Welcome to Oakland
Bob Kennedy was feeling good. The 1968 season, the A’s first in Oakland and his first as their manager, had wrapped only minutes earlier. Despite a loss to the Twins, the A’s final record was 82-80, 20 victories better than the previous year and their first winning mark since 1949. It was by any reasonable measure a fantastic success. Kennedy spoke easily with reporters in the postgame clubhouse about his hopes for ’69. With a roster laden with up-and-comers like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Campy Campaneris, the manager couldn’t hide his excitement about achievements yet to come.
Unlike previous lost campaigns, in which Charlie Finley’s ax swung inexorably toward the managerial chopping block as early as June, the room was upbeat after the season finale. Kennedy offered warm goodbyes to his players, wished them productive winters, and urged them to keep in shape. Then he made a quick round of the gathered media. “Thank you for everything this summer,” he said, shaking each reporter’s hand. “I’ll be seeing you next year. But right now I have to go up to see the big man.” With that, he hopped the elevator to the third-floor executive suite, where he and Finley had a full agenda of off-season prep work to discuss. When the elevator returned, a contingent of newsmen followed.
They arrived to find Kennedy in the hallway, struggling with the locked glass door to the owner’s office. “Where’s Finley?” one of them asked. “We want to talk to him.”
“I can’t even get in,” replied the bewildered manager.
His confusion didn’t last long; a moment later the lock rattled open, the door swung ajar, and Kennedy slipped inside. When reporters attempted to follow, however, an assistant cut them off. They might have grown suspicious if given some time, but within a minute Kennedy stormed out, unexpectedly jobless. The team’s PR man, Val Binns, emerged and read a handwritten statement: “Bob Kennedy has been relieved of his duties as manager and has been replaced by Hank Bauer.”
Welcome to Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s. The man’s perpetual need for shifting sands was ever in play, with managers, with players, with cities themselves. Kennedy had succeeded, but not enough for Finley’s tastes, and so the churn endured ?— ?another odd decision in an ownership résumé packed full of them.
At least the man was decisive. Hell, it’s what landed the A’s in Oakland in the first place. So determined was Finley to move his team from Kansas City to Northern California in 1967 that no measure of contrary advice could sway him. It might have been the cutting-edge allure of the brand-new, 50,000-seat Oakland Coliseum, but just as likely it was the chance to buck every owner who insisted that the Bay Area was a one-team market. Finley hired a firm to research the pros and cons of the East Bay, and then ordered it to “tell me to move to Oakland.”
So firm were his convictions that he signed a 20-year lease agreement and at the team’s welcoming luncheon said that the A’s would forever have Oakland printed across their jerseys as a symbol of civic pride. “I bought the team in Kansas City,” he proclaimed. “I have brought it to Oakland. There is a difference. I took the only team I could get. I had no choice over where it was. Bringing it to Oakland was my choice. Once I make a decision, I stand by it, I give my word of that. I will move to Oakland. I will move my family to Oakland. I will keep my team in Oakland. And the A’s will succeed here.”
Finley did not move to Oakland, nor did his family. He showed up a few times each season to watch the A’s, and caught them when they visited Chicago. After a year he removed the city’s name from the jerseys and replaced it with the letter “A,” a precursor, perhaps, to perpetual rumors that the team was preparing to move someplace else.
The Coliseum’s debut ?— ?opening night, April 17, 1968 ?— ?was as grand an affair as Finley could have hoped. The stadium of his dreams was packed to overflowing. The team’s mascot, a mule named Charlie O, rolled in with a police escort. Baseball commissioner William Eckert and American League president Joe Cronin were in attendance, as was California governor Ronald Reagan, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The arena went dark prior to the National Anthem, a lone spotlight homing in on the American flag. Fans, fully invested in the experience, spontaneously fished matches from pockets and turned the ballpark into something between a candlelight vigil and a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Finley’s last-place Athletics were in Oakland now, and things were about to change.
The very next night they did. It took only one game for all semblance of new-team sheen to dissipate, as only 5,304 fans found their way to the ballpark. “Oh my God,” gasped traveling secretary Tom Corwin, eying the nearly empty grandstand. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” The following day, the first Friday night contest in Oakland’s big league history drew 6,251.
Just like that, a decades-long conversation of Why? began. Why did people stay away in such terrific numbers? Why wasn’t an exciting new team enough of an attraction? Why couldn’t people recognize the gift they’d been given? The answers were myriad. The A’s were a second-division club, and had been for more than three decades. It was too cold. It was difficult to get to the stadium. It was the Giants siphoning fans across the bay, not to mention University of California sports right there in Berkeley, plus a panoply of local entertainment options, plus working-class Oakland residents with a shortage of disposable income, plus . . . plus . . . plus . . .
Finley’s hard-edged attitude did not help. When he refused to give in to the local musicians’ union ?— ?which wanted him to match the Giants’ use of a live band on weekends ?— ?he was forced to use recordings of the National Anthem, unable to find so much as an organist willing to work for him. The shortcomings of the Coliseum itself also became quickly apparent. The A’s shared the field with the turf-shredding Raiders of the National Football League. The infield dirt was too soft for solid footing. Finley’s lauded “million-dollar scoreboard,” an awesome display of ballpark messaging, was inoperable, and would stay that way, he was told, until June.
Within his first month on the job A’s farm director Art Parrack, theorizing that any more time spent working for Finley would be too much, resigned. Soon Finley would fire or have quit on him vice president Bill Cutler (a protracted legal battle over back salary followed), director of scouting Ray Swallow, traveling secretary John Fitzpatrick, sales manager Bob Freitas, and 11 scouts, bringing the number of front-office personnel to leave his employ since he bought the club in 1961 to 130. The only one to stick around from the beginning was his cousin, Carl Finley.
On the field, however, the A’s grew ever more stable, following that 82-win season with 88 victories in 1969, then 89 a year later. In the process Finley did his best to transform the Kansas City Athletics into his Oakland A’s, addin...