New biography reveals the good and bad of LaPorte's Charlie Finley

2011-04-18T00:00:00Z New biography reveals the good and bad of LaPorte's Charlie FinleyBy Dave Hoekstra
April 18, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Charlie Finley was a galaxy of American ethos.

The gentleman farmer from LaPorte was the owner of the Oakland Athletics during their World Championship run of 1972-74. He was born amidst the iron refineries of Birmingham, Alabama, but came of age in the 1950s shadows of the steel mills in Gary. Finley had his life epiphany in 1946 while battling tuberculosis at the J.O. Parramore Hospital in Crown Point.

The self-made insurance millionaire is the subject of the brilliant biography Charlie Finley--The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman [Walker & Company, 2010].

Finley, who died in 1996, appreciated incongruity. He'd love the fact the book was written by G. Michael Green—a strategic planner at NASA—and Roger D. Launius—a senior curator in space history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. They are members of the hard core baseball organization SABR (Society for American Baseball Research). The book idea took off in 2004 when each author prepared papers on Finley and the Oakland A's for SABR conferences. Launius had been NASA's chief historian between 1990 and 2002.

Finley's big top individualism was rooted into each author at a young age. "In 1971, '72, I was at the end of my high school career in Greenville, South Carolina," Launius says. "I was protesting Viet Nam. I was sort of mad at the world. When we talked to [former A's pitcher] Vida Blue, I said, 'You saved 1971 for me.' That was the year he came out of nowhere and dominated baseball. When I would see him on Game of the Week, it took my mind off those problems for a little while."

Green, 44, grew up down the highway from Finley's homestead in Columbus, Indiana. "My team was the [Cincinnati] Reds," he said on a conference call with Launius. "Until I watched this ragtag group of guys with moustaches and long hair [The A's] in the 1972 World Series with my grandfather. I referred to them as 'hippie' baseball players and they were playing the Reds [in the World Series]. The Reds were conservative and it was talked about as 'The Hairs versus the Squares.' My grandfather was annoyed I was so taken by this team in green and yellow uniforms."

Besides uniforms of his Irish heritage, Finley was known for innovations like:

* Orange baseballs and three ball walks;

* A designated runner (Herb Washington) and moving World Series games from their designated afternoon starts into prime time;

* And when Finley purchased the Kansas City Athletics in 1961 he installed sheep beyond the right field fence of Municipal Stadium. Finley had one employee dress as a shepherd's outfit and he would ring a bell after every A's home run. One sheep was killed by a line drive. But the shepherd survived.

Finley also was a skinflint who alienated players and fans: The Beatles' 1964 tour of America was a resounding success—except in Kansas City, where only 20,000 people showed up. The Kansas City fan base was upset with Finley for the overtures he was making to Oakland (the A's would leave Kansas City after the 1967 season). Green and Launius write that after the concert, "the Finleys drove back to LaPorte in a limousine wearing Beatle wigs." And the 346-page book begins with Finley's scheme of creating a phantom injury for second baseman Mike Andrews after he made some bad plays in the 1973 World Series. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn had Andrews reinstated.

Green says, "We thought Mr. Finley hadn't received his due from baseball or fair credit for the innovative and promotional things he came up with. There's been nothing written about him since he passed away."

Green and Launius signed their book deal in 2007. They researched and wrote on evenings and weekends. The authors divided chapters, depending on who was interested in what section.

How did their view of Finley shift during the writing process? In 2002 Launius published Seasons in the Sun [University of Missouri Press], a history of major league baseball in Missouri. "I had a very negative impression of him at that point," Launius says. "All I saw was how he ripped the A's out of Kansas City and in some cases did dirty deals. At least that's what I saw. Over time I've moderated that. In doing the research on this book, we found that he was much more generous than he was made out to be. But it was generousness that was purely of his instigation. He'd fight you for $10 on a contract, but turn around and give you a Cadillac if you'd done something he liked. That suggests a bit more complex personality.

"He also routinely made offers to players that if they wanted to have a portion of their contracts put into the stock market, he would guarantee they wouldn't lose any money. A player like [A's pitcher] Lew Krausse said he made a lot of money because Charlie managed a portion of his salary in stock market deals."

Green says he had a more positive feeling about Finley going into the project. "A player told me his wife got sick and Finley gave him money to send her to the Mayo Clinic. George Toma [the Kansas City groundskeeper] has stories of how Finley would hire underprivileged kids to work on the grounds crew. Every first of September Finley would come by and give the kids $100 to buy school clothes and books. He made them bring back the stuff to make sure they used the money on school supplies. As we dealt a little more into his personal life, I became a little less enchanted with Mr. Finley when I found out some of the strife he had with his kids and his wife."

The authors interviewed fifty people for the book. "We talked on the record with two of his youngest sons," Green says. "I talked to his eldest son, Charlie Jr., off the record. He would never sit down for a formal interview. There were also two daughters and another son that refused to talk to us.

"It was a pretty fractured family. The eldest daughter couldn't understand why anyone would want to read a book about her dad. There was a lot of strife in the family about the way the company ended up. And there were some negative books written in the 1970s about Mr. Finley.

"We tried to produce a balanced biography."


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