Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley are two of the most interesting, original, and provocative owners in Major League Baseball. Both had adept promotional skills, and remarkably similar beliefs, yet observers of the game have assigned them remarkably different places in significance.
Veeck, as owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox in the 1940s and 1950s and again later has achieved folk hero status as a baseball original. Everyone has heard versions of the story about how he devised all manner of stunts to entertain his team’s fans, how he wanted to break the color barrier prior to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut, how he tweaked the noses of other MLB owners with his antics on and off the field, and how he undertook a creative bookkeeping system to amortize his investment in teams.
All of this points up his innovative nature and has given him a folk hero status. He enjoys an overwhelmingly positive image among most historians and even the casual observer of the game.
Interestingly, Charles O. Finley as owner of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s between 1960 and 1980 is an inheritor of the innovative spirit of Veeck. He devised numerous stunts to entertain the A’s fans, some of which bore resemblance to earlier Veeck shenanigans but many of which were quite original. He jousted with his fellow owners over all manner of rules and procedures, not unlike Veeck, and forced the adoption of several innovative ideas by MLB. Finley was also in the forefront of opening MLB to Latino players and helped to expand the game beyond its traditional base.
Unlike Veeck, however, Finley has an overwhelmingly negative image and most people assign him villain status in the history of MLB. Why? At a fundamental level Veeck and Finley were quite similar.
Bill Veeck is one of the legends of Major League Baseball. He is best remembered for sending midget Eddie Gaedel to bat in a game against the Tigers at St. Louis on August 19, 1951. That stunt sealed Veeck’s place as baseball’s most imaginative promoter. The son of the president the Chicago Cubs, Veeck had a populist tendency and said he was happiest when roaming the grandstand and bleachers mingling with fans. Veeck also made sound baseball decisions, creating winners in Cleveland and Chicago.
Veeck was above all else a master showman and his ability to promote and excite fans always served him well. His philosophy was simple: more people will pay to see a bad team that has stunts and giveaways than will pay to see just a bad team. So he worked hard to make every game an entertaining, and sometimes a zany, experience. Fans that leave the game with smiles on their faces will come back, he reasoned. But he was also a genius in building winners, and won pennants in Cleveland and Chicago.
After selling the hapless St. Louis Browns in 1953, Veeck made several comebacks to baseball, notably, as the head of a syndicate that purchased the Chicago White Sox in 1959, which won its first pennant in 40 years and drew a club-record 1,423,000. In 1960 Veeck unveiled the exploding scoreboard and drew 1,644,460 for a club record that still stands. Thereafter, on advice of his doctors he sold the team and retired to his Maryland farm. He went back to Chicago in 1975 and bought the White Sox one more time for $7 million; selling it five years later for $20 million. He had constant health problems, in part because of his experience in World War II that cost him a leg, but also because he was a heavy smoker, and underwent two operations for lung cancer in 1984. He eventually died in 1986. Minnie Minoso attended his funeral wearing a White Sox uniform. Veeck would have been pleased.
Charles O. Finley’s experience was related but strikingly different from that of Bill Veeck. In December 1960 he purchased the worst team in the American League, the Kansas City Athletics. Finley was truly one of the most colorful, innovative, and dislikable persons ever to own a baseball team. He makes George Steinbrenner, the arrogant owner of the Yankees, look like a model of decorum. Some said the “O” in Finley’s name stood for “outrageous,” and they would not be far off. Finley said it stood for “owner.” A self-made millionaire, Finley had gotten himself out of the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, through hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice. He was brash, profane, and overbearing, possessing all of the delicacy of a wrecking ball. As journalist Nick Acocella wrote:
Charley Finley was a loud-mouth, a tyrant and a miser. He also was a master showman and an innovator. His two-decade tenure as owner of the Kansas City and Oakland Athletics was one of the most erratic administrations in baseball history. By the time he stepped aside, it was difficult to say whether he was disliked more by his players, other owners, the baseball commissioner, the fans of two cities or U.S. Congressmen.
Finley was also full of ideas, and he wanted everyone to hear them and to embrace them and feuded with those who dismissed them. With the Athletics in Kansas City, he scrapped the standard issue home white and gray road flannels in favor of colorful uniforms for his players. Clothing them in his favorite colors of Kelly Green and Ft. Knox Gold, the Athletics were the subject of ridicule for years. Only in the 1970s did most of the other major league teams adopt colorful and unusual uniforms. He dressed young women on his ground crew in skimpy costumes. He instituted a mechanical rabbit in Kansas City, complete with a little Athletics uniform, to carry balls to the umpire during the game. He set up picnic tables beyond the outfield for fans to come and have supper. He placed lights in the dugout so that the fans could see what the team did there. He adopted several ideas from Bill Veeck, including an exploding scoreboard that launched fireworks whenever a player hit a homerun. Veeck once quipped, “If I ever run out of ideas, Charlie Finley will be out of business.”
Finley also built a winner, and the Oakland A’s of the early 1970s were a powerhouse. The team won five straight AL West Division titles between 1971 and 1975 and three World Series (1972-1974). Finley’s A’s certainly enjoyed success in Oakland, but he remained the horse’s ass that he had always been.
Many have asked the question, why was Charles O. Finley disliked by just about everyone during his tenure as owner of the A’s? Why did MLB leadership try to stop Finley at nearly every turn? Perhaps, as Dan Holmes wrote, “it could have been because Finley was an outspoken, vulgar, penny-pinching bastard, capable of bringing embarrassment to the entire game with every flap of his gums.” At the same time, he had an ingenious mind, and often demonstrated innovation and vision between his bullshit. Among his innovations:
- Designated hitter rule.
- Geographical divisions within leagues.
- Inter-league play.
- Playing World Series and All-Star games at night.
- Colorful uniforms, specialized uniforms, throwback uniforms.
- Breaking down of stodgy dress codes to help the game appeal to younger fans.
Despite this contribution, few mourned his passing and were happy to see him out of baseball after 1980.
But one could also ask, if Veeck deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as he was in 1991, should not Finley also be there? It is not about the happen, but perhaps it should. The record is divided, but Finley deserves to be considered for the MLB Hall of Fame. What do you think?