Last week, as baseball reeled from the challenge of the Curt Flood suit, the Seattle-Milwaukee debacle and the Denny McLain scandal, Charles O. Finley came to the rescue. He proposed coloring the bases red, yellow and blue.
It wasn't much, true, and it embraced only the bases on the home field of Finley's Oakland A's, but it was something. It even suggested to some that a first baseman in Oakland might now be called a red dog, and that a pick-off play to second might be designated sweep yellow (though traditionalists questioned the propriety of coloring the hot corner a cool blue). Whether it would persuade people in Oakland to come out in welcome numbers to watch the A's play remained to be seen.
Last year—even though they had gold, green and white uniforms, white shoes, green laces, Joe DiMaggio, scoreboard cartoons, fireworks, a minstrel combo, a mule, Reggie Jackson, a fine modern stadium with plenty of safe parking and—more than incidentally—a talented young club that threatened to win the American League's West Division championship, the A's drew a disappointing 778,232 fans, which does not augur well for the team or for baseball.
But—at least in comparison with Finley—there has always been something drab, a less than legendary aura, about his A's. (Finley discourages use of the name Athletics. "Athletics—what the hell does that mean?" he complains. "I like a name that means something." Asked what A's means, he says, "It's the shortest name in baseball.") And long before the A's wandered out of the desert of the American League's second division into Oakland, the Giants, perennial contenders, had turned the area's fans into National League partisans. When a group of A's visited the area that first winter of 1967-68, the players were such blanks to the local folks that they repeatedly had to be reintroduced. The A's finished above .500 in 1968, something they had never done in Kansas City, but nobody noticed.
Last year, the partitioning of the major leagues into East and West divisions threw the maturing A's into a pennant race, and when Jackson broke out in a rash of early-season home runs, the team even had a superstar. But the A's never had a sellout, and only five times during the year, aside from big giveaway promotion nights, did they draw as many as 20,000. Attendance dropped off drastically after Jackson's home runs stopped and the team lost the lead for good to the Minnesota Twins. You can pick your explanation for the lack of interest. It may be that the San Francisco Bay Area will not support two teams. The Giants outdrew the A's last year, but the two clubs' combined attendance was about what the Giants were attracting alone before the A's arrived. It is chilly at night (a condition Finley is trying to alleviate by giving away A's warmup jackets to buyers of season tickets) and, too, Oakland is not exactly a mecca for tourists. A Giant official says, "Oakland and San Francisco are like Brooklyn and Manhattan. You might go from Brooklyn into Manhattan to see a play, but who's going to go from Manhattan into Brooklyn?" (No Giant official would ever admit that many once did—to see the Dodgers.)
"When I was a youngster living in Alabama," says Finley, "we were always looking for someplace to go. I was bat boy for the Birmingham Barons when they played Houston in the Dixie Series and Dizzy Dean pitched for Houston. In those days all the hell baseball had to do was open the door. Now it has competition. Air conditioning. If you want to sleep under a quilt on the Fourth of July, you just turn up your air conditioning. TV. Fast automobiles and superhighways. 'Let's go down and visit Aunt Fanny,' we would say back then—50 miles to Tuscaloosa. Why, hell, it would take you a month to get there. Today 500 miles doesn't mean anything. Today we've got lakes and mountains and all that jazz. Now you've got to make the fan feel wanted and appreciated. You've got to put all the color you can into the game."
Hence, presumably, the tinted bases. "I got the idea from a 15-year-old boy named Bryan Barsamian," Finley says. "All I can take credit for is that I had the good sense to see the merit of it. Bryan Barsamian shall be my guest on Opening Day." The youth, Finley adds, had observed that the colored bases should enable outfielders, faced with the necessity of throwing to the right one, to tell them apart more readily.
But that still leaves the question of how the fans are to tell the players apart. For two years now the A's have been recognized as "a fine young team." Unfortunately, it is fine old players—players with reps and charisma—who draw followings. Only if you like baseball for its own sweet sake do you appreciate Sal Bando at blue base, or Dick Green at yellow, or the way Rick Monday hits. You would pass up a chance to spend the Fourth in a quilt any day to watch Campy Campaneris steal one of his 60-odd bases a year. But none of the A's mainstays has been around long enough to become a culture hero, not even Jackson, who claimed, during his long holdout this spring, that he was making more money in land development around Phoenix than he makes in baseball.
Finley's most notable effort to add certifiable baseball luster to the club was his signing of Joe DiMaggio in 1968 as vice-president and coach. There are those who believe that DiMaggio, regarded as the game's epitome of proud reserve, lent a crucial dignity to the A's gaudy uniforms. There are others who feel that of all the possible answers to the question, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" one of the least heartening is, "To the Oakland dugout, wearing gold pants and white shoes." DiMaggio helped coach the team this spring but may stay home in San Francisco during the season. "If the kids have hitting problems," he says, "they know they can find me right across the bridge."
This winter Finley signed on broadcaster Harry Caray, who had been dropped by the Cardinals. Caray says Finley offered him "great money" (reportedly $90,000) and freedom to develop other jobs. One of the first jobs Harry developed was a sports show in St. Louis (where he continues to make his home), to be broadcast at the same time as the Cardinal announcer's show Still, Caray's penetrating "Going, going, gone" enthusiasm at the mike might hypo interest in the A's this year.
Meanwhile, back down on the multihued field of play, new Manager John McNamara, who never performed in the majors, is soft-spoken and faceless, too, except for an impressive Hawk Harrelson nose. But McNamara may be the best thing to come along for Oakland since Reggie. He managed many of the A's in the minors, and they obviously get along with him much better than they did with the hard-bitten Hank Bauer last year. McNamara is quiet. He doesn't discuss his working relationship with Finley; and as for the multihued bases, he says, diplomatically, "As long as we occupy 'em, I don't care what color they are."
Occupy 'em they can—that part of the A's operation is sound. If someone will also occupy the stands, and if the outfielders can remember which base is which on the road, after getting used to color coding—someday we may all be singing, "Where have you gone, Bryan Barsamian?"