Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices). This guy does not qualify for our Top 25, because we chose to not include people who also owned the team. Had we not made this (somewhat arbitrary) decision, he would certainly have been included.
In his early years owning the Kansas City Athletics, there seemed to be no promotion beneath the dignity of Charles Oscar Finley. Cow-milking contests, greased pig contests, mechanical rabbits handing balls to the umpire, a mule (named “Charlie O.), colored bases and foul poles, dozens more … Finley seemed to have an idea like this every day. But none of it worked. He had terrible attendance in Kansas City (worse than it was before he arrived, and much worse than the Royals had after the A’s moved to Oakland) and he had terrible attendance in Oakland with great teams. After he sold the club, the very next year Oakland crushed their previous attendance high despite missing a third of the season to the player’s strike.
But while Finley was distracting us with all the nonsense, angering his fellow owners, managers, and players, he also built a great team. And give the rascal his due — he did most of the work himself — he decided who to draft, made trades, designed the uniforms, suggested lineups, wrote the yearbook copy, made out song lists for the organist. Not every day, but often enough. He employed general managers in the KC years, but after the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 he dispensed with most of the front office other than his wife, cousin and other assorted relatives. By the time he was winning the World Series, he was the biggest star of the team, the center of attention, on the cover of national magazines.
Finley’s teams won almost entirely with players that his organization signed and developed. The Athletics were built precisely the way we imagine that a great team ought to be built: they signed or drafted dozens of quality players, sifted through them for a few years until several developed, made a couple of key trades to redistribute the talent, and provided depth with veteran role players. It worked splendidly, and likely would have continued to work splendidly had the game’s labor system not changed. Once the players had to be treated on nearly equal ground, Finley’s abrasive and domineering style was no longer successful. For this, Finley has himself to blame, for no one did more to incite the player revolution than he.
Finley bought the struggling Kansas City A’s in late 1960. After a few years of impatience, in 1964 the A’s outscouted and outspent their competition, signing Jim Hunter, John Odom, Dave Duncan, and Joe Rudi. With the advent of the draft in 1965, the A’s nabbed Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue in the first three years. By 1968 they were in Oakland, and by 1969 all of these guys were in the major leagues and contending.
Meanwhile, with his baseball club gradually improving, Finley worked equally hard to keep them from getting his money. He went through very public and openly hostile holdouts with Reggie Jackson (in 1970) and Vida Blue (1972), both times using humiliation and degradation to get his stars to come to terms. In both cases, commissioner Bowie Kuhn, rarely considered friendly to the interests of players, intervened to get things settled. Finley’s attitude toward his players is perhaps best summarized in something he once told writer Bill Libby: “We have not won a pennant, but we will win one, we will win more than one with these players who are like my own sons, and I am only sad when they will not accept my counsel, the counsel of a man who is older and wiser than they.”
Led by Blue, the A’s won 101 games in 1971 and the division by 16 games. The team fell short in the playoffs, but the core of this team remained nearly intact for five straight division titles. Bando, Campaneris, Green, Jackson and Rudi held down five of the eight regular lineup spots. Hunter, Blue and Fingers starred on the pitcher’s mound.
Finley made two great trades that solidified the dynasty. After the 1971 season he traded Rick Monday to the Cubs for left-handed pitcher Ken Holtzman. A year later, now realizing that he needed a center fielder, Finley traded Bob Locker to the Cubs for Billy North. North anchored center field for the A’s for the next several seasons.
With his great young team in place, Finley constantly tinkered with the depth of his club, making trade after trade, either to fill in the gaps or because he liked making deals. Finley imported a steady stream of veterans to play a role during the five-year string of division titles — Denny McLain, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams, all three Alou brothers, etc. He outworked the other general managers during most of his twenty-year career as owner, but he pushed himself even harder once he realized how good his team had become. In 1972 alone he made 19 trades, many of them during the season. After the team won the World Series, The Sporting News named Finley its “Man of the Year.”
The team won again in 1973 and 1974, with more unseemly player drama. Finley took over the 1973 World Series when, after reserve infielder Mike Andrews misplayed a couple of balls in the second game, Finley demanded that Andrews fake an injury to get himself off the team. Finley was roundly criticized, but it didn’t really seem to faze him. After their Series triumph manager Dick Williams resigned, and the jealous players dreamed of leaving themselves. They would not have to wait long.
Catfish Hunter was the first to get out when Finley mishandled the payment terms in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator freed the star pitcher after the 1974 season. Hunter signed a record contract with Yankees a couple of weeks later. In December 1975 the same arbitrator ruled against baseball in the Messersmith case, putting an end to the effects of baseball’s reserve clause, which had bound a player to his team in perpetuity.
Finley’s great team was effectively finished by this decision. His woefully underpaid players hated him and had seen their teammate Hunter go on to happiness and wealth in another city, leaving little doubt what they were going to do with their freedom. Finley traded Jackson and Ken Holtzman during spring training in 1976. Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi (along with Jackson, now an Oriole) became free agents that fall. By 1977 the Athletics were in last place, behind even the first-year Seattle Mariners.
In June 1976, Finley (who was usually one step ahead of his fellow owners) attempted to make the best of a bad situation by selling Blue to the Yankees and Fingers and Rudi to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million. Because he was about to lose all three at the end of the year anyway, it seemed like a wise idea. Bowie Kuhn voided the sales, claiming they were not “in the best interests of baseball.” Finley unsuccessfully sued Kuhn for restraint of trade. Even with the passage of time, it is hard to find justification for Kuhn’s action, other than trying to destroy Finley.
In 1980 Finley sold the club, just as it was about to get back on its feet again. A’s scouts had signed Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Mike Norris and others over the past few years, and got back to the playoffs in 1981.
Finley is a challenge for historians. He seems to have been disliked by everyone, and his style could only work at a time when the players had no ability to choose their employer. But he built a heck of a team and won five consecutive division titles and three World Series. His record as a team builder cannot be denied.
(We invite your comments below.)
To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.