By Tom Ruane
While writing my Retro-Review of 1967, I came upon this piece that I had originally written back in the mid-1990s as part of my big (and apparently unpublishable) book on baseball transactions called "Empire Building." Parts of the book subsequently appeared in an edition or two of "The Big Bad Baseball Annual" a few years later. This was too long to stick in the middle of my review of 1967, so I thought I'd put it here.
All in all, it was a short honeymoon and an awfully long divorce. Soon after purchasing the A's from the estate of Arnold Johnson before the 1961 season, Charlie O. Finley hired Frank Lane, ostensibly to run his team, and set about trying to win over the hearts and minds of his players and their fans. He said that he wanted to make the A's a "Happy Family."1 During spring training that year, he made a special visit to ensure that the segregated quarters of his three black players were acceptable and a few nights later even had dinner with them where "...the owner made it apparent he was thoroughly enjoying himself."
When his team broke camp that year, he purchased expensive clock radios for his players and threw them a party costing four thousand dollars. He offered to pay for their wives to join them on a road trip during the season and promised the players bonuses if the team was able to finish in the first division.2
He'd been trying to buy a team for at least six years and it seemed as if he was in a rush to make up for lost time. "Finley is impulsive," Ernest Mehl, the beat writer for The Sporting News wrote that spring. "He wants to discover as quickly as possible whether a scheme will work."3 He had a thousand ideas and, since he was the one paying the bills and throwing the parties, his team would end up having to try them all. Or almost all: he bought an old bus, painted "Shuttle Bus to Yankee Stadium" on its side and asked Frank Lane to douse it with gasoline and set it on fire. Frank refused.4
He was certainly enthusiastic and dearly wanted that enthusiasm to be contagious. He also wanted to be obeyed. He readily admitted, at least in the early days, that he didn't know much about baseball, but that didn't keep him from overruling Lane on trades, roster moves and spring training facilities, or from dictating pitching changes and line-ups to Joe Gordon, his manager for the first part of 1961. In a lot of ways, Finley wasn't much different from any number of opinionated fans, except that people had to listen to him.
Reports of a feud between Finley and Lane first surfaced in May and things started to turn ugly soon afterwards.5 Where earlier reports were titled "Dynamo Finley Ace-High Guy to A's Fans, Players," they now started with sentences like: "Latest in a series of bizarre and sometimes alarming developments is the experiment attempted by Manager Joe Gordon to run his club during the games from a vantage point next to the press box."6 It must have been an easy club to write about. One week, Finley decided to install fluorescent lights in each dugout to help the fans see what was going on. The Yankees kept turning them off; Finley kept ordering his electrician into the dugout to turn them back on again. The next day, the switch had been removed from the dugout, eliciting a protest to the league from the Yankees (which they won).
In June, Finley fired Joe Gordon. Lane was forced to hold a very uncomfortable press conference where he tried to make sense of a decision that hadn't been his. Soon after he admitted that Gordon hadn't been told of his dismissal yet, the phone rang in the hotel suite. It was Gordon.
"Joe," Lane began, "this is Frank. I guess, Joe, you can have the next year and one-half off at full pay."
"You mean I'm fired?"
"That's what it looks like."
At this point, Gordon asked to talk to Ernest Mehl, the sportswriter.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked."7
It was a question the rest of the league would be asking by the time Finley got around to canning Lane in August. It was a messy affair. The owner blamed his ex-GM for undermining him: "Wherever he went, Lane left his trail of poison and dirt."8 Lane responded that:
"What Finley has not realized is that fans don't pay to see new paint on a ball park. They don't pay to see some machine pop out of the ground to bring baseballs to the umpire.... What brings the fans out is a good ball club and nothing else."
Lane also revealed that Finley had been secretly plotting to move his team to Dallas.9 This shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. Every chance he got that year, Charlie had been denying that he had any intention of moving the A's anywhere. It didn't seem to matter what the interview was about, Finley somehow managed to mention how he wasn't going to move the team.
An editorial in The Sporting News at the end of August read:
"At this point, it appears that Finley is creating the impression that he is trying to tear down the ball club in Kansas City to the extent that he may use this as an excuse for moving elsewhere."10
It was quite a rookie season. He would remain in Kansas City for another six extremely contentious years. In addition to Dallas, he would threaten to move his team to Atlanta, San Diego, Seattle and Oakland. He would sign an agreement to move it to Louisville in 1964, only to be turned down by the American League (only he voted in favor it). He would fire one manager after another. By the time of the player revolt in August 1967, Ken Harrelson wasn't exactly giving away any family secrets when he called Finley a menace to baseball.
In an interview in 1961, during the first few months of his reign, he said that he wanted his players to feel that they were working with him, not for him.11 But as time went on, it became more and more apparent that what really appealed to Charlie Finley about buying a baseball club was the prospect of actually owning his employees. Unlike the insurance business, his players didn't have the option of quitting and going to work for another organization. And once the free agent draft started in 1965, players didn't have much to say about what team they originally signed with either.
Not surprisingly, Finley's team was one of the big beneficiaries of the new draft. They picked first in 1965 and got Rick Monday, adding Sal Bando and Gene Tenace in later rounds. They picked second in 1966 and ended up with Reggie Jackson. They got Vida Blue in the second round of the 1967 draft. Perhaps Charlie's money could have convinced these players to sign with Kansas City under the old rules, but I doubt it. By the time he finally packed his bags and headed to Oakland, he took with him the youngest winning-team in baseball history. Here's a list of them:
Year Team Age W L Pct 1968 OAK A 25.0 82 80 .506 1911 BOS A 25.4 78 75 .510 1914 BOS A 25.6 91 62 .595 1914 WAS A 25.7 81 73 .526 1910 BOS A 25.7 81 72 .529
I've always wondered what would have happened if Finley had been easier to get along with. After all, he did have money and the willingness to spend it. Unfortunately, he had purchased a lousy team in a run-down stadium and expected to turn it around in a year. When that didn't happen, he became convinced that Kansas City couldn't support major league baseball and spent the rest of this stay there alienating the natives and trying to leave. From 1971 to 1975, his Oakland A's would win five-straight division titles, including three-straight World Series, and draw an average of less than a million fans a year. One of the teams with a higher attendance over that period was the expansion Kansas City Royals.
1"Finley Wooing Players, Fans to Give A's 'Happy Family' Air", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. March 1, 1961. Page 20.
2"Dynamo Finley Ace-High Guy to A's Fans, 'Happy Family' Air", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. April 19, 1961. Page 18.
4"Love Feast Ends--Frankie, Finley Feudin' n' Fussin'", Joe King. The Sporting News. May 17, 1961. Page 14.
6"Hellzapoppin in Kaycee--a New Act Every Day", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. May 24, 1961. Pages 1 and 4.
7"Finley's Orders Triggered Kaycee Firing of Gordon", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. June 28, 1961. Page 13.
8"Finley Dumps G.M. Lane, Rakes Frankie Over Coals", Jerry Holtzman. The Sporting News. August 30, 1961. Pages 5 and 6.
9"Frankie Fires Fast Reply to Finley Fussilade", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. August 30, 1961. Pages 5 and 6.
10"What is Finley's Real Goal?". The Sporting News. August 30, 1961. Page 10.
11"Dynamo Finley Ace-High Guy to A's Fans, 'Happy Family' Air", Ernest Mehl. The Sporting News. April 19, 1961. Page 18.