The extraordinary events of last week may not have constituted, as a flummoxed Chuck Tanner suggested, "the biggest I-don't-know-what-you-call-it in the history of baseball." Nor were they in any way comparable, as a vexed Billy Martin contended, to Watergate. But there is no question that when Charlie Finley tried to peddle three of his Oakland A's stars to buyers in New York and Boston for a total of $3.5 million and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said "No," he could not do it, the already lacerated national pastime was plunged into an imbroglio from which it cannot emerge unscarred.
It was a week of surprise and outrage, the only unsurprising aspect being that the chief characters were those familiar antagonists, Bowie and Charlie. The circumspect former Wall Street lawyer and the megalomaniacal wheeler-dealer are the Flagg and Quirt of baseball, only much less amusing. Bowie is forever fining Charlie for assorted misdemeanors—like firing players in the middle of a World Series or offering incentive bonuses—and Charlie is constantly campaigning to depose Bowie and replace him with the jackass he employs as the A's mascot.
Charlie started this biggest of all rows when he stunned even the most alert Finley-watchers by announcing only hours before the major league trading deadline of midnight, June 15, that he was selling Pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million and Outfielder Joe Rudi and Relief Pitcher Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million apiece. It was the biggest sale of human flesh in the history of sports. Faced with the alternative of losing all three at the end of the season to free-agent status, Finley sold them at prices one normally associates with downtown real estate or Renaissance paintings. Finley would get the money, the A's would receive no players in return.
The departure of the three stars would all but complete the demolition of a team that had won five consecutive division titles, four straight American League pennants and the World Series of 1972, '73 and '74. Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman had been dispatched to Baltimore earlier, and now only Sal Bando, Gene Tenace and Bert Campaneris remained of the players who had built this remarkable record. Never in baseball history had a championship team been dismantled so swiftly. It took Connie Mack several years each time to reduce his 1909-14 and 1927-32 teams to cellar rubble. Finley had accomplished pretty much the same thing in a few months.
June 27, 1976
The reaction to this clearance sale was instantaneous. Many staunch Oakland fans, while defending Finley's right to operate his business as he pleases, expressed dismay that he should so contemptuously reduce the attractiveness of his product. "He can set all his cash out on that mound and come up here and cheer for his money," one fan told The San Francisco Examiner. The less affluent among the baseball owners seemed equally distressed. The nightmare of the rich getting richer, unfettered by the reserve clause, seemed to be coming true.
"I think it's a terrible thing when two clubs go out there and start bidding to see who can buy a championship team," said Minnesota Owner Calvin Griffith. "I think this shows that what the owners have been saying about the wealthy clubs getting the top players is true."
Bowie Kuhn was sitting in the VIP section of the press box at Chicago's Comiskey Park last Tuesday when news of Finley's sale broke over the Associated Press wires at 7:51 p.m., Chicago time. Visibly distressed, he left the White Sox-Orioles game in the sixth inning, commenting, "I won't believe it until I see it on paper." When he did, Kuhn ordered the involved players to stay put and called the principals to a Thursday meeting in his New York office. Eighteen persons attended, including Finley, Red Sox General Manager Dick O'Connell, General Partner George Steinbrenner (another Kuhn foe) and President Gabe Paul of the Yankees and Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association. After a 90-minute session, seller and buyers alike seemed confident of early approval; Steinbrenner even flashed a triumphant "thumbs-up" as he left the meeting. After all, there is nothing in baseball law to prohibit an owner from selling his players at whatever price he can get.
"I don't understand what the furor is about," said Miller. "No rules have been violated. What has happened here has happened hundreds of times: namely, the selling of players for cash." Finley, dapper in a gray plaid suit and yellow golf shirt and hat, said confidently, "I plan to use this money to great advantage. We'll be able to purchase a lot of players at the end of the season."
Kuhn would only comment, "The issue is whether the assignment of the contracts is appropriate or not under the circumstances. That's the issue I have to wrestle with. I have to consider these transactions in the best interest of baseball."
Rudi and Fingers were in Boston uniforms in the Oakland Coliseum Tuesday night, and their agent, Jerry Kapstein, was arranging to discuss their contract demands with Red Sox officials. Luckily, in light of later developments, they did not play against their old teammates, Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson reasoning that they would need at least a day to recover from the shock. Fingers, especially, seemed bemused by this tangible evidence of his value as an athlete. "Hey, I'm worth a million dollars," he said. "Somehow that just doesn't sound right." Rudi, meanwhile, spent nearly as much time saying goodbye in his old Oakland clubhouse as he did saying hello in his new one. "I guess ballplayers aren't supposed to cry," he said, "but I couldn't help it."
Because of Kuhn's delay in approving the sale, Rudi and Fingers engaged only in pre-game workouts the following night, discreetly departing the clubhouse before the first pitch. Blue, scheduled to join the Yankees in Chicago, remained in the Bay Area awaiting the outcome of the hearing. A's Manager Chuck Tanner, his available talent depleted by the historic transaction, rose loyally to Finley's defense. "He did the right thing," said Tanner, seated under a religious painting on which was emblazoned a heartening message: There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm. "The thing Mr. Finley did will change the game around," Tanner said. "It'll make the other owners realize there's a situation here [the reserve clause dilemma] that has to be rectified now. I honestly believe there never will be another major league player sold for a million dollars."
Finley, of course, had always maintained an adversary relationship with his players; indeed, it was part of the team's mystique. But his best pitcher, Catfish Hunter, caught him in a contract violation before the 1975 season, was declared a free agent by an arbitrator and auctioned himself off to the Yankees for nearly $3 million. Then Los Angeles Dodger Pitcher Andy Messersmith effectively toppled the game's precious reserve system by playing out his option year and, like Hunter before him, achieving emancipation. He eventually sold himself to the Atlanta Braves for more than a million dollars.
The Messersmith case forced the owners into negotiations with Miller over revisions in the reserve system, which once had the effect of binding a player to a club for life. Predictably, the negotiations hit a snag that led to a delay of spring training, and in fact, the matter has not yet been resolved. The Messersmith experience also inspired a number of players to opt for the open market and refuse to sign 1976 contracts.
Finley, in particular, had difficulty signing his players. By the end of spring training, eight of his best were playing without contracts. Finley acted quickly, trading the tremendously popular Jackson and 18-game winner Holtzman. He insists he also tried to trade Rudi, Fingers and Blue but could not obtain quality personnel in exchange.
Finley was ensconced in his Chicago office Friday afternoon when Kuhn announced his decision. Kuhn could not persuade himself, he said, that "the spectacle of the Yankees and the Red Sox buying contracts of star players in the prime of their careers for cash sums totalling $3.5 million is anything but devastating to baseball's reputation for integrity and to public confidence in the game, even though I can well understand that their motive is a good-faith effort to strengthen their clubs. If such transactions now and in the future were permitted, the door would be opened wide to the buying of success by the more affluent clubs, public suspicion would be aroused, traditional and sound methods of player development and acquisition would be undermined and our efforts to preserve competitive balance would be greatly impaired. I cannot help but conclude that I would be remiss in exercising my powers as commissioner pursuant to the Major League Agreement and Major League Rule 12 if I did not act now to disapprove these assignments."
Kuhn added, "If, as contended by the participants, the commissioner lacks the power to prevent a development so harmful to baseball as this, then our system of self-regulation for the good of the game and the public is a mirage."
Whap! Back went Rudi, Fingers and Blue to the Oakland clubhouse. And then off went Finley's mouth; he threatened that he would go to Federal Court in San Francisco in search of an injunction to stop Kuhn from stopping him. The commissioner had behaved, said Charlie, with typical restraint, "like the village idiot." In Finley's defense, it must be pointed out that he now stands to lose both the $3.5 million and his three ballplayers at the end of the season. Marvin Miller said, "The commissioner has single-handedly plunged baseball into the biggest mess it has ever seen. I consider it sheer insanity. It's raised the potential for litigation which would last for years. He is asserting a right to end all club owners' rights with regard to all transactions. Whenever there's a trade made, he can decide that one team did not get enough value and veto that deal."
Yankee Manager Billy Martin was naturally enraged. The same day he thought he had obtained Blue, the Yankees also acquired the unsigned Holtzman in a 10-player deal with Baltimore. Martin was gleefully anticipating the use of the same starting rotation that took the A's to their multiple championships: Hunter, Holtzman and Blue. "I can believe Watergate," Martin said, "but I can't believe that we in baseball, who are so intelligent, would do this."
Kuhn took as his authority an article of the Major League Agreement that was written in 1921, shortly after the ascendancy of the dictatorial Kenesaw Mountain Landis to the game's highest office. This empowers the commissioner to take any steps he deems necessary to protect the best interests and the "honor" of baseball. For his part, Finley contends that Kuhn has operated in restraint of trade. Martin, who insisted that two National League owners, Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers and M. Donald Grant of the Mets, helped influence Kuhn's decision, noted that "Steinbrenner has tremendous attorneys and he'll go after Kuhn," but Boston Owner Tom Yawkey adopted a pacifist posture.
"I don't know what the hell the commissioner is basing his ruling on," Yawkey said, "but I will sue nobody. I hate lawsuits. There are too many lawsuits in sports already. I've had my stomach full of them, and I think the public has had enough, too." Later, Martin attempted to inject some levity into the situation. Asked who would replace Blue in his pitching rotation, Martin cracked, "I'm pitching Bowie tomorrow. I've got to find out if he's thrown lately. Is he righthanded or lefthanded? Or does he know?"
Whatever the courtroom ramifications, Kuhn's unprecedented decision raises more questions than it answers. What, for example, if one of the rich teams should buy up significant numbers of the 58 players who will become free agents at the end of this season? Will he invoke the same powers?
One fact is clear: Kuhn is putting his job and his reputation on the line, an uncharacteristically courageous act. If he wins, he will have won powers previously wielded only by Landis. If Finley should defeat him in court, he will be left with even less authority than he now enjoys, which is not much.
The biggest question of all, though, is what the owners and players will do about grinding out some modification of the reserve system to avoid future dilemmas of this sort. It does seem apparent now that the owners have been wrong about one thing: their real enemies in an open market will not be the venal players. No, the enemy is within, and it is just possible that one of their more enlightened number will paraphrase the Bard and advise his embattled commissioner, "The fault, dear Bowie, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."