In his aerie 25 floors above Oakland's Lake Merritt, Charles O. Finley advanced upon the kitchen and, with the solemn meticulousness that has made wretched the lives of once-carefree subordinates, cooked up a batch of hamburgers.
He chopped onions with surgical precision, kneaded the raw red meat like a sculptor molding clay and snapped instructions at his houseguest, Jimmy Piersall, the old Red Sox centerfielder, who is for the moment director of "group sales" for Finley's Oakland A's baseball team.
"You can cut those tomatoes later, Jimmy. Run next door now and borrow some cooking oil."
"Yes, sir," said Piersall, age 42.
October 8, 1972
"And then you can resume cutting the damn tomatoes."
"I don't brag about much of anything," Finley said convincingly as Piersall dutifully sped off on his errand, "but I will tell you this: No son of a gun can outcook me."
For a man of such culinary pretensions, hamburger seemed a trifling challenge, but Finley had misplaced his new upper plate on a visit to his equally new basketball team in Memphis and, awaiting an acceptable replacement, was resigned to ingesting ground meat. The missing denture also contributed an incongruous sibilance to Finley's senatorial diction, and for this he apologized profusely. His is a command voice, deep in texture, measured in pace, an effective instrument. The occasional hisses that now escaped detracted from his style.
His real teeth had been removed to remedy an oral infection that had caused him spells of dizziness, some even severe enough to abbreviate his normally interminable telephone conversations. With the teeth out he was a healthier, if somewhat lesser, man.
Despite his pale complexion and white hair, Finley, who is 54 (he was born on Washington's Birthday, an irony not lost on his fellow owners), is in no way fragile. He is robust, erect, handsome in a craggy way and obviously indefatigable. Still, health—or, more accurately, the loss of it—is a matter of grave concern to him, as well it might be, for at age 28 he fell ill with pneumonic tuberculosis and spent the next 27 months in a sanitarium.
The long illness did have some salubrious side effects, however, for it was during his recuperation that he conceived of a group insurance program for doctors that has helped make him a millionaire several times over and the proprietor of not one but three professional sports franchises. "All you got to do," says he, "is lose your health and you do a hell of a lot of serious down-to-earth thinking."
Finley is the son and the grandson of steelworkers, and it was in this scarcely remunerative trade that he began his moneymaking career. Together grandfather, father and son logged 94 years in the mills.
"I'm a machinist, really," said Finley, flipping the burgers expertly. "I'd still rather work on machines than anything else. I'm more comfortable as a grease monkey than I am doing what I'm doing now."
There are those—some team owners, numberless former employees, nearly a dozen baseball managers and almost everybody in Kansas City, not to mention Bowie Kuhn and Vida Blue—who might wish he had more faithfully pursued his original calling. Instead, Finley took night-school courses and sold insurance on the side. In 1945 he became a full-time insurance man, and in his first year established a record for writing health and accident policies for The Travelers Insurance Company in Indiana that remains unsurpassed. He took sick the next year and did enough serious down-to-earth thinking to pull out of it with "a small fortune" and the conviction that "the best things in life are still free."
In 1952 Finley formed his own corporation—Charles O. Finley & Co., Inc.—of which the A's, the California Golden Seals hockey team and the Memphis TAMs basketball team are merely divisions. Actually, Finley's share in the company is only 30%; the remaining shares are held by his wife Shirley and their seven children. "They could vote me out anytime," he acknowledges, "but I caution them that they'll never get anyone to work as hard or as cheap."
Hard work is a Finley religion. That and action. "Don't wait, make it happen" is his motto. Money in itself seems unimportant to him. The work that goes into its accumulation and the power over other men it gives him are its rewards. Save for his love of good food, he has few of the affectations of the very rich. He remains a machinist at heart.
In fact, he did not really begin to enjoy his newly won riches, he says, until 1961 when, after a seven-year search, he finally bought himself a baseball team—the then Kansas City A's—to play with. He spent the next seven years trying to get the team out of Kansas City, much to the chagrin of city officials, who at first embraced him as a baseball messiah, then castigated him as a Judas. Finley had assured them he would keep the team in town though he was looking, almost from the beginning, for a way out.
But he did give what few fans the A's had there a spectacle all too familiar now to what few fans the A's have in Oakland—fireworks, mules, rabbits, greasedpig chases, pretty girls, pretty uniforms, a manager a year and his own considerable presence. When he finally moved West for the 1968 season, after convincing his fellow owners that he and Kansas City simply weren't made for each other, he left behind a bewildered, angered and somewhat relieved citizenry. "Oakland," said one Kansas Citian, "is the luckiest city since Hiroshima."
Finley only moved the ball club. He had never lived in Kansas City, although he originally said he would move there. He has a 1,280-acre farm in La Porte, Ind. and a hotel suite near the offices in Chicago where, mostly on the phone, he runs his business and his teams. The Oakland apartment is only a guesthouse, and the least frequent guest may well be Finley himself.
But he was there this particular week watching "my A's" take their final halting strides toward a second successive American League West championship. He had arrived from Memphis, where he had been acclaimed a few days earlier as...well...a basketball messiah for assuring the few fans there that he bought the team earlier this year "to keep it in Memphis."
The TAMs are his only team outside Oakland, and this alone may bring them luck, for both the Seals, who have been losers, and the A's, who have been winners, are tepid attractions in the East Bay. The A's, probably the best team in the American League this season, have drawn only 900,000 fans. And yet, despite the persistently deplorable attendance, they make enough money to support the hockey team. Finley's lease at the Oakland Coliseum is a help. He receives 27½% of the parking and 25% of the concessions and pays a minimum annual rental of $125,000 or 5% of the gate up to 1.45 million, a total the A's have not even remotely approached.
The lease also runs for 20 years, a precaution against any future Finley defections. Finley insists, all rumors to the contrary, that he has no intention of moving either the Seals or the A's. But there are skeptics. One is Bill Dauer, who was the executive vice-president of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce when Finley was there and now holds the same job with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
"Everything he has said and done in Oakland," said Dauer, "is like a record being played back to me. He is so crafty, so cunning, truly one of the last great characters. It will take a pretty smart guy to outwit those people in Oakland. He may just be that guy."
Finley confesses to only a casual fan's knowledge of hockey and basketball, so he is more inclined than usual to delegate authority in those areas, although his concept of delegating authority is closer to Peter the Great's than Dwight Eisenhower's.
"Charlie butts into everything," says Bob Elson, the veteran baseball announcer who worked for the A's last year before joining the Finley alumni association—which is about the size of Harvard's. "He'd sell tickets, hawk programs, sweep out the ball park, anything. He's the hardest-working man in baseball, but Charlie Finley feels that if Charlie Finley should drop dead, the world would just stop turning around."
Nowhere is Finley's penchant for running his own show more apparent than with the baseball team. The A's chain of command begins and ends with Charles O. Finley, and there are few links in between. He employs a functioning office staff of seven men and one woman. Finley is his own general manager. He has tried others and found them wanting, and as he says, "I satisfy the owner."
Finley's one-man band mocks the conventional baseball organization, with its board chairmen, executive vice-presidents, financial analysts, media liaison officers and the other impedimenta of big business. It both galls and astonishes orthodox baseball men that Finley, wearing so many hats, can accomplish so much. It is not false pride speaking nor is it, heaven forbid, bragging when Finley refers to the team as "my A's." They are, indisputably, his.
"Maybe his way is right," says Bill Cutler, another Finley alumnus, who now operates the Portland Pacific Coast League team. "Maybe you don't need a general manager. Maybe all the owners should do like Charlie—run the team on the phone from Chicago and make the decisions after consulting cabdrivers and the guy in the barbershop."
Cutler learned firsthand that Finley runs his office the way 18th century British sea captains ran their vessels. When the team moved to Oakland, Cutler joined it as an "administrative assistant." He had spent 20 years in the American League office and left it as an assistant to the president. He had 12 children, so the cross-country move from Boston was no small undertaking. Once in Oakland, however, Cutler learned that the duties of a Finley "administrative assistant" were, at best, vague. He was further disillusioned when he heard Finley describe him publicly as the team's new public relations man.
"I wouldn't have come all that distance to be a P.R. man," says Cutler. "I'd never done any P.R. in my life. Charlie just didn't keep his word." Cutler, 12 children and all, was fired within six months.
It is no disgrace, of course, to be cashiered by Charlie Finley. In the 12 seasons he has owned the A's he has had 12 managers, eight publicity men, seven farm directors, six traveling secretaries, four controllers and four general managers, not counting himself. One day Finley may achieve the ultimate by firing himself. When the A's win the World Series, he has said, "The first man I'll get rid of will be Charles O. Finley. After that, somebody else can run the show." That, say the Finley alumni, will be the day.
Finley enjoys hiring at least as much as firing. He has been known to meet people on airplanes for the first time and hire them as, say, "administrative assistants" before the plane touches ground.
"He just likes selling and being sold," says John O'Reilly, now a San Francisco television sports broadcaster but once a Finley promotion man. O'Reilly ran afoul of his boss on one occasion when he refused to introduce long-haired Joe Pepitone on the public address system as "Josephine Pepitone." Finley, ever anxious to entertain the customers, thought it would be good for a laugh. O'Reilly, to his sorrow, disagreed. Still, he survived that dereliction of duty, which is more than can be said for the Coliseum fireworks man who shorted Finley one bomb charge and was fired posthaste.
Bob Bestor, now a vice-president for an outdoor advertising firm, has the singular distinction of working as a public relations man for both Finley and Al Davis, the manipulating and almost equally eccentric boss of the Oakland Raiders football team. "Davis," he said, carefully drawing the distinction, "is like the CIA; Charlie is like the 4th Marine Division. He just rolls over you. The thing that finally got me out of there was when he took a full hour explaining to me how to address an envelope."
"He leaves you not a shred of dignity," said one former aide. "It gets to the point where you are almost brainwashed. If he doesn't chew you out one day, you're like a prisoner of war saying to yourself, 'How nice of them not to beat us tonight.' "
"Charlie," said broadcaster Elson, "has this one little weakness: he just doesn't treat people like human beings."
Much of Finley's impatience with his underlings may be attributed to the self-made man's distrust of the glib, the subtle, the easy. Finley wears his humble origins like a coat of arms. "My God," said Dauer, "I've heard the story of how he made his money 500 times." "Sweat and sacrifice," says Finley about every chance he gets, "spell success."
Finley relishes a confrontation with a supposed equal. His first general manager was Frank Lane, a strong-willed and experienced executive whom Finley described to Kansas City fans as "one of the best brains in baseball." The words were still echoing when Lane was sacked. "I," said Finley afterward, "know more about baseball than he does."
The newest challenge could be Adolph Rupp, the crusty 71-year-old former Kentucky basketball coach who is "president" of Finley's Memphis TAMs. At the moment their relationship is harmonious in the extreme. Finley is "proud to have the Baron on my team" and Rupp, uncharacteristically deferential, has said of his boss, "He's a magnetic man, a great man. Trying to top him is like trying to get the sun past the rooster."
Finley is perennially at sword's point with the press. Last month he was outraged when Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune wrote in The Sporting News that the A's announcers, Monte Moore and Jim Woods, seemed to be engaged in a contest "to see which one can make the most complimentary remarks about Owner Charlie Finley." Finley is fiercely protective of his announcers, although with the notable exception of Moore, who has been with him from the beginning and is darkly accused in some quarters of being the boss' informer, they come and go about as often as managers and publicity men.
When Finley read the Bergman item he reached, quite naturally, for the phone. The subsequent conversation went something like this:
"Mr. Bergman, this is Charles O. Finley. You, sir, are a twerp! You have made my announcers sound like prostitutes."
"Oh, they're good announcers, Charlie, but they'd be better if they didn't mention your name eight times every minute."
"O.K., you can write what you want, but from now on, you'd better make your own plane and hotel reservations. You'll have to, because you're not riding on my charters anymore."
Since the Tribune pays Bergman's air passage and hotel bills and he is one of only two reporters who travel with the A's, Finley would seem to have committed something of a gaffe in local press relations, just as he did before last season's playoff series when it was learned he had plans to establish his press headquarters not in Oakland but in The Mark Hopkins Hotel across the Bay in much-envied San Francisco. Even Finley later admitted the Bergman affair was "probably beneath my dignity" and restored his privileges.
The Finley approach to player relations has softened considerably in recent years. He did have a salary dispute with star slugger Reggie Jackson two years ago, but now Jackson is touting him, with some justification, as "Executive of the Year." This year it was Finley vs. Vida Blue over salary. Finley, of course, won, but Blue is still unhappy. It is his contention he was not treated as an adult during the dispute. "Vida," says Finley, "is basically a good boy."
Finley can, however, be extraordinarily generous with his athletes. He is free with unexpected gifts, personal loans and financial advice.
"He helped me with financial problems," said Diego Segui, whom Finley traded to St. Louis this season. "He helped lots of other players, too, and some of them, after they were traded, turned against Mr. Finley. I do not like that."
Another apparent Finley fan is his current manager, Dick Williams, who already holds the longevity record for the job and in August signed a second two-year contract. "It is," says Williams without the slightest suggestion of sarcasm, "a pleasure to work with him."
Finley is openly proud of his baseball acumen. Over lunch in the apartment (Piersall finally got back with the oil) he talked expansively of his days as a semipro-player-manager in Gary.
"Tell the one about the uniforms," prompted Piersall.
"Ah yes, well, I went to all the merchants in town asking them each to give $25 to pay for our uniforms. In return I assured them we'd have the names of their firms on the backs of our shirts. What I did then was to go out and buy 98¢ sweat shirts and just have the names stenciled on. The full uniforms didn't cost more than $15 apiece. The rest was gravy."
"Is that the most money you've ever made out of baseball?"
"Yes, I think you could say that."
It was also an early demonstration of the vaunted Finley ingenuity. No owner in baseball is more promotion-conscious, and while many of his schemes may be dismissed as juvenile—"Charlie-O.," the mule: the mechanical rabbit delivering baseballs to the umpire (since abandoned); "Bald Headed Day," "Mustache Day"—others have the ring of sweet reason. It was Finley, for example, who suggested the World Series begin on a Saturday and that weekday games be played at night so that "the people who support us—the workingman, the kid in school—can see our biggest attraction." He considers himself a practical businessman with vision. And so he is.
"Take the uniforms," he said, pushing himself away from the table. "When I first came out with our green and gold suits and the white shoes, all those owners threw up their hands and cried, 'What is the man doing to our beloved game!' Now just look at the way they're dressing their teams."
More radically, Finley proposes that pitchers be limited to three, not four balls, and he wants to allow players replaced by pinch hitters or pinch runners to return to the game. "This," he says, "will help balance the defense and the offense. We've got to bring action back into this game. Just look at all the rules changes in football, basketball and hockey over the past 25 years. In our game there hasn't been one significant rule change in the last 86 years! And I'll say this, if we don't make some substantial changes soon, I'm gonna get out!"
There was a time when a declaration of this sort would bring huzzahs from Finley's confreres in the baseball hegemony, but though he is an occasional irritant, they have decided he makes some sense now, and they are listening.
Finley savors his little victories over them. "You know," he said, "some people like to paint old Charlie with horns growing out of his head. But I'll tell you something." He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "I'm really just about the sweetest guy this side of the Mississippi."