Oakland A's History: Finley Attemps Fire Sale

Special Correspondent Donald Moore returns to detail another chapter in Oakland A's history. In this chapter, he discusses A's owner Charlie Finley's attempts to sell many of his star players after the advent of free agency in Major League Baseball in 1976.

The beginning of this story has it's roots planted in the drastic change in Major League Baseball's reserve clause in 1976. That change tipped the power of balance from the owners to the players, and for the first time in history, that led to the creation of free agency for all players not signed to multi-year contracts.

Arbitrator, Peter Seitz, (the same arbitrator who ruled in favor of pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter's grievence against A's owner Charlie Finley in 1974, and thus led to his free agency), ruled that baseball's reserve clause, only bound players for one season after their contracts expired, allowing players not signed to multi-year contracts to become eligible for free agency after the conclusion of the 1976 season.

At first, Finley was receptive to the idea of free agency. He figured the market would be over-saturated with players, thus, making it easier for baseball owners to keep salaries down, but he was sadly mistaken.

It had the complete opposite effect. The richest clubs would take advantage of the new rules and they would sign the top talent available, leaving the smaller market clubs on the sidelines. This created a huge problem for Finley. Already burned by the loss of star pitcher Jim Hunter to the Yankees the previous season, there was no way for Finley to compete against the richer teams in baseball. Consequently, he decided to dismantle his championship A's club before free agency would.

During the spring of 1976, the dismantlingly started. Finley traded away All-Star outfielder Reggie Jackson to the Baltimore Orioles. Finley also explored deals with every American League club, proposing huge multi-player deals, but none to Finley's liking. He tried to get these deals done before the June 15th trading deadline, but he changed course. Instead of trying to trade away his impending free agents, he put them all up for sale.

Finley was a shrewd businessman and owner. He knew he could play off one owner on another in order to get the highest bid for his players. So, he called the Boston Red Sox and offered Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Don Baylor, Vida Blue and Gene Tenace for a million dollars a piece and Sal Bando for a half of a million dollars.

Red Sox GM Dick O'Connell asked for Rudi and Fingers and purchased them for a million dollars a piece. O'Connell was very concerned that his arch nemises, Gabe Paul and the NY Yankees, would get in on the act, which would have negated his deals for Fingers and Rudi, by acquiring pitcher Vida Blue. To prevent the Yankees from getting Blue, O'Connell called the Tigers to get in on the bidding for Blue's services. Despite those efforts, Finley eventually sold Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million, neglecting to tell Detroit, until the next day.

The news of the A's fire sale of their star players quickly hit the press and eventually the baseball Commissioner's office. Bowie Kuhn, then the baseball Commissoner, summonded Finley to a "face-to-face meeting" on these transactions.

Finley told Kuhn that free agency and poor attendance were killing any chance for the A's to be competitive and that he was going to use the money from these sales to invest in new players for the A's. Finley basically told Kuhn, "don't butt into this," however, Kuhn saw it differently. He ordered both the Yankees and Red Sox not to play their new players. Allowing them to play would send a signal that pennants could be bought outright and that was something that would create a mockery of the game.

Three days later, Kuhn ruled all sales void, in the "best interest of baseball" and had Rudi, Fingers and Blue returned to the A's. That drove Finley off the deep-end. He called Kuhn, "the village idiot."

Finley then hired famed sports attorney, Neil Papiano, and filed a $10 million restraint-of trade lawsuit against Major League Baseball and Kuhn. This lawsuit is widely recognized as one of the most famous precendent-setting cases in the history of American justice and the broad powers of the baseball Commissioner.

Unfortunately for Finley, he lost his case. The court ruled in favor of Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The ruling states, "The Commissioner has the authority to determine whether any act, transaction, or practice is not within the best interest of baseball, and upon such determination, to take whatever preventative or remedial action he deems appropiate, whether or not the act, transaction, or practice complies with the Major league Rules or involves moral turpitude."
Charles O Finley vs. Bowie Kuhn, 7th Circuit, 1978.

Finley remained owner of the Oakland A's until he sold the team to Walter Haas in 1981. Finley never did sign a big name free agent after the ruling and he fielded expansion-type, losing A's teams from 1977 to 1980. Finley may have been a maverick and way ahead of his time, but free agency really took the wind out of his sails.

Time passed him by and so did professional baseball. Sadly,the once mighty Athletics were dismantled not by Finley, but by the system itself.

Sources- Baseball Scout Confessions, and the baseball analysts.com

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