The announced attendance for the A's game with Seattle at the Oakland Coliseum on the chilly night of April 17 was 653. Actually, the crowd wasn't quite that large, because the American League doesn't subtract no-shows from its attendance figures and not everyone who bought a ticket for the game was in the park. Carl Finley, Charles O. Finley's first cousin and, in effect, his front office, estimated that 550 men, women and children were in the seats, a figure that exceeded by several hundred the computation of Oakland First Baseman Dave Revering, who had counted to 200 before he was distracted by more urgent matters on the diamond. But even announced crowd set a record low for the franchise since it moved to the Bay Area, although it fell short, by 652, of equaling the lowest attendance for a professional baseball game in Oakland, which was established on Nov. 8, 1905 by a man, regrettably anonymous, who watched the Pacific Coast League Oaks play the Portland Beavers. Still, 653—or 550 or 200—in a stadium that seats 50,000 look about like one.
The fact is, watching the A's play these days is fully as lonely, if not necessarily as rewarding, a pastime as philately or lepidopterology. It's true that the historic April 17 game was competing with itself on local TV, being one of 10 Oakland home games to be televised this season, as well as with the telecast of a San Francisco Giants' game from San Diego. It's also true that the following day, without competition from the tube, the attendance was nearly doubled when an alleged 1,215 showed up. But it's true, too, that if the A's continue to draw fans at their current clip, they will easily bottom their Oakland season low of 495,412 in 1977. Even a half-price night game with the perennially popular Red Sox on April 30 attracted only 14,716, and in two games the world champion Yankees could lure a total of only 16,293 fans. All this is occurring at a time when big league attendance records are being toppled annually. The A's total of 526,999 last year was nearly a million less than the average for American League teams.
There is something to be said for such privacy at the ball park, as the San Francisco Examiner and several Bay Area television stations have gleefully observed. The A's fan suffers none of the myriad inconveniences that afflict spectators in more populous stadiums. He can park his car as near to the Coliseum as the players do, and he can purchase a ticket at the last possible moment—if he can find a booth open. Once inside, the odds on catching a foul ball are much better than anywhere else. He can easily locate friends in the park, and he is likely to have his own personal vendor of soft drinks, beer and comestibles. He is very much like a guest at an exclusive party.
Alas, the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda, which jointly own the Coliseum, and the commission that operates it for them would much prefer an enlarged guest list. Eight days after the record-low crowd, they filed suit in Federal Court charging Finley and Charles O. Finley & Co., Inc. with breach of contract, alleging that the team owner had not complied with his "obligation to endeavor in good faith to obtain maximum occupancy of the Stadium by the public by failing to reasonably promote attendance at Oakland A's baseball games." The plaintiffs are seeking damages of $1.5 million for revenues lost over the last four years in concessions, parking and such, in addition to $10 million in punitive damages for Finley's "reckless and conscious disregard" of his promotional obligations.
The suit brings to a climax a decade and more of warfare between the eccentric tenant and his intractable landlords, and judicially fruitless though such action seems likely to be—Finley, after all, has given Oakland three world champions during that time—the suit has proved extraordinarily popular among the locals, because Finley right now is about as well regarded in the East Bay as William Tecumseh Sherman was in Atlanta some years before that city joined the National League. Certainly the Coliseum people rue the day they didn't heed the warning of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, who, after learning of Finley's transfer of the A's from Kansas City to Oakland, told his fellow legislators on Oct. 19, 1967, "Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima."
"People don't want to come to the ball park because they don't want Finley to get his share of the tickets," says Donna Oneto, membership secretary of the Oakland A's Boosters Club, an esoteric organization if ever there was one. She expresses a surprisingly common sentiment. Fans in other cities might stay away to avoid seeing the players, but Oakland fans, it appears, steer clear to spite the owner. And the players don't seem to blame them.
"Charlie hasn't spent one red cent on promotion," says Bob Lacey, the outspoken relief pitcher. "I've played on Triple A teams that promoted more. I've never been asked to speak anywhere. The fans don't even know who we are.... I don't care, let him punish me. He's hoping I'll have a bad year so he can give me a pay cut."
The breach-of-contract suit hinges on paragraph 7(d) of Finley's lease with the Coliseum, which requires him to "maintain an American League baseball team of the character and standing required by Major League rules for the conduct of professional Major League baseball games and endeavor in good faith to obtain the maximum occupancy of the stadium by the public...." It may be argued that the inexperienced young A's are just barely a team of big league caliber—even though their 12-21 record at the end of last week made them only the sixth worst club in the majors—but the crux of the matter is Finley's non-promotion of what little he has. In the view of the Coliseum commissioners, he has done his utmost to conceal his team from the public.
No A's spring training games were broadcast, so the season more or less sneaked up on radio listeners. Finley didn't even sign a radio contract until the night before the season began and Red Rush, his No. 1 announcer, didn't learn he was to do the games until 12 hours before the season opener. Rush, a burly man who, like legions of others, has been hired and fired by Finley before, may have at his command the most complete vocabulary of baseball bromides of any living broadcaster. He flavors his commentary with such anachronistic pearls as: "He motored back full tilt"; and "That got him out of the old pickle barrel"; and "The hickory really met the horsehide."
Luckily, not many listeners can hear such hoary pronouncements because Finley's radio contract is with a San Jose station, KXRX, that broadcasts at a mere 5,000 watts after dark. Rush fades inexorably from earshot as one drives west from the Coliseum toward San Francisco on the Nimitz Freeway. Nonetheless, the A's are more accessible to listeners now than they were at the beginning of last season, when Finley first contracted with the 10-watt, student-operated University of California station before finally signing on with KNEW in Oakland.