SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Oakland A's of the early 1970s were one of the greatest teams in history. They won three straight world championships, '72 '73 and '74, five straight pennants. They wore the first colorful uniforms, had the most colorful names, the most colorful - possibly insufferable - owner in Charlie Finley and had a club that looked like they were extras in "Easy Rider" - Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers who had a mustache that could steer a motorcycle.
Jason Turbow's new book, "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, And Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's," reminds us how that team changed baseball but then burned out and busted up.
Jason Turbow joins us now from University of California at Berkeley. Thanks so much for being with us.
JASON TURBOW: Thank you so much for having me on, Scott.
SIMON: How do you explain the fact that what turned out to be so many big-name stars wound up playing for one of the smallest market teams?
TURBOW: Well, a big part of that was that many of these guys signed before the draft. Before that point, any team could go out and sign any player for as much as they were willing to spend, and those were the heydays of Charles O. Finley and company.
SIMON: How do you explain Charles O. Finley? Because I find we have to begin and end with him.
TURBOW: He was an incredibly complex guy, which is part of what makes this story so interesting.
SIMON: Insurance magnate in Chicago, never spent much time in Oakland for that matter, but he wound up making some fantastically perceptive judgments about baseball, didn't he?
TURBOW: He did. I mean, he was smart enough to know that he wasn't inherently a baseball guy. He wasn't a talent evaluator, and he never really tried to be. What he was was a salesman and somebody who could elicit information out of others. He also had this very unique ability to spend many, many hours every day on the telephone, which is what he did. He would call scouts and fellow general managers and people in front offices across the league, you know, ostensibly to propose trades, to have conversations. He'd pick up information all the while, free assessments of his own players and players on other's teams. And when he heard something repeated often enough, he knew he was on to something, and he used that as the basis for his general managerialship (ph), which itself was unique to him. He didn't hire a general manager for much of his tenure. He just did the job himself.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the players on this especially vivid team. Let me begin with Jim Hunter - got the name Catfish from Charlie Finley, didn't he?
TURBOW: Yes, he did. As soon as Jim Hunter signed the contract, Charlie said, oh, yeah, there's one other thing. Do you have a nickname? Jim Hunter said, well, no, I don't. Charlie said, well, what do you like to do? Catfish said, I like to hunt and fish. And Charlie Finley said, that's it. Your nickname is Catfish. And he - on the spot, he invented a story about how a young Jim Hunter ran away from home and his parents went searching for him desperately, and they found him with a string full of catfish that he had caught in a nearby pond.
TURBOW: And Hunter thought it was going to go immediately. He agreed to it. He thought it was just a whim of the moment. But almost from that moment on, there was nobody named Jim Hunter in Major League Baseball. It was only the Catfish.
SIMON: Reggie Jackson - obviously one of the signature players in baseball history, a great ballplayer, Hall of Fame caliber, not always popular, though, was he?
TURBOW: Not always popular. I mean, Reggie had a big mouth and a big ego. You know, the difference between Reggie in Oakland where he spent significantly more time than he did in New York and after he got to the Yankees was that he came up with the players in Oakland. He was friends with some of them. At the very least, they all understood him, and they understood that he really wasn't malicious at heart. He just liked to bark a lot. And when he got to the Yankee Stadium, those players didn't know how to take him, and things really went sour for him there on a personal level.
SIMON: The Oakland A's were often in what amounted to open rebellion against their owner. And maybe we can understand this best if you tell us the Mike Andrews story. This was the 1973 World Series.
TURBOW: Yeah, this is actually the centerpiece of my book, and every time I recount it, it's just as unbelievable as when it happened. Mike Andrews was picked up in the middle of that season to be a right-handed pinch hitter. He had been let go by the Chicago White Sox. He had been a second baseman. He'd injured his shoulder. He wasn't a good fielder. He could barely throw. Everybody knew this coming in. Yet, in game two of that World Series, the A's had to use him at second base in extra innings against the Mets, and he made two key errors. The A's were losing anyway already by a run. They ended up giving up several runs because of the errors. They lost 10 to 6. And after the game, Charlie Finley could not abide it. He couldn't sit still. He wanted to call up minor league second baseman Manny Trillo, but the only way he could do that was as an injury replacement.
SIMON: We'll explain for people who don't necessarily follow baseball - rules that your roster has to be established by the time the series opens. You can't make changes.
TURBOW: Thank you for reminding me that we're no longer on sports talk radio. He tried to replace Mike Andrews with this rookie, and to do so, he had the team doctor give him a very perfunctory examination. He drafted up a memo, forced Andrews to sign it, and he went home. He didn't join the team for its flight to New York, and the players were wondering what's going on. They eventually worked themselves into a lather chanting, we want Mike, we want Mike. Mike never showed up. And for the duration of that flight to New York and that night in the hotel and the next morning, they fomented rage. Reporters couldn't get enough of it. They were knocking on their hotel rooms. They were finding them on the field. They were finding them in restaurants. And the players were more than willing to talk up and down about what a rotten move it was.
And that's essentially where Charlie Finley turned from, you know, a benevolent dictator into someone who resented every player on the roster. They all turned on him, and he couldn't stand it. To the point that the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, ordered Andrews reinstated eventually, Finley gave strict orders to his manager, Dick Williams, do not let this guy see the field, at which point Dick Williams immediately inserted him as a pinch hitter...
TURBOW: ...Just to rile up the owner. Everybody in Shea Stadium in New York saw what was happening, knew what was happening, gave Mike Andrews a standing ovation. And the only guy in the ballpark not applauding this A's player was his own team's owner.
SIMON: One of the greatest teams ever - why do you think they wound up not being able to sustain it though and become beyond question the greatest?
TURBOW: Well, on the field, it's because the free agency era came upon them, and Charlie Finley was unable to adapt to it.
TURBOW: He was a guy who had to have absolute control over his team, and, you know, for good and for bad, it worked out on the field, but he wasn't willing to cede any of that control to the players. And instead of signing them up for reasonable rates when he could, he let them all go. And it bears noting that across the country in New York, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner knew precisely how to play this game from the very beginning. And in short order, he won back to back World Series with the A's' two best players, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter.
SIMON: Jason Turbow - his book, "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, And Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's." Thanks so much for being with us.
TURBOW: Thank you so much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.