Dan's Dugout: Charlie Finley Belongs in Cooperstown • Latino Sports


Dan’s Dugout: Charlie Finley Belongs in Cooperstown


The recent election of Bud Selig and John Schuerholz to the Baseball Hall of Fame increased the number of owners and executives to a mere 30 – less than 10 per cent of the Cooperstown roster.

Bill Veeck is there, along with Larry MacPhail, but Charlie Finley remains conspicuous by his absence. He deserves it far more than his primary adversary, Bowie Kuhn, who is already in.

Although he alienated the baseball establishment with countless comments and innovations, he converted the hapless Kansas City Athletics into a powerhouse that won three straight World Series – and five straight division titles – in Oakland.

Charlie Finley got plenty of press during his tenure as A's owner

Charlie Finley got plenty of press during his tenure as A’s owner

He also introduced a myriad of ideas long before the rest of the teams realized they were fan-pleasers. The list includes facial hair and colored uniforms for players, live and mechanical mascots for fans, and nicknames designed to keep his team and its stars short and memorable.

A strong advocate of the designated hitter rule that was finally adopted in 1973, Finley experimented with colored baseballs and designated runners and suggested weeknight World Series games so that fans could see them (the first was played in 1971).

A self-made insurance executive from Indiana, Finley worked in concert with his cousin Carl in a bare-bones front office that moved players, coaches, and managers like chess pieces – even though both Finleys preferred the faster game of checkers.

Somehow, however, the Finleys ever got the credit they deserved.

Charlie O. Finley and mascot Charlie O

Charlie O. Finley and mascot Charlie O

A 2016 book by Nancy Finley, Carl’s daughter and Charlie’s niece, sets the record straight – and makes a strong case for placing both men in Cooperstown.

The eye-opening hardcover, featuring a cover in the green-and-gold colors the A’s adopted during the 20-year Finley regime, is called Finley Ball: How Two Outsiders Turned the Oakland A’s Into a Dynasty and Changed the Game Forever.

“I wrote the book to honor my father,” Nancy Finley says. “He ran the team 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Without Dad, Charlie couldn’t have maintained the organization with the same fluidity. Someone had to be in command and on site. Charlie had to stay in Chicago for his insurance company.

“The second reason for writing it was to answer what really happened during some events. Charlie and Dad were private about many things and no autobiography was ever authorized.

“I have received many comments about how my book answers long-hed questions about our era (1960-1980). No one had the true answers until now.”

Charlie Finley isn’t around to answer those questions; he died in 1996. Carl passed on in 2002.
Nancy Finley still lives near Oakland, not far from the ballpark that was then called the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. “It is difficult being so close to the stadium,” Nancy admits.

Nancy Finley's book paints a different portrait of her uncle

Nancy Finley’s book paints a different portrait of her uncle

Her Uncle Charlie was quite a character. A showman shaped in the Bill Veeck mold, he lived by a philsophy that said, “Sweat plus sacrifice equals success.”

A Birmingham native who began in baseball as batboy for the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern Association, Finley got rich from creating and selling insurance to physicians and surgeons. More than 70,000 physicians still carry it.

Finley had reason for concern over health care and its providers: as a young insurance salesman who had no health insurance of his own, he spent two years in a sanitarium while recovering from tuberculosis. He also suffered from an ulcer, which was so serious that the Army wouldn’t take him during World War 2.

With plenty of time to ponder, Finley devised the insurance plan that would make him rich. He worked for Continental Casualty, then left to form Charles O. Finley & Company in Chicago.
It became the nation’s leading brokerage specializing in group insurance.

After buying the struggling Athletics from Arnold Johnson, Finley fashioned the decaying Municipal Stadium in his own image, adding splashes of color to the gray ballpark and even building what he called a “pennant porch,” a seating area that shortened the distance from home plate to the right-field stands. He said he copied the idea from Yankee Stadium.

A mechnical rabbit provided the home-plate umpire with fresh baseballs and another device – nicknamed “Little Blowhard” – replaced the umpire’s whisk-broom by blowing fresh air across the plate whenever it got dirty.

The fan-friendly Finley rode his mule, Charlie O, on the field and used sheep to keep the grass short in

Charlie Finley shows off his World Series trophies

Charlie Finley shows off his World Series trophies

the outfield. Not surprisingly, the sheep were dyed in various different colors.

He posted zany messages on the electronic Fan-O-Gram board in center field, added a picnic area in left, beamed ballgame broadcasts into restrooms, built a tunnel that shortened walks for fans, lengthened and lowered both dugouts, and added lighting so that fans could see what players were doing during games.

Finley even finagled a tarpaulin-hauling race between his ground crew, led by the legendary George Toma, and the Yankees ground crew. The Kansas City group won, much to the delight of fans who hated the team’s previous practice of trading its best players to New York for little return.

The owner eliminated Saturday night home games, thinking players would rather be with their families then, and hosted team dinners at his La Porte, Indiana farm and also at a lavish Palm Beach club during spring training.

“He’s trying to out-Veeck Veeck,” former general manager Frank (Trader) Lane said of Finley. “What makes a fan come to the ballpark is a team that makes one more run than the other guys. If the team doesn’t do well, I don’t think the fans are going to give a damn about Bugs Bunny.”

Lane didn’t last long as Finley’s GM. He was one of many who ran afoul of the outspoken owner, who had running feuds with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Players Association director Marvin Miller, and Yankees manager Billy Martin, among others.

But Finley was prescient enough to foresee the dangers of free agency and arbitration, selling off his stars before they could walk without compensation. Kuhn vetoed many of his moves.

By 1980, the A’s were far from the star-studded team that won consecutive World Series from 1972-74. Stripped by free-agent desertions, the franchise was floundering in Oakland much the same way it had struggled in Kansas City. But Finley, in one of his final moves, imported Martin, his long-time antagonist, as manager.

Using speed, defense, and a unique brand of small ball that was quickly dubbed “Billy Ball,” the A’s became respectable again.

Reggie Jackson was a mainstay for the A's before joining the Yankees

Reggie Jackson was a mainstay for the A’s before joining the Yankees

Martin was the last in a line of managers who squired the A’s during the Finley years. The list also included Dick Williams, now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Alvin Dark, one of the first managers to win pennants in both leagues. Dark actually managed the team in both Kansas City and Oakland, where it moved in 1968.

Often overshadowed by San Francisco in the Bay Area, the A’s still managed to grab many headlines of their own. The list of stars who played for Finley included future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, and Catfish Hunter plus All-Stars Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Joe Rudi, and Bert Campaneris. The A’s got a perfect game from Hunter and thrilled their fans again by having Campy play all nine positions in a game – a major-league first.

Nancy Finley’s book is also a first – the first insider’s look at the flamboyant and controversial regime of Charlie O-for-Owner Finley.

A true “dugout daughter,” Nancy was 2 when her father Carl joined Uncle Charlie in the front office. She and the team grew up together.

Nancy’s historical and hysterical 253-page hardcover was published by Regnery History [www.RegneryHistory.com]


About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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