When the latest Matier and Ross column featuring Coliseum City and the A’s dropped over the weekend, I wasn’t sure if I should follow-up right away or wait for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Drop it did, with a press release coming from the A’s early today. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of any of it. BayIG (the combined investor/developer group) was supposed to contact the A’s starting in mid-November. Now it’s all a bunch of he-said/she-said. It’s all meaningless in the grand scheme of things, so I won’t bother wasting anymore words on it.
Instead I’ll reference a nightmare scenario that happened almost 40 years ago. It involves a Charlie Finley anecdote that I hadn’t fully heard until I read his 2010 biography some time ago. In the late 70’s, Finley was fighting a personal two-front war, an acrimonious divorce on one side and skyrocketing salaries that threatened his ability to operate the A’s on the other. (He also had other feuds with MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the Coliseum Commission and numerous players and agents, but I digress.) Knowing his time in baseball was running out, Finley chose to put the team up for sale as soon as 1977. Numerous suitors surfaced, some offering to keep the team in Oakland and other looking to move the franchise out at the end of the 1977 season. The most famous buyer was oil billionaire Marvin Davis, whose family was said to be the model for the soap opera Dynasty. Davis also owned the 20th Century Fox studio for some time before selling it to some Australian named Rupert Murdoch.
The difficult part of the move was the generally ironclad lease the Coliseum had with the A’s. It was a 20-year term, with an expensive buyout if the A’s left. As the Coliseum filed a $35 million lawsuit against Finley, Finley worked with Kuhn and Giants owner Bob Lurie to figure out a solution. Wait, what did Bob Lurie have to do with this?
Kuhn had been convinced that, with both teams showing poor attendance, the Bay Area was only a one-team market. He spoke to pols in both San Francisco and Oakland to work on a compromise, but in the end the Bay Area would be left with only one team. Previously, Lurie had bought the team from Horace Stoneham, saving SF from the prospect of moving the Giants to Toronto. Lurie was brought into the talks to figure out what role the Giants would have in a one-team Bay Area.
The solution, as architected by Kuhn and others before the 1978 season, would’ve been to have the A’s sold to Marvin Davis, which would’ve gotten rid of Kuhn’s nemesis Finley. Then in order to compromise on the Coliseum lease, the Giants would’ve played some number of games at the Coliseum, 25-40 depending on how the final deal was drawn up. In San Francisco the team would’ve been called the San Francisco Giants, while in Oakland the team would’ve been called simply the Giants. Kuhn recalled:
For the next three weeks, the politicians, the baseball administration and the lawyers struggled to find solutions. At last, amazingly, parity was agreed to. The team name would be the San Francisco Giants except in Oakland, where it would be the Giants. Financial payments to the Oakland Coliseum were set at $3.25 million. The internal fight within baseball was difficult when Finley would put up no more than $1 million as his share of the Coliseum payment. Even that we were able to persuade the clubs to accept. But, when we asked him [Finley] to waive claims of any kind against baseball, he balked.
Even though Finley was leaving baseball – forever – he still wanted to keep his right to sue just in case he felt he got ripped off. Finley was no stranger to courtrooms, so this could be expected. Still, you’d think that after all that work (and his building desperation) he would’ve waived that one right in order to finish the deal. The sale fell apart and Finley went into full fire sale mode, finally selling the team to the Haas family in 1980.
Consider the ramifications:
- The Giants would’ve become the San Francisco Giants/Giants, probably playing most of the Oakland games before football season.
- The buyout would’ve funded improvements to the Coliseum that Al Davis was seeking, improvements that probably would’ve kept the Raiders in Oakland.
- From that point forward, the Bay Area would’ve been a one-team town, with a young, growing city like San Jose pursuing an expansion franchise.
- Eventually, the team-sharing situation would’ve created a race between SF and Oakland to build a permanent home when leases at both Candlestick Park and the Coliseum expired in the late 80’s. Territorial rights would’ve included the “BART counties” plus Marin County.
- Rickey Henderson, who was drafted in 1976, would’ve spent much of his career in Denver. The same could be said of Tony Armas and Dwayne Murphy, among others. Marvin Davis had the money to bolster the team’s payroll, so the chances of keeping a talented young team intact were very good.
So this Christmas, thank the ghost of Charlie Finley for being so selfish that he had to be able to sue – just in case. Without that, the Oakland Athletics would’ve been a 10 year experiment, a blip on the radar, an historical anomaly.
(h/t Rob Neyer, who referenced the near-sale when the A’s-to-China Basin reports surfaced. I didn’t see his post until after I finished this one.)