Oakland's Charley Finley Put Color In Baseball

Host Scott Simon talks with authors G. Michael Greene and Roger D. Launius about their new biography, Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman. The book tells the story of the colorful and controversial owner of the Oakland A's who fought with players and managers, but also came up with clever ideas to draw fans to games.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's an awful lot of Charlie Finley in baseball today, from designated hitters to colorful uniforms to nighttime World Series games. But the baseball owner who promoted all these changes isn't in the Hall of Fame. Even wonder if new young stars know his name.

Charles O. Finley was a washed up semi-pro ballplayer who nearly died from tuberculosis and made a fortune in the insurance industry. He wanted to buy the Chicago White Sox but they were taken, so he circled other clubs across the country before finally buying the Kansas City A's and moving them to Oakland. He was as cranky, demanding and destructive as a rude child. He feuded with players and deceived them, demeaned and rewarded them. One of his managers once choked him, several probably wanted to.

He made a mule his team's mascot and that seemed to fit Charlie O's crankiness. But under his ownership, a long-haired mustachioed band of A's, including Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue won five straight division titles and three straight World Series in the 1970s, a record second only to the New York Yankees and baseball sure became a more colorful game.

G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius have written the first scholarly biography of a famously cranky and accomplished baseball figure, "Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman." They join us in our studio. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. G. MICHAEL GREEN (Senior planner, NASA): Thanks for having us.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Senior curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): Our pleasure.

SIMON: And I have to ask, you're not from a conventional sports writing background. Does it take a couple of rocket scientists to write a book about Charlie Finley?

Mr. LAUNIUS: I don't know that it takes rocket scientists but we did approach it from a different perspective.

SIMON: You work for NASA, we should say.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Yes.

SIMON: You work...

Mr. LAUNIUS: Mike works for NASA. I work for the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian.

Mr. GREEN: We felt that a lot of the previous works on Charlie Finley, which were published in the '70s, talked about the negativity, the sensationalism of Charlie. And we wanted to put him in a little more historical context and talk about both the good and the bad of Charlie Finley.

SIMON: Where do you see his influence in baseball today?

Mr. LAUNIUS: There is the night baseball during the World Series and playoffs and the All Star Game. There's the colorful uniforms and everybody's got multicolored uniforms today.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Everything he wanted to do - he wanted to create more excitement among the fans, more action in the game, and his efforts along those lines were overall reasonably successful.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

SIMON: Night baseball, night World Series games, Charlie Findley's ideas actually had some class consciousness. And we should remind ourselves why he thought night World Series games were good.

Mr. GREEN: Well he did. He felt that the working man and woman who were working 40, 50 hours a week and working eight, nine hours a day couldn't watch a World Series game, for instance, in an afternoon and it made better sense to play them at night to make it more accessible to the common person.

SIMON: He, of course, was known sometimes zany and sometimes outrageous promotional ideas. What were a couple of his better promotional ideas?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Oh, I particular liked the hot pants day that he had in Oakland in the early 1970s...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAUNIUS: ...in which any woman who shows up wearing that particular type of outfit, which was very popular at the time, short shorts basically, to the game got in for free.

There was also bald men day at one time. There were also mustache days that they had in Oakland, where people who had grown facial hair could get in for free. There was always a debate among the ticket takers at the games whether or not they were going to let somebody in with a three-day growth as opposed to a full mustache.

SIMON: 1974, when the A's had won three straight championships, Charlie Finley should have been on top of the world. But with the advantage of hindsight, that's kind of when things began to capsize for him. Did his failure to re-sign Catfish Hunter signify that Charlie Finley couldn't afford to stay in baseball?

Mr. GREEN: I don't think so. I think the problem with Catfish Hunter was that Hunter had signed a contract for $100,000 for 1974 and then asked Finley to, and it was in the contract to put $50,000 into an insurance annuity that would pay him later after his playing days were over.

Charlie, for some tax reasons and maybe just out of neglect, you know, Charlie was not the most organized person, never purchased the annuity. The union seized on this to ultimately win Catfish Hunter his free agency, and he became the first true superstar free agent.

I don't think - I think...

SIMON: And he earned a lot more than $100,000.

Mr. GREEN: He earned about three and a half million dollars. Correct. That changed - that allowed - I mean, the players then recognized, as did Marvin Miller, that hey, for star players...

SIMON: Marvin Miller was head of the Players Union.

Mr. GREEN: Head of the Players Union. That there was an opportunity to make big money.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Yeah.

Mr. GREEN: That the owners would pay it if there was some sort of free agency system in place. And Finley kind of stumbled the league into that.

SIMON: You know, you can't help but be touched when you read your book about how many people who played for Charlie Finley and didn't like him then and feuded with him and even left the team, begged to be traded, couldn't wait to become free agents because it was impossible to play for Charlie Finley, now say this is a man who should be in the Hall of Fame.

Mr. GREEN: Time has a way of doing that, I think. I think they recognize after years of leaving the A's and leaving Mr. Finley, that maybe he wasn't quite as bad of a person and some of his ideas and innovations and thoughts on the game were actually correct and that baseball needed to change to survive.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Two of the players that he did feud with and obviously left the team later, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter - Jim Hunter - were the two A's players, ex-A's players who came to Finley's funeral and participated in that, and talked about what a unique individual he was. They wouldn't say that they loved him entirely, obviously, but they came to respect him and to understand a bit more about him.

Mr. GREEN: Well, I really think Jackson and Hunter particularly looked at Finley as sort of a father figure. And had, even though they feuded with him constantly, they had a healthy dose of respect for him.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

Mr. GREEN: Thank you very much.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Thank you.

SIMON: G. Michael Greene and Roger D. Launius, authors of the book, "Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman."

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