The Virtual 1980 Oakland Athletics (Part 1)

It has been too long since we last played this game. How about we consider The Swingin’ A’s that might have been?

Charles O. Finley holds a prominent place on the very short list of the most remarkable baseball owners in history. There was no facet of his behavior that was ordinary or bland, no phase of his tumultuous 20-year tenure in control of the Athletics franchise that was staid or predictable.

Yet most often, it seems, discussion of Finley focuses on the excesses of his personality: his appallingly tin ear for the basics of marketing; his tantrums and feuds; his incapacity to develop and sustain basic human relationships. As Senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) put it, on U.S. Senate floor on the day that Finley announced that he was relocating his franchise from Kansas City to Oakland: “The loss of the A’s is more than recompensed by the pleasure of getting rid of Mr. Finley. … He is one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene. … Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

Although all that was definitely part of the Finley story, there’s an important sense in which all that was also a distraction, a sideshow that has served to obscure common understanding of Finley’s genuine place in baseball history: He demonstrated one of the most brilliant baseball minds the sport has ever known.

The Kansas City A’s franchise that Finley purchased in December 1960 was an utterly lost cause: a perennial cellar-dweller with skimpy attendance in a meager market, and with only the faint rudiments of a functioning farm system. What’s more, Finley’s ownership was and would always be dangerously poorly capitalized.

On top of that, Finley’s indescribably grating persona would ensure that he would receive no help from anyone (indeed, he would invariably stimulate actively collaborative opposition from all corners, as suggested by the on-the-record remarks of Sen. Symington). And he would be able to retain no long-term managerial or organizational in-house expertise. Finley’s “front office” was comically threadbare, consisting literally of Finley and a handful of lowly paid employees anxious to leave at the first opportunity (if Finley didn’t rashly fire them first).

In short, Finley started with nothing, and he was able to add nothing except his own intelligence and tireless effort. And with nothing except his own intelligence and tireless effort, in a decade’s time Finley transformed the worst franchise in baseball into an unbeatable dynasty, capturing five straight division titles and three straight pennants and World Series crowns. That dynasty would soon be broken apart, partly by some missteps on Finley’s part but mostly because his players couldn’t stand him, and every one of his stars would eagerly bolt for free agency when that opportunity at last availed itself in the mid-1970s.

Yet as we’ll demonstrate, the farm system that Finley singlehandedly constructed was tremendously, amazingly robust. Not only did it stock the core of his great 1971-75 teams, but had the Oakland diaspora not subsequently occurred, that farm system was entirely capable of sustaining, completely on its own, a genuinely great team until at least as late as 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 1

Nov. 29, 1971: The A’s traded outfielder Rick Monday to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman.

This wasn’t a bad trade on Finley’s part; Holtzman would be a bellwhether starter for the A’s, a key contributor to their dynastic success. But neither did the deal represent a talent gain, in that as outstanding as Holtzman was in Oakland, Monday was just as outstanding in Chicago. Moreover, while Holtzman filled an important role as the third ace among the A’s big three, alongside Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue, Monday’s absence meant that the A’s would win their 1972 championship despite a gaping hole in center field. Beginning in 1973, the A’s would patch the hole with Billy North, but North wasn’t nearly as good as Monday.

Had Finley kept Monday and not acquired Holtzman, the 1972-75 Oakland teams would have necessarily been constructed somewhat differently, but there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have been just about as excellent. What’s more, Monday would last longer than Holtzman, remaining a quite useful player into the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Holtzman was down and done.

And most centrally for the purposes of this exercise, Monday was a homegrown A’s product, indeed part of the centerpiece of exquisite young talent Finley selected and developed in the mid-to-late 1960s. Monday was the first of his extraordinary finds that Finley would trade away.

Let’s assume he didn’t, and that Rick Monday remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 2

Mar. 24, 1973: The A’s traded catcher Dave Duncan and outfielder George Hendrick to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Ray Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann.

Finley was generally an extremely shrewd trader, but this was one instance in which he blundered, big time. This deal didn’t accomplish anything strategically, and moreover it was a lopsided talent giveaway.

Finley had become frustrated with Duncan, to whom he’d paid a big signing bonus as a teenager back in 1963. Finley had expected Duncan to develop into a star, and by now it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.

Examining Free Agency Since 2016
Players did a little better in free agency this winter than they did the previous year.

Duncan had always delivered home runs at an impressive rate, but maintaining a decent batting average was a continual struggle for him. Here Finley leapt at the chance to exchange Duncan for Fosse, who was a superior defensive catcher (though Duncan wasn’t bad), and who’d flashed a better bat in 1970. But though his batting average was higher than Duncan’s, Fosse didn’t have Duncan’s power, and on balance he hadn’t been as good an offensive producer as Duncan in 1971 or 1972. Fosse was 18 months younger than Duncan, but still if the A’s were gaining anything in the Duncan-for-Fosse swap, it wasn’t a lot. Thus there was no compelling purpose to the move; it was just an instance of Finley indulging his weakness of impulsiveness.

That was bad enough. Far worse was huge imbalance in the “throw-in” players: Heidemann was a marginal utility man, while Hendrick was an enormously talented young center fielder who simply hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to blossom at the big league level. Hendrick would be given that opportunity in Cleveland and become one of the better outfielders in baseball for the next decade.

As Fosse would quickly break down with injuries, this deal would soon loom as a complete disaster for Oakland. Let’s assume Finley had taken a deep breath and gotten over this urge, and that George Hendrick remained with the Athletics though 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 3

Sep. 18, 1973: The A’s sold catcher Jose Morales to the Montreal Expos.

This wasn’t a significant deal, by any means. Morales was never going to be anything more than a spare part. But he could hit, and a backup catcher who can hit is a nice spare part to have. Morales was a useful product of Finley’s farm system, casually and pointlessly tossed aside.

Let’s assume Jose Morales remained with the Athletics though 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 4

Oct. 23, 1974: The A’s traded pitchers Darold Knowles and Bob Locker and second baseman Manny Trillo to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman-outfielder Billy Williams.

The best days of both of these veteran relievers were behind them, but Knowles still had some mileage left. It wasn’t a bad idea for Finley to surrender them for the ultraveteran slugger Williams, in his twilight but still swinging a dangerous bat, a sensible short-term fit in the designated hitter slot.

The problem with this deal was Finley’s willingness to throw in Trillo. This young infielder was nothing special offensively, but he was a defensive standout. He’d been a catcher as a teenager, and Trillo displayed an exceptional second base throwing arm, first-rate on the double play and on relays.

Let’s assume Manny Trillo had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 5

Jun. 15, 1975: The A’s traded pitcher Dave Hamilton and third baseman-outfielder Chet Lemon to the Chicago White Sox for pitchers Stan Bahnsen and Skip Pitlock.

Coming off their third consecutive World Series title, during the 1974-75 offseason Finley’s dynasty had sustained the first chink in its armor. An arbitrator declared ace pitcher Catfish Hunter a free agent, due to Finley’s breach of contract for failing to comply with a deferred-payments clause. This was, to be sure, an extraordinary circumstance, not a soon-to-be-standard case of a player playing out his option, but the impact on the team was the same: Hunter was gone, with nothing in return.

That circumstance probably explains this trade. Even without Hunter, in June of ’75 the A’s were still cruising along in first place, at 35-24. Nonetheless Finley was concerned about his pitching depth, and here converted the journeyman southpaw Hamilton, plus the prospect Lemon, into the veteran workhorse starter Bahnsen, along with the marginal throw-in Pitlock.

Understandable as Finley’s desire to beef up his starting rotation was, this wasn’t a smart deal. A few years earlier, Bahnsen had been a meaningful asset, but he’d shouldered a heavy workload, and though he was just 30 at this point he was struggling. Taking a chance on Bahnsen rebounding in exchange for the nothing-special Hamilton might have made sense, but Finley blundered by including Lemon.

The 20-year-old Lemon hadn’t yet reached the majors, but he was an impressive prospect. He’d played mostly at third base and shortstop, where he showed nice range but was highly error-prone, but his hitting had been strong at every minor league level since signing as a 17-year-old in 1972. With the White Sox, shifted to the outfield full-time, Lemon would quickly develop into a marvelous defensive center fielder, and combined with excellent all-around hitting, he’d be a star for more than a decade.

In Oakland, Bahnsen would reverse his slide, and perform well in a swingman role in 1975 and ’76. But this deal would serve the A’s quite poorly in the long run. Let’s assume Dave Hamilton and Chet Lemon had remained with the Athletics though 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 6

Apr. 2, 1976: The A’s traded outfielder Reggie Jackson and pitchers Ken Holtzman and Bill VanBommell to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder-first baseman Don Baylor and pitchers Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell.

Despite the loss of Hunter, the Athletics had won 98 games and their fifth straight division flag in 1975. But in the 1975-76 offseason, their dynasty received extremely ominous news, as the second Seitz decision meant that free agency would be arriving in the autumn of 1976.

For many teams, this effectively meant little in the short term, and for some teams it was an exciting development. But for Finley’s A’s it was a dreadful portent. Finley’s players universally loathed him and hungered for the chance to play for someone, anyone, else. Even Finley, with his remarkable lack of sensitivity, well understood this: His roster was about to be devastated. Being Finley, he didn’t passively accept this fate, but instead did what he could to forestall it.

Of all his stars, cleanup hitter Reggie Jackson may have been the one whose antipathy toward Finley was second to none. Thus Finley knew he had a less-than-zero chance of retaining Jackson. So here Finley packaged the not-yet-known-as-Mr.-October off for Baylor, who was a fine young player, but no Jackson.

Finley’s hope was that perhaps he might persuade Baylor not to head directly toward freedom. It would be a futile hope; just as surely as Jackson would have, Baylor would leave as a free agent at his first opportunity.

Let’s assume this dynamic hadn’t ensued, and Reggie Jackson had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 7

Nov. 1, 1976: The A’s lost pitcher Rollie Fingers, catcher-first baseman Gene Tenace and third baseman Sal Bando to free agency.

This wasn’t all of it, of course. Along with this trio, Baylor, shortstop Bert Campaneris and left fielder Joe Rudi also flew the coop. But these three were the best, the ones the A’s could least afford to lose.

Finley knew he had no hope of re-signing any of them, and even if he’d had the financial capacity to be in the market for other free agents (which he didn’t), no ballplayer with any realistic choice was going to sign a contract with Finley. His goose was cooked. (This was, of course, why Finley had attempted to sell Fingers, Rudi and Vida Blue in mid-season 1976, only to have the deals voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.)

Let’s assume they hadn’t chosen to leave as free agents, and that Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace and Sal Bando had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 8

Mar. 15, 1977: The A’s traded infielders Phil Garner and Tommy Helms and pitcher Chris Batton to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitchers Dave Giusti, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, and Rick Langford and outfielders Tony Armas and Mitchell Page.

Finley now shifted into hardcore desperation mode, cashing in his remaining chips for young talent. And here his extraordinarily sharp eye for it was again to his advantage; this deal was brilliant, a lopsided win for Finley.

Alas, our exercise is to play out the scenario of the A’s retaining their homegrown talent. So, let’s assume Phil Garner had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 9

Jun. 15, 1977: The A’s traded outfielder Denny Walling and cash to the Houston Astros for outfielder Willie Crawford.

And then Finley turned around and executed this head-scratcher.

The last thing Finley needed to be doing at this point was surrendering a good prospect and/or sorely-needed cash for a mid-level talent such as Crawford. Apparently Finley believed he’d be getting a bargain, but even if Crawford had done well for the A’s, he was a platoon corner outfielder, not the sort of player the team needed to be building with. And as it turned out, for some reason Crawford would prove to be completely washed up at the age of 30; I don’t know if it was injuries or alcohol or what it was, but Crawford was just suddenly done. This was a giveaway of a solid, well-rounded, versatile young talent.

Let’s assume Denny Walling had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

What might have been: Element No. 10

Mar. 15, 1978: The A’s traded pitcher Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants for catcher-outfielder Gary Alexander, outfielder-first baseman Gary Thomasson, pitchers Dave Heaverlo, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson and Phil Huffman, a player to be named later and $300,000 cash. (On Apr. 7, 1978, the Giants sent infielder Mario Guerrero to the A’s, completing the deal.)

Here Finley hocked the last of his star-player assets, in a deal very similar in structure to the Phil Garner trade above. Finley didn’t rake in quite as amazing a haul of young talent here—realistically, how could he?—but still he did pretty well, and of course here he also was able to get 300 grand in cash included, an amount the Commissioner deemed acceptable.

Though this was a good deal for the rebuilding A’s to make, in our scenario they wouldn’t be in that mode. So let’s assume Vida Blue had remained with the Athletics through 1980.

Next time

We’ll see how this plays out.

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.

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