Dynasty. In the world of sports, it can be an overused word.
Settling on a true definition is often part of the problem. However, in nearly every way of defining it, a truly dynastic team has to have won multiple championships within a short window of time. More than two consecutively and you are in.
From 1971-1975 the Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball captured five consecutive American League West Division crowns during an era when baseball had just two divisions in each league. But what makes those A’s ball clubs a true dynasty is that right in the middle of that divisional domination they also went on to win it all, capturing the World Series in three consecutive seasons from 1972-74.
The Athletics had been born in Philadelphia when the American League was first formed for the 1901 season. The ball club spent 54 seasons in Philly, led for the first half-century of their existence by legendary Hall of Famer Connie Mack. Under Mack’s leadership the Athletics reached the World Series eight times, winning it in five of those years. But as Mack aged and his health declined, so did the fortunes of the Athletics, leading ultimately to their sale and relocation.
Charles O. ‘Charlie’ Finley had built a fortune in the insurance industry and then became a cattle rancher. A lifelong baseball fan, he tried to purchase the Athletics when the ball club was put up for sale in 1954 but lost out when American League owners instead chose Arnold Johnson, who would relocate the franchise from Philadelphia to Kansas City.
Over the next 13 years spent in Kansas City the Athletics were perhaps the worst team in baseball on the field. Their cumulative record during that time saw the team finish 405 total games below the .500 mark. They finished last or next-to-last in 10 of the 15 years and never escaped the second division.
Johnson died in March 1960 after the first five of those losing seasons and the now 42-year-old Finley re-emerged, purchasing ownership control of the team from Johnson’s estate before the year was out. By the end of 1961, Finley had bought out the minority owners and become sole owner of the Athletics. From that point on, he exerted total control of the organization through the entirety of their dynastic run, serving first as his own defacto general manager and then officially as the GM until selling the team in August 1980.
A parade of men would serve as executives during those Kansas City years, each holding the formal title of general manager at one point or another. They included Frank Lane, Pat Friday, Henry Peters, and finally Eddie Lopat. But that was in name only, to handle administrative duties. It was Finley who was calling nearly all of the shots behind the scenes, including player signings and draft pick selections.
While there were few bright spots on the field, the organization’s time in Missouri once Finley took charge would prove to be fertilization for what would blossom farther west. The Athletics lost 100 games in 1961 during their first season under Finley’s control and would finish a combined 214 games under the .500 mark for his first seven years, the club’s final seven in Kansas City. But while they were losing on the field, Finley slowly began adding difference-making impact talent that would eventually come together as a big winner.
During his 1963 senior year in high school, highly regarded pitcher Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter lost a toe and had gun pellets embedded in his foot after being shot by his own brother in a hunting accident. Finley offered Hunter a contract when all other clubs backed away, even allowing the pitcher to rehab at the owner’s Indiana ranch.
That same year, Finley added another pair of talented high schoolers. He signed pitcher Johnny Lee ‘Blue Moon’ Odom from Macon, Georgia after Odom had led his high school team to consecutive state championships, amassing an incredible 42-2 record on the mound. Finely also added catcher Dave Duncan, signed as a catcher out of his San Diego high school. Duncan would not only enjoy a lengthy playing career, but he also became one of the most respected pitching coaches in baseball history.
Also in 1963, Finley changed the team official colors to Kelly Green, Fort Knox Gold, and Wedding Gown White. Various combinations of that color scheme would be featured in the A’s uniforms for decades to come.
When the 1964 season got underway, a pair of young middle infielders played together with the Athletics for the first time. Second baseman Dick Green would enjoy a 12-year career and shortstop Bert Campaneris would play for 19 seasons, the latter becoming a six-time American League All-Star.
On Christmas Eve in 1964, Finley inked pitcher Rollie Fingers out of high school in Southern California. Fingers had been heavily recruited by the Dodgers but believed it would take him too long to get to the big leagues with Los Angeles due to that organization’s pitching talent and depth.
Major League Baseball instituted a first-year player draft for 1965. Holding the first overall pick thanks to those years of futility, Finley selected outfielder Rick Monday, who would enjoy a 19-year big league career. He then got third baseman Sal Bando in the 6th round and catcher Gene Tenace in the 20th round that year.
“The draft was the beginning of the end of free enterprise,” Finley said per Bob Oates in a piece for the Los Angeles Times in 1987. It may have been just that, but the Athletics owner knew baseball talent better than most and would use the new draft to his team’s advantage.
Also in 1965, thanks to the work of scout Don Pries, the Athletics were able to sign Joe Rudi, a talented outfielder who all other teams backed away from after Rudi suffered a broken hand when hit by a pitch during his senior year in high school.
Then came perhaps what would prove to be the best addition of all. With the second overall pick in the 1966 MLB Draft, Finley chose a player who would grow into a legend when he selected future hall of fame outfielder Reggie Jackson.
In the 2nd round of the 1967 Draft, Finley added yet another pivotal piece to the puzzle with the selection of pitcher Vida Blue. Just four years later the southpaw from a Louisiana high school would capture both the AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards in the same season..
One of Finley’s earliest signings would decades later become one of his most important. Upon graduating high school in June 1962, the Athletics signed Tony La Russa. He would never amount to much as a player and would be dealt away just prior to those 1970’s dynastic years for the club. But he would return as a manager in the 1980’s, leading the A’s to three straight AL pennants and a World Series title of his own.
Finley had wanted out of Kansas City ever since taking over. He wooed a number of cities to host his ball club, most seriously involving Dallas, Texas and Louisville, Kentucky. His first attempt to gain permission from the other American League owners to move the club to Oakland, California failed in a 9-1 vote against him. But finally, that move was approved for the 1968 season.
Incredibly, the winning immediately commenced. The Oakland A’s, as Finley insisted the club now be referred to as, fashioned an 82-80 mark in their first season by the bay, finishing in sixth place among the 10 American League teams in the final year before expansion and divisional play. It was the organization’s first winning season in nearly two decades and the first of nine straight winning campaigns.
After finishing a distant second place to the Minnesota Twins during their first two years in the newly formed AL West Division in both 1969 and 1970, Finley hired 40-year-old Dick Williams, who had guided Boston to a 1967 American League pennant, as his new manager.
With Williams at the helm in the dugout the A’s became division champions for the first time in 1971. They were swept out of the ALCS in three straight games by a powerful Baltimore Orioles club, but the experience proved pivotal in the A’s development as a contending team.
From 1972-74, Oakland won three consecutive World Series championships. They were the first for the organization since capturing back-to-back titles in 1929-30 while still in Philadelphia. Blue won the AL MVP and AL Cy Young Awards in 1971. Jackson took AL MVP honors in 1973.
During these years Finley also became one of the game’s great marketing geniuses. He replaced the club’s longtime elephant mascot with a mule, which he named “Charlie-O“, and which was featured in advertising and at live events. One promotion involved offering players $200 in 1972 to grow mustaches, which became a signature of the ball club. It was as a response to that promotion the Fingers would grow his own trademark handlebar mustache.
After Williams had piloted the A’s to back-to-back world championships in 1972-73, the New York Yankees new controlling owner George Steinbrenner tried to hire him away to become skipper in the Bronx. Still under contract with Oakland, Finley refused to let go of his manager. He would ultimately yield when Williams let it be known that he would not return to Oakland. But Finley did not yield to Steinbrenner. Instead, he let Williams out of his contract in order to take over the managerial reigns of the California Angels, replacing him in the A’s dugout with Alvin Dark.
Hunter would be honored with the AL Cy Young Award in 1974. However, it would prove to be his last season in Oakland. Free agency had come to Major League Baseball, and Finley would lose a bidding war for his ace right-hander to Steinbrenner.
Williams, who would go on to Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement after winning 1,571 games, four pennants, and the two World Series titles with Oakland in 1972-73, would ultimately look back on his time under Finley with affection and respect per Leonard Koppett of the New York Times in 1996:
“At the time, there was friction and all that. But you forget about that. I’ll remember all the innovations and that if a player got injured and I needed one, the next day I’d have two or three to choose from. He wanted to win.“
In 1974 under Dark the A’s won a fourth straight division title and third consecutive World Series championship. The following year saw 98 victories and a fifth straight division crown. But an emerging Boston Red Sox team swept Oakland in the 1975 ALCS, ending their dynastic run.
In the American Bicentennial year of 1976, a young, talented team from, of all places, Kansas City finally dethroned Oakland in the AL West, winning the division by just 2.5 games. Those Royals, born as a 1969 expansion team in the wake of the A’s leaving for Oakland, built a big lead by midsummer. A strong 34-22 finish for the A’s would prove too little, too late.
Believing that free agency would prove to be the financial ruination of his ball club in a smaller market such as Oakland, Finley began attempting to sell off and trade away most of his biggest stars in an effort to recoup some money and to rebuild with younger talent.
After dealing Jackson and star pitcher Ken Holtzman to the Orioles prior to the 1976 season, Finley tried to sell Blue to the Yankees and peddle both Fingers and Rudi to the Red Sox. Bowie Kuhn stepped in, voiding those three sales under his “best interests of the game” powers as baseball Commissioner. Kuhn then won when that voidance was upheld in court in the landmark Finley v Kuhn case.
As he continued attempting to rebuild the A’s and navigate the new financial landscape of the game during the late-1970’s, personal troubles would prove to be Finley’s ultimate demise in baseball. The settlement of a bitter divorce left him with no financial recourse other than to sell the ball club. Prior to the 1981 season, Finley’s sale to Levi Stauss owner Walter Haas Jr. was finalized for $12.7 million.
Charlie Finley’s years guiding the A’s in Oakland resulted in a 1,091-1,005 cumulative regular season record, three World Series championships, and five American League West Division crowns. They were also some of the most colorful and controversial years in baseball history. Finley died in 1996 just three days shy of his 78th birthday. Jackson, Fingers, and Hunter all became Hall of Famers. It says here that Finley deserves a place at Cooperstown as well.
NOTE: An abbreviated version of this piece was included in the IBWAA daily newsletter in late January 2022.