Does the MLB Commissioner Have the Right to Overturn Owner’s Trades/Sales/Deals?

The 2012 look of the Miami Marlins.

The question above is one that many people have debated during the last couple of weeks as the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays undertook a megadeal that swapped several star players for top prospects. In mid-November 2012 the Marlins sent All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes and ace pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to the Blue Jays for a haul of prospects that might be helpful in Miami in two-plus years. Analysts who investigated the deal concluded that both sides helped themselves through the changes; the Blue Jays immediately and the Marlins in future years. Bud Selig, MLB commissioner, specifically reviewed this deal and approved it.

But the question is, why should the commissioner have the right to decide what deals teams make. Are they not independent businesses? A lot of people argued that even a review of the deal was beyond the purview of the commissioner. This called to mind a story that Mike Green and I told in Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman (Walker and Co., 2010), about the great A’s fire sale of 1976. In that case MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and overturned a deal between the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Finley’s Oakland A’s, who were only a year removed from three consecutive World Series victories (1972-1974). Again, all of these teams would have improved themselves through the deal, the Red Sox and Yankees immediately and the A’s in the next few years. But Kuhn refused to allow the deal to go through. It’s an interesting story with a moral for the present situation.

With the June 1976 trade deadline approaching, Charlie Finley was deeply troubled that he would not be able to retain the stars that had created his dynasty in Oakland after the season; indeed some had already been dealt or become free agents. Accordingly Finley, who not only owned the A’s but also acted as his own general manager, proposed trading or selling them outright and stocking his farm system for the future with the proceeds.

The Red Sox and New York Yankees especially seemed interested. He sent outfielder Joe Rudi and future Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers to Boston for a million dollars apiece. He also struck a deal to send pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees. News of the sales spread throughout MLB, prompting Finley to call the A’s clubhouse to inform Manager Chuck Tanner and the departing players. He promised his manager, “We’ll rebuild, Chuck. I’m sorry we had to do this today.”

MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn then donned his fireman’s helmet to extinguish the fire sale. He had heard rumors of Finley offering players to other teams, but as this deal was announced he telephoned Finley: “Charlie,…I don’t like the look of these sales at all. I’m putting everything on hold until I can decide whether or not to stop them.” Finley calmly replied, “Commissioner, it’s none of your damn business. You can’t stop me from selling players. Guys have been selling players forever and no commissioner has ever stopped them.” This was true. Kuhn suggested that they meet to talk over the situation. Finley initially refused, but later agreed to meet Kuhn in Chicago.

Finley owned the Kansas City/Oakland A’s, 1960-1980

Arriving at 10:00 p.m., Finley suggested they start discussions with a round of Black Russians. They did. Then Finley began, “Don’t butt into this, there are other things the commissioner should be doing. Don’t butt into this.” Finley then launched into a monologue about the world according to Finley. He claimed he would use the money to buy prospects and rebuild his franchise. “Commissioner, I can’t sign these guys. They don’t want to play for ol’ Charlie. They want to chase those big bucks in New York. If I sell them now, I can at least get something back…I can sign amateurs and build the team again…I know how to do it. You know I do. You’ve seen me do it. And you shouldn’t be thinking about getting into this…This free agency thing is terrible. The only way to beat it is with young players. That’s where I’ll put the money,” Finley whined.

Kuhn responded, “I’m freezing those players right now until I decide how to handle this.” Kuhn was concerned that the sales could lead to weaker teams routinely selling their best players to stronger teams, upsetting the competitive balance in baseball. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, always a Kuhn confidant, advised the commissioner, “You must not allow this to happen.” Kuhn then met with Finley, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, representatives of the Red Sox, players representative Marvin Miller, and others. Finley recounted most of the same arguments he had already made. After the meeting most of the attendees believed the sales would be approved. Steinbrenner even flashed a “thumbs-up” sign to the media. Most believed that while Kuhn did not personally approve of the sale, he did not have the legal authority to prevent it. After the meeting Finley, dapper in a gray plaid suit and yellow golf shirt and hat, confidently predicted, “I plan to use this money to great advantage. We’ll be able to purchase a lot of players at the end of the season.”

Marvin Miller opined, “I don’t understand what the furor is about. No rules have been violated. What has happened here has happened hundreds of times: namely the selling of players for cash.” Kuhn remained non-committal and stated, “The issue is whether the assignment of the contracts is appropriate or not under the circumstances. That’s the issue I have to wrestle with. I have to consider these transactions in the best interest of baseball.” Kuhn’s decision would come the next day.

Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi in Red Sox uniforms during the fire sale debate.

Rudi, Fingers, and Blue were in limbo because of the commissioner’s hold on the transaction. They could not join their new teams. While Rudi and Fingers posed in Red Sox uniforms they never played a game. “We were ecstatic to be going to Boston…my wife had the whole house packed the next day, still it was a very emotional day…I was an ‘A’ my whole life and all of a sudden I am on the Red Sox side,” reflected Joe Rudi. They could not workout or do much of anything with either the A’s or Red Sox. Reflecting on the situation Fingers said, “Hey, I’m worth a million dollars. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right.” Meanwhile, Vida Blue remained in the Bay area awaiting the outcome of the commissioner’s deliberations.

Not until Friday, June 19th, did Kuhn announce his decision to void the sales. His carefully worded statement explained his reasoning:

Shorn of much of its finest talent in exchange for cash, the Oakland club…has little chance to compete effectively in its division. Whether other players will be available to restore the club by using the cash involved is altogether speculative although Mr. Finley vigorously argues his ability to do so….Public confidence in the integrity of club operations and in baseball would be greatly undermined should such assignments not be restrained. While I am of course aware that there have been sales of players contracts in the past, there has been no instance in my judgment which had the potential for harm to our game as do these assignments, particularly in the present…highly competitive circumstances we find in today’s sports and entertainment world.

Kuhn said he remained deeply concerned that other teams stood to gain an enormous advantage from these sales, something he believe detrimental to the game. By the way, change Oakland to Miami in the comment above and you have exactly the same situation with the current deal.

Reaction came immediately. “The ruling is horse bleep,” Finley roared. “Kuhn sounds like the village idiot. He’s continuing a personal vendetta with me.” Marvin Miller was also dismayed: “The commissioner has single-handedly plunged baseball into the biggest mess it has ever seen.” Yankee manager Billy Martin, who was looking forward to having some new all-stars was his colorful self. “I can believe Watergate,” he griped, “but I can’t believe that we in baseball, who are so intelligent, would do this.”

Rollie Fingers was also disappointed. “At the time, Charlie Finley knew that all three of us were playing out our options,” recalled Fingers. “We were gonna go to another ball club. And all he was trying to do was to try to get some cash for us….I loved pitching in Fenway Park. I was looking forward to going to Boston.”

While public opinion seemed firmly on Finley’s side, Kuhn was confident in his own authority. Meantime, Finley filed a $10 million lawsuit in federal court in Chicago against Kuhn claiming restraint of trade. Pending its resolution Finley ordered Chuck Tanner not to play Rudi, Fingers, or Blue. Finley’s attorney Neil Papiano explained the rationale, “If Charlie uses any of the players, then in essence, he is ratifying the commissioner’s position.”

The A’s played nearly two weeks without these three teammates. “We were getting pretty disgusted with the whole thing,” Fingers recalled. Finally, on June 24th, Kuhn ordered Finley to reinstate the three players. Finley balked. With the Twins visiting Oakland on June 26th, the A’s took a strike vote and decided unanimously not to play if Finley did not activate Rudi, Fingers, and Blue. The next day, the A’s sat in the locker room in street clothes until nearly ten minutes before game time. “It got to the point where we had a team meeting,” Fingers recalled, and they decided to the last player that either the three would play or “we were gonna forfeit the game to Minnesota.” Tanner walked into the locker room after talking with Finley. “Okay here it is,” said Tanner, reading the lineup. “North, centerfield… Campaneris, shortstop…Baylor, designated hitter…Bando, third base…Tenace, first base…Rudi, left field…” The room erupted. “I’m telling you, it was mass hysteria,” said Sal Bando. “It was like the World Series around here…all we wanted to hear was Rudi’s name was in there.” The A’s went on to defeat the Twins that afternoon 5-3, Rudi went hitless, but Fingers pitched 3 1/3 innings to pick up his ninth save.

Bowie Kuhn had a vendetta against Charlie Finley in not approving what had been done many times before and has also be done many times since. Finley was never a likable person so it is easy to confuse the “best interests of baseball” stuff with the personal stuff.

But one thing was clear, Finley recognized that with the coming of free agency his small market A’s could not effectively compete against the larger market teams without a radical shift in strategy. He did not have the money to compete with the George Steinbrenners and Gene Autrys of baseball. Finley knew he had to obtain value for his star players before they became free agents. He also quickly realized that only by developing talent in the minor leagues could he continue to compete in the new era of free agency and salary arbitration.

Finley pioneered the ownership practice used by small market teams ever after: trade or sell outright your pending free agents to obtain value before you lose them and plow either the prospects or money back into your minor league system. It is how the Twins, Rays, Indians, A’s, and others compete today. However, Finley was prevented from carrying out his plan by Bowie Kuhn’s ruling.

Interestingly, Bud Selig could have overturned the deal between the Marlins and the Blue Jays using the same competitive balance and “best interests of baseball” arguments that Kuhn employed to meddle in the A’s transactions. At some level, and it pains me to say this since I have a healthy dislike for Charlie Finley and his approach to running a baseball team, he was right about Kuhn’s abuse of power. And Selig was right as well in not intervening in the Marlins-Blue Jays deal.

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