Two aerospace researchers examine the labyrinthine life of one of baseball’s most notorious owners, displaying both revulsion and grudging respect for their subject.
NASA senior planner Green and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum senior curator Launius do a creditable job pinning down both the mundane and the extraterrestrial aspects of Charles Oscar Finley’s remarkable rise. From his humble roots in Gary, Ind., Finley ascended to become owner of the Oakland Athletics in the early ’70s, a team that won three consecutive World Series and featured Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and other All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers. Born in 1918, Finley moved to Chicago for college, then entered the insurance industry and ignited the boom-or-bust pattern that zigzagged across his entire career. After finding great financial success by insuring physicians, Finley sought to buy a baseball franchise and found a failing one in Kansas City, where all his vagaries, innovations, insecurities, weaknesses, strengths and irascibility exploded like post-game fireworks into the Kansas sky. He hired, harassed, fired and even traded managers with stunning suddenness, befriended then alienated players, fought with the press, experimented with myriad marketing promotions and began lobbying for changes in the sport, including the designated hitter, night World Series games and interleague play. Thinking Oakland would be a lucrative baseball market, he moved his team there in 1968. He was wrong. Even in their championship seasons, the A’s could not draw a million fans. Finley’s fall ensued, caused by a complicated and ruinous divorce, losing battles with emerging free agency, mutual animosity with commissioner Bowie Kuhn, mismanagement and a kind of regal recklessness.
Most readers will agree with the authors’ final assessment that Finley was an innovative, infuriating jackass whose braying was sometimes sensible, even wise.