They called Charlie Finley the P.T. Barnum of baseball. As ringmaster of the Kansas City and Oakland A's for two decades, he championed Day-Glo orange balls, night World Series games, the designated hitter, the designated runner, multicolored uniforms, Hot Pants Day, Mustache Day (discount admission for anyone with a 'stache) and Senior Citizens Day (discount for everyone 65 and over, provided they were accompanied by their parents). Acting as his own general manager, head scout and business manager, Finley hired and fired with Steinbrennerian abandon: He went through 25 broadcasters, 10 farm directors and 17 managers. Along the way, his teams won five division and three world titles. He sold the team in 1980. * The ever-combative Finley, now 74, presides over his Chicago-based insurance company and attends a dozen Cub and White Sox games a year. "I'm glad to have met you," Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser told him recently. "I'm even gladder that I never had to negotiate with you."
Sports Illustrated: Would you want to own a baseball team today?
Finley: Definitely not. I would not want to go bankrupt. I sold the A's because I could foresee this coming.
SI: Back in 1975 you said the game was headed for extinction. How do you think the end will come?
CF: It's not what I think, it's what I know. You'll see one or two teams declare bankruptcy. That's not going to help the image of baseball one iota.
SI: Would you have approved the sale of the Mariners to the Japanese?
CF: Absolutely. Hell, they're the only ones standing in line. Salaries are so astronomical and unjustified that many clubs are having to leverage themselves just to make ends meet. The next TV contract will not be nearly so lucrative, and teams with the least revenue are going to be hurt. Eventually, baseball is going to have to pool all the TV money.
SI: How soon before all games are shown on pay-per-view?
CF: If and when pay TV comes about, it'll be a lot cheaper than going to the ballpark. Add up the price of tickets, concessions, novelties, souvenirs, parking, and the average family of four easily spends $100 a game. That's a lot of money. Families wind up having to hitchhike home. That's a hell of a way for baseball to treat the fans who've guzzled the beer and eaten the hot dogs and watched the commercials that enabled the players to make all this money.
SI: You once proposed, perhaps facetiously, that all players become free agents at the end of the season. Wouldn't this have led to total chaos?
CF: Whatever would have happened, it couldn't have been any worse than the situation we've got now.
SI: Do you think free agency could have been averted if Bowie Kuhn hadn't been commissioner?
CF: Without the slightest equivocation.
SI: Did Marvin Miller and the players' union simply outmanuever him?
CF: No question about that. Marvin made Kuhn and all the owners look stupid. Except for me and Augie Busch of St. Louis. The union wanted the arbitration clause on salaries. You don't see arbitration in pro basketball or hockey or any other sport. I went before every owner in baseball, talked to them personally. I said, "Do not vote for arbitration. It's going to lead to the ruination of baseball." Yet only two owners voted against it: me and Augie. After the vote, George Halas of the Chicago Bears said, "Charlie, I can tell you this: Pro football will never go for arbitration. Never. I never saw so many damn stupid owners in a sport in my life as there are in baseball." Stupidity.
SI: How stupid are today's owners?
CF: Most are just as stupid. I do not blame the ballplayers for the salaries they're getting. I blame the stupidity of the owners. The last two years you see in the papers that so-and-so has been signed to the biggest contract in baseball. You've seen it not once, but several times. Some of these owners are egomaniacs. You might think Charlie Finley is, but you're far from being right.
SI: What struck you about George Steinbrenner, his ego or his mania?
CF: I am not a fan of Steinbrenner. He thinks he's bigger than baseball. He won't stop at anything to get publicity. I would have kicked the bum out for good.
SI: In a way Steinbrenner seemed like a bumbling version of you.
CF: The similarity between us is the desire to win. I think George is as eager to win as Charlie Finley.
SI: Steinbrenner exploited free agency. If you had remained an owner, would you have eventually signed free agents?
CF: No, never. And I don't think Steinbrenner had as much success with them as he had expected to. By the same token, I don't think many clubs have had as much success with free agents.
SI: Your immediate reaction to free agency was to unload your dissidents for fancy prices.
CF: I decided to beat the players to the punch. In 1976 the New York Yankees offered me a million and a half for Vida Blue. The Boston Red Sox offered a million apiece for Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi. I was going to take that $3.5 million and go out and beat the bushes to sign other good prospects.
SI: Do you think you deserved all the flack you took for dismantling the A's?
CF: In retrospect, Kuhn was the one who did it. He negated the deal, claiming it was "not in the best interests of baseball."
SI: Did you feel like strangling him?
CF: Strangling? I fell like shooting him! You've heard of the village idiot? Well, Kuhn was the nation's idiot. At the end of the season, Rudi and Fingers left me. I got nothing. Nothing! The day Kuhn was elected commissioner was the worst in baseball history.
SI: What was the best?
CF: The day they fired him.
SI: Some of your free agents suggested that if you had treated them more humanely, they might not have jumped to other teams.
CF: That's a falsehood. My players were treated very humanely. The only time we ever had any arguments was when it came to negotiating their salaries. I was a cheap bastard when it came to contract time. The third year we won the World Series, my payroll was one of the smallest in the majors.
SI: Reggie Jackson once complained to Dave Duncan that you treated your black players like niggers. Duncan told Reggie not to feel hurt. He said, "Charlie treats his white players like niggers, too."
CF: Look, I tried to sign my players as reasonably as I could. In those days they were playing for peanuts. Today, it's gold and diamonds. I'd be the first to say I wished I could have paid my players more than I did. But it doesn't make a damn bit of difference how much you pay a ballplayer: He thinks he deserves more.
SI: Suppose you still owned the A's. You sign Rickey Henderson to a four-year contract for $12 million. A few months later you sign Jose Canseco for five years at $23.5 million. Henderson feels jobbed and demands you renegotiate. What would you tell him?
CF: You know what Charlie Finley would say? I'd tell Rickey, "You signed that goddam contract, and you honor it. I'm not going to give you a cent more. If you don't want to play, then take your bat and glove and go home." And you know what he's going to do? He's going to play ball. I've yet to see the first owner to show me he's got enough red blood in his veins to stand up and fight. They all give in.
SI: Did you ever consider running for commissioner?
CF: No, and I don't think anyone else thought of it, either.
SI: Baseball traditionalists have accused you of trying to destroy the sanctity of the game.
CF: You're 100 percent correct. When I got into baseball, the owners said to me, "Hey, Charlie, for heaven's sake! This game has been going on for 100 years. Don't rock the boat. Take it easy." I didn't take it easy because I knew what I was doing. Results? Look a little bit to your left and you'll see three world-championship trophies. In another room I can show you five little trophies for five divisional championships.
SI: What changes in the rules would you make today?
CF: I would change the rules for balls and strikes. In 1879 there were nine balls and four strikes. In 1880 it was changed to eight balls, four strikes. By 1884 it was down to six balls. At the end of that season, a couple of the owners got up and said, "Hey, we're making this game too fast!" So in 1886 they upped it to seven balls. We've had four balls, three strikes since 1889. Not a damn thing has been done since then. Nearly everything the last 40 years has been going against the offense. Pitchers throw harder, the players are faster, the gloves are bigger. It's much more difficult for a batter to get a hit today. Three balls and three strikes would equalize the offense with the defense.
SI: You'd have more walks.
CF: Maybe a few more, but only because pitchers try to catch the edge of the strike zone.
SI: The owners would never go for that. They'd call it blasphemy.
CF: That's what they said when I first advocated the DH. I talked to those stupid owners for five years: "Let's put more action into this game, make it more interesting." The truth is, the vast majority of the pitchers coming to the plate couldn't hit my grandmother if she was out there on the mound. The reason the National League doesn't like the DH is that the American League beat them to the punch through the forethought of Charlie Finley.
SI: Part of your legacy is team mascots. How did you feel when Charlie O., the A's mule, died in the middle of the 1975 season?
CF: Are you hoping I'll say I was there with tears in my eyes? He was just a damn mule!
SI: If you didn't invent, you at least discovered Mrs. Fields of cookie fame.
CF: Debbi Fields was baseball's first ball girl. When I hired her in 1971, she was 13 and not yet a missus. Around the fifth inning, I'd have her bring the umps coffee and homemade cookies.
SI: Be honest. Did her cookies come from a mix?
CF: I couldn't tell you. All I know is that they were the best cookies I ever ate.
SI: You're also responsible for the rapper Hammer. Describe the day you met.
CF: I'm driving into the parking lot in Oakland, and as I get out of the car I see a group of about 100 people. I'm wondering, "Oh, my god, what happened? Did somebody get hit by a car?" So naturally I walk over. And what do I see? I see a little young man dancing his head off. I mean really dancing. And I see quarters, all kinds of change, dollar bills, thrown out there. And he's got five buddies with cigar boxes going around picking up this money. After he's completed his dance, I walk over to this young man and say, "Young man, you're quite a dancer." And he said, "Oh yeah, yeah, Mr. Finley. Mr. Finley, yeah, yeah, yeah." He recognized me immediately.
SI: How old was Hammer?
CF: About 11. He says, "Could I be your guest? Would you take me into the park today?" And I say, "Well, yes, I'd be very happy to." So we take a few steps, and he says, "Mr. Finley, I don't know how to say this, but I've got buddies here. You know, cigar boxes. Could you take them in also?" I said, "Why yes, indeed." So I took Hammer and his five buddies in as my guests, and they sat in the box next to mine. I had four or five guests in my box. A little glass window separated us from them. Well, my small group got hungry. "Hey!" Knock on the glass. I asked Hammer if he'd be kind enough to go down and get some Cokes and hamburgers. "Yes sir, Mr. Finley. Yes sir." And from that day on, for a couple of years, every time I'd come to the Oakland ballpark he would be right there with me. When I couldn't get out there, he'd be on my telephone, in my box, broadcasting the game to me. One day Hammer tells me that Billy Graham, the evangelist, is sitting in my box. So I said, "Would you put him on the phone?" So I talked to Billy Graham and asked if he would like to broadcast some of the game to me. He said, "I'd be very happy to."
SI: Would Billy Graham have made a good play-by-play man?
CF: I think he would have. He broadcast with a great enthusiasm and knowledge of the game.
SI: Didn't you make Hammer an executive vice-president or something?
CF: Well now, I'll tell you. Here's a little guy, 10 or 12 years old. I take a great liking to him, and he's wearing a baseball cap around that says A's. I said, "Hammer, you're doing such a great job for me, I'm going to make you vice-president." I call the equipment manager and say, "Get me a baseball cap. Take the A off and put a VP on."
SI: Some of the A's players thought he was spying for you.
CF: Hammer never snitched on anybody. Very fine young man. Said I did nothing but good for him. Called Charlie Finley the best owner in baseball. Loved working for me.
SI: Could Charlie Finley have worked for Charlie Finley?
CF: I don't believe I'd have any trouble working for Charlie Finley. We think the same way.