Monday, March 21, 2016

Talking to Nancy Finley, Charlie's niece and author of Finley Ball

Imagine you're a kid with a rich uncle who just bought a major league franchise. And then that uncle calls your dad and asks him to help run the team. And the dad accepts, brings you along and you get to witness baseball history from the backrooms and clubhouse for the next two decades as they build one of the most visible, and controversial, dynasties in baseball history. That's Nancy Finley's story. Now, after decades of watching the media misrepresent her uncle, wanting to set the record straight and make sure the contributions of her family are not lost to history, she has written a book.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Nancy Finley about the book, Finley Ball. Not just relying on her own memory, Nancy did voluminous research in old magazines and newspapers and is able to compare what was written with what she saw and heard first hand.

When Charlie Finley bought the Kansas City A's in December, 1960, the team had been a perennial joke whose owners regularly provided quality players to the Yankees in scandalously one-sided deals. That immediately changed. "Charlie never bought the team as an investment," Nancy says. "Charlie's dream had always been to own a sports team, preferably a baseball team. Once Charlie had the money, he bought his dream." Rather than being the cheapskate he came to be portrayed by the media, Finely actually subsidized the team until they started improving. He put about $500,000 of his own money into improvements for the stadium that he didn't even own.

After a very bad experience with Trader Frank Lane as his general manager (he was hired on the advice of a local sports editor), Charlie called on Nancy's father, Carl. Charlie and Carl were first cousins and had grown up together, as close as brothers. At the time, Carl was a high school principal in Dallas. Soon Carl was Charlie's right-hand man. "Dad really understood Charlie. He acted as a go-between for employees. Dad was more level-headed and helped run things from the background. He often gave Charlie advice about how to handle the media, when to keep his mouth shut. But Charlie had a hard time with that and it got him into trouble sometimes."

Together over the next decade, the two transformed the miserable A's into a powerhouse. And, although neither had any experience, they did it with home-grown talent--making some of the most astute draft picks and signings in baseball in the sixties. 

Nancy, a young girl at the time, had the run of the clubhouse and the players, especially the early guys like Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Dick Green, Bert Campaneris, Rick Monday and Blue Moon Odom, were like family.

Charlie Finley proved to be an innovator and an iconoclast among baseball owners. He was committed to bringing fun to the ball park. In 1964 he arranged for the Beatles to play in Kansas City at the stadium--a real coup because the group had not originally planned a stop there. "We were hoping MLB would adopt entertainment like the Super Bowl has now," says Nancy.

Nancy has the inside story to some of baseball's most famous controversies. Like the 1967 flight that resulted in the firing of manager Al Dark and the defection of Ken Harrelson, who called Finley "a menace to baseball." She got the real scoop from her teenage cousin, who was traveling with the team. Opposed to some media reports that downplayed the players' drinking and rowdiness, Nancy says her cousin had a front row seat to the shenanigans. "One of the stewardesses actually came up and sat down next to him and said, 'This is the only place that's safe,' because those guys were really getting out of hand with grabbing and groping and stuff."

She also has an extended explanation, including court documents and medical reports, of the Mike Andrews incident in the 1973 World Series. Nancy says this will surprise a lot of people because the media got it wrong. "I want the reader to decide for himself/herself after reading about what I know factually occurred."

She also has the real reason the team moved from Kansas City to Oakland. "Why we 'had to' leave Kansas City has never been written. I am so tired of reading how we wanted to leave KC. That is absolutely not how it happened. We never wanted to leave Kansas City. We loved it there. We were forced out." A poisoned-penned influential sports editor for the Kansas City Star, Ernie Mehl (who was jilted in his efforts at leading a group to buy the team in 1960), eventually swayed public opinion and soured the city for the Finleys. "Then the city council, some of whom were influenced by Mehl, voted to more than double the stadium lease, to over a million dollars, while the chiefs were playing for a dollar a year. We financially couldn't stay in Kansas City."

She also relates the story of the team mascot, a mule named Charlie O. "Charlie O was a gift from Missouri's governor at the beginning of 1965," she says. "The mule was named Charlie O as a joke by Charlie himself. Charlie O traveled with the team. Only the White Sox refused Charlie O admission. Charlie O drank at bars, rode escalators, had his own New York City hotel suite (a swanky room at the Americana Hotel complete with hay on the floor), was groomed in a barbershop, and was a witness for a bank note signing."

When Charlie O died in 1976, he was cremated and his remains were kept at the Oakland SPCA, since Charlie O had been a frequent attendee for SPCA charity events. A commemorative plaque on the wall was placed so fans could pay their respects. When the A's were rumored to be moving in 2008 and Nancy got wind that another group was planning on taking possession of Charlie O's remains, Nancy decided she needed to act. "I contacted the SPCA and provided confirmation of who I am. I was given Charlie O's remains." And she proudly keeps them today.

While Nancy doesn't deny her uncle's well-known personality traits, she does think he has not gotten a fair shake in books and histories. "Even recently in Sports Illustrated, I saw where Joe Posnanski wrote something and it was completely wrong. Everyone accepts some things that have been written before without actually checking the facts."

Along with lots of baseball, Nancy witnessed other bay area history up close as well during the tumultuous times of Patty Hearst, the Zodiac killer, Berkeley and the Black Panthers. She actually shared an elevator ride, alone, with Black Panther leader Huey Newton and two of his body guards as a young girl. She had taken a dog for a walk and was returning to their top-floor apartment in Oakland when the three stepped in. "They were very nice. They even asked what type of dog I had." Unknown to the girl, or anyone else, Newton was staying in their building incognito while on the lam from the FBI. "I recognized them when they showed them on TV later and told dad. He wasn't very happy." 

The book is scheduled for release next week, March 30. 

  Here's a link to the Amazon page for the book.


  1. That sounds like a fun read. Of course she has a natural bias but it should be interesting to hear her viewpoint. What was the Al Dark incident?

  2. On an A's flight in 1967, several players were drunk and became very rowdy/unruly/rude (nowadays they would call it sexual harassment or worse) to other passengers and, especially, stewardesses. The two most prominent players were Ken Harrelson and Lew Krausse. Afterwards, Finley was very upset at the negative press the incident generated and fired manager Dark, who he said should have controlled his players better. Harrelson fired off some memorable lines in the press about Finley and ended up being released to make his own deal--essentially becoming baseball's first free agent. He played several teams against each other and ended up signing with the pennant-seeking Red Sox, who had just lost Tony C. to the beaning and were in the market for a replacement bat.

  3. Having lived in Kansas City at that time, I attended the old stadium on Brooklyn Avenue on many occasions and could tell Finley was developing some good ballplayers along the way. Unfortunately, they all went to Oakland just as they were beginning to mature. One of my best memories was in being at a late season game which was billed as Campy Campaneris day when the versatile shortstop played each position for one inning. For some inexplicable reason the 8th and 9th innings were chosen to let him pitch and catch and by making an error behind the plate and allowing a run as pitcher he lost a one run game for the home team, but who cared?