Special contributor recalls Charles O. Finley, who died last
week at the age of 77.
Reading the obituaries of the former A's owner, I was struck by
the frequency with which certain adjectives kept turning up.
Flamboyant was, as expected, everywhere, and colorful was
certainly standard fare. So were controversial, outrageous,
innovative and contentious. The overall impression conveyed by
such flamboyant and colorful language was that while the
controversial and contentious Finley must have been hell on
wheels to work for, the outrageous and innovative Charlie O.
must have been a barrel of laughs, a real fun guy with a wicked
sense of humor.
That, I regret to say, was not the Finley I knew when he was an
owner in both Kansas City and Oakland. That Charlie O. was about
as much fun as a carbuncle. If he had a sense of humor--and over
the years I saw little evidence that he did--it was of the
pig-bladder school. A mule in a banquet hall was funny to
Finley. So were cow-milking contests. And ballplayers in
mustaches. He had all the subtlety of Ricki Lake. Actually, what
seemed to amuse him most was bullying people, little people and
famous people alike.
Once when I was working on a story about one of his World Series
teams, he surprised me with an invitation to lunch at the
apartment he kept near downtown Oakland. (Finley, who lived on a
farm in La Porte, Ind., was always promising the city fathers
that he would move permanently to Oakland, but he never did.)
The man cooking the hamburgers, serving the drinks and generally
acting as hired kitchen help was Jimmy Piersall, only recently
retired as one of the game's premier defensive centerfielders
and then working in some amorphous capacity in the Finley front
office. Charlie O. ordered this once fine--albeit troubled--player
about as if he'd just been sent over from an employment agency,
effectively robbing Piersall of whatever dignity he had left. It
was just Finley's way of showing off.
There is no question that this strange man put together some
wonderful ball clubs, and for this he deserves acclaim. The A's
of the early 1970s won the World Series three years in
succession, something that no team other than the New York
Yankees has ever done. And yet those Oakland teams are
remembered not only for their considerable accomplishments but
also for their clownish uniforms, their infighting and their
running battles with a showboating owner. They, too, were robbed
of some of their dignity.
One word I noticed that was never used in any of those
obituaries was beloved.