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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Charlie Finley’

- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 17, 2010

CHARLIE FINLEY: THE OUTRAGEOUS STORY OF BASEBALL'S SUPER SHOWMAN
By G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius
Walker & Co., $27
368 pages

Charles Oscar Finley was perhaps the most universally disliked person in baseball history. A self-made insurance millionaire who owned the A's/Athletics franchise for nearly two decades, he moved the franchise from Philadelphia to Kansas City and then to Oakland, Calif., where it remains today. Despite a truly awful start in Kansas City, Finley's Oakland A's won five straight division titles (1971-75) and three consecutive World Series (1972-74). However, in the process, Finley alienated countless players, angered his fan base in two cities, made an enemy of the commissioner and most of his fellow owners and was denounced on the floor of Congress for his devious and deceitful ways.

Finley was not only dishonest; he was also rude, obscene and given to self-defeating temper tantrums that led to firing managers and benching star players. He was a bully who loved to toy with and manipulate the lives of others, especially subordinates. He treated his players as chattel and even imposed nicknames on men who preferred being called by their real names. Jim Hunter became Catfish, and John Odom was renamed Blue Moon. It was finally the proud and defiant Vida Blue who refused being renamed True, asking if Finley wanted to be called True O. Finley. Mr. Blue would later be quoted as saying, "Charlie Finley has soured my stomach for baseball."

Local authors G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius have teamed up to bring us "Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman." They have done a remarkable job of putting one of the most disliked - but most influential - men in the history of the game into context. The authors go out of their way to be evenhanded and fair to Finley who, despite an occasional act of generosity, still emerges as a man who could have gotten Will Rogers to retract his claim that he never met a man he didn't like.

Mr. Green and Mr. Launius have produced a fine biography that is much more than a catalog of flaws. Rather, it is the life of a man whose major flaw was that he thought he could control the world around him on his terms. Throughout the 1960s, Finley ran his team as he ran his insurance business: His way was the only way. He was not a patient man and did not trust advice from others, even when he sought it. Finley spent most of the 1960s fighting with his own front office, many managers and the civic leaders of Kansas City.

Never satisfied with having the team in Kansas City, he threatened to move it if city leaders did not resolve his complaint du jour. Eventually, he alienated his entire fan base. Finally, he packed up and headed to Oakland, where success, if anything, made him more enigmatic and disruptive.

He feuded with Reggie Jackson over money and dumped manager after manager until, before the 1971 season, he hired Dick Williams, and the A's made the baseball post season for the first time in 40 years. The defining moment for Finley and his nasty antics serves as the introductory episode of this book and - like the rest of the book - is a tale that comes alive in the retelling.

Early in the '73 World Series, second baseman Mike Andrews made a couple of bad plays. Finley persuaded the team doctor to claim Mr. Andrews was injured and should be off the roster; in a sense, Finley was firing one of his own players in the middle of the World Series. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who already was no fan of Finley's antics, ordered Mr. Andrews' return. Finley's move had angered just about every player and coach on the team, and Mr. Williams resigned after winning the series.

The 1973 series underscores a reverse Midas touch of Finley's own making. He spent large sums of money to promote a walk-up business in Oakland but was too cheap to pay for more than two ticket windows. People tired of waiting in long lines, and the money was wasted. Finley lost one of his most valuable finds, pitcher Catfish Hunter, after the 1974 season because - for lack of competent legal advice - he had refused to fulfill a contract stipulation to put aside part of the pitching ace's salary in an annuity. Mr. Hunter was declared a free agent, signed a lucrative contract with the Yankees and helped pave the way for free agency.

Finley craved good press but lied to the very reporters he needed for support, thereby guaranteeing himself a bad press. The media of his time loved him not as a man but as a buffoon who was always good for copy on a slow night. It was not enough for him to feud and bring a lawsuit against Kuhn, but he had to call the commissioner "the village idiot."

Finley is remembered today, however, for more than his dysfunctionality. Some of his innovations were ill-advised and short-lived - orange baseballs to make hitting easier in an era of dominant pitchers, three-ball walks to juice up scores - but others had lasting impact.

He liberated uniform colors from white and gray when he draped the A's in kelly green and Fort Knox gold. He fought for, and got, World Series games moved from early afternoon to a later hour and got the designated hitter introduced in the American League. Finley innovated the position player in baseball by creating a new position: designated runner.

The story of Charlie Finley is not without humor. For example, Finley got the Beatles to perform in Kansas City on their first American tour in another futile attempt to fill his ballpark. He did not promote the event well and ended up hosting the Fab Four's only sparsely attended event on U.S. soil. After the post-game concert, Finley and his family sped home to their Indiana farm wearing Beatle wigs. A rumor spread that the Beatles were staying at the Finley farm, and there are people who to this day swear they caught a glimpse of John or Ringo in the back of Charlie O's limo.

Paul Dickson is the author of 55 books and is working on a biography of Bill Veeck.

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