There just aren’t many songs about mules. But in the mid 60's (the exact release date is unknown) Charlie O' the Mule by Kansas City song writer and rockabilly performer Gene McKown was released. It’s about a Missouri mule that helped usher in a wild, complicated and, at times, maddening seven years of baseball in Kansas City.
Charles O. Finley, the namesake of the song, longed for years to own a big league baseball team. And when Arnold Johnson suddenly died in 1960 Finley would grit his teeth, and vow not to be outbid. He wasn’t. Then he got the mule and, damn, if he didn’t name it after himself.
“Charlie O' the Mule was a famous mule. He's probably the most famous mule that ever lived. He had a book, a TV show, a record,” says Jeff Logan president of the Kansas City Baseball History. “People love the mule because you could ride the mule. You could go out to the stadium and Charlie Finley would ride the mule with you.”
He dressed it in a Kelly green and gold A’s uniform, and while fans loved it, deep down they knew it was kind of whacky. And Charlie O' the Mule was only the beginning of the craziness at 22nd and Brooklyn Ave.
Charles O' Finley, the O stood for Oscar, was born in Georgia in 1918, and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. His father, Oscar, was a steelworker as was his grandfather who immigrated from Ireland. When the family moved to Gary, Indiana Charlie, who always loved baseball, became an avid White Sox fan.
He was also a businessman from a young age. At 12, according to Finley biographer Jason Turbow, Finley had so many lawns to mow he hired his first employees. Finley also worked in the steel mills, starting at 47 1/2 cents an hour. He eventually would rise to superintendent of the mill with 5,000 people working for him.
It was around that time that Finley started a side gig of selling life insurance. He would turn that side gig into an enormous life insurance company based in Chicago. By the early 1950's, Finley was a millionaire with a 20 room house in Gary and a 1,200 acre ranch in La Porte, Indiana. But Finley didn’t have the one thing he desired most, a big league baseball club.
One of the most venerable characters in all of baseball was A’s owner and manager Connie Mack. We talked all about him in our first installment, Fleeing Philadelphia. The old man retired in 1950. It was such a big deal that George M. Cohan, the man who owned Broadway they used to say, wrote a song for the ceremony.
Now we don’t know for sure, but it certainly could have been right around this time Finley seriously started thinking about buying a big league team. Finley had the money and the whole baseball world knew the A’s were in serious trouble on and off the field. Finley was a minor player in the shenanigans around the selling of the A’s in 1954. He bid $3 million but, as you know, the fix was in for Arnold Johnson, a patsy for the New York Yankees.
In 1956, he tried to buy the Tigers. Then the White Sox two years later. When the American League expanded into Los Angles, Finley offered $5 million for the franchise but lost out to singing cowboy Gene Autry.
Then Finley got a sudden break that would change Kansas City and baseball forever. “Arnold Johnson Dead,” the bold front page headline screamed in the March 10th, 1960 edition of the morning Kansas City Times. He had a cerebral hemorrhage driving back from a spring training game in West Palm Beach. The paper said Johnson slumped over the wheel of his car, and the horn blared for ten minutes before someone finally called for help. He died at the hospital.
Johnson’s widow was forced to sell the team to cover debt and taxes and when a Kansas City syndicate couldn’t raise enough money, Finley swooped in and finally had his major league team.
He pledged his loyalty to Kansas City and its fans. “Moving the A’s from Kansas City is the farthest thing from my mind,” he told reporters on December 15th, 1960, the day he bought the club. Well, that wasn't exactly the case.
“I met Charlie Finley the first day he came to town, and I’m still on the broadcast team and they asked me to pick up Charles O' and Pat Friday, his assistant, at the Muehlebach Hotel and bring them down to a party at the Brown Bottle, introduce him to the fans,” says Kansas City broadcast legend Bill Grigsby. “On the way down, Charles Finley and Pat Friday sat in the back seat. I served as a chauffeur for them and all the way down Charlie could do nothing but talk about how soon can we get this team out of town. He was ready to move it the minute he bought it, I’m quite sure.”
More than a half century on, most people believe two things: that Finely lied when he said he was committed to K.C. and his aim always was to move the team to, well, a lot of place as we’ll see. But while he couldn’t bring good baseball to Kansas City, he sure made it a lot of fun.
“Well Charlie had promotions sometimes, they did kind of cross the line, you know,” says John O’Donoghue, an A’s pitcher who came up in 1963. “We’d have to get up real early in the morning because the mule was coming into town and he wanted all the players there. I remember one time in New York City at the old Americana Hotel up on Broadway. We’d had a night game before. We didn’t get back to the hotel until 12:00 – 12:30, something like that, and we had to be out there at 8:00 o’clock the next morning so he could register the mule in the hotel. You talk about a funny scene, I mean, the mule is walking up those stairs and going into the hotel and the bell hops are walking around behind him with big pieces of crap paper. It was good promotion and the A’s got recognized all around the United States because they knew the mule.”
But the mule wasn’t all Charlie brought to Municipal Stadium. There was Harvey the Rabbit behind home plate that supplied the umpire with new baseballs. Fireworks after a home run? That was a Finely invention. When Finley bought the club, he promised to close the pipeline to the Yankees. All those one-sides trades were done, he proclaimed. Finley the showman bought a bus, called it the shuttle between K.C. and New York, then set it on fire to prove his point.
He had a covered wagon deliver players to their positions, had cow milking contests and agitated for orange baseballs. Turns out Finley had a thing for color, he came up with Kelly green and gold uniforms. A shocker to the players, says Jeff Logan. “They hated everything about it because most of the guys in 1963 when they went to the green and gold uniforms were kind of the old school baseball guys. Jerry Lumpe played for the Yankees. He came up in the Yankee organization and you can't even have a mustache or a beard.
“So we came to the ballpark and we took infield and batting practice in our regular last year’s uniforms, white home uniforms. And then went into the clubhouse after that and changed into our new gold and green uniforms,” says A’s infielder Jerry Lumpe. “Everybody was kinda looking at everybody else to see how they’d look in it. Nobody really wanted to be the first one to get onto the field. I don’t know who came out first but it was a big kind of a silence from the stands. We looked like a bunch of parakeets running around out there.”
If anyone could make the ballpark fun, it was Charlie Finley. On September 8th, 1965, Finley had rising star Campy Campaneris, a shortstop by trade, play all nine positions at Municipal Stadium, the first big leaguer to every do so. While on the mound, Campy threw lefty to left handed hitters and switched to righty for the right handers.
But that wasn’t the best Finley player promotional night of 1965. No, not by a long shot. The biggest promotion was two weeks later on September 25th when Satchal Paige came out of retirement to pitch for the hometown team. Paige was 59 years old. Probably. He could have been older, nobody really knew. He signed a contract for $3,500.
When Finley asked the right handed legend who became a star with the Negro League Monarchs if he could go three innings, Satchal responded “That depends. How many times a day?”
Finley played up Satchal’s age. He had him in a rocking chair during the game with a nurse rubbing liniment oil on his pitching arm. Finley let the drama play out, teasing the fans with a fourth inning from Satch.
The promotion mostly worked. 9,289 people were in the stands for Satchal Paige night. Puny, but much better than the previous night when only 2,304 people showed up for the game against Boston.
While Finley was a promotional genius, he was anything but beloved. In fact, most of his players and employees hated him. Finley churned through general managers, field managers and players like few other owners ever in professional sports. And he picked fights with players and writers.
Charlie O' The Despised, that’s on our next installment of Archiver, The A’s in Kansas City.