The announced attendance for the A's game with Seattle at the Oakland Coliseum on the chilly night of April 17 was 653. Actually, the crowd wasn't quite that large, because the American League doesn't subtract no-shows from its attendance figures and not everyone who bought a ticket for the game was in the park. Carl Finley, Charles O. Finley's first cousin and, in effect, his front office, estimated that 550 men, women and children were in the seats, a figure that exceeded by several hundred the computation of Oakland First Baseman Dave Revering, who had counted to 200 before he was distracted by more urgent matters on the diamond. But even announced crowd set a record low for the franchise since it moved to the Bay Area, although it fell short, by 652, of equaling the lowest attendance for a professional baseball game in Oakland, which was established on Nov. 8, 1905 by a man, regrettably anonymous, who watched the Pacific Coast League Oaks play the Portland Beavers. Still, 653—or 550 or 200—in a stadium that seats 50,000 look about like one.
The fact is, watching the A's play these days is fully as lonely, if not necessarily as rewarding, a pastime as philately or lepidopterology. It's true that the historic April 17 game was competing with itself on local TV, being one of 10 Oakland home games to be televised this season, as well as with the telecast of a San Francisco Giants' game from San Diego. It's also true that the following day, without competition from the tube, the attendance was nearly doubled when an alleged 1,215 showed up. But it's true, too, that if the A's continue to draw fans at their current clip, they will easily bottom their Oakland season low of 495,412 in 1977. Even a half-price night game with the perennially popular Red Sox on April 30 attracted only 14,716, and in two games the world champion Yankees could lure a total of only 16,293 fans. All this is occurring at a time when big league attendance records are being toppled annually. The A's total of 526,999 last year was nearly a million less than the average for American League teams.
There is something to be said for such privacy at the ball park, as the San Francisco Examiner and several Bay Area television stations have gleefully observed. The A's fan suffers none of the myriad inconveniences that afflict spectators in more populous stadiums. He can park his car as near to the Coliseum as the players do, and he can purchase a ticket at the last possible moment—if he can find a booth open. Once inside, the odds on catching a foul ball are much better than anywhere else. He can easily locate friends in the park, and he is likely to have his own personal vendor of soft drinks, beer and comestibles. He is very much like a guest at an exclusive party.
Alas, the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda, which jointly own the Coliseum, and the commission that operates it for them would much prefer an enlarged guest list. Eight days after the record-low crowd, they filed suit in Federal Court charging Finley and Charles O. Finley & Co., Inc. with breach of contract, alleging that the team owner had not complied with his "obligation to endeavor in good faith to obtain maximum occupancy of the Stadium by the public by failing to reasonably promote attendance at Oakland A's baseball games." The plaintiffs are seeking damages of $1.5 million for revenues lost over the last four years in concessions, parking and such, in addition to $10 million in punitive damages for Finley's "reckless and conscious disregard" of his promotional obligations.
The suit brings to a climax a decade and more of warfare between the eccentric tenant and his intractable landlords, and judicially fruitless though such action seems likely to be—Finley, after all, has given Oakland three world champions during that time—the suit has proved extraordinarily popular among the locals, because Finley right now is about as well regarded in the East Bay as William Tecumseh Sherman was in Atlanta some years before that city joined the National League. Certainly the Coliseum people rue the day they didn't heed the warning of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, who, after learning of Finley's transfer of the A's from Kansas City to Oakland, told his fellow legislators on Oct. 19, 1967, "Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima."
"People don't want to come to the ball park because they don't want Finley to get his share of the tickets," says Donna Oneto, membership secretary of the Oakland A's Boosters Club, an esoteric organization if ever there was one. She expresses a surprisingly common sentiment. Fans in other cities might stay away to avoid seeing the players, but Oakland fans, it appears, steer clear to spite the owner. And the players don't seem to blame them.
"Charlie hasn't spent one red cent on promotion," says Bob Lacey, the outspoken relief pitcher. "I've played on Triple A teams that promoted more. I've never been asked to speak anywhere. The fans don't even know who we are.... I don't care, let him punish me. He's hoping I'll have a bad year so he can give me a pay cut."
The breach-of-contract suit hinges on paragraph 7(d) of Finley's lease with the Coliseum, which requires him to "maintain an American League baseball team of the character and standing required by Major League rules for the conduct of professional Major League baseball games and endeavor in good faith to obtain the maximum occupancy of the stadium by the public...." It may be argued that the inexperienced young A's are just barely a team of big league caliber—even though their 12-21 record at the end of last week made them only the sixth worst club in the majors—but the crux of the matter is Finley's non-promotion of what little he has. In the view of the Coliseum commissioners, he has done his utmost to conceal his team from the public.
No A's spring training games were broadcast, so the season more or less sneaked up on radio listeners. Finley didn't even sign a radio contract until the night before the season began and Red Rush, his No. 1 announcer, didn't learn he was to do the games until 12 hours before the season opener. Rush, a burly man who, like legions of others, has been hired and fired by Finley before, may have at his command the most complete vocabulary of baseball bromides of any living broadcaster. He flavors his commentary with such anachronistic pearls as: "He motored back full tilt"; and "That got him out of the old pickle barrel"; and "The hickory really met the horsehide."
Luckily, not many listeners can hear such hoary pronouncements because Finley's radio contract is with a San Jose station, KXRX, that broadcasts at a mere 5,000 watts after dark. Rush fades inexorably from earshot as one drives west from the Coliseum toward San Francisco on the Nimitz Freeway. Nonetheless, the A's are more accessible to listeners now than they were at the beginning of last season, when Finley first contracted with the 10-watt, student-operated University of California station before finally signing on with KNEW in Oakland.
The suit contends that Finley has published a declining amount of promotional literature, such as schedules, team photographs, posters, calendars, newsletters and yearbooks, and has mounted no paid advertising campaign. Other complaints are that he has no continuous year-round sales program, that he maintains a front-office staff—Carl Finley is pretty much it—too small to conduct effective public relations, provides no discounts for young fans, schedules no giveaway days and won't cooperate with the Boosters Club. Actually, on those rare occasions in the past few years when the A's have had giveaways, they have been stuck with thousands of unclaimed items, the supply having far exceeded the demand. And sales apparently are less than brisk at the souvenir stands; last week the concessionaires were offering buttons celebrating Ken Holtzman, who last pitched for the A's in 1975; and Dal Maxvill, who has not played in the majors since that year. Last June the Coliseum offered to put up $100,000 for promotion if Finley would match the figure. He wouldn't.
There was no first-ball ceremony at the A's opener this year, and Finley himself was among the no-shows. In fact, the owner would seem to be in the very forefront of the A's non-fans. By the end of April he hadn't watched his team play a single game, either in spring training or during the regular season.
The players see subtler indications of his disenchantment. He made no trades in the first month of the season, a time when he ordinarily moves more bodies from place to place than the Long Island Rail Road. He hasn't hired a "designated runner," a specialist along the swift lines of such Finley greyhounds as Allan (the Panamanian Express) Lewis, Herb (the World's Fastest Human) Washington or Matt (the Scat) Alexander. Stanley (the Hammer) Burrell, the teen-ager Finley employed a year ago to telephone game accounts back to him in Chicago and, it was darkly suspected, to deliver spy reports on the players, has been around only as an occasional spectator. And because Charlie O. himself is never on the premises, there have been no "dehumanizing" harangues from the master to his servants. Because of Finley's absence and his comparative silence, it would appear that Jim Marshall, the 17th man hired to manage the A's in Finley's 19 seasons as owner, may be the first who is truly a manager and not an answering service. Marshall discreetly refuses to say how often he communicates with his employer, but the players firmly suspect the game plan is no longer being dictated by phone from Chicago. "He's not calling at all," says Lacey. "He's not paying attention."
The strangest twist is that Finley himself seems to have drifted into semi-seclusion. For one who habitually blossoms in the limelight, he has become something of a shrinking violet. He issued no immediate public response to the Coliseum lawsuit and hasn't been returning any calls. And this is a man who used to spend more time on the phone than most people do in bed.
To be sure, Finley's reticence might be traced in part to some severe problems outside of Oakland. He was charged with battery after a barroom altercation in Chicago with one Roger Seacrist, a 38-year-old advertising man. Seacrist told police he had merely inquired of Finley if a seat at Hillery's Bar was vacant. After Finley told him it was occupied, Seacrist says he replied, "Oh, sorry to bother you." For some reason, Seacrist told police, Finley took offense at this courteous rejoinder, and after an exchange of epithets, the 61-year-old Finley socked Seacrist in the face. Seacrist filed his complaint three days after the April 6 incident, claiming to have suffered a hairline fracture of the jaw and impaired hearing. He is also threatening to take civil action. Finley is scheduled to be in court on June 5 to answer the charge. Later next month his wife Shirley's divorce action against him will be tried in an Indiana court.
These legal assaults may cost Finley dearly, but despite his occasional poor-mouthing, it is doubtful if he is losing much money on the A's. He rarely makes a player deal these days that doesn't involve cash. Last year such transactions grossed him more than a million bucks—400,000 of them in the deal that sent Vida Blue to the Giants—a sum that was just about sufficient to meet his player payroll, which is the lowest in baseball. No Oakland player earns as much as $100,000 at a time when that figure is very nearly the average annual wage for major-leaguers. When Finley attempted to cut the salary of Reliever Dave Heaverlo, his highest-paid employee, Heaverlo took him to arbitration and won a $95,000 contract. Finley was 0 for 5 in the latest round of arbitration hearings.
The A's get $900,000 as their share of the major leagues' national television package, and last year Finley signed a three-year agreement with a San Francisco station to do local telecasts that is worth an additional $600,000 per annum. The A's drew nearly 1.4 million to their road games last year, and because visiting teams receive 20% of the gate, Finley made money at the considerable expense of his fellow owners, a turn of events that, considering his well-known regard for those colleagues, is not likely to induce pangs of conscience. For their part, visitors to Oakland took the well-known bath. A three-game series with the Angels last month attracted only 7,877 spectators, which means that after paying air, motel, meal, bus and trucking expenses, the visitors lost a bit more than $2,200, according to the Los Angeles Times' calculations. The check they received from the A's of a little more than $5,500 barely covered Rod Carew's daily earnings of $4,938. And the Angels' home base is only 420 miles from Oakland. Teams from the Midwest and the East obviously suffer far greater losses. One Midwestern executive said, "It would be cheaper for us to forfeit all of our games out there."
Finley's lease with the Coliseum, which runs through the 1987 season, is one of the most favorable in all of baseball. His annual rent is only $125,000, and he gets 25% of the gross receipts from concessions and 27½% of the income from parking.
Of course, it has been Finley's renowned unwillingness—or inability—to keep good players on his payroll that has most dramatically reduced his expenses. Since 1975 Sal Bando, Don Baylor, Blue, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Phil Garner, Holtzman, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Bill North, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace and Claudell Washington—in short, enough talent to form a championship team—have all departed Finley's employ, either because they went elsewhere for lucrative free-agent contracts, or because Finley traded them in anticipation that they would become free agents, or because Charlie O. simply unloaded them, apparently to get cash.
Further, Finley employs no full-time scouts or minor league hitting and pitching instructors, and he fleshes out his directory of club officials by including secretaries and clerks as well as Trainer Joe Romo, Equipment Manager Frank Ciensczyk and Visiting Clubhouse Manager Steve Vucinich. Discounting himself and Charles O. Finley Jr., who is listed as secretary-treasurer, Finley has precisely three executives, Executive Vice-President Carl Finley, Controller Chuck Cottonaro and Minor League Director Norm Koselke. Of these, Carl is the chief cook and bottle-washer. Formerly a high school vice-principal in Dallas, he is as soft-spoken and good-natured as his cousin is bombastic and cantankerous. As Charlie seems to be removing himself from stage center, Carl, six years younger, is hesitantly emerging as a somewhat quieter spokesman. But there is no questioning his loyalty and subservience to the boss in Chicago. "Charlie and I have always been close," he says. "He's a great guy."
The A's have only four coaches on the field, whereas many teams have five or six, but they have a spare in the press box. When Bobby Winkles abruptly quit as manager last May, Coach Jack McKeon moved into his chair, and Bobby Hofman, a former Giant player who is the team's traveling secretary and public-relations man, put on a uniform and began coaching at first base. Ciensczyk also sometimes pulled multiple duty, looking after the accommodations, preparing statistics and press notes, cleaning up the clubhouse and sending out the laundry. Hofman is back upstairs this year and Ciensczyk is down below, but who knows what might happen if—or, considering Finley's history, when—Marshall gets his walking papers?
Finley professedly wants nothing more than to unload his run-down property, and remarkably there appears to be no shortage of prospective buyers. But nothing in Charlie O.'s life is simple. The A's seemed all but sold a few weeks before the 1978 season began to multi-millionaire oilman Marvin Davis, who would have moved the team to Denver and started afresh. Then the Coliseum people stepped forward to remind all parties that Finley's 20-year lease with them didn't expire for nine more seasons. Various offers were made to buy up the remaining years of the lease, and at one time it was proposed that the Giants play part of their schedule in Oakland to compensate the community for the loss of major league baseball. The Giants balked when the Coliseum insisted that the arrangement continue until the expiration of the Giants' Candlestick Park lease in 1994. It was the smartest move the Giants never made. With a contending team, they attracted a near-record 1.75 million fans to Candlestick. Meanwhile, the Coliseum hung tough with Finley, Davis went shopping elsewhere, and the A's—or what was left of them—played before a few friends and neighbors.
Moving the team out of Oakland does not now seem to be in anyone's immediate plans, what with the Coliseum's determination to have the full terms of its lease met. But Finley has entertained at least three offers from buyers who would pay him from $9 million to $10 million for the A's and keep them where they are. One of these groups, headed by Oakland furniture dealers Sam and Ed Bercovich, was scratched by the Coliseum when it was learned they were seeking to modify the terms of the lease. Finley himself rejected the others by characterizing their offers as "big hat, no cattle."
"I don't know what he means by that," snorts Neil Papiano, a former Finley attorney, who organized one of the groups. "We have five presidents of New York Stock Exchange firms, the owner of the largest theater chain in the U.S., the owner of the second-largest advertising firm in California, presidents of three other companies and the owner and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, among others, in our group. That is no cattle?"
Popular sentiment has it that even with "cattle" and strong local promotion, the A's wouldn't succeed because the Bay Area can't support two big league teams playing in parks less than an hour's drive apart. And if it should come to a showdown, it is said, the Giants, with their solid hold on fan loyalty throughout northern California, would win. After all, they were there first.
Finley argues that he gave the East Bay five straight division winners and three straight world champions, and yet he was able to draw more than a million only twice, in 1973 and 1975, and then just barely (1,000,763 and 1,075,518, respectively) and only with half-price nights.
Coliseum General Manager Bill Cunningham protests that Finley never allowed the A's to become part of "the fabric of the community." It was Finley's team, not the town's. "He says winning is enough. Well, then, why do the Dodgers and the Reds promote the way they do?" Cunningham asks. "What he should have been doing in the championship years was building a fan base for the lean years. A player like Joe Rudi lived here the year round, and he was never asked to go anywhere on behalf of the team. The only way we'll ever know if this area can support two major league teams is if we have two solid organizations marketing their product. We've never had that."
Cunningham points to sellout crowds at Oakland Raider and Golden State Warrior games in the same Coliseum complex. "And for two years in a row we've been the No. 1 concert stadium in the country." There are, he adds, 1.7 million people in the East Bay alone, 4.4 million in the six Bay Area counties and six million prospective fans within easy driving distance of the Coliseum. Cunningham chafes at the sight of busloads of fans from the boondocks headed for Candlestick Park on weekends, even though the Oakland stadium is more accessible.
And so an impasse is reached. The Coliseum, either out of obdurate civic pride or because it foresees a substantial increase in income should the A's be sold to new, local ownership, refuses to free the team from its contract. And Finley won't sell. He invariably falls back on the excuse that no substantial buyer has come forth, but another reason, which is gaining increasing currency in the East Bay and throughout baseball, may be that Charlie O. is keeping the team out of spite. He can do this, the theory holds, because he has pared costs to a minimum and is losing little, if any, money, while gleefully tweaking two old adversaries, the Coliseum commission and his fellow baseball owners, both of whom are losing considerable sums because of Finley's skinflint ways.
Meanwhile, the franchise deteriorates like a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. "When you think about it, it boggles the mind," says Heaverlo. Says Revering, speaking of the Coliseum, "I guess they want a bird in the hand, even if it's a dead bird."
And yet, amid all of the disheartening confusion, the A's do have their loyal fans. Night after night they sit in their yellow jackets behind the team's third-base dugout, huddled there on cold evenings like survivors of some natural disaster. "Our motto," says one of the breed, Esther Winton of San Leandro, "is never mind Finley, support the players."
Most nights there is no roar of the crowd to muffle the loyalists' exhortations, so the players have come to recognize the members of this hardy band by sight and by sound. But when the Yankees and the Red Sox are in town, some of the usually vacant seats are filled by auslanders with old loyalties who root for the visitors. On these occasions home games are no different from away games for the A's, and a certain understandable disorientation sets in. A visitor's home run will be cheered louder than one by the home team. The situation became so acute last year that Pitcher Matt Keough found himself saying he wished "these people" would stay home and leave the park to the hard-core fans. But even the turncoats seem not so numerous this year, and an eerie solitude prevails at almost every game, regardless of the opposition. Still, Revering feels he will be able to recognize doomsday when it comes. "We'll really know we're in trouble," he says, "when people come in here to root for Seattle."