Saturday, April 20, 2013

Charlie Finley: Visionary or Tyrant?

Various words have been used to describe A's owner Charlie Finley--not all of them terribly positive. To some he was a luminary and to others a despot. By the time he sold his interests in the club during the1980 campaign, he was universally disliked by the baseball establishment. But he left behind a legacy of colorful innovations and fascinating stories.

Finley got rich selling insurance during the 1940's and was initially outbid when  he attempted to purchase the Kansas City Athletics. He obtained a majority of the club's stock after owner Arnold Johnson passed away in 1960. The A's were a terrible team but Finley did his best to establish a fan base.

Fostering a carnival-like atmosphere, he dressed his players in tacky green and yellow uniforms. He placed sheep with dyed wool (tended by a shepherd) in a pasture beyond the outfield fence and also installed a children's zoo. He mounted a mechanical rabbit named "Harvey" behind home plate. With the press of a button,"Harvey" popped up and supplied umpires with fresh balls. Finley later appointed a mule named "Charlie O" as team mascot and allowed the animal to stay in the team's hotel. On opening day, he encouraged players to ride onto the field on the backs of mules.

There was virtually no end to Finley's wild ideas. He even released helium balloons containing  A's tickets into the countryside one day. In one of his more innovative promotions, he arranged to have shortstop Bert Campaneris change positions every inning. This included stints as a pitcher and catcher. Despite numerous schemes, attendance remained lackluster throughout the decade. In 1968, Finley angered many when he moved the club to Oakland.

It was there that he built a championship squad, signing the likes of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. With an All-Star cast,the A's became the first team aside from the Yankees to win 3 straight World Series ('72-'74). And then suddenly, Finley pulled the plug on the entire operation, firing employees, trimming costs and virtually eliminating promotions. He auctioned off all his stars: Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue--all left via free agency along with the aforementioned Hall of Famers.  The team slumped in the standings and attendance dropped off sharply. When Finley sold the club on August 23, 1980, his name was in ill-repute.

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