“As I have said hundreds of times in the past, Mr. Finley owns the ball club and he can do whatever he likes.” — two-time Athletics manager Alvin Dark.
The second time Alvin Dark was fired by Charlie O. Finley, owner of the Oakland Athletics, his club had just finished the 1976 season with 98 wins and a fifth consecutive American League West championship. Dark was fired, as United Press International reported, because the manager said Finley was a sinner who “was going to hell unless he mended his ways” at a gathering at a Pentecostal church in Hayward, California. Charlie Finley had fired men for less.
The first time Alvin Dark was fired by Charlie Finley, nine years prior, his Kansas City Athletics players had called Finley’s meddlesome ownership style into question. A’s pitcher Lew Krausse had been suspended for an incident involving alcohol on the team plane. In response, the Athletics issued a statement:
“We players feel that if Mr. Finley would give his fine coaching staff and excellent manager the authority they deserve, these problems would not exist.”
Dark was fired the next day.
Meanwhile, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was becoming a rich man. The Athletics first baseman, who hit .305/.361/.471 in 61 games with Kansas City in 1967, became Dark’s most vocal supporter. “I think he made a great mistake in firing Alvin Dark. Dark was a terrific guy. A great manager — a great person,” Harrelson told the Associated Press. Harrelson was also quoted as calling Finley a “menace to baseball.” Harrelson contended, rather, “What I told Finley was I thought his action the past few days was bad for baseball.”
“Then,” Harrelson continued, “He called me this morning and said I was unconditionally relieved of all duties.” And thus, in the age of the reserve clause, Harrelson received the greatest financial blessing a player — particularly a previously undecorated one like Harrelson — could receive. Minimum salaries were $6,000 then, roughly equal to $42,000 today. He had been one of the league’s best hitters in 1967, now on the open market as a free agent.
It was August 22nd, and four teams were within one game of the American League Pennant. The Boston Red Sox were tied with the Chicago White Sox atop the standings when Harrelson was released. Harrelson signed with the Red Sox four days later for a reported $75,000, over six times his salary with Finley’s Athletics. Carl Yaztremski, the 1967 MVP and Triple Crown winner, earned $50,000 that season.
“If I were the owner of a baseball club,” Harrelson told a reporter in September, “I wouldn’t release the guy who was leading the team in hitting.” Harrelson was awful to close out 1967. He hit .200/.247/.388 in 23 regular season games and became a World Series goat with a 1-for-13 performance. Harrelson recovered in 1968, however, with a .275/.356/.518 (155 OPS+) line and 35 home runs, enough to earn his first and only All-Star appearance. When Harrelson was traded to Cleveland in 1969, the Red Sox received Sonny Siebert in the package, who made the 1971 All-Star game out of Boston’s rotation. Charlie Finley probably could have used Ken Harrelson.
“This has turned out to be the greatest break I’ve had,” Harrelson said. And he had plenty of public support. The letters section of the September 16th, 1967 issue of The Sporting News was littered with scathing barbs directed at Finley. “As I recall, Finley claims the O. in his name stands for Owner. I think it stands for Obnoxious,” wrote Richard Spitzer of Nogales, Arizona. Bob Williams, sports editor at the Liberal, Kansas’s Southwest Daily Times, wrote, “Ken Harrelson may or may not have been misquoted when he was reported to have said that Finley is a menace to baseball. The point is that his statement has merit.”
Gerry Hobbs of Los Angeles recognized the labor issue at play:
“Doesn’t the summary firing of Ken Harrelson invalidate the reserve clause, despite Finley’s high-sounding phrases? If challenged, the reserve clause has now been placed in an indefensible position.”
Such anti-owner sentiment was rarely seen in The Sporting News, a publication that typically served as a mouthpiece for professional sports leagues — and particularly MLB — dating back to J.G. Taylor Spink in the early 1900s. An editor’s note shows just how deep the pro-Harrelson, anti-Finley sentiment ran:
“Letters concerning the Athletics-Finley controversy published in this issue accurately reflect the viewpoints expressed by the overwhelming majority of readers who wrote to The Sporting News on this subject. For another side of the picture, readers are invited to turn to Page 14 and the We Believe column by Publisher C.C. Johnson Spink.”
Even Spink’s column, which paints the Athletics as a group of ungrateful, immature young drunks who deserved what they had coming, admitted Finley failed to handle the situation delicately.
“If the A’s need disciplining, the manager should whack down under normal circumstances. In serious cases, the general manager should step in. But we believe Finley should learn to keep his hands off player relations and confine himself to setting general policy.”
Had Boston not stepped in and signed Harrelson, Major League Baseball would have faced the aforementioned challenge. The Major League Baseball Players Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against Finley in the wake of Harrelson’s firing. According to union head Marvin Miller, Finley had arranged for the other 19 club owners to blacklist Harrelson from the league.
However, the allure of the World Series was bound to be too tempting given the bunched up standings, and as Ira Berkow wrote, Boston thought “they could use Harrelson’s bat more than they would want to punish him.” The $75,000 price tag attached to Harrelson suggests at least one other club — the Twins, White Sox and Tigers formed the four-way pennant race — must have been offering Harrelson a similar wage.
Harrelson dropped the lawsuit after he signed with Boston. He retired in 1971 after an ankle injury and a love for golf drove him to switch gears and pursue a career on the PGA Tour. Harrelson was just 29 when he retired, but he made $268,000 in the three-plus seasons after Finley released him. Rumors suggested he had $500,000 in endorsement deals on top by 1969.
Finley was one of the nine major league owners to sell his team during the free agent panic from 1979-1981. He was always considered cheap, and was widely panned for his decision to yank the Athletics out of Kansas City and plunk them into Oakland opposite the San Francisco Giants, a move that has consistently threatened the status of both Bay Area teams.
Finley is one of the more interesting owners in baseball’s history, as he is one of the few to express a visible public personality. That personality was one of the things that made the Swingin’ A’s of the 1970s so fascinating. It was also why the Athletics spent their seasons either in the cellar or challenging for the pennant throughout his tenure. Once free agency became the reality in the late 1970s, Finley dismantled the team that won him three straight World Series from 1972 through 1974. The Athletics dropped from 98 wins under Dark in 1975 to 87 wins in 1976 and back to the cellar in 1977. They next made the playoffs in 1981 — the year after Finley sold the team to Levi Strauss & Co. president Walter Haas Jr.
Finley was a funny owner. He replaced the Philadelphia Athletics’ traditional elephant mascot and replaced it with a live mule by the name of “Charlie-O,” a mule that very hilariously injured Harrelson earlier in his career. He sponsored team mustache growing. But he was also a cheap and petty man. Usually, that pettiness left cities without their ballclubs or teams stripped bare to keep payrolls down. This time, it made Hawk Harrelson a rich man.