Giving The Devil His Due: It’s Time For Baseball Say “Sorry” And “Thanks” To That Bastard, Charles O. Finley

Charles Oscar Finley (February 22, 1918 – February 19, 1996), better known as Charlie O. Finley, was easily one of the worst owners of a major league baseball team in history, and that’s saying something, because it is a repellent batch. He probably falls just below #1, Charles Comiskey, the greedy and abusive owner of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” largely responsible for his players deciding to take bribes and throw the World Series. (See “Eight Men Out,” one of the ten best baseball movies).

Finley was an insurance mogul who purchased the Kansas City Athletics and eventually moved the team to Oakland, creating a territorial conflict with the San Francisco Giants that violated MLB rules, but he was allowed to do it because Finley threatened to cause havoc with a lawsuit that challenged the game’s immunity from antitrust laws.

That wasn’t the first time Finley was obnoxious and detructive, and it was far from the last. A loud, toxic narcissist, he tried to be the focus of attention on his teams, especially in Oakland, where a crop of talented young stars (Reggie Jackson, Ricky Henderson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and more) made his team one of the great baseball dynasties. Finley underpaid them and treated all of his players like servants; his abuse was a catalyst for the power of the Players Union and the eventual institution of free agency. Dick Williams, his Hall of Fame manager, quit after a World Series, saying that he would rather leave baseball itself than work for a bastard like Finley.

Charley O. had lots of ideas, and because they came from such an asshole, cognitive dissonance worked overtime. At a time when mascots were considered gauche (because they are) Finley had one on the field, a donkey named “Charlie O,” to tweak his critics. When every team wore boring white uniforms at home and more boring gray ones in road games, Charlie dressed the best team in baseball in garish green and gold threads with throbbing white shoes. Like so many iconoclasts and rebels through the centuries in all fields, his shattering of the status quo despite flak and personal attacks inspired others to follow his lead. Now all the baseball teams have mascots, and yesterday, Kike Hernandez on the stodgy and hide-bound Boston Red Sox wore florescent lime-green shoes with the traditional Sox white and red home uniform. It was hideous—but that’s Charlie.

Like most creative souls, Finley had more dud ideas than good ones, but because he was so disliked, baseball hated all his ideas. The Sixties was a low point in baseball offense, so Charlie wanted the game to use orange baseballs that (he claimed) would be easier to hit. He wanted to make homers easier to hit too, and moved in his right field fences to the same distance from home plate as in old Yankee Stadium, even though it was less than the minimum distance the rules allowed (Legendary Yankee Stadium had been given an exemption). At one point, he had the fence on tracks so he could move it in when the A’s were batting and back when they weren’t. Yes, Charlie saw nothing wrong with cheating if his team could get away with it, and did so many times.

Deriding the fact that baseball made its mostly helpless pitchers bat, Finley insisted that there should be a universal pinch-hitter for the pitcher to add to offense. Baseball grudgingly adopted that idea, anathema to traditionalists, in the A’s league; today what is now called the DH (“designated hitter”) is in effect in all of American professional baseball. Of course nobody gives Finley credit for it.

One of his obsessions was that baseball was too slow, Finley felt, for the accelerating pace of American life. He was especially annoyed by pitchers taking too long to pitch. Learning that the rules required pitchers to throw to home within a proscribed time and that umpires were not enforcing that rule, Finley had a pitch clock installed in the A’s stadium. It was started when the pitcher received the ball from the catcher, and when the time ran out, a loud horn blared to let fans know that the rule wasn’t being enforced. The noise often disrupted the pitcher’s delivery, and MLB made Finley remove the horn, and eventually the clock too.

By last season, the combination of all games being televised, necessitating long enough breaks for commercials, plus the unchallenged habits of pitchers to stall in throwing to the plate and batters constantly stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the ironies of human existence or something had caused games to average more than 30 minutes longer than their average time when Finley was complaining. This season, after testing it in the minor leagues, baseball instituted a revolutionary device to speed up games: a pitch clock. Now enforcement isn’t left to umpires’ discretion: a timer on the scoreboard must be followed, with rules relating to it governing both pitchers and batters. Pitchers who don’t throw in time are charged with balls; batters stall get charged with strikes.

Yesterday was the first of the 2023 baseball season, and also the first to employ a pitch clock. The average game on Opening Day was just over two and a half hours, almost a full half-hour shorter than the average game time a year ago. That means that all the action in the game occurred exactly as it has for a century, but in less time…about the same time games took to play in the 1980s.

Charlie was right all along, and if he hadn’t been such a hated jerk, baseball might have avoided its decline in popularity over the last 50 years by recognizing when he was on to something. Hard as it is to give the Devil his due, Charlie deserves some credit now, and baseball owes him, and its fans, an apology for letting its dislike of the messenger affect its ability to judge his message fairly.

9 thoughts on “Giving The Devil His Due: It’s Time For Baseball Say “Sorry” And “Thanks” To That Bastard, Charles O. Finley

  1. Bill Veeck (he must have been Dutch and genetically cheap), but smarter, and meaner, and richer. I find the shenanigans of professional sports team owners endlessly amusing. All that testosterone, money and ego all in a single group. Much more interesting that their product.

    We used to drive by Charlie O’s farm in LaPorte, Indiana which was readily visible when heading to or from Chicago on I-80-90. And how did we know it was Charlie O’s barn? He had the barn shingled in green and painted a bright yellow on the side of which facing the highway he had had painted a big green and yellow Oakland A’s A and a huge ball and bat. About as subtle as the A’s unis.

    • Charlie aspired to be Veeck, but he wasn’t as smart or genial. But Veeck confined his brainstorms to promotional gimmicks; Charlie’s main offense was that he dared to fiddle with the game itself.

  2. Bill Veeck. Eddie Guedel. That’s not fiddling with the game itself? Hah! But you’re right. Bill was all about getting fans in the seats. The exploding scoreboard, fireworks after the game, short pants, Billy Piersall and don’t forget Harry Caray worked for Veeck after he was run out of St. Louis on a rail for fucking one of Augie Busch’s daughters, if I recall correctly, before he went literally uptown with the Cubbies. And there was “Disco Demolition Night” (junior’s idea) shortly before the Veecks cashed out to Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf.

    The ’59 White Sox won their first pennant since, wait for it, 1919! Forty years! Luis Aparicio, SS
    Nellie Fox, 2B Jim Landis, CF Sherm Lollar, C Norm Cash, 1B Al Smith, RF Johnny Callison, LF
    Bubba Phillips, 3B Billy Pierce, They don’t make baseball player names like that anymore. Ray Boone. Ted (I never wear an undershirt to cover my guns) Kluszewski, Early Winn. Managed by Al Lopez. Beautiful.

    • I thought someone would make that connection. Both seemingly took pleasure in infuriating people, and paid the price. You Know Who has one big edge on Finley,which is that he’s charismatic to those who can stand him. Finley had the appeal of a scrub brush.

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