As part of baseball's transformation from ownership by the rich to ownership by the outlandishly rich, the sale of the Oakland A's by Charles O. Finley to Walter Haas, chairman of Levi Strauss, was announced today amidst the glass-enclosed opulence of the 28th Floor of the Kaiser Aluminum Center.
Haas couldn't be there. Other business was more pressing than his $12.7 million purchase of a baseball team he intends to keep in Oakland. His presence wasn't really necessary, anyway, since the A's are just a gift he is making to his son-in-law, Roy Eisenhardt, and his son, Wally III, neither of whom have had any previous connection with baseball.
That, however, is hardly a surprise, since, as the deposed Finley said in another context, "I'm getting out of baseball because I can no longer compete financially. Baseball used to be a battle of wits. Now it's just a matter of what you've got on the hip."
A frumpy Dixieland band, dressed in silly a's costumes, oompahed and banjoed as most of the corporate and political three-piece bigwigs in the Bay Area gathered for the joyous and long-awaited occasion of Finley finally being squeezed out of baseball.
This is the way the world looks, not to mere millionaires like insurance man Finley, but to those like Haas, and Cornell Maier (chairman of Kaiser Aluminum and orchestrator of today's deal) who toss around millions like nickels.
Without question, big bucks is the direction of baseball. The days of the fast-talking, innovative, baseball-in-the-blood innovators like Finley and Bill Veeck are over. Today, Finley was practically dragged out of the sport, kicking and cursing, and threatening not to leave even at the last minute.
"Today is my 20th birthday in baseball, said the vain, obnoxious and brilliantly eccentric Finley in a half-hour farewell in which he was maudlin, caustic and bitter. "And this is a wonderful birthday party for me today.
"I haven't really decided if I'm going to sell this ball club yet," said Finley, as the mayor of Oakland, the president of the American League and a fair chunk of the Fortune 500 on the dais all blanched. "I'm up here thinking. And while I'm thinking, I'm going to do a little talking."
As Finley rambled, all his bitterness at being passed by, after building a triple world champion (1972-73-74), came to the surface. "I'm almost bankrupt, but not yet," he said, acknowledging that much of his $12.7 million price will be eaten up by expense outside baseball.
"I just couldn't compete with the idiotic, astronomical and unjustified salaries of today's players. Baseball is now realizing what I said five years ago -- just like they're usually five years behind me -- that a team should be compensated for its free-agent losses.
"But when I tried to sell Rudi, Fingers and Blue for $3.5 million (in '76) so that I could build a great farm system, I was stopped.
"This commissioner of baseball, this person called Bowie Kuhn," said Finley with contempt, "made sure that I didn't get a damn cent for my players."
The largest concern on Oakland's civic agenda today was the worry that Finley, who has jerked around and blocked off from so many potential buyers in the past, would shy away once more, just to keep his name in the muted limelight yet a while longer. Would he once again keep the A's franchise in the sort of economic bondage that has earned them the name "The Triple-AAA's."
Near the end of his ramblings, that included endorsement of the orange baseball, the notion of a three-ball-and-three strike game and free-substitution pinch runners for "the fat boys," Finley finally said, "Well I just decided a couple of minutes ago that I'm going to sell."
"All the others (buyers) were like phony Texans who have big hats, but no cattle," Finley said. "These guys left their hats at home, but they brought all the cattle."
Finley did a superb marathon job of praising himself in his own farewell talk, saying, "In all fairness to myself, I must point out. . . ." and "I don't want to toot my horn, but . . ."
However, the most sincere farewell came from AL President Lee MacPhail, who said, "Baseball has lost its No. 1 innovator. The designated hitter, divisional player, night World Series games, colorful uniforms and opening the Series on Sunday were all ideas that Charlie pushed before others did.
"But Charlie had three big problems," McPhail said. "He was an absentee owner who never could tear himself away from the streets of Chicago. He didn't have the organization needed to market his product properly. And, more than anything, he was hurt by the new (free agent) system. Without that, Charlie would have continued to battle 'em with brains and malarky, and they never would have pulled him down."
Those were MacPhail's kind words. To his credit, he also reminded the folks here of his long-standing opinion that this region could not support two teams (A's and Giants). "The only sad fact today is that while the A's may triple last season's attendance," said MacPhail, "you are still 26th and last in attendance in the majors and you have a lot of hard work ahead of you."
The man most burdened with that work will be the 41-year-old club president, Eisenhardt, a Berkeley law professor and crew coach who looks 10 years younger and is the consummate handsome blow-dry smoothie.
"I married into the Haas family and I'm damn proud of it," he smiled. "Lets's not kid ourselves: the philosophical, spiritual and financial backbone of this deal is Walter Haas.
"But Mr. Haas has a wonderful talent for delegating tasks. And, so, for better or worse, he has delegated (his son) Wally and I to run the ball club. We are not going to pretend to be baseball experts. But we believe the direction for this club to go is to build through a new farm system."
Eisenhardt then began to steal the show, making the dais his lecture podium as he genially informed one questioner that "I do not agree with your predicate (assumption)," while answering another question about his feelings toward the Giants by saying he hoped that mutual success would "create a synergy (sic) between the teams."
Billy Martin, the Oakland manager, scratched his head.
Lee MacPhail said how proud he was that the American League, which had had everything else, finally had a college professor for a club president.
But Charlie O had ants in his pants. He scribbed a note on his napkin and passes it to Eisenhardt.
"I have just been given a note by Charlie," said Eisenhardt, who has already mastered the easy poise of men with many millions speaking about a fellow who has just a few." It says, Charlie Finley will continue to run the club until after the season."
"You mean," interjected Martin, "that he can still fire me?"
That is not likely. Finley, the man who always loved to fire people, has finally gotten the boot. For Oakland, that is the best possible baseball news. But for those who cared more about the flavor and piquancy of baseball as a whole, it is, strange to say, something of a loss.