Finley v. Kuhn Charles Crandall


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Finley v. Kuhn

Charles Crandall
So often we hear the analogy that life is like sports. That a politician behind in the polls as an election approaches is “trailing in the bottom of the ninth,” or that an executive who just made the presentation of a lifetime has “hit a game-changing homerun.” These comparisons are so commonplace that for most of us, seeing the game inside of life has become second nature. Rarely, however, do we turn that analogy around to see how sports are shaped by life. Rarely do we discuss the fact that behind the box scores and the multi-million dollar contracts there are people whose personalities and relationships help shape the games themselves.
1976. Baseball’s reserve clause had been struck down the year before and small market teams were scrambling, looking for ways to compete with more financially sophisticated franchises in the wake of free agency. It was in this setting that baseball’s Commissioner made a ruling that prevented an owner of a financially troubled franchise from “selling” its players outright to more successful clubs. The decision was notable for a number of reasons. First, it ran contrary to decade’s worth of historical precedent. Second, it was an application of power by the commissioner on a level never before witnessed. And third, the decision so outraged one owner that a lawsuit was filed against Major League Baseball in federal court. But perhaps most notably, the decision served as one of the final chapters in the story of two of baseball’s most unique men and their unique relationship.

What follows is the story of those two men. It’s a story about a hard-working, eccentric, insurance salesman from Gary, Indiana, and an authoritative, no-nonsense, New York attorney. This is not a story of life being like baseball; it is a story of baseball being like life.

Charles Oscar Finley was born February 22, 1918, in Ensley, Alabama, a once thriving industrial city that is now a community of Birmingham. Randolph Finley, Charles’s grandfather, had come to the area from Ireland to work in the nearby steel mills. Together Randolph and his wife, Emma Caroline Finley, raised 11 children, including Oscar, Charles’s father. Oscar followed his father into the steel business and it was there, working as an apprentice, that he met his future wife, Emma Fields. Oscar and Emma had three children, Thelma, Charles, and Fred.

From an early age Charles was talented businessman. He sold newspapers and magazines all over Birmingham. By the age of 12, Charles was mowing lawns six days a week. Before long he had hired and organized his own lawn-mowing crew. An opportunist even at an early age, Finley began producing and selling homemade wine during prohibition. He even tried his hand as an egg salesman, buying discolored rejected eggs for five cents a dozen and later selling them for fifteen cents a dozen in downtown Birmingham office buildings. But Charles’s true love was baseball, and he did all he could to be around it. He played the game whenever he could, and worked as a batboy for the minor league Birmingham Barons from a young age. The Great Depression hit Ensley hard, and by the early 1930’s the steel mills began laying people off. Poverty-ridden, Charles’s father Oscar was forced to move the family, and was transferred by US Steel to work in Gary, Indiana.

In Gary, Charlie Finley found a way to combine his two passions, organizing his own youth-league baseball team, the Gary Merchants, and finding sponsors for it. Finley got local retailers to give twenty-five dollars, and in return he would put the store’s name on a player’s back. After his graduation from high school in 1936, an eighteen-year-old Charlie followed the two generations of Finley’s before him and started working in the steel mills himself. He continued to play baseball as a first baseman-manager in a semipro league and studied engineering in college at night. In 1941, Charlie married a local woman named Shirley McCartney. That same year he was laid off from the steel mill. Charlie was rejected for military service because of an ulcer and went to work in an ordnance plant east of Gary in LaPorte, Indiana. In the meantime, he started to sell insurance on the side. Charlie was such a skilled salesman that he left his job at the ordnance plant and began working for a Travelers agent in Gary. In his first year, he set sales records with company that stood for over fifteen years. Ironically, Finley failed to by an insurance policy himself, and in 1946, driven by exhaustion at the age of just 26, developed tuberculosis. Charlie spent the next two-and-a-half years in a hospital. The bout with tuberculosis cost him his career as a baseball player, and almost cost him his life. But Charlie Finley saw a business opportunity in everything. By the time he had recovered, he had developed a plan to sell group life insurance plans to doctors and surgeons, an idea that would make him a millionaire by the time he was 35.

His playing days behind him, the lifelong baseball fanatic set his sights on a new dream: owning a professional baseball team. But as Finley would soon find out, the world of professional baseball was ruled by a tight-knit fraternity of owners, and breaking through would be harder then he expected. Finley first tried to purchase the Philadelphia Athletics from the Mack family in 1953 but lost out to a bidder named Arnold Johnson, who happened to be a business associate of New York Yankee co-owner Dan Topping. Shortly thereafter, Finley was spurned as a bidder for the Detroit Tigers, and unsuccessfully bid for the Chicago White Sox. Having had little luck trying to gain ownership of some of the leagues more storied, established franchises, Finley went after the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was so desperate for a team, that he even tried to lure Roy Rogers into his syndicate to counter Gene Autry’s competing bid, but he lost out once again.
Finley got another chance at the Athletics franchise (which had moved to Kansas City after the 1954 season) when Arnold Johnson passed away in 1960. Johnson had owned 52% of the Kansas City franchise and upon his death that interest had to go through probate court in Chicago. Finley went in and bid $1.975 million. Baseball’s brass commissioned Joe Iglehart, the chairman of the Baltimore Orioles, to check him out. Finley had been haunting ownership meetings for almost 6 years at this point trying to gain access into the league, but outside of that, the current establishment of owners knew little of him. Iglehart sensed that Finley would not cease being a thorn in the owner’s side just because he finally had his franchise. “Under no conditions,” Iglehart reported, “should this person be allowed into our league.”i

Unfortunately for the owners, the Kansas City club had been terrible for years. Johnson had moved the team out of Philadelphia, and it became somewhat of a professional farm-club for the New York Yankees, his friend Dan Topping’s team. Between 1955 and 1960, the Athletics and Yankees had exchanged 29 players in trades, with the A’s often supplying young talent (including one Roger Eugene Maris) to the Yankees in exchange for washed-up veterans. In fact, in 1960, the A’s were the worst team in the American League, and finished 39 games behind the first place Yankees. This time, there were no competing bids. The owners were unable to find any other suitors for the floundering Kansas City franchise, and Finley’s purchase from Widow Johnson was approved. Finley finally had the in that he had been waiting for.
The Athletics weren’t just the worst team in the standings, they were the worst team at the box office as well. Average attendance in 1960 was about 1.4 million annually across baseball. The A’s managed about half of that: 775,000. “I wanted to get into baseball in the worst way,” Finley would later say, “and that’s what I did.”ii
With his team lacking the baseball talent needed to boost ticket sales, Charlie Finley turned to the salesman skills he had been honing since his early days in Ensley. He was an innovator. Finley quickly became known as “the P.T. Barnum of baseball.” People would often say “baseball in Kansas City is as awful as ever, but it sure looks different.” Finley introduced the sleeveless top to the American League, and dressed his players in flamboyant Kelly green and “Fort Knox gold” uniforms with “albino kangaroo white” shoes. Norm Seibern, the Athletics’ lone representative in the 1963 All-Star Game, did not play, reportedly because Yankees manager Ralph Houk thought Finley’s uniform was a disgrace to the American League, and refused to let it see the field. Finley didn’t stop with the uniforms. Back in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, he painted the box seats citrus yellow, the reserved and bleacher seats desert turquoise, and the foul poles florescent pink. He hired Miss U.S.A. to be the batgirl. Every so often, a mechanical rabbit named “Harvey” would rise out of the ground to give balls to the home-plate umpire as the stadium organist played “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” Finley also installed a compressed air device that he called “Little Blowhard” inside of home plate that blew dirt away for the umpires. He ran cow-milking contests, greased pig contests, placed a sheep pasture, complete with Sheppard, beyond the right field fence, and a zoo beyond left field that included monkeys, pheasants, and rabbits. In 1963, starting pitcher Diego Segui was delivered to the mound on a hay wagon. Finley introduced a live mule named “Charlie O.” as the team mascot, and paraded it through downtown Kansas City. Not only did the mule have its own pen just outside of the park, it also went on road trips and stayed in the team hotel. Once during a road-trip to New York City, Finley himself rode the mule through Times Square. In Yankee Stadium, Finley got outfielder Ken Harrelson to ride Charlie O., and the frightened mule ran around trying to buck him off.

Finley also tinkered with every aspect of his ballpark, including the dimensions of the outfield fence. Convinced that the Yankees won every year not because of their talent, but rather because of the dimensions of their ballpark, Finley decided to make his right field configuration identical to that in Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, major league rules decreed that as of 1958, all parks had to have fences at a minimum distance of 325 feet from home plate down the foul lines, with the exception of parks already with shorter dimensions. The get around the rule, Finley ordered that his fence conform to the Yankee Stadium dimensions from center field to right field until it reached a point of five feet from the foul line and 296 feet from home plate (the distance from home plate to the right field fence at Yankee Stadium). From there the fence angled sharply back in the remaining five feet to 325 feet at the foul pole, neatly skirting baseball’s rule.
In the meantime, Finley traded for sluggers to hit home runs over his new fences. His plan worked in part. In 1964, the A’s hit 166 home runs, the third most in the league. Unfortunately, they also gave up a league record 220 home runs (a record that would stand until 1987) and again finished in last place. The next year, Finley moved the fences back, added a 40 foot screen above them in right field, and traded away the home run hitters he had traded for just a year earlier. The results were the same. The A’s improved their record by just two wins and finished dead last in the American league again.

Despite Finley’s best efforts to popularize his team, attendance in Kansas City remained low, and they never had a winning season. He began to grow impatient and suggested that the team need a larger market than Kansas City to survive. Rumors began to swirl about the club moving to Atlanta, Dallas, or Oakland, but in order to move the club from Kansas City, he would need league approval.

Unfortunately for Finley, his antics had outraged baseball’s establishment. While there was an understated genius behind some of Finley’s ideas, most of them were just plain outrageous, and he had a propensity to be impatient and abrasive. New owners were supposed to be seen and not heard, and the old guard of owners all around the league was forced to sit and watch as this brash insurance salesman from Alabama ran what appeared to many of them nothing more than a traveling circus from his Kansas City post.
Historically, owners merely watched games and signed checks. Finley was running a one-man show in Kansas City. He had inserted himself as chairman of the board, general manager, and even tried to make personal changes through his managers. Finley attempted to micromanage the game right down to its smallest details. During the 1962 All-Star break, Finley ordered rookie Manny Jimenez, who was leading the league with a .350 batting average at the time, to start hitting homeruns. Jimenez slumped the rest of the season and hit well under .300 post-break. Finley sent Jimenez back to the minors in 1963 and fired manager Hank Bauer who had taken Jimenez’s side. John Fetzer, the man who had won the bidding for the Detroit Tigers over Finley in 1960, suggested to Finley that he hire a general manager. Finley responded, “When the day comes that I find a GM who can do a better job than Charlie O., I’ll hire the son-of-a-gun.”iii

In 1964 Finley signed a two-year lease on a stadium in Louisville, but the other nine owners unanimously voted against the club’s move. Upset by the league’s decision, Finley announced that the franchise was for sale and drew offers from Denver and San Diego. Finley offered advice to a hypothetical man who wanted to become a baseball owner: “Do not go into any league meeting looking alert and awake; slump down like you’ve been out all night and keep your eyes half closed, and when it is your turn to vote you ask to pass. Then you wait and see how the others vote, and you vote the same way. Suggest no innovations. Make no efforts and change. That way you will be very popular with your fellow owners.”

To settle the issue, American League President Joe Cronin promised Finley that the league would allow a move within three years. After being forced to sign a new lease in Kansas City in 1964, Finley essentially stopped promoting his team altogether. He had given up on the city of Kansas City. Finley ignored boosters and local groups that organized ticket buying programs, and made only cursory attempts at selling television and radio rights. Instead, Finley concentrated his efforts on signing new players for the team---the only thing he could take with him when he left Kansas City.
Finley himself traveled the country signing prospects. He had a personal touch. In 1964, he traveled from Kansas City to Macon, Georgia to meet with a phenom pitcher named Johnny Lee Odom. Odom had just finished up his high school career with a record of 42-2 and had thrown eight no hitters. Finley went to Odom’s house in Macon, and paid $30 to stay with the family for the night. Finley then went to market and bought mounds of groceries for the Odom family. It took a half-ton pickup to deliver it all to the Odom’s. That night, Charlie himself cooked a feast for the family: fried chicken, corn on the cob, black eyed peas, collard greens, the works. Charlie stayed in Macon just one night, but by the time he left, Finley had Odom signed for $75,000.

Between 1964 and 1966, Finley spent nearly $2,000,000 on players and the team began to get better. In 1966, the team improved its record by almost 20 games and finished ahead of the New York Yankees in the standings for the first time. Their rise was highlighted by a 1967 cover-story in Sports Illustrated that suggested that the A’s might be two years away from a pennant. Instead, the 1967 season was marred by incident, and the A’s ended up right back in last place. During that season, as the Athletics returned home from Boston on a commercial flight, a few of the players that had been drinking got out of hand. Finley, who was not present, singled out pitcher Lew Krausse and fined and suspended him for what Finley called “rowdyism.” The players were outraged and publically backed Krausse. Finley fired manager Alvin Dark, and released the team’s best hitter, Ken Harrelson, because Harrelson had referred to Finley as “a menace to baseball.” Harrelson’s outright release caused a stir with owners as Harrelson signed a $75,000 contract with the pennant bound Boston Red Sox. The ramifications of Harrelson’s free agency caused owners to change league rules so that in the future, a player had to clear waivers before becoming a free agent.

By 1967, Finley’s four-year lease at Municipal Stadium had run up, and Finley was ready to finally cash in on the promise made to him by the other owners years back. In October, the league approved the A’s move to Oakland. United States Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri said of Finley’s arrival in California, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

By the late 1960’s, baseball had much bigger problems than a noisy owner trying to fight his way out of Kansas City. Across the league, attendance was showing little long-term growth, and a short-term decline. Attendance in 1968 was down 1.2 million from 1967, and 2 million from 1966. The teams in baseball’s largest markets---New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago---were all struggling, and it hurt the league’s influence in these key media centers. The game’s biggest star, Mickey Mantle, had retired after the 1968 season and his Yankees, the league’s premier franchise, were in the midst of a long decline. The game was dominated by pitching. In 1968, batters in the National League hit a collective .243; in the American league, .230. There were only six .300 hitters in all of baseball. Carl Yastrzemski led the American League at .301. The season home run total was down 1,000 from 1962. In total, there were 339 shutouts in 1968, and of those, 82 were 1-0 games. Runs per game totals averaged 6.8, the lowest since the turn-of-the-century deadball era.

With football, basketball and hockey enjoying healthy growth, and with public esteem for the sports mounting, baseball was faced with its greatest competition to date. Young fans were flocking to the other sports, and modern heroes like Joe Namath were capturing the hearts of a nation. Baseball wasn’t just struggling at the box offices either. Its television contracts and broadcast revenues paled in comparison to those of professional football.

The owners were also faced with a developing player’s union lead by Marvin Miller. In 1968, Miller negotiated Major League Baseball Players Association's first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners. Among other things, that agreement increased the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000, the first increase in two decades.
Major league baseball was in a state of emergency. Less money was coming in, and more was going out. The commissioner at the time was William D. “Spike” Eckert. Eckert was a retired air force general who had come into office without any prior experience in sports administration. This last point was, at times, glaring. Many around baseball felt that Eckert had no awareness of baseball’s problems or the direction it should take, and he aroused national indignation by failing to cancel games after the assassinations of civil rights leader Martian Luther King Jr. and United States Senator Robert Kennedy. Dozens of owners called for Eckert to leave office after the 1968 season, and as a result, he stepped down after just three years at his post.

Uniting owners for the purpose of ousting Eckert was one thing, but getting the owners to agree on a replacement proved quite another. After three weeks of deliberation, owners from the National League had lined up their support behind Giants vice president Chub Freeny. The American League owners backed Yankees president Mike Burke. At the first election meeting, the vote was deadlocked round after round. In order to put a new commissioner in place, one of the candidates would have to receive backing from seventy-five percent of the owners in both leagues. Compromise candidates began to arise, but time and time again, they were voted down. Calvin Griffith of the Twins voted for his brother-in-law round after round. After almost eleven hours, Yankees general manager Lee MacPhail was phoned and asked if he was interested in the position. MacPhail said no. He garnered thirteen votes anyway. After over twelve-and-a-half hours and nineteen ballots, they gave up.

In February 1969, the owners convened for a second time in hopes of voting a new commissioner into place. The deadlock resumed and the group recessed. It was clear that neutral choice would be necessary to break the stalemate. Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley had just the man in mind.

Other than a common love for baseball, Bowie Kuhn’s formative years could not have been much different from Charlie Finley’s. Bowie Kent Kuhn was born in Tacoma Park, Maryland on October 28, 1926. His father, Louis Charles Kuhn, had emigrated from Bavaria, but was now an executive at a fuel company. Bowie’s mother Alice had family roots in 17th-century Maryland, and was the descendent of five governors, two United States senators, and famous frontiersman “Jim” Bowie. Bowie Kuhn was the youngest of three children. He was always a good student and was president of his class at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C.

Even at six feet five inches, Kuhn was never much of an athlete. As a senior in high school he was approached by his school’s varsity basketball coach---a man named Arnold “Red” Auerbach, the eventual hall of fame coach of the Boston Celtics. “Son, you’re the tallest boy in the school. How come you’re not out for the basketball team?” Auerbach asked him.

“Because I’m a lousy player,” Kuhn replied.

“You let me be the judge of that,” Auerbach told him. After a week of practice, Auerbach pulled Kuhn aside and said, “Son, you were right, and I was wrong. You won’t have to come back tomorrow.”iv

Despite his shortcomings as an athlete, Kuhn did find one way to be close to sports in high school: working as a scoreboard operator at the Washington Senators’ Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C.

Upon his graduation from high school, Kuhn attended Franklin & Marshall College in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. He later attended Princeton University, and graduated with honors in 1947 with a Bachelors of Arts degree in economics. After Princeton, Kuhn enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia, and would serve on the editorial board of the law review before his graduating in 1950.

Following his graduation from law school, Kuhn went to work for the prestigious New York law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher. The firm represented the National League in most of its legal affairs, and Kuhn was eager to sign on. Kuhn spent the next nineteen years working closely in baseball’s legal affairs at Willkie, and became assistant counsel for the National League. His biggest case, perhaps, was as lead counsel for Major League Baseball in a lawsuit brought against it by the City of Milwaukee.v In the mid-sixties, residents of Milwaukee were upset about the Braves’ plan to leave Milwaukee for Atlanta. Milwaukee County and the state of Wisconsin sued to keep the team claiming that Major League Baseball had violated state antitrust laws in approving the move. Kuhn lost his first go-round in 1965, in Milwaukee County Court, and an injunction was filed preventing the Braves franchise from fleeing Milwaukee. However, he would later win the case on appeal before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the Braves were allowed to move to Atlanta for the 1966 season.
Kuhn made a name for himself among baseball’s owners during the Milwaukee case and was a neutral enough choice to break the logjam amongst the owners during the 1969 winter meetings. Kuhn had become a baseball insider during his time at Willkie, and was familiar with the legal challenges facing the game. He was also well spoken and had a forceful, imposing image, at six-feet-five-inches tall, and 240 pounds. Bowie Kuhn was elected by unanimous vote, and offered a one-year interim contract. After some debate, he accepted.

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