Finley, Charles Oscar (“Charlie”)

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Finley, Charles Oscar (“Charlie”)

(b. 22 February 1918 in Ensley, Alabama; d. 19 February 1996 in Chicago, Illinois), controversial and innovative sports owner who assembled a baseball dynasty in the early 1970s.

Finley was one of the three children of Oscar Finley, a steelworker, and Burmah Fields. Finley attended Emerson High School for three years but graduated from Horace Mann High School in 1936. He played high school and American Legion baseball before beginning work in steel mills at age eighteen. At the outset of World War II, Finley tried to enlist in the U.S. Marines but was classified 4-F because of an ulcer. In 1941 he married Shirley McCartney; they had seven children. At the end of the war he took a sales position with the Travelers Insurance Company. Shortly thereafter Finley endured a bout of tuberculosis, which led to a lengthy hospital stay in 1946–1948. During his recuperation Finley had a conversation with a physician that triggered an idea: health insurance for people in the medical profession. Finley developed his idea into a plan for the American Medical Association; within two years the plan had made him a millionaire.

After making several failed attempts to buy a major league franchise, Finley purchased fifty-two percent of the Kansas City Athletics in December 1960, shortly after the death of the team’s owner Arnold Johnson. Two years later Finley renamed the perennial American League doormat the A’s. As many other owners had feared, with his radical ideas and forthright manner Finley quickly cemented his reputation as a maverick and a meddler. He continually interfered with his managers, giving them lineup and strategy “suggestions.” Ernie Mehl of the Kansas City Star wrote that the manager Joe Gordon filled out a lineup card with the words “Approved by C.O.F.” scrawled across the bottom. “C.O.F.” stood for Charles Oscar Finley.

Although Finley knew little about managing a team, he did show some acumen for assembling one. With a group of excellent scouts, he began identifying young amateur players who formed a nucleus for the A’s. In 1964 he targeted Jim Hunter, one of the country’s best high school pitchers. Arranging for a police escort and a limousine to transport him to the modest Hunter home, Finley signed Hunter to a $75,000 bonus and contrived the nickname “Catfish” for his new pitching property. In 1966 Finley made the Arizona State University star Reggie Jackson the A’s first pick of the amateur draft and personally recruited the slugging outfielder. Overwhelmed by Finley’s charm, Jackson surrendered his football scholarship and joined Finley’s band of budding stars.

The impact of players like Jackson and Hunter was not felt for several seasons. Yet while Finley’s A’s trailed the American League in many statistical categories, they became leaders off the field. In 1963 Finley proudly championed multicolored uniforms, the first in major league history. Showing a disdain for traditional colors, which he described as “eggshell white” and “prison gray,” the owner introduced his favorite color scheme, green and gold. For home games the A’s retained white jerseys but with green undershirts and gold lettering. On the road they donned gold jerseys with green undershirts. The A’s eventually started to mix and match colors without regard to home or away status. Although the arrangement angered traditionalists, it satisfied Finley’s wish to make the game more appealing in the age of color television. Finley also tinkered with the scheduling of A’s games, adjusting start times to accommodate the working class fans. He scheduled week-night home games at 7:00 P.M., Saturday night games at 6:00 P.M., and Sunday games at 2:00 P.M., with the latter start time giving fans a chance to attend church and eat lunch before heading to the ballpark.

Finley initiated several other gimmicks, including white shoes for his players in lieu of the traditional black; a mechanical rabbit that popped out from behind home plate and delivered baseballs to the umpire; a team mascot (a mule he named Charlie O); and a sheep pasture beyond the outfield. He also took pride in holding a Farmers’ Night at Municipal Stadium that included a hog-calling demonstration and a greased-pig competition. On Farmers’ Night in 1966 Catfish Hunter nearly lost the use of his hand when, during a milking contest, an angry cow kicked his pail three times.

Unfortunately, Finley’s offbeat promotions did little to stimulate attendance in Kansas City. With the A’s among the worst drawing cards in the league, Finley repeatedly promised to keep the team in Kansas City but simultaneously tried to move the franchise to other cities. Regularly petitioning other owners for permission to move, in October 1967 he finally received approval to relocate to Oakland, California.

As the A’s moved to Oakland, they began to show signs of becoming a pennant-contending team. Still in need of an on-field leader, Finley made another of his frequent managerial moves on 2 October 1970, when he named Dick Williams as skipper. With the fiery Williams at the helm, the A’s experienced unprecedented success.

During Williams’s first spring training in 1971, the A’s experimented with one of Finley’s inventions, the three-ball walk. Finley wanted to adopt the rule to stimulate offense and speed up the pace of games. On 6 March 1971 the A’s and the Milwaukee Brewers employed Finley’s brainchild, and the two pitching staffs combined allowed nineteen walks. Unimpressed, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered an end to the three-ball walk.

In 1972 Finley had more success with his most memorable promotion. After Jackson became the first major leaguer to sport a mustache since 1914, Finley announced plans to hold Mustache Day. All twenty-five players on the A’s roster grew mustaches by Father’s Day and collected $300 bonuses.

Although Mustache Day proved a public relations success, Finley’s other marketing efforts fell flat. “[Many] promotions he draws up are hick-town promotions that don’t go over here,” explained the Bay Area columnist Glenn Dickey. Finley, whose strangely dark and heavy eyebrows in contrast to his white hair gave him an irritable, almost intimidating appearance, became even more unpopular when he stopped employing ball girls and no longer offered discounts on season ticket purchases. Only twice during Finley’s reign in Oakland did the A’s draw as many as 1 million fans in a season.

Although fan interest lagged, the quality of the team’s play on the field did not. The A’s claimed Oakland’s first world championship in 1972, as a frenetic Finley engineered sixty-five transactions and employed a whirlwind of forty-seven players. Finley’s first world championship did not stunt his thirst for innovation. In the spring of 1973 he introduced orange-colored baseballs, which he believed would be more visible to fans. Yet hitters complained that they could not see the orange balls, and fielders claimed the new balls were hard to grip. Much like the three-ball walk, the orange baseball died off quickly. Finley had more success in advocating another one of his favored concepts: the designated hitter. Although he was not the first to suggest the use of a replacement batter for the pitcher, he repeatedly pushed for the innovation throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 American League owners agreed to adopt the designated hitter rule, which partially appeased Finley’s desire to add more offensive excitement to the game.

Finley’s personal fortunes also worsened in 1973. On 7 August the overworked Finley suffered a heart attack. After his return from a short hospital stay, his behavior took a turn for the worse. He irrationally badgered Williams and cursed the American League president Joe Cronin during the playoffs. The owner’s behavior reached its lowest point during the World Series. Moments after a disheartening defeat in game two, Finley harangued the second baseman Mike Andrews, who had made two critical errors, into signing a statement that he was injured and could no longer play. Oakland players revolted against the “firing” of their teammate, and Kuhn ordered Finley to reinstate Andrews. Infuriated by Finley’s treatment of Andrews, Williams resigned as manager. Finley’s heart attack seemed responsible for his increasingly cruel demeanor. “Most players—prior to the 1973 season anyhow—would consider Mr. Finley a father figure,” explained the team captain Sal Bando. “With his heart attack, things started to change; he became more vindictive.” Always penurious, a bitter Finley became especially difficult during contract negotiations with his players.

Finley’s erratic behavior began to cripple his team after the 1974 World Series, when a failed insurance payment allowed Catfish Hunter to depart as a free agent. With their staff ace gone, the A’s failed to win the pennant in 1975, ending a string of three consecutive world championships. On 15 June 1976 Finley tried to sell three of his best players, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi, but Kuhn negated the deals. Finley eventually watched most of his stars depart as free agents, destroying the team’s fabric.

Unwilling to deal with escalating salaries created by free agency and arbitration, Finley finally sold the A’s in 1980, the same year that he and his wife divorced. Finley lived in retirement in La Porte, Indiana, until his death from heart disease at age seventy-seven.

Finley’s rash methods frequently made him an enemy of the baseball establishment. For example, he once called Commissioner Kuhn “the village idiot.” Nevertheless, Finley succeeded in building one of the game’s true dynasties. His creativity also proved visionary. By advocating World Series games at night, the designated hitter rule, and interleague play, he championed radical ideas long before they became fashionable.

Numerous clippings and files on Finley are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. Several books provide detailed information about Finley’s life and career, including Herb Michelson, Charlie (1975); Bill Libby, Charlie O. and the Angry A’s (1975); and Bruce Markusen, Baseball’s Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (1998). Obituaries are in the New York Post, New York Times, and USA Today (all 20 Feb. 1996).

Bruce Markusen