhile, Finley hadn’t forgotten about Vida Blue. He didn’t end up with the Tigers or Yankees, but he was still on the trading block. Finley traded him to the Reds, but Kuhn nixed the deal. His excuse was that it was bad for the A’s, who were now a bad team, and good for the Reds, who were then a good team.
On March 15, 1978, Finley finally traded Blue to the Giants. In return, the A’s received Gary Alexander, Gary Thomasson, Mario Guerrero, Dave Heaverlo, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson and Phil Huffman. He also got the Giants to kick in $390,000. This particular deal was not within Kuhn’s jurisdiction. After the Lindlbad matter, he had deemed $400,000 as the threshold sum requiring his approval.
Meanwhile, the litigation finally petered out. On Feb. 23, 1978, Finley’s case was argued in appellate court. On April 7, 1978, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling made by Judge McGarr the year before.
The A’s were marginally better in 1978 at 69-93 but finished at a dismal 54-108 in 1979. Their attendance for the season was 306,763, the lowest mark for the franchise since 1954, the last season in Philadelphia. On April 17, a mere 653 people witnessed the A’s 6-5 walk-off victory over the Mariners. Local wags had long referred to the no-frills Coliseum as the Mausoleum, and now the name was more apt than ever. Giants owner Bob Lurie even offered to play some games in Oakland and kick in some cash if the A’s would just leave the Bay area.
Finley sold the team to Walter Haas of the Levi-Strauss family on Nov. 3, 1980, but he must have found the next season satisfying. Manager Billy Martin, returning to his East Bay roots, had turned the 1980 team around with a record of 83-79. He did it on the backs of the starting pitching staff (Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman), with each man starting 30-33 games and pitching 211.1 to 290 innings.
In 1981, the A’s began the season with an 11-game winning streak. After losing the second game of a double-header to the Mariners, they reeled off six more victories. They were leading the AL West (37-23) when the player strike hit. As a result, they were granted a berth in the postseason against the Royals, the second-half winners. At season’s end, the A’s had the best overall record (64-45) in the AL West. (They swept the Royals in the first round of playoffs but were in turn swept by the Yankees in the ALCS.)
After that, Finley found precious little to savor in life. His insurance business dwindled, his debts mounted, and his wife divorced him, which also alienated his sons. He died of heart disease on Feb. 19, 1996 in Chicago.
Kuhn left the commissioner’s office after the 1984 season, and his life also went downhill. Myerson & Kuhn, a law firm he founded with another attorney, went bankrupt. Retiring to Ponte Vedra, Fla., he died of pneumonia in Jacksonville on March 15, 2007.
Kuhn was voted into the Hall of Fame one year after his death. No such luck for Charlie O, though his impact on the game would seem to warrant a closer look. After all, if Bill Veeck is worthy of Cooperstown, then why not Finley? “I don’t miss baseball,” Finley told a Washington Post reporter in 1984. “Baseball misses me.” Indeed, he supplied plenty of raw material for sportswriters.
Perhaps the lesson of the Finley-Kuhn feud is that egomania comes in many packages. Sometimes it is flamboyant, colorful and cantankerous. Other times it is stolid, bloodless and methodical.