The extraordinary events of last week may not have constituted, as a flummoxed Chuck Tanner suggested, "the biggest I-don't-know-what-you-call-it in the history of baseball." Nor were they in any way comparable, as a vexed Billy Martin contended, to Watergate. But there is no question that when Charlie Finley tried to peddle three of his Oakland A's stars to buyers in New York and Boston for a total of $3.5 million and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said "No," he could not do it, the already lacerated national pastime was plunged into an imbroglio from which it cannot emerge unscarred.
It was a week of surprise and outrage, the only unsurprising aspect being that the chief characters were those familiar antagonists, Bowie and Charlie. The circumspect former Wall Street lawyer and the megalomaniacal wheeler-dealer are the Flagg and Quirt of baseball, only much less amusing. Bowie is forever fining Charlie for assorted misdemeanors—like firing players in the middle of a World Series or offering incentive bonuses—and Charlie is constantly campaigning to depose Bowie and replace him with the jackass he employs as the A's mascot.
Charlie started this biggest of all rows when he stunned even the most alert Finley-watchers by announcing only hours before the major league trading deadline of midnight, June 15, that he was selling Pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million and Outfielder Joe Rudi and Relief Pitcher Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million apiece. It was the biggest sale of human flesh in the history of sports. Faced with the alternative of losing all three at the end of the season to free-agent status, Finley sold them at prices one normally associates with downtown real estate or Renaissance paintings. Finley would get the money, the A's would receive no players in return.
The departure of the three stars would all but complete the demolition of a team that had won five consecutive division titles, four straight American League pennants and the World Series of 1972, '73 and '74. Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman had been dispatched to Baltimore earlier, and now only Sal Bando, Gene Tenace and Bert Campaneris remained of the players who had built this remarkable record. Never in baseball history had a championship team been dismantled so swiftly. It took Connie Mack several years each time to reduce his 1909-14 and 1927-32 teams to cellar rubble. Finley had accomplished pretty much the same thing in a few months.
The reaction to this clearance sale was instantaneous. Many staunch Oakland fans, while defending Finley's right to operate his business as he pleases, expressed dismay that he should so contemptuously reduce the attractiveness of his product. "He can set all his cash out on that mound and come up here and cheer for his money," one fan told The San Francisco Examiner. The less affluent among the baseball owners seemed equally distressed. The nightmare of the rich getting richer, unfettered by the reserve clause, seemed to be coming true.
"I think it's a terrible thing when two clubs go out there and start bidding to see who can buy a championship team," said Minnesota Owner Calvin Griffith. "I think this shows that what the owners have been saying about the wealthy clubs getting the top players is true."
Bowie Kuhn was sitting in the VIP section of the press box at Chicago's Comiskey Park last Tuesday when news of Finley's sale broke over the Associated Press wires at 7:51 p.m., Chicago time. Visibly distressed, he left the White Sox-Orioles game in the sixth inning, commenting, "I won't believe it until I see it on paper." When he did, Kuhn ordered the involved players to stay put and called the principals to a Thursday meeting in his New York office. Eighteen persons attended, including Finley, Red Sox General Manager Dick O'Connell, General Partner George Steinbrenner (another Kuhn foe) and President Gabe Paul of the Yankees and Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association. After a 90-minute session, seller and buyers alike seemed confident of early approval; Steinbrenner even flashed a triumphant "thumbs-up" as he left the meeting. After all, there is nothing in baseball law to prohibit an owner from selling his players at whatever price he can get.
"I don't understand what the furor is about," said Miller. "No rules have been violated. What has happened here has happened hundreds of times: namely, the selling of players for cash." Finley, dapper in a gray plaid suit and yellow golf shirt and hat, said confidently, "I plan to use this money to great advantage. We'll be able to purchase a lot of players at the end of the season."
Kuhn would only comment, "The issue is whether the assignment of the contracts is appropriate or not under the circumstances. That's the issue I have to wrestle with. I have to consider these transactions in the best interest of baseball."
Rudi and Fingers were in Boston uniforms in the Oakland Coliseum Tuesday night, and their agent, Jerry Kapstein, was arranging to discuss their contract demands with Red Sox officials. Luckily, in light of later developments, they did not play against their old teammates, Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson reasoning that they would need at least a day to recover from the shock. Fingers, especially, seemed bemused by this tangible evidence of his value as an athlete. "Hey, I'm worth a million dollars," he said. "Somehow that just doesn't sound right." Rudi, meanwhile, spent nearly as much time saying goodbye in his old Oakland clubhouse as he did saying hello in his new one. "I guess ballplayers aren't supposed to cry," he said, "but I couldn't help it."