Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Kansas City Athletics, is a handsome, compact, white-haired man with aggressive black eyebrows and a chummy disposition who looks older than his 42 years. His relation to his ball club is less that of an owner than that of a love slave. As befits a self-made millionaire businessman, when Finley relaxes at his home in Gary, Ind. or at his baseball headquarters in a tower suite at the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City, he voices certain credos. One of them is, "Sweat and sacrifice spell success." Another is, "I may be outsmarted but nobody can outhustle me."
You can believe it. Charlie Finley is a ball of fire, a plunger ("You have to spend money to make money"), a baseball revolutionary and an experimenter. When his general manager, Frank Lane, an experimenter himself, recently persuaded the field manager, Joe Gordon, to sit up in the press box to see if that was a better place from which to guide the destinies of the team, Finley topped him. Finley requested permission to have a telephone line installed between the umpire and Gordon, so that if Gordon disagreed with a decision, instead of clambering down onto the field, he could merely dial the umpire. The request was refused. Gordon tried the experiment twice, decided its disadvantages outweighed its advantages and is now managing from the dugout.
Finley has admitted, and Lane repeatedly seconds it, that he does not know much about baseball. But with an incredible amount of zest Finley is putting into practice all the flamboyant ideas he has been nurturing for at least seven years—the length of time it took him to nail down a major league baseball club. Few ball clubs, it must be acknowledged, have needed a Charlie Finley more.
The purchase of the A's by Insurance Broker Finley was a dream, as they say, come true. Afraid of nothing, least of all a cliché, Finley declares: "I was so hungry for a ball club I could taste it." Back in 1954 he had tried to buy a controlling interest in Connie Mack's Athletics when they were in Philadelphia. Arnold Johnson beat him to it. "I thought I'd be cute and show up 10 minutes before the scheduled time," Finley recalls. "But Johnson was even cuter. Mack's daughters verified his credit with a phone call and Johnson had his ball club. I had a check just as big-as Johnson's, but I never got the chance to wave it."
June 4, 1961
In 1956 Finley entered into a scramble to buy a piece of the Detroit Tigers. Thwarted there, two years later he vainly went after the Chicago White Sox. Then last year, in a two-week period, he made 10 airplane flights (three of them coast to coast) in a futile effort to obtain the Los Angeles Angels franchise. No sooner had the door slammed in his face on that project than he swooped down on the moribund Kansas City Athletics.
Here Finley found himself faced by somewhat reluctant competition—a syndicate formed by eight Kansas City businessmen. When it became known that Johnson's widow (Johnson had died on March 10, 1960) planned to sell her stock to help pay taxes on the estate, they banded together to purchase a controlling interest in the club—mainly to make sure it would not stagger out of Kansas City. The season had been mighty glum for players and fans alike. In addition to Johnson's death casting a pall over the club, the players engaged in frequent squabbles with their despairing manager, Bob Elliott, and many of them played lackadaisical ball. ("It seemed sometimes like they were making out on purpose," a front-office veteran has commented.) After the middle of July, the team never rose from its niche in the cellar. Kansas City fans—among the world's most loyal—found the situation depressing. Attendance dropped to 774,944, the lowest since the A's were transplanted from Philadelphia.
"Losing our ball club would have been a black eye the city would have had a hard time getting over," one of the eight said recently. "Admittedly, none of us wanted to be part owners of a ball club—but we were desperate. Then Finley's bid came." Finley bought 52% of the stock from Johnson's estate for $1,975,000. That was on December 19. In February he paid about the same amount for the rest. He is now that rarity—a sole owner, the only other in the American League being Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox.
It is a situation Finley relishes. Around 2 o'clock on a recent Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, when glowering gray clouds pressed down on Municipal Stadium in the early innings of a game between the A's and Orioles, Finley, wearing a cap just like the ballplayers', picked up the phone in his box directly behind the Athletics' dugout to call the organist. "Play It Ain't Gonna Rain No More," Finley instructed.
A few moments later, to the delight of the fans, the lilting strains of that tune rocked over the public-address system. Finley removed the cigar from his mouth, worried the shell off a peanut and then beamed. "That's the beauty of being a 100% owner," he confided. "You don't have to consult a board of directors or stockholders to put your inspirations into practice." Owner Finley had spoken to the organist and the organist had relayed the message to the elements. The rain, knowing what was good for it, held off.
It is doubtful if any owner or part owner has ever been as solicitous about the comfort of the fan or the peace of mind of his players, or has identified himself so closely with the success of his ball club—to the horror of Frank Lane—as Finley. "This club has got to go," he asserts, "or poor old Charlie Finley will be out of business. And that's not going to happen."
Finley has sweated and sacrificed and spent a lot of money to see that it doesn't happen. His first act, after acquiring the club, was to hire Lane, the busiest trader in baseball, at the highest salary a general manager has ever received—about $100,000 a year. Finley also presented Lane with a Mercedes-Benz.
Then began the most ambitious two-pronged courtship in baseball history—Finley's wooing of disenchanted K.C. fans and the romancing of his ballplayers. He made scores of speeches before civic groups of all kinds, sometimes as many as five a day. Standing on the steps of City Hall, he burned the contract which gave the owner the legal right to move the team out of the city if the annual attendance dropped below 850,000. He let it be known that neither he nor Pat Friday—an insurance employee of Finley's whom Finley made vice-president and treasurer of the A's—was drawing a nickel of salary from the club. He placed three prominent citizens on his board of directors. Aware that many Kansas Citians were disgruntled over Johnson's trades of their favorite ballplayers (such as Roger Maris) to the Yankees, Finley arranged for a bus-burning. He bought an old bus, symbolic of the "shuttling" of players between Kansas City and The Bronx, had gasoline poured on and got Frank Lane to set it aflame. (This was before events in Alabama made the sight of a burning bus a symbol of lynch law.) "No more deals with the Yankees!" Finley proclaimed to the excited fans. Lane forthwith announced that, an contraire, he would make deals with the Yankees or any ball club if he felt it would help the A's. This was not the last of the altercations between Finley and his general manager.
When the subject of the ball park is mentioned, Finley's eyes light up. "I poured half a million dollars of my own money into improvements on a municipally owned stadium," he says. "And now I've got the sexiest-looking ball park in the country." It well may be. The new field box seats Finley has installed are painted citrus yellow, the reserved seats and bleachers are desert turquoise, the upright beams are yellowish orange and two vertical pink fluorescent lights mark the ends of the foul lines. The wall outside the park was sandblasted and painted yellow. Finley felt the area was too dark outside, so he had quartz lights that shed an amber glow installed every 50 feet around the stadium. He lengthened and lowered the players' dugouts and had fluorescent lights installed in them so that, during night games, the fans could see what the team at bat and its manager were doing. "I look at it from the fans' point of view," Finley says. "I like to see what's going on in the dugout—the strategy being planned and so on. So I figure everybody would like to see, too."
Finley has had a picnic grounds built out by left field—the most hospitable in the majors—where fans can bask in the shade of 10 sugar maple trees and munch on potato salad while watching the ball game. Carriage lights illumine the area at night. He installed a device next to the center-field scoreboard on which letters light up to form messages called Fan-A-Grams. Admittedly, this is no innovation, but some of the messages, such as "Welcome to Paul Richards and his tribe of chirping Orioles," may be.
He had a tunnel finished that saves fans who have to reach the lower seats a dreary climb up and a dreary climb down. He arranged to have the radio broadcasts of the games piped into the rest rooms, and outfitted the ushers with natty jackets and air-cooled light blue hats. Before games, Finley has two sheep busy nibbling away to keep the grass short on an embankment behind the right-field wall. Someday soon he plans to add a few more, with the herd dyed various bright colors.
In a move more strategic than picturesque, he relocated a large light tower in left field so the left-field wall could be set back about 40 feet. It was to help K.C. pitchers. "Last year," he says, "our opponents got 43 home runs and the A's only 32 over that wall. We don't have any right-handed power hitters and it's stupid to give away easy home runs to the opposition. Now the fence is a respectable 370 feet from the plate." He also had the K.C. pitchers' bullpen moved from behind the center-field fence to a spot along the right-field foul line, eliminating the necessity for relief pitchers to be chauffeured to within walking distance of the mound. "I think the auto ride made them self-conscious," he says. "It didn't seem like baseball."
But Finley's two most interesting innovations are a device for supplying the plate umpire with baseballs when he needs them and a mechanism that saves him the bother of bending over and dusting off home plate. The first is a rabbit with blinking eyes, wearing an A's home uniform, that rises from an invisible spot in the grass to the right of the plate umpire. Between the ears of the rabbit, who is called Harvey, is a cage of baseballs. The cover magically flings itself open and the umpire helps himself. The ascent of the rabbit is accompanied by an ascending whistle, while his disappearance into the ground is accompanied by a descending whistle. Simultaneously the organist plays Here Comes Peter Cottontail. The other innovation is called "Little Blowhard." It is a compressed-air device whose spout is in the center of the plate. When needed, air jets out to blow dirt off. A few enemy batters have been startled by Little Blowhard or Harvey the first time they encountered them, one of them leaping nearly a foot in the air.
Ingeniously equipped, the stadium is carefully tended. Finley's groundkeeper, George Toma, he asserts, is the best in baseball. "The Yankees are trying to get him away from me, but they won't." The stadium has one of the fastest infield tarpaulin-unrolling crews in the majors (they beat the Yankees last year in a race), and the men who line the baselines and the batters' boxes have the keenest eyes in baseball. Attending a game in Kansas City, particularly at night, is a kind of sybaritic delight, with the Fan-A-Gram communicating the owner's messages, the organ beating out music pertinent to the crowd's mood, Harvey popping up and blinking, Little Blowhard spewing, the picnic area aglow, the grass shiny and emeraldlike under the beam of powerful spots.
Frank Lane does not share Finley's enthusiasm for Harvey and some of the other spectacles at the stadium. "He's trying to out-Veeck Bill Veeck," Lane says wryly. "But Veeck has the horses. What makes a fan come to a ball park is a team that makes one more run than the other guys. If the team doesn't do well, I don't think the fans are going to give a damn for Bugs Bunny."
One happy family
Finley does not expect the team to perform miracles—at least this season. He would be pleased to see them play .500 ball, which they are not quite up to yet, and finish somewhere in the middle of the league. He does want a happy team, though, and he has shown himself to be the kindliest owner in baseball. He told the players, when spring training started, to come to him if they had any problems. He treated them all to an expensive supper in one of Palm Beach's most exclusive clubs and gave them each a $150 clock-radio. He announced that if they finished in the first division he would tear up their contracts and give them all retroactive raises in pay. A couple of weeks ago he invited all the wives and sweethearts of the players to accompany the team to Chicago and then had them out to his farm in La Porte, Ind. for a cookout. He rearranged the schedule to give the players Monday off and changed Saturday night home games to the afternoon. Do the players appreciate it? "I never saw a team with such spirit," asserts Finley. "After we lost one game in the 10th that we should have won, Jerry Lumpe, our second baseman, sat in the clubhouse crying as though we'd lost the last game of the World Series. Other players had tears in their eyes."
The players can hardly help but be grateful for his attentions, though they may be somewhat confused—in the manner of a suspect getting the hard and the soft treatment from a pair of knowledgeable detectives. "You have to appreciate what Charlie's trying to do," a regular has commented. "We're not a great ball club, but he's showing us every way he can he has faith in us."
Lane thinks Finley's solicitude toward the team is absurd. "Let the ballplayers show you how much they appreciate you," he says dourly. "Not the other way around. They don't go for these shenanigans—trips for their wives and so on. Let 'em play ball."
For his part, Lane has tried gamely to strengthen the team by making trades. He got for the A's, among other players, Pitchers Jim Archer and Joe Nuxhall, Infielder Wayne Causey, First Baseman Bob Boyd and Outfielder Al Pilarcik. He also purchased Pitcher Ed Rakow from the Dodgers. All these moves have had Finley's approval. A few other changes Lane has tried to make have been overruled by Finley—a circumstance that has caused rumors to fly that Lane would quit the club the first chance he got. Lane denies vehemently that he plans to leave. Finley says if Lane wants to leave he is welcome to go. However, he would be breaking his four-year contract. Lane calls his differences with Finley "discussions," but it does not appear that he has won a discussion yet—the first time around, anyway.
Both Gordon and Lane wanted to send Pitcher Ken Johnson to Toronto, but Finley insisted on giving him another chance. Johnson pitched against Baltimore and failed to get past the first inning. The A's lost. Lane's comment was, "If we're going to continue spring training into July, we'll drop so many games it won't be funny." Finley's was, "Lane was right, but I was right, too. I want to give our ballplayers every possible chance to make the team." Johnson was shipped to Toronto.
In another case, when the team had to cut down by one player in May, Lane and Gordon wanted to send Pitcher Norman Bass to Shreveport. Finley wanted to give Bass a chance to show what he could do (he had a 1-0 record), and Leo Posada, an outfielder who bats righty, was sent to Shreveport instead. Bass pitched well against Chicago in his time of trial, though losing, and then won a game, vindicating Finley's judgment. "Well," said Lane resignedly, "if this team can't experiment, who the hell can? Finley has sunk four and a half million into the club; if he thinks he's protecting his investment by disregarding the advice of experts, I can't argue."
Finley, who was born in Birmingham, and was a bat boy for the Birmingham Barons in the Southern Association, made his money mainly by selling a special kind of insurance to physicians and surgeons. The policies, which are held by nearly 70,000 doctors in this country, protect the holder's earning power over a period of years in the event that he gets sick or is unable to practice because of an injury. If injured permanently, the holder receives payments for life. "The idea wasn't new," says Finley. "My policy just offered a great deal more coverage than my rivals' for a modest increase in premiums."
Finley devised this kind of policy as a result of being sick himself. In 1946 he contracted pneumonic tuberculosis—"the worst kind"—from working too hard. An ulcer had kept him out of the Army during the war, so he worked in an ordnance factory in Indiana and spent his spare time selling policies for the Travelers Insurance Company. In 1945 he quit war work to devote all his time to selling insurance. In one 12-month period he broke the company record for policies sold, but he also lost a lot of weight and developed a hacking cough.
A doctor to whom he was trying to sell a policy wondered about the cough and X-rayed him, diagnosing TB. He was right. Finley, who carried no health insurance himself, was laid up in a Crown Point, Ind. sanatorium for over two years. His wife Shirley took a job reading proof on a Gary newspaper.
It was a dark time for Finley. "I had plenty of time to think and worry," he said. "I was determined to recover, though. If I couldn't hold down a meal, I immediately ordered another. Sometimes I had to reorder twice. I had the sweats about three times a day and I made a game out of it. I'd whisk the sweat from my forehead with a forefinger and snap it at the wall, trying to make a big circle. Some days I did and others I didn't. My weight went down to 108 pounds and people said I was going to die. But one day I didn't wake up sweating at the usual time and I knew I had it licked."
On the grim road to recovery, Finley turned his attention, logically enough, to protecting a breadwinner's earning power. He pored over statistics and actuarial tables to puzzle out his insurance plan. On his discharge, he scouted around for a year before finding a company that would handle his policies. Continental Casualty finally took them on and they were so popular Finley soon left the firm to found Charles O. Finley & Company Inc. in Chicago. Today the Finley Company does about $20 million worth of business a year as the country's largest insurance brokerage firm specializing in group insurance. By 1954 Finley had amassed some $5 million and felt solvent enough to begin his pursuit of a major league ball club. The K.C. A's are not his only club, however. An ardent sports fan and a former first baseman on several Indiana semipro teams, he now sponsors two teams in semipro leagues in Indiana—the Gary Athletics and the La Porte Athletics (formerly the Cubs). He also sponsors a Gary Little League team called the Little Athletics (formerly the Little Giants).
His doctor, naturally, warns him to take things easy, and he claims he does. "I get my six hours' sleep a night, or the equivalent," he says, "and I keep my belly full. I'm like a horse; I can sleep anywhere. I smoke too many cigars but hardly drink at all. My main vice is fried chicken, practically burnt, like we used to have in Birmingham."
Kansas Citians wonder about his psychic energy, but by and large they think highly of Charlie Finley—if not of all his spectacles. Citizens living near the stadium protested so much about the noisy fireworks that they were banned last week. A poignant message appeared on the Fan-A-Gram: "Thirty thousand dollars' worth of fireworks for sale cheap." The Chamber of Commerce, though, dotes on him. One of the members of the corporation that nearly bought the club recently said that every few weeks he and his colleagues get together just for the purpose of thanking God for Charlie Finley. Most Kansas Citians are happy to see someone lavish attention on the ball club. They miss Roger Maris and hope that Lane won't trade away Dick Howser, the shortstop who many think will be named Rookie of the Year. Mayor Roe Bartle says that Finley has put more spirit into the city than anyone in the past decade. "He holds the heart of the city in the palm of his hand," says the mayor.
Finley, who plans to move to K.C. after his 17-year-old son (one of seven children) completes high school, welcomes the presence of the mayor at ball games. He has had one of the armrests torn out in the box next to his so the mayor, who weighs 300 pounds, can slide in. The mayor is a symbol of the support of the city for the club and, having huge lungs and a penetrating voice, is good at rattling enemy pitchers.
Several nights ago, when the Yankees paid the city a visit, it looked as though trouble might be brewing in a late inning for Yankee Pitcher Whitey Ford. "Why don't you yell at him?" suggested Finley, leaning over into the mayor's box. A few minutes before, Finley had taken a phone call from his daughter at Northwestern. She had turned on the radio and was listening to the White Sox game, but the announcer never mentioned the A's-Yankees score. Finley told her the A's were behind. Presumably she was disappointed. "But we'll get 'em, honey, don't you worry," Finley assured her as he hung up.
The mayor was hollering at Ford. "Heeeeey, Whitey! They're warming up a pitcher in the bullpen for you, Whitey! You can't see that plate!" Somebody handed him a cardboard beer carton with the bottom hacked out and he used it as a megaphone. "I remember you when you were a Kansas City Blue, Whitey!" he hollered. "You're still bluuuuuuue!" Ford presently was batted out of the box, to the immense gratification of the crowd, and the mayor stood up to face the fans, his arms held aloft. Luis Arroyo came in to replace Ford. Up popped Harvey, eyes blinking, wearing a self-satisfied expression. "You can't do it, Loueeeee! Ohhhh, Loueeeee! There's a pitcher warming up for you, Loueeeee!" The A's began hitting again, and Finley excitedly jumped up, removed his cap, leaned over the dugout and, hollering encouragement, waved the runners around the "bases. When the Yankees finally came to bat, the mayor, who is pretty versatile, rattled Hector Lopez. "You can't hit that ball, Hector!" he cried. "You can't hit, you Panamanian! They're taking over the Panama Canal, Hector!"
When the game was won, Finley replaced his cap and gave the mayor his due. "You knocked Whitey Ford out of the box," he told the mayor. "I'm hoarse," the mayor rasped, "but it was worth it." "Kansas City is back in the major leagues," asserted Finley. Elated at licking the Yankees, the team they most enjoy beating, the A's scrambled into the dugout, and you had the feeling that maybe Charlie Finley was right. Love may find a way.