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Original Issue


As rival club owners cringe, the Athletics' Charlie Finley practices the gospel of Bill Veeck (SI, June 14), who says that all baseball really needs is a little more showmanship

The wake-up call came at 8:30 on a Sunday morning in a suite on the 18th floor of the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City. "Wumpf," said Charles O. Finley into the receiver. Four hours earlier, in the hotel coffee shop, Finley had made the waitress dilute his coffee with one-third hot water, but still he had threshed for another hour in the oversize bed before he could sleep. Finley sat up and reached out a bare arm to turn on the lamp. He scratched his head and lit a filter cigarette. Then Charles O. Finley, maverick, began to grin. He was remembering the evening before and an argument with a radio announcer from Los Angeles.

Sitting against a mirrored wall in the rose light of a bar across the street from the Muehlebach, the announcer had kept saying, "Look, Charlie, I've been in this game for 20 years." There is nothing that provokes Finley more than that sort of basis for an opinion. Finley has been in the game only five years—which is five years longer than most American League club owners have enjoyed having him at their conference tables—but he does not believe that simply hanging around for a great while breeds astuteness, and baseball is his case in point.

"Look, Charlie," the announcer had said, "I don't want to offend you, but what you've got to do is hire yourself some solid baseball men and let them operate. You're a businessman, Charlie, not a baseball man. To operate a baseball club you've got to let baseball men do it. You shouldn't have let an insurance executive like Pat Friday try to be a general manager of a baseball club."

"I suppose you think you'd be a good general manager," said Finley.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact I do," the announcer said.

"Because you've been in the game for 20 years," said Finley. "Well, let me tell you something. It doesn't take any genius to run a baseball team, as a general manager or a field manager. A monkey could stand out there on the field and wave at the pitchers. I'm in baseball because I like it. Out of every dollar I make in the insurance business, I lose 99¢ in baseball. My wife says let's sell this club and invest in tax-free bonds and make more money in one year than we can in 10 years in baseball. But I wouldn't be happy. Baseball is a major part of my happiness. Sure, I take an active interest in what goes on with this club, all right. Wouldn't you if you had millions of dollars invested in it? But I do listen to the people who work for me, and I know Pat Friday is a smart man. and I know it didn't take him forever to learn the few things there are to know about baseball. My new general manager, Hank Peters, is a smart man, too, and a baseball man. But a lot of baseball deals are pure luck."

"Not so many," the announcer said.

"You think when the Angels got Willie Smith, who wasn't much of a pitcher, they knew they could play him in the outfield and he'd be their best hitter?" said Finley. "If you believe that, I'd like to hear your ideas about the Easter Rabbit."

Now, as he sat in bed waiting for his legs to feel like walking him to the shower, Finley's white hair was rumpled and his black eyebrows drew together in an amused squint. It gives him pleasure to kick holes in the hierarchy-perpetuated myths of baseball, although he insists he does it out of affection and out of a fear that the game may not survive unless it changes its washboard attitudes. Finley is, after all, not in baseball to become broke. He has been broke before, and rich is better. But five years of threats and harassments by the American League have not bent his heretical views any more than Finley's efforts have improved his Kansas City Athletics, who, unlike the Mets, lose without being loved.

Except by their leader, that is. Finley adores his Athletics. As he showered and dressed, he hummed to himself. He opened the drapes, and sunlight flooded in. It was a fine, bright day with a peach haze coming off the Missouri River, and there was going to be a doubleheader that afternoon, and Finley owned one of the teams involved, and what right-thinking man could want more than that? "Life," he said, "is beautiful."

One of the few things that could have made Finley happier at that moment would have been an early news broadcast informing him that Yankee Stadium had been condemned. Finley despises the Yankees with an emotion that is pure and almost joyous and extends even to the dimensions of their ball park. He blames a series of trades—such as the one that sent Roger Maris from Kansas City to New York—for the neurasthenic condition of his Athletics. "The Yankees have bled this team white," Finley said. "It will take years to undo the damage the Yankees have done to Kansas City."

Finley contends the Yankees have conned the American League out of most of their pennants simply by having a center-field fence that is 461 feet from home plate and by having relatively short foul lines. The idea, he says, is that when Yankee pitchers are in trouble they concentrate on forcing the hitter to hit the ball straightaway toward that distant fence, where some Yankee center fielder is waiting for the catch. Opposing pitchers, who see the Stadium nine times a year rather than 81, get smashed by Yankee hitters pulling toward the short fences at the foul lines.

"I know I'm right, because Ed Lopat [former Yankee pitcher, now a vice-president of the Athletics] told me," said Finley. "In 1958 baseball passed a rule that any new stadium had to have a minimum distance to the fence of 325 feet at the foul lines. The rule should have added that any present stadium must erect a screen or barrier to make the distances equivalent. Until 1958 the Yankees were asking themselves how much longer they could get away with this murder. So, lo and behold, baseball passes a rule that gives the Yankees their advantage forever. Fans are fed up with the Yankees, who have hurt both leagues tremendously. Those monuments to Ruth, Gehrig and Huggins out in center field at Yankee Stadium get me, too. If I put up a monument to the great Connie Mack in my center field, I'd get a telegram telling me to take it down or forfeit all my games."

Finley received a telegram like that in 1964 when he ridiculed the Yankees by building what he called a Pennant Porch in Kansas City. The porch sat behind a fence that started at the right-field foul pole, 325 feet from home plate, cut dramatically in across the outfield until it reached the 296-foot mark, the distance the Yankee Stadium fence is from home plate, and then went off toward center field. Commissioner Ford Frick and American League President Joe Cronin ordered Finley to take down the bizarre fence or forfeit his home games. "So what?" said Finley. "We lose most of the time anyway." But Finley moved his fence back and changed the name of the pavilion to "One-Half Pennant Porch."

This season Finley tried again. He put up a burlap roof to cover his One-Half Pennant Porch ("the fans need shade," he said) and extended the roof out across the outfield again to the 296-foot mark. Cal Hubbard, supervisor of American League umpires, conceded he was in favor of shade. "But that wing, or whatever you call it, has to go." That was three days before the opening game. Half an hour before the first pitch, Finley finally had the extension sawed off.

Then Finley installed a 20-second electric clock beside the One-Half Pennant Porch to check on the time it takes pitchers to deliver the ball with no one on base. The rule says that the pitcher has 20 seconds, but the rule is seldom, if ever, enforced. The clock was a glowing reminder of that neglect. Before a game in Kansas City, the rule was read over the loudspeaker, and the clock explained. Finley took down the clock after a few weeks, but while it was up he was about as popular with umpires as a foul tip. "I'm not trying to be popular," Finley said. "I'm trying to make it a fair game."

Almost from the moment Finley, a wealthy insurance man, came into Kansas City as owner of the Athletics, he was regarded as a menace by the American League, and his wild publicity stunts, his well-publicized feuds, his loud contract disputes with municipal officials in Kansas City, his continuing efforts to move the Athletics to Dallas or Oakland or Louisville have served to strengthen that unfraternal attitude. He sued the city after he was ordered to stop shooting off fireworks at night games. He had an Ernie Mehl Appreciation Day at the ball park and presented Kansas City Star Sports Editor Mehl with a "Poison Pen Award." He fired his original general manager, the flamboyant Frank Lane, and then got into a three-year legal dispute with Lane over back salary. Outraged at Kansas City's decision to give Professional Football Owner Lamar Hunt a $1-a-year rental on Municipal Stadium in order to lure Hunt from Dallas, Finley demanded and got a new contract from the city—a contract that was granted by the outgoing city council and promptly canceled by the incoming council. He told Kansas City he would play in a cow pasture if he could not get permission to move or the contract he wanted. He signed an agreement to place the Athletics in Louisville ("Finley is a fool," said Chicago White Sox Owner Arthur Allyn), warned American League President Cronin to leave him alone, had his request to move voted down 9-1 in a league meeting and then signed a new and apparently harmonious contract with Kansas City.

Finley pushed all these things out of his mind as he prepared to go to the ball park. This was to be something special—Rabbit Day. Finley likes rabbits. He built a mechanical ball-fetcher that pops up behind home plate and named it Harvey the Rabbit. He has six German checker rabbits in his zoo at the stadium. He planned to give away 250 rabbits during the double-header. "I was going to use the rabbits to show off our rabbit outfield," he said. "But with all the games we've lost this year, who would believe we have a fast outfield?"

Walking through the lobby, Finley was stopped by half a dozen fans. The doorman told the cabbie: "This is Mr. Finley. Take him to the stadium." Finley sat back delighted. He lit another cigarette. "I smoke too much," he said. "In 1946, when I was 28, I had pneumonic tuberculosis and spent 27 months in a sanitarium. I used to lie there and sweat and they'd have to change my pajamas and change my sheets. I was dying, but I didn't know it. Those were tough times. I had worked five years in the steel mills around Gary, Indiana, and five years in an ordnance plant for a shipbuilder and had been a caddie and had two years of college. When I got TB, we had two kids. We have seven now. My wife had to get a job as a proofreader on the Gary Post-Tribune at $40 a week. We lost our home. My wife and kids lived with her father. And there I was, dying, but I didn't know it. Well, I recovered. While I was lying there. I had plenty of time to think. I dreamed up ideas on insurance, and they were an overnight hit. I learned, too, that money is secondary. That's why when people berate me for this and that, when they ridicule me, it doesn't bother me. I've been down a rockier road than any road baseball can take me on. I've learned that being happy is what counts, and baseball makes me happy.

"Ah, but baseball," he said as the cab turned into a street near the stadium and the driver explained to a policeman that Charles O. Finley was in the back seat. "I got up everything I owned and could borrow to get into this game. I couldn't care less what the other owners think of my ideas. I remember a letter I got from a little old lady. She wrote she kept seeing the vote was always 9-1 against me, and she said thank heaven I had at least one friend. I wrote back and told her there is nothing in the rules against voting for yourself, and that one vote is always mine. I don't feel anger or hatred. When the other owners can't see the handwriting on the wall I feel sorry for them. When they're all against me I am disappointed but never discouraged. Anything that is worth having is worth righting for. When they vote against me it encourages me to fight more, because I know they need help.

"If I knew then what I know now," he said, getting out of the cab, "well, let me put it this way. I was eager to get into baseball, but I didn't realize baseball was as sick as it is I would be doubly eager to get in now, because I love a challenge. But if you know anybody who is interested in getting into baseball as an owner, and he wants to get along with the other owners, then here is my advice for him: do not go into any league meeting looking alert and awake; slump down like you've been out all night and keep your eyes half closed, and when it is time to vote you ask to pass. Then you wait and see how the others vote, and you vote the same way. Suggest no innovations. Make no efforts at change. That way you will be very popular with your fellow owners."

Waving and smiling at the fans and pointing out the paint job and new light poles he had paid for, Finley went into the stadium. "See that long extension of the press box?" he said, gesturing toward an overhang that blocks the view of people high up in the lower deck along the right-field line. "The football team wanted that, so the city built it and paid for it. All it does for us is ruin a lot of our seats and louse up our public address system. You think the city would buy us a new public address system? Naw, we don't play football. Look at these seats. Too cramped to sit in. Considering the handicap of this stadium, the fans are wonderful and we've made a tremendous effort to make this place livable." Finley ran down the steps, through a gate and up into the One-Half Pennant Porch, which at the moment, shortly before game time, held a couple of hundred kids. "Hey, boys, don't knock a hole in my roof," he yelled at them as he signed autographs.

"Mr. Finley," said one small boy, "I've come 200 miles to see Charlie O."

"Son, we weren't going to get him out today because of the rabbits," Finley said.

"I don't care about rabbits," said the boy.

"Then out comes Charlie O.," Finley said. Charlie O. is a mule, an extraordinary mule. "People love Charlie O. He is a genuine Missouri mule donated by Governor Warren Hearnes of Missouri after the greatest mule search in history. Everybody's got to see this mule."

Finley began a tour of the stadium. He has planted ivy on the walls and last year had sheep grazing on the hill in right field. Near the left-field bleachers is his zoo, with six capuchin monkeys named after Finley's father and uncles, six China golden pheasants, a German short-haired pointer, the six German checker rabbits with litters, and two peafowl. "Come on," Finley said, going down a concrete walk and out the left-field gate, where he picked up a handful of the rabbits' feet that were being passed out to fans that day. He had asked Jim Schaaf, his public relations director, to phone for Charlie O. There, on the street behind the stadium, was Charlie O.'s trailer. Finley was as excited as a child. "Come on, come on," he said.

They got Charlie O. out of the trailer, which is air-conditioned and equipped with a record player that plays what Finley calls "mule music"—songs like Mule Train. Charlie O. is a handsome sorrel animal that wears a green-and-gold blanket and bridle and a green baseball cap. Charlie O., as the A's mascot, goes on road trips. In New York, Charlie O. stayed at the Americana Hotel and Finley rode the animal through the lobby. At an impromptu press conference after Frank Lane had said Finley planned to move the A's to Milwaukee, Finley announced: "Charlie O. is the one to answer a man like Lane." Finley asked questions and Charlie O. answered by nodding or shaking his head. "It was a trick," Finley said, "but Charlie O. is the smartest mule that ever lived." Then: "Come on, there's more to see."

Finley went down through the maintenance shed and untwisted a wire that held shut a gate in center field. He stepped through the gate onto a gravel track. Standing a few feet to Finley's left and looking rather startled was Jim Landis, the A's center fielder. A voice began yelling, "Get the hell off the field!'-The voice belonged to the second-base umpire, who was running madly in Finley's direction and flailing his arms. There was a great shout from the crowd. "Wups," Finley said, realizing the game had begun and he had become part of baseball in a way he had never intended. Finley raced back through the gate and twisted the wire again. "First time I ever got eaten out by an umpire," he said.

Back up in the stands, Finley kept being stopped by fans and congratulated for one thing or another. One man offered to donate a green-and-gold hay baler for a Farmers' Day promotion. "Despite all the bad things that have been written about me, I have never been abused by a fan," Finley said. He peered down at the field, where Gabby Hartnett and Luke Appling were coaching on the baselines. "Now, there's something," he said. "Two Hall of Famers coaching for us. Appling gave me my first ticket for a White Sox game when I was young. But baseball doesn't handle the Hall of Fame right. We should put Mantle, Mays, Spahn, Musial into the Hall of Fame right now and make them walking ambassadors for the game. Instead, in January they voted in a guy named Galvin who died in 1902. You want to know something? Galvin played ball in 1872! I sent word to the Hall of Fame that it was too bad my great-grandfather wasn't living so I could find out how good Galvin was. The idea, they told me, was to wait five years after retirement before voting a guy into the Hall of Fame because the guy might rob a gas station or something! In war you don't wait five years to hand out a medal. Last March in Bradenton, at a Hall of Fame dinner, one of the members came up to me with tears in his eyes after my speech. 'Charlie, would you do something for us old-timers?' he said. 'Could you see if you can get us included in your hospitalization program?' We spend $200,000 on one bonus kid who'll never make the big leagues, and we can't include a Hall of Famer in a lousy, cheap hospitalization program. Well, if baseball doesn't do it, I'll buy every one of those old Hall of Famers a policy myself."

Down on the field, the A's were losing as usual. But they were doing it in the Kelly green and Fort Knox gold uniforms that Finley got for them after wangling a rules change in 1963. "Imagine how colorful football would be if you saw Texas, wearing white, playing SMU, wearing gray," he said. "It used to be that all cars were black. Now you almost never see a black car. The colors don't make cars run better, but they sure sell better. That's one reason pro football is such a great, colorful game. Pro football has strong progressive leadership, and it has adapted itself to what the fans want. I'd like to use orange baseballs. The Army dresses our ski troops in white so nobody can see them. In baseball, we fire a white ball out of a white uniform under a bright sky. Suddenly we realize that's dangerous and make the players wear helmets. Why not use an orange baseball that everybody can see? We need a commissioner who is not afraid, who has enough red blood to stand up for what is right.

"Baseball faces more competition than the owners realize. Times have changed. I remember my mother and father saying it's too early to go to bed and too hot to sit at home, so let's go somewhere. They don't say that now, with television and air-conditioning. We never went on a trip until summer vacation, and then it took forever to go 200 miles in a Model A. Now people drive 300 miles on a weekend to visit Aunt Fanny and think nothing of it. I have seven youngsters on a 300-acre farm in La Porte, Ind. I moved out there for the kids, because it's clean and healthy. But in the hot summer it's tough getting them out of the house. They flop in an easy chair, turn up the stereo, flip on the TV and have any kind of entertainment they want. Baseball has never rolled with the punch, never made the fans feel wanted and appreciated. In any business you draw a line called success and a line called failure. When your business starts slipping you may not discover the line has gone down for several years. You may have slipped to the point of no return before you find out. Baseball has definitely slipped. No doubt about it. But how far? Let's pray we haven't reached the point of no return. The pathetic, frustrating thing is that all the owners know baseball has slipped, but they don't do anything. In baseball we could correct the problems overnight. We know what they are. We have to begin by letting all the fans see our best product—the World Series—by playing the first game on Saturday afternoon, the second Sunday afternoon, the third, fourth and fifth on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the sixth and seventh, if necessary, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. That way nobody is at work or school during the Series, and we're not thumbing our noses or hiding our best product in the basement. We have to have interleague play. Think of the rivalries! The Mets and the Yankees, for example. We have to play our season openers on Saturday or Sunday so a working man can go. We have to start the games earlier and end them quicker. If you film a three-hour baseball game and cut out all the no-action, you wind up with 12 minutes. It's ridiculous!"

An Angel pitcher was trudging slowly toward the dugout after being relieved. The organist was playing Have You Ever Been Lonely. Finley said: "But nobody catches the humor in that because they can't hear it because we got a lousy P.A. system."

After another inning, it was an Athletic pitcher who was taking the familiar walk. Muttering to himself but smiling at the fans, Finley leaped up from his seat in the stands and went to the pressroom snack bar and ordered two hamburgers with onions. A message came that there was a call from Ralph Houk, general manager of the Yankees and a man with whom Finley thinks he made one of his sharper trades—Catcher Doc Edwards for John Blanchard and Roland Sheldon. "Why does Raf Hawk want me?" Finley said. "He ought to talk to Peters or Lopat. I don't run this club. I just own it." Finley laughed. "Oh, that Raf Hawk. He's got to talk to CBS before he can make deals. He'll find out when he deals with CBS he is dealing with hard guys."

The sale of the Yankees to CBS made temporary allies of Finley and Arthur Allyn in their opposition to the move. Finley threatened to get out of baseball—a rather empty threat, since that is what American League owners want him to do. But he asked $8 million for his franchise, a price that kept him in baseball after all. Sitting there on the snackbar stool, with buckets of pickles and tomatoes in front of him and with his hamburger patties sizzling on the grill, Finley bent his head toward the radio and learned the Angels were ahead by three runs. He frowned and shoved his rabbit's foot into his pocket. Then he began to grin again. This was still his ball club, wasn't it? Despite the pressures, he was still in the game, wasn't he? A maverick five years ago, he is an unregenerate and unashamed one today.

"Well, anyhow, we're better than we used to be," he said. "We're going to surprise everybody before this season is over."

When most owners say that, they mean the usual business about winning more games than expected. But when Charlie Finley says surprise, the American League jumps. Regardless of what they think about him, they certainly have to pay attention.