Former owner Finley a complex figure in A's lore
Hard-nosed businessman led club to three titles before troubles began
OAKLAND -- The legacy of Charlie Finley is unfair.
He is too often remembered as the free spirit who clad his A's baseball team in green and gold, and introduced white shoes to the big leagues.
He is the guy who suggested orange baseballs and had a mechanical rabbit installed behind home plate at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City to supply umpires with baseballs.
And in Oakland, he hired a teenaged kid and proclaimed Stanley Burrell to be his general manager, which included the youngster, who later became known as MC Hammer, calling Finley when the owner was home in Chicago and giving him a personal play-by-play of every home game. But more than a wild promoter, Finley was an awfuly good baseball man.
For all his eccentric moments, in his time as owner of the A's, which he brought from Kansas City to Oakland, he put together a franchise that won five consecutive AL West titles (1971-75) and three consecutive World Series (1972-74).
The A's are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Finley's final world championship this weekend, honoring the players who were such a key part of that success, including Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson and the late Catfish Hunter.
And in a way, they are honoring the memory of Finley, whose hard-nosed business approach helped him build a team that dominated the sport, but also led to his baseball demise.
So upset at the loss of his team's control over its players with the onset of salary arbitration and free agency, Finley tore down the masterpiece he had built, first losing Hunter to free agency after the 1974 season when he failed to properly tender a contract, and then unloading star players rather than being forced to pay salaries he couldn't afford.
"Think about what we accomplished, winning those three World Series, and then in `75 we lost in the playoffs to the Red Sox, but we didn't have Catfish that year," said Sal Bando, the third baseman of those championship seasons. "And after that. …"
Bando shook his head.
While the mass defection of players didn't begin until after the 1976 season, Finley's anger at the changing system impacted the A's that season, when their five-year run at the top of the AL West ended. The A's finished second to the Kansas City Royals by 2 1/2 games, leaving the players to wonder what might have been if Finley had not challenged commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who voided the club's June attempt to sell Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million, and Joe Rudi and Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million apiece.
Deciding to sue Kuhn, Finley sat the three players for 14 games in June, claiming they did not belong to him.
After that season, Finley did trade Jackson and Kenny Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles, but he received Don Baylor, Paul Mitchell and Mike Torrez in return and then, after the 1976 season, the mass defections began. Six of the nine starting position players did not return for 1977. Second baseman Phil Garner was part of a multi-player deal with Pittsburgh, and Joe Rudi (Angels), Don Baylor (Angels), Bando (Brewers), Gene Tenance (Padres) and Bert Campaneris (Rangers) left as free agents along with pitchers Holtzman and Fingers.
A year removed from their championship run, the A's went 63-98 in 1977, the worst record in the big leagues.
"Between his willingness to spend money to sign guys [as amateurs] and ability to listen to scouts he put together a dynasty, but his ego ruined the dynasty," said Bando. "He was his own general manager, and he didn't have a very big staff, but he was always calling people, picking their brains, finding out information. He had that way about him."
Rudi remember as a young player working with the likes of Hall of Famers Luke Appling, Gabby Hartnett and Joe DiMaggio, who were coaches for Finley. The long-term seeds of success were planted with the 1965 Kansas City Athletics, who had 11 players 21-years-old or younger among the 44 who appeared on the big league roster that year.
The list include Rudi, Blue Moon Odom, Hunter, and Skip Lockwood.
"But it really started in 1968," Rudi said of the year the team moved to Oakland. "A lot of us were 21-, 22-years-old."
Danny Cater, 28, the primary first baseman, was the oldest regular member of the lineup, which included left fielder Rudi, 21, center fielder Rick Monday, 22, right fielder Jackson, 22, catcher Dave Duncan, 22, and third baseman Bando, 24. Lew Krausse, 25, was the elder statesman of a rotation that included Hunter, 22, and Odom, 23.
"That was the basic core of that team that won the five consecutive division titles," said Rudi. "Most of us were better players when we were together. We had grown up in the minor league together. We had each other's back. It was a special time."
It ended, however, so quickly, in such an un-special way.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.