In the half century there has been baseball played in the Oakland Coliseum, there have been some flat-out bizarre days.
On anybody’s list of those, June 15, 1976 has to be near the top of the list. It was then that then-A’s owner Charlie Finley sold (he called it a trade, but there were no players coming in other direction) closer Rollie Fingers and left fielder Joe Rudi to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each. At the same time, he sold Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million.
In the words of Sports Illustrated immortal Ron Fimrite, it was “the biggest sale of human flesh in the history of sports.”
The thing was, the Red Sox were in town for a series, so Rudi and Fingers only had to take a right turn at the bottom of the stairs at the Coliseum’s clubhouse walkway to head over to join their new clubs. The deal didn’t last; Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided both deals using his “best interests of baseball” powers, but no one knew that would happen when the deals came down on June 15, 1976.
“It was weird, because I’d gotten word of the trade a little before,” A’s equipment manager Steve Vucinich recalled Monday. At the time, Vucinich was the visiting clubhouse manager, and among his other responsibilities he had to make sure each player had a uniform.
“Darrell Johnson (the Red Sox manager) was walking around like a nervous wreck,” Vucinich said. “He and I went into the corridor (outside the clubhouse) and started talking about it. And then they announced it. It was lucky that at the time, Boston didn’t have names on the back of their uniforms, so Rollie and Rudi came over and put a uniform on. Easy.”
Sports Illustrated’s reporting of the night said Finger seemed bemused by it all.
“Hey, I’m worth a million dollars,” he said. “Somehow that just doesn’t sound right.”
As for Rudi, he spent as much time saying goodbye to his old teammates as he did saying hello to his new team.
“I guess ballplayers aren’t supposed to cry,” he told SI, “but I couldn’t help it.”
The Associated Press reported the deal at 7:51. At that time, A’s home night games began at 8:05 p.m.
“You have to wonder what would have happened if Rollie and Rudi had played in that game,” Vucinich said. “Would that have changed what happened?”
They didn’t play, so we’ll never know the answer. Johnson decided against playing either man that night, even before Kuhn, who was watching an Orioles-White Sox game in Comiskey Park, got everybody on the phone and told all parties the trade couldn’t go forward until he made an official ruling. Oakland would have to make do with a 22-man roster and Fingers, Rudi and Blue were in limbo.
Finley had been having conversations with the White Sox about a similar deal for Sal Bando and with the Rangers about Don Baylor, but those talks now could go nowhere, too.
Kuhn was furious, telling Finley in no uncertain terms that withholding the three men from competition wasn’t in the best interests of competitive baseball, but Finley, who had a long history of antagonizing Kuhn, simply ignored him.
The next day, Kuhn got Major League Baseball’s Executive Committee to convene, but they couldn’t settle on a verdict. Then the commissioner had a meeting with all the parties involved from the A’s (represented by Finley attorney David Kentoff), the Red Sox and the Yankees. And players’ union leader Marvin Miller was on the call, too.
Ninety minutes later, the meeting was over and the Red Sox and Yankees both came out of it believing the deals would go through.
Another 24 hours told a different story. On June 18, Kuhn announced the deals had been voided by the first use of the commissioner’s best-interests-of-the-game power since the 1919 Black Sox World Series cheating scandal.
Then the real fun began. Finley refused to let the three players play, or even put on an Oakland uniform. The A’s owners also said he was going to sue Kuhn over the matter, and he told the media “right now we feel that Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers are the property of the Red Sox and Vida Blue is the property of the Yankees.”
“We are certainly very confident that we will win this case because ballplayers have been sold since the beginning of baseball,” he said. “The selling of ballplayers is nothing new.”
That didn’t sit well in the A’s clubhouse, where going with a 22-man roster was putting a strain on the five-time defending American League West champions.
Finley said letting the three play would hurt his lawsuit and he ordered manager Chuck Tanner not to play them. It was at that time Tanner told confidants that he’d had it with Finley, that he would not be back with the A’s in 1977. And he wasn’t; Finley worked out a deal essentially trading him to the Pirates.
Finley was operating on a vision of the future that proved prescient. A year earlier, the door to free agency had been opened by an arbitrator’s decision that had survived two reviews in federal courts say that any player who went through a season without signing a contract became a free agent and would be eligible to sign with any teams. Six A’s players, included the three who’d been sold, were playing without contracts and would be gone after the season was over. Finley would get nothing if they left.
Miller, at the start of a long run as the players’ leader, said he saw things Finley’s way.
“I don’t understand what the furor is about,” Miller told Sports Illustrated. “No rules have been violated. What has happened here had happened hundreds of times: namely, the selling of players for cash.” Finley told SI he wanted to use the $3.5 million “to purchase a lot of players at the end of the season.”
As three days turned into a week and then morphed into 10 days, Tanner had to make out his lineups from a 22-man roster. Ultimately, the players revolted.
“We would come out to the ballpark, warm up, but we were not in uniform during the game,” Fingers said in an interview with the Hall of Fame three years ago. “And finally, it got to the point where all the guys on the team saw how frustrated we were, and we had a team meeting. And we all voted – Minnesota had just come into town – that we’re not going to play the game against the Twins. We will forfeit it, and they will get the automatic win, unless Rudi, I and Vida were reinstated.”
Finley said he might call up his Triple-A team from Tucson if a strike happened, but he ultimately backed down after Tanner called him on June 27 to say that his players, who had gone 7-5 with a 22-man roster, were in the clubhouse, still in street clothes, having not taken batting practice. A strike was going to happen. That would be a forfeit, and that would cost Finley money; that was his Achilles’ heel. He caved.
“The first one out the door that night was Rudi,” Vucinich said. “The fans, however many there were (4,798) there were, went absolutely nuts.”
Finley would make good on his promise to sue Kuhn. He lost, although he wouldn’t know that until 1978.
And at season’s end, his premonition would bear fruit. All six of his unsigned players left as free agents.
Don Baylor and Joe Rudi signed with the Angels. Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace signed with the Padres. Sal Bando went to Brewers. Shortstop Bert Campaneris signed with the Rangers. Rudi did make it to the Red Sox, but not until 1981 when his career was winding down.
Two years after losing the lawsuit, Finley hired manager Billy Martin, who revived the team enough that Finley, in need of money as he was going through a divorce, was able to sell the team to Walter A. Haas Jr. and his family.
And what did Martin, who was managing the Yankees in 1976, think of all this?
“I’m dumbfounded,” Martin told Sports Illustrated at the time. “This is worse than Watergate.”
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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