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02/23/2004 12:24 PM ET
We've been here before
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 Jerome Holtzman

Vida Blue pitches during a 1971 game. (AP)
The Alex Rodriguez trade to the Yankees, a blockbuster deal that increases George Steinbrenner's payroll to $189 million, approximately $100 million more than the average, reminds me of the time when the late Charlie Finley tried to sell three of his star Oakland players for a total of $3.5 million, to that time easily the largest one-day sale in baseball history.

The $3.5 million deal, nickels and dimes by today's standards, occurred only a quarter of a century ago, an hour or so before the June 15, 1976 trading deadline. Anticipating the advent of free agency that would kick in at the season's end and in which the players who played out their option could walk without compensation to their previous club, Finley sold pitcher Vida Blue for $1.5 million to the Yankees and pitcher Rollie Fingers and outfielder Joe Rudi to the Red Sox, each for $1 million.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the deals on the supposition they weakened "competitive balance" and were not in the best interests of baseball. Finley sued the baseball establishment for $10 million. It was, in retrospect, probably the biggest controversy of the 20th century and was the second time an owner sued the commissioner.

Phil Ball of the St. Louis Browns was the first litigant and challenged Judge Landis in 1931 after Landis had freed an obscure outfielder, Fred Bennett, whom the Browns had been "covering up" in the minors. Ball lost at the district court level and did not appeal.

The Finley v. Kuhn trial was held in the Chicago courtroom of federal judge Frank McGarr, who heard the case without a jury. The trial ran 15 working days. I was the only reporter who attended each session and had an exclusive on McGarr's decision and along with it the unexpected delight of scooping the judge.

I was in Mesa, Ariz., in Spring Training with the Cubs and got a call from Chicago advising that McGarr was going to rule against Finley. I was then with the Chicago Sun-Times and ran with the story. It made the midnight edition. The rival Tribune awoke McGarr at 2 a.m., requesting confirmation.

McGarr refused to confirm or deny. He said he hadn't yet written his decision but planned to do so later that day.

By a 21-3 vote the owners indemnified Kuhn for personal liability. Against were Gussie Busch of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore, and Finley. In an unusual twist if he lost, Finley would be on the hook for 1/24 of Kuhn's court costs.

There were 22 live witnesses, 15 for Kuhn, seven for Finley. Also a half-dozen depositions, some of which were crucial. Those deposed were long-time diamond executives who no longer had a stake in the outcome, retired, or unable to make the trip to Chicago.

McGarr had a sense of humor and in launching the hearings said, "Gentlemen, I am going to resist the temptation to open this trial by saying 'Play Ball.' I had many suggestions to do that but I won't. I am ready to proceed."

Attorney Neil Papiano, representing Finley:

"Your honor, the evidence will show the (player) sales were consummated without any rule violation. There was no dispute between the teams involved, or any other teams. There was no moral turpitude and there was no dishonesty.

"Under these circumstances there is no authority whatsoever for the defendant, Bowie Kuhn, to induce the breach of these substantial contracts, and for the only reason what he unilaterally believed to be, as he termed, acting in 'the best interests of baseball.'"

American League president Lee MacPhail, in testifying for Kuhn, conceded:

"I don't remember of a prior case where a commissioner took action to preserve competitive balance.

Q -- by Papiano: With respect to competitive balance, what has been Oakland's performance in the last ten years?

A -- They probably have a better record than any club in baseball. They won the World Series in each of the last three years and five consecutive divisional championships.

Q -- Is it good for one team to be as dominant as Oakland has been?

A -- The ideal situation would be to spread the championships around a little bit.

In a deposition in Finley's behalf, Bill DeWitt, a baseball lifer who had owned or operated several clubs, dismissed competitive balance as philosophical nonsense.

It would be an ideal arrangement if you could have all the clubs handicapped like they handicap horse races so that everybody would be figured to win the pennant. It would create more fan interest and would be a financial gain to the owners and players but it doesn't work that way. There's no such thing as competitive balance. It's dog eat dog.

Walter O'Malley, who was among baseball's leading power brokers, supported Kuhn but was deflated by Papiano:

Q -- Mr. O'Malley, you have stated that you thought the fans were the important reason for the refusal to allow the sales to go through, or that was one of your reasons, wasn't it?

A -- Yes, I have very positive feelings about our responsibilities to the fans and this would have been a fraud on the fans to break up that team in the middle of the season.

Q -- So it would have been a fraud on the fans to move three players?

A -- Whether it is one, three or ten. This particular transaction, in my thinking at that time, was that it would have been a fraud on the fans, on the public.

Q -- Did you think it was a fraud on the fans when you moved your entire team from Brooklyn?

A -- The commissioner could have stopped it and we would have been bound by his decision.

Commissioner Kuhn on the stand:

Q -- Is there any owner or anyone else in baseball who can determine the limits of your power?

A -- It's like the Chancellor's foot; its length is what he finds it to be, given the equities of the situation. One of the things I must tell you that one has to wrestle with when he's the commissioner is the very breadth of these powers. They're awesome powers, meant to be very broad and must be used to promote the game and with a kind of sensible and rational restraint.

Q -- Do you maintain a file on the ability on various players?

A -- No. I have to use my judgment.

McGarr, in his six-page decision for Kuhn emphasized that the question before him was not if Kuhn was correct in his action but whether or not he had the power to do so. In this narrow issue, Kuhn was acting within his authority.

Some of the reaction follows:

Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Broeg:

"Egad, for once I find myself siding with Charlie Finley. What a revolting development."

The late Leonard Koppett, another Hall of Fame scribe:

"If a commissioner -- any commissioner -- can make such a finding why can't a commissioner in some other year decide it would be good for baseball to have a winner in a big market such as New York or a close pennant race that would be good for baseball rather than a runaway winner."

Cardinal owner Gussie Busch:

"If I was in Finley's position I would have done the same thing."

Dick O'Connell, general manager of the Red Sox:

"Who do we check with now if we want to buy a player? Who determines if his batting average is low enough or if the price is low enough?"

Philip K. Wrigley, long-time owner of the Cubs:

"I can't see why the sales were not approved. They were according to the rules. I couldn't understand why the commissioner got mixed up in this thing in the first place."

Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith:

"It's a terrible thing when two clubs, the Yankees and the Red Sox, start bidding to see who can buy a championship club. This shows what the owners have been saying about the wealthy clubs getting the top players has been true."

Joe Falls of the Detroit News:

"In this whole affair, as I see it, Bowie Kuhn stands the tallest because somebody had to defend the morals of baseball. If it is too difficult to comprehend why he acted as he did then you might be better reading the Wall Street Journal than the sports pages."

The Sporting News:

"There is no question the commissioner has the authority to act in what he deems to be the best interests in baseball. But he doesn't have unlimited authority. He is no absolute czar, has grossly overstepped his authority and has plunged baseball into a morass of litigation that will only harm the game."

Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association.:

"The big criminal act was that the Red Sox and Yankees, by making these deals, had set a fair market value on the players purchased. The owners themselves had set a standard which they never wanted. It established that Blue is worth $1.5 million even before he sits down to talk salary, and that similarly Rudi and Fingers are each worth $1 million."

Whereas McGarr ruled that Kuhn's powers were absolute, two months later, Newell Edenfield, a Georgia federal judge, decided otherwise in a suit filed by Atlanta owner Ted Turner. Kuhn slapped Turner with a year's suspension and a $10,000 fine for "tampering" with outfielder Gary Matthews, who was then under contract with San Francisco. Matthews was planning to file for free agency. In addition, Kuhn ruled that the Braves would be deprived of their first-round choice in the impending summer draft of amateur free agents.

Edenfield heard the case in two days, April 28 and 29, and chided McGraw for stretching the Finley proceedings to two weeks.

During a World Series media party, Turner told San Francisco owner Bob Lurie, an unswerving Kuhn supporter, "Whatever you offer Matthews, I'll do better."

Judge Edenfield ruled that Kuhn had the authority to fine and suspend an owner but was out of bounds in trying to strip the Braves of a draft choice because there was no such provision in the Major League Agreement.

Edenfield, who often flavored his decisions with colorful language, wrote:

"The whole case was one in which a casual observer might say was a comedy of errors ... an Indian massacre in which the Braves took nary a scalp but lived to see their own dangling from the lodgepole of the commissioner apparently only as a grisly warning to others."

Kuhn's attorneys hailed this as a "95 percent" victory but Edenfield, in a subsequent interview, disagreed. "I went the other way from judge McGarr, Edenfield said. "Kuhn's got a lot more power than anyone I know but it's not absolute."

Jerome Holtzman is the official historian for Major League Baseball. He has been the national president of the Baseball Writer's Association of America and in 1989 was elected to the writer's wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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