Good Charlie/Bad Charlie: What Made Charlie Finley Tick?

This essay is based on material collected for a biography of Charlie Finley that G. Michael Green and I recently published with Walker and Co.

Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s between 1960 and 1980, had a public persona as one of the dark princes of Major League Baseball. He engaged in manipulation, connivance, and cajolery for what he wanted, and mostly what he wanted was respect and success. He publicly and bitterly warred with his players, his many managers, other MLB owners, the city leaders where his team played, sports journalists, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He enjoyed joking that his initial “O.” stood for “Owner,” a title he ensured no one ever forgot. Others had different words, and “obnoxious,” “outrageous,” and “obstreperous” were only a few of them. The meddlesome Finley micro-managed every aspect of his team’s operation, even including field tactics during games. He had spies watching the actions of his employees and reporting on incidents both large and small. His autocratic manner was well-known throughout MLB and stories of his antics abound, forever affecting perceptions of his reign over the A’s.

Virtually everyone that came to know Charlie Finley recognized a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character of his personality. Finley valued control over everything, and this affected everything he did. 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. One of his key priorities was respect, he craved it and he demanded it and if it did not come through the normal course of events there could be hell to pay.

Control seems to have dictated so many of Charlie Finley’s activities virtually everyone recognized it. As attorney Bill Myers—one of several lawyers in Finley’s employ at one time or another over the years—said: “I think he had purpose in whatever he did and I think he also arranged to control people.” Joe Rudi, an all-star outfielder for the A’s during their glory days in Oakland said it best: “He was still of the old mind set of the owners, he was the plantation owner and we were his slaves to do whatever he wanted. I mean basically if they didn’t like you, they could stick you to where there was nothing you could do—you were stuck! And he liked that control, he was a control freak—just look at how he ran his office—he didn’t have anybody up there. He had a couple of people who worked in his front office, his cousin and then Carolyn who told him everything that was going on and what was happening and all that kind of stuff so that’s the kind of control person he was!”

Charlie Finley giving direction to A’s Manager Dick Williams in the early 1970s.

In addition to his obsession with control, Charlie Finley filled the classic description of a workaholic, but one condescending of others who did not have the same work ethic. As attorney Bill Myers said of Finley: “He had a lot of drive. He was a fighter, a scrapper. When he wanted something, he went for it. There’s no question about it; he would do anything to do what he wanted to get done.” Myers found Finley a paradox, a person who drove himself hard, expected everyone else to do likewise, and was bombastic, rude, and cheap at one given moment and then self-effacing, charming, and even generous at another.

Bobby Winkles, who managed the A’s in Oakland for Finley in 1977 and 1978, explained how he treated everyone as a lackey. Winkles liked to get up early, during the season or not, and play golf. One day during the season he was playing when his wife took a call from Charlie Finley. She told him that her husband was on the golf course and unavailable. “Well, I want you to pass this on to your husband,” Finley said. “I might be calling him for something important. I might call him for a trade. I might call him for anything, and I want him to be accountable to me, so if he’s going to be away from the house any more than 20 minutes, I want to know the phone number of where he’s gonna be.” Winkles emphasized “that’s a true story.” Finley would have loved cellular telephones.

Darold Knowles tells the hilarious story that A’s manager Dick Williams got so fed up with all of the phone calls from Charlie Finley that once during a baseball game the phone rang in the dugout “and our trainer picked it up and answered it and said, ‘It’s Mr. Finley, Dick. He wants to talk to you.’ And I remember Dick saying, ‘Tell him I’m not here’.”

Charlie Finley cultivated an intimidation factor in dealing with underlings, associates, and virtually everyone else. His comptroller for the A’s, Charles Cottonaro, recalled that Finley was “a pretty imposing figure, and I think he did that on purpose…, to create an image.” Cottonaro added that “one of the reasons is sometimes he might be unsure of himself as far as certain things because he tried to handle too much.” If his gruff personality emanated from a sense of personal inadequacy, Finley’s inferiority complex must have been massive because his overcompensation was extreme.

A’s admiring their World Series rings, Reggie Jackson, Charlie Finley, Gene Tenace, and Mgr. Dick Williams. (photo 1973 Ron Riesterer)

At the same time, even as Finley was domineering, a control freak, a micromanager, and a bully, he also could be remarkably charming and helpful. There are numerous stories of Finley’s generosity and aide to his players and coaches that few know about.  Former A’s pitcher Lew Krausse recalled how Finley help his players financially. “He would take any portion of your salary, put it in the stock market, and guarantee that you’d never lose a dime…I saw him write guys checks back in the ‘70s that you wouldn’t believe…. He even did it for me when I was playing in Milwaukee.” Krausse recalled that Finley wrote him a check for over $70,000 at one point. Bobby Winkles had similar recollections of Finley’s aid to players and coaches, although all agreed that in other settings he could be hard to deal with.

His generosity knew no bounds when it was his idea, and his stinginess was equally evident when others tried to force him to do something that was not his idea. As an example of how remarkably charitable he could be, Wayne Causey tells the story of how he was having an excellent year in 1961 when Pat Friday called him into the office and told him that Finley wanted to give him a raise. He tore up the old contract, “and I think he raised me to 10 or 12 thousand,” and made it “retroactive back to the beginning of the season and that’ll be your contract for ’62. Well that tickled me to death, I thought that was pretty nice to do…and there were several players that he had done that for that I know of.”

Charlie Finley and the A’s mascot, Charlie O., the Missouri mule. Many wondered which of them was more stubborn.

How do we account for the various aspects of Charlie Finley’s character? He was aggressive, combative, a bully, and deeply conflicted. He sought to impose his will on everyone he encountered. It might be a “paternalistic” relationship, but it might also be adversarial. He was also generally honest, helpful, supportive, and at times—very generous. I have asked this question many times, will the real Charlie Finley please stand up?

This entry was posted in Baseball, Charles O. Finley, History, Oakland A's, Personal and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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