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Finley Had a Ball, but Not Orange

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He gave us World Series games that begin on Wednesday night and end on Thursday morning, potbellied 42-year-olds who hobble out of the dugout to take their cuts four times a game and a colorblind fashion sense that encouraged the Houston Astros to wrap rainbows around their stomachs and the Pittsburgh Pirates to dress like mustard dogs.

Eventually, however, major league baseball had to draw the line somewhere with Charles O. Finley, and so it did.

With orange baseballs.

Finley could dress his Oakland Athletics in Fort Knox gold, Kelly green and “wedding gown” white, pay his players $300 to grow and wax handlebar mustaches, send his relief pitchers to the mound on the backs of mules, deliver baseballs to the home plate umpire via mechanical magical rabbit, offer his best pitcher $2,000 to legally change his name to “True Blue,” put a track star in an A’s uniform and use him as “a designated runner,” phone his manager every morning with the A’s evening lineup and try to release one of his infielders during a World Series, but orange baseballs?

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Sorry, Charlie, the lords of horsehide told Finley in the mid-1970s, we can’t be turning the grand old game into a mockery now, can we?

The orange baseball will go to the grave with Finley, who died at the age of 77 Monday. There’s probably a carton or two of them stored in the barn on Finley’s farm in LaPorte, Ind., where Finley grew corn and soybeans and dabbled in the odd hobby, like painting fluorescent yellow stripes on footballs, after selling the A’s to the Levi-Strauss company in 1981.

Finley had an obsession with visibility, be it glow-in-the-dark footballs or easy-to-see baseballs or his own mug in front of a newspaper photographer’s lens. As owner of the A’s from 1961 to 1981, Finley imagined himself bigger than the game of baseball, and for a three- or four-year run in the early ‘70s, he might have been right.

His A’s won five consecutive American League West championships (1971-75) and three consecutive World Series (1972-74) with one of finest collections of baseball talent of the postwar era, yet the glory of the achievement, reflected or otherwise, always found its way back to Finley.

The A’s won three World Series in a row, but Finley got rid of the manager responsible for the first two, Dick Williams, and replaced him--and won again--with Alvin Dark, largely to show he could do it. Twenty years later, Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones retraced Finley’s footsteps almost exactly with his Jimmy Johnson-Barry Switzer tap dance.

Those A’s were glutted with all-stars and future Hall of Famers--Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi. They did the heavy lifting, but Finley soaked up the credit, since he was, besides owner of the team, also the general manager who “discovered” them.

Those A’s were notorious brawlers and malcontents who were able to refrain from choking one another for three hours every summer night, long enough to pummel another American League rival, because on the field, they found common ground, or at least a common opponent--Finley. In Reggie Jackson’s words, Finley paid his players “slave wages” and was never above embarrassing any of them on the national stage, as he did with second baseman Mike Andrews during the 1973 World Series.

After committing two errors that cost the A’s a victory against the New York Mets, Andrews was pressured by Finley into signing an injury report that would put Andrews on the inactive list, making him ineligible for the remainder of the Series. Aside from possibly writer’s cramp and a twisted left arm, Andrews was in fact perfectly fit. Finley had forced him to sign as a penalty for his crimes in the field compounded by “arrogance.”

Intentionally or not, Finley rallied his players again. Wearing black armbands as a tribute to Andrews--who was later reinstated by Finley’s perpetual nemesis, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn--the A’s came back to finish off the Mets in seven games.

Us Against Charlie--that was the A’s battle cry during those tumultuous years. A friend of Finley’s, after touring the A’s locker room after a game in 1973, remarked that “it was like walking among enemies,” which it was, and “the next day, they took it out on Charlie. Every time they hit a home run, they were swinging at Charlie’s head.”

Finley made those A’s, and he dismantled them almost as quickly, once free agency became a reality Finley was not about to deal with. Ironically, Finley paved the way for baseball’s first big-name free agent, Hunter, after an arbitrator in 1974 ruled Finley had breached the pitcher’s contract.

Finley determined that the only way to fight back was to give up the fight, so before the 1976 season, he began liquidating the franchise, piece by piece. He got only as far as getting rid of Ken Holtzman and Jackson. When he tried to sell Fingers, Rudi and Blue to the Yankees and the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million, Kuhn was forced to intercede again. Kuhn voided the sales “in the best interests of baseball"--or, at least, the best interest of baseball fans living in Oakland.

By 1981, Finley was out of the game, selling off the A’s, altogether now, for $12.7 million and retired to his Indiana ranch. From there, he would occasionally consent to an interview, usually whenever baseball voted in a new commissioner, or refused to vote one in, or whenever his opinion was sought for a what-ails-baseball-these-days essay. Then, he would propose a few more cockeyed ideas--three balls instead of four would surely speed up the game, he noted--and remind the reporter that baseball had already adopted some of his earlier, heretical brainstorms, like the designated hitter, night World Series games and uniform designs apparently inspired by LSD flashbacks.

These comprised Finley’s legacy, for better or worse, and if the purists are still gagging, Finley was convinced until the end the game was better off for them. During the 1980s, he was asked if he missed baseball and Finley replied, no, but he was sure that “baseball misses me.”

Finley’s was the ego that roared before Steinbrenner. Before he handed that mantle over to the owner of the Yankees, Finley once chastised Jackson for having one big personality flaw. “Your big problem,” he told Reggie, "[is that] you think you’re God.” Then he informed Reggie, “You’re all wrong about that. I’m God.”

Monday, Finley continued his research into that theory. That and maybe getting a second opinion on the orange baseball.

* MAIN STORY: A1


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