Presidents of the Oakland Athletics, Part 2

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Wednesday Special

Charlie Finley (SABR)

When we last left off, the Philadelphia Athletics had just been sold to Chicago real-estate investor, Arnold Johnson, and moved to Kansas City as a result. We continue on with the trials and tribulations of Arnold Johnson and the subsequent success and collapse under Charlie Finley.

So, how were the Athletics able to move to Kansas City? As mentioned previously, Johnson was a real-estate investor who owned both Yankee Stadium, which he would later sell to avoid conflicting interest, and Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. However, it just so happened that the Yankees’ Triple-A team played in Municipal Stadium, so how did the two organizations agree to let the move go through.

Typically, the Athletics would have to pay a fee in order to relocate the Yankees’ farm team, but the Yankees decided, for one reason or another, to waive the payment (Johnson did later pay $57,000). This, combined with Yankee support for the Johnson purchase in the first place, gave off the impression of collusion between Johnson and the Yankee ownership. There would be even more evidence for this in the years to come.

If actions speak louder than words, than the trades that the Athletics made with the Yankees definitely says that there was collusion between the two organizations. This era was known for very lopsided trades, where the Athletics would send promising players to the Yankees in return for either struggling veterans or players with big name value towards the end of their career.

The players that the Athletics traded away include: Roger Maris (no explanation needed), Bobby Shantz (would lead the league in ERA his first year with the Yankees), Hector Lopez (an over 100 OPS+ hitter before the trade), Clete Boyer (a key player on the World Series runs in ‘61 and ’62), Art Ditmar (who lead the lead in WHIP with the Yankees), and Ralph Terry (1962 All-Star and a huge innings eating for the Yanks). The Maris, Boyer, and Terry trades where particularly lopsided and led Bill Veeck, excellent owner of the Chicago White Sox organization to declare the A’s as, “nothing more than a loosely controlled Yankee farm club.”

This unfortunate series of events would continue until another unfortunate event shook the A’s organization. At only age 53, Johnson would die from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 3rd, 1960. Going off of his obituary, it seems that Johnson genuinely career about the Athletics organization, traveling with the team on a few occasions during the season and starting to develop a lacking farm system following the Mack ownership. With only 5 years into ownership, even with the arguable collusion with the Yankees, it is difficult to say whether or not Johnson would turn around the Athletics from being a consistent last-place team to a more respectable presence in the American League.

With Arnold Johnson’s untimely death, his estate decided to sell the team. On December 19th, 1960, the Athletics would be sold to the infamous Charles O. Finley. Finley originally made his money through providing medical insurance before becoming the owner of the A’s. He would become well known for his marketing stunts, including his rebrand of the team uniforms to be more eye-catching, including the city name and the iconic green and gold, and an infamous stunt where he burned a bus pointed towards New York City. He made further rebranding changes, going from the elephant mascot synonymous with the Mack tenure to a mule (Charlie O., the Mule), using the name A’s more than Athletics, and copying aspects of Yankee Stadium before AL President Joe Cronin put a stop to it.

Charlie Finley and the new A’s Uniforms (National Baseball Library/Doug McWilliams)

During this time, the A’s were still pretty terrible, never winning more than 74 games and finishing at a peak of 7th in their remaining time in Kansas City. However, there were a few important improvements during this time. Finley would continue to improve the farm system that would become one of the best in baseball by the mid-60s. Also, during this time, Finley would become a Jerry Jones-like owner, both owning the team and acting as its general manager through appointing figureheads to the position.

In 1961, despite all of his marketing savvy, Finley would begin to lose the goodwill he built up by looking to move the team out of Kansas City. Many possible moves in the next 7 years before the team eventually moved to Oakland, including a deal in place to move the team to Louisville that was rejected by the AL owners in 1964. Needless to say, along with an exceptionally poor on the field performance in ’64 and ’65, attendance dropped off a cliff to the lowest since the end of the Mack tenure. Concession workers would begin lawsuits for lost revenues due to Finley’s medling and, after the announcement of the move to Oakland during the ’67 World Series, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington would say that, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

With all of this bad blood between the public and the MLB owners, there were actually threats, specifically from Symington, to revoke MLB’s antitrust exemption. The MLB, genuinely scared by this threat, expedited the expansion process for the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots. While Kansas City was prepared for an expedited process, Seattle was not, and the Pilots would move to Milwaukee and become the Brewers after only 1 season. So, for any Mariners fans out there wondering why the Pilots failed after only 1 year, you can reasonably blame Finley and the Athletics for that.

After the move to Oakland and the Coliseum, the A’s would start one of the greatest runs in the history of baseball. After a promising 82-80 finish in 1968 the A’s would have a winning season for the next 8 years, including 5 straight playoff appearances and 3 straight World Series wins from ’72-’74. Boosted by players like Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers, the Mustache Gang tore up the league and would famously defeat the Big Red Machine in the 1972 World Series.

However, Finley’s micromanaging continued during this time. Combined with his miserly tactics of trying to send All-Star caliber player to the minors in order to save on contract negotiations (eventually vetoed by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in the case of Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson), Finley would consistently swap out managers on almost a yearly basis. His micromanaging was so detrimental that he caused 2-time World Series winning manager, Dick Williams, to resign after his interference with reserve infielder Mike Andrews. The team apparently played so well together because they all hated Finley’s management.

1975 would be the last hurrah for this Golden Age of the Athletics franchise, as they would make the playoffs only to be swept by the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS (this was when there was only the LCS and the WS). The mid-70s would see a dramatic change, as with the Curt Flood case, free agency would become an actual option for players. After the limitation of the reserve clause, which before had been used to automatically renew a player’s contract with a single team, salaries would start to balloon with active competition from other teams.

The miserly Finley at the time would begin a fire sale that exceed that of the infamous 2017-2018 Miami Marlins. Every important player needed to go. It go so bad the Commissioner Kuhn actually had to step in and veto a few trades as it was in the “best interest of baseball.” After 1976, most of the core left in free agency for other teams and the A’s were back to being bottom feeders. This time the attendance wasn’t nearly so forgiving as the Athletics would only bring in about 307k people in 1979, the lowest since the last year in Philadelphia and the lowest per game since the Great Depression. While there was another economic collapse in the late 70s, after Finley sold the team to Walter A. Hass Jr. in August of 1980, attendance boomed to 1.3 million in 1981.

Amidst all of the attendance and on the field problems and with a divorce forcing the sale of his assets, Finley constantly pursued options to sell the team. After being blocked by County officials from selling the team to an owner who would move it to Denver, Finley eventually sold the team to the local businessman Walter A. Hass Jr., owner of Levi Strauss & Co. Living up to his reputation, Finley sited the raised salaries and the rejected moves by Bowie Kuhn as the reason for him selling the team.

Overall, the story of the Johnson and Finley tenures as the owners of the Athletics are the stories of failed potential and the failures of micromanagement. While Finley and Johnson both had admirable efforts to improve the organization, through an effective rebrand and investment in player development, overall the collusion with other teams and micromanaging resulted in both these tenures ending in less-than spectacular ways. With the end of the Golden Era of the Athletics franchise we enter the Hass ownership and the next great age with the Bash Brothers and Tony La Russa at the helm.

Attendance and record data from Baseball Reference

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Micah Dahlvig

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