SABR

Review: Charlie Finley

By Steve Weingarden

This article was published in the Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal.

Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman
by G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius
Walker and Company (2010)
$27 (hardcover); $14.85 (e-book). 368 pages 

Charlie Finley: ranked exceptionally low among club owners and presidents on measures of demonstrating respect for members of the organization, according to Steve Weingarden. He was 42 when he bought the A’s. Would the character of his ownership had been better had he been more mature when he entered the “owners’ clique”?Charlie Finley: ranked exceptionally low among club owners and presidents on measures of demonstrating respect for members of the organization, according to Steve Weingarden. He was 42 when he bought the A’s. Would the character of his ownership had been better had he been more mature when he entered the “owners’ clique”?With its wealth of first-hand interviews and archival resources, Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman provides insights from those who dealt with Charlie Finley. In fact, this book arguably is more about the reflections of his players, staff, media, and family than about the icon himself. The in-depth investigation by the authors, their sweat and sacrifice, is the key to making this book a success—as in Finley’s own formula of S + S = S. 

Much of the book’s focus is on Finley’s need for control and how it led him to alienate others. Examples are multiplied throughout. He insisted on having the ultimate authority and the ability to override the decisions of general manager Frank Lane and field manager Joe Gordon. There were his late-night phone calls to his cousin Carl and others who worked in the front office. To Reggie Jackson and Mike Andrews he presented prewritten statements for them to sign. No doubt, Finley had issues with control, and like many MLB owners, apparently (this may be nearly a requirement for battling one’s way into the exclusive club), he demonstrated behavioral evidence of high levels of narcissism—there were his feelings of self-importance, his pronounced angry reactions to criticism, his unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment, his extreme lack of concern for others. 

I took a look back at some research I completed with colleagues several years ago. Consistent with one of the central premises of Green and Launius, our study of approximately one hundred team presidents and owners found that Finley had the lowest ranking on measures of providing individualized support, defined as behaving in a manner that demonstrates both respect for members of the organization and concern about their personal feelings and needs.1 

One wonders, given other details the authors provide, if the character of Finley’s involvement in baseball would have been different had he entered the fray at a more mature time in his life. His insurance office and the American League office were in the same building when, all of 36 years old, he first tried to buy the A’s. The ensuing negative experience taught him some lessons about the ownership clique. It may also have activated and amplified his narcissist tendencies. He was 42, still perhaps with opportunity for personal leadership growth (age tends to be a factor but is not the only determinant for leadership growth), when he finally succeeded in his bid to purchase the A’s and was thrust into the spotlight. My suspicion is that the authors would argue that Finley’s personality would have been susceptible to the same leadership derailers regardless of his maturity at the time of purchase, but they offer such extensive detail that readers can choose their own customized paths of inquiry. 

The book moves quickly and the authors write well. The stories and quotes are rich and enjoyable. Joe Rudi reflects on an emotional-whirlwind phone call from Finley about Rudi’s 1974 contract; Martin Finley recounts a picture taken of his mother, Shirley Finley, at Charlie’s funeral. And there is Hank Peters summing up Finley’s qualifications to lead the front office: “Charlie Finley didn’t know beans about baseball.”2 

That said, I did nonetheless feel anger over the treatment—the misguided and Machiavellian processes and hard-to-fathom decisions he suffered through— that Finley suffered at the hands of other owners and Bowie Kuhn. It is interesting to note that Green and Launius indirectly (and at certain points more directly) do a nice job fleshing out, perhaps, the baseball establishment’s real problems with Charlie Finley. Ford Frick’s autobiography does not mention Finley even once and barely mentions the Kansas City Athletics.3

One concern I did have is that the book may not have been consistently critical enough of the media treatment Finley received. The criticism leveled by reporter Ernie Mehl was less than objective and almost swaggering, and the potential conflict of interest in his coverage was given something of a pass, while Red Smith received only a glancing light knock when he failed to include the World Series in his coverage, although Shirley Povich, by contrast, received strong pushback for his unsupported personal attacks on Finley. 

A related concern is the occasional overstatement. For example, I wasn’t convinced by the logic and evidence for the claim that Finley’s three-ball-walk rule, which he proposed as a measure to increase offense, was similar to “the decision made by owners in the 1990s to turn a blind eye to the players’ bulking up through steroid use.” Foremost, the statement wasn’t incorporated naturally into the text and I was unclear, in multiple ways, as to the true similarity of the threeball-walk rule and steroid usage—pitchers were just as likely to use steroids as were power hitters, suggesting that increased offense was not a goal pursued by owners when they addressed steroid usage, and I am unaware of public statements by owners that they would turn a blind eye to steroids to increase offense. Another example is the claim that, “Kansas Citians simply wanted stability and harmony in their Major League Baseball team.” That could be true, but I wasn’t fully convinced, by the evidence, that for Kansas Citians a winning team wasn’t actually a priority. 

The book is written in chronological order but does jump around within any given year. So the sequence of events can sometimes be difficult for the reader to juggle, leading to a stoppage and review of the previous page or two to determine what event happened first. For example, in a discussion of the A’s, a Beatles concert, and the Kansas City market for baseball, I became a little bit lost between 1963, 1964, and 1965. Fully understanding the need to complete a portion of a story or theme before moving on to the next item, I considered this a minor issue, but I would recommend that important events be included on a timeline as part of an appendix, to help ground readers as to what was happening when. 

From my perspective, there are four key takeaways from this book: 

  • Charlie Finley had unusual demands for control. 
  • Charlie Finley mistreated others—most others. 
  • Charlie Finley was mistreated by most members of the owners’ clique, the commissioner, and some unprofessional members of the media (aka anyone who clung onto the owners’ clique). 
  • This book has new details on most of the fantastic Charlie Finley stories told over the years. 

For the fourth point, alone, Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman is a worthwhile read. Compared to other books on Charlie Finley or other MLB owners, this one fares well, making a contribution through original interviews and a nice table-turning focus on the reactions that others had to Finley’s behavior and on the interpretation of how that behavior reflects Finley’s personality. 

One last note of importance is the authors’ acknowledgment of SABR conferences and several SABR members as being important in their writing of this book. It’s good to know that SABR is fostering research for its members and through its members, events, and publications. 

STEVE WEINGARDEN is an organizational psychologist. He has researched MLB team owners and presidents for nearly a decade. He currently cochairs SABR’s Business of Baseball Committee.

  • 1. See, for example, Steve Weingarden, Christian J. Resick, and Daniel S. Whitman, “Why Is That Executive a Hall of Famer? Have You Seen His Leadership Stats?” Outside the Lines 12, no. 2 (2006): 1–4. Finley ranked lower than such famously self-centered owners as Marge Schott, Jerry Reinsdorf, and George Steinbrenner. He was rated at 1.42 on a 7-point scale, making him the only executive in the study to receive a rating under 2.0 for providing individualized support. The average rating was 4.86. Finley’s graciousness, examples of which are highlighted in the book, was overshadowed by the rage and disrespect he demonstrated to the same individuals over time.
  • 2. Marvin Miller suggests something perhaps in contradiction to Peters, calling Finley “the finest judge of baseball talent I ever saw at the head of a team. See Miller, A Whole Different Ball Game: The Inside Story of the Baseball Revolution (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004). Peters’s quote stood out to me, as it made the emotional connection, especially when combined with player reminisces of their dealings with Finley. If you have ever suffered a boss who not only lacks the necessary technical knowledge, skills, and abilities for his position—something that to some degree he can correct over time—but also lacks the ability to lead, insists on overinvolvement, and is prone to be cruel when protecting his own hollow status, your stomach can only turn when reading what it must have been like for the individuals who worked in the A’s organization during Finley’s tenure. This fact, the infliction of unnecessary suffering on others on a daily basis for an extended period of time and the lack of sensitivity toward others, made it difficult for me to feel any affection for Finley or much pity for him in his suffering.
  • 3. Ford C. Frick, Games, Asterisks, and People: Memoirs of a Lucky Fan (New York: Crown, 1973). In turn, the authors of Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman mention Frick only a couple of times and don’t mention short-termer Spike Eckert at all. It wasn’t until Finley moved the A’s to Oakland and the team started winning that the vicious and uneven treatment of Finley picked up steam, led by Commissioner Kuhn, who was serving in a role in which, theoretically, he should have protected and affirmed Finley’s equal standing with the other owners. It’s difficult to find a hero in an assassin’s guild. Even though I knew how many of the stories were going to end, I found myself needing someone to root for and, in many instances, landing on Marvin Miller, a side character in this particular book.
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