We start this episode at a hastily called news conference on June 19, 1961. At the direction of owner Charles O. Finley, who just bought the team a year earlier, general manager Frank C. Lane announced the A’s have fired manager Joe Gordon after a scant half a season. But there’s just one thing, just at that moment during the news conference, Joe had no idea he was being canned.
“We’ve been trying to reach him all day,” Lane said. “I’ve talked to his wife two or three times. Joe’s out fishing. Joe has no official notice of this.”
And here’s something else nobody knew at that time; Finley would go on to fire lots of managers, make lots of enemies and go on to be one of the most hated owners in all of professional sports.
You already know about Finley the showman; Charlie O The Mule, the exploding scoreboard, Kelly green and gold uniforms at a time everyone else wore white and gray, his lobbying for orange baseballs. Sounds like a real funster. But not at all. Finley had a mean streak, he was mercurial, dictatorial.
He replaced Gordon, whose nickname of course was Flash, with Hank Bauer who was wildly popular in Kansas City. Bauer had his best years with the Yankees. But he moved permanently to suburban Prairie Village after playing for the Kansas City Blues, the top Yankee farm club until the A’s moved to the city in 1955. Hank Bauer would finish out the 1961 season and all of 1962. In total he would manage just 264 games for Finley.
Sensing his days were coming to end Bauer resigned on September 29th, before Finley could pull the trigger. Finley was furious. He wanted to fire Bauer but the Marine veteran who won two Bronze Stars in World War II left the A’s on his own terms.
And the firings of Gordon and Bauer were just the beginning of years of churning through managers by Finley. By the way, the man in the news conference sacking Gordon, Frank Lane, didn’t last long either. He was A’s general manager for eight months.
Finley was interviewed on the radio by Monty Moore after firing Lane with the owner sounding just a bit paranoid.
“Well there's been many rumors spread about my interference with the ball club, with the operations of the ball club as far as the manager is concerned. A few months ago we fired a Joe Gordon and had we known at that time what we noted that we would have not fired a Joe Gordon,” the owner said.
“Then you have all the intentions to keep Hank Bauer on as the manager,” Moore asked.
“Very definitely. So I can I say a Hank a has done a great job and I have great admiration for him. I'm sure the players have great admiration for him and I want to do everything that I can do to help Hank,” Finley proclaimed.
In the end Finley did very little to help Hank. And those rumors he alluded to? We never found out what they were. In the seven years Finley owned the A’s in Kansas City he had seven managers. Each averaged 162 games before being fired. While Finley was often times quick to sign a prospect to a big bonus, he was also awfully hard to play for. And in 1967 that all came to a head and unofficially ushered in the first bidding war over a free agent.
Ken Harrelson was a hard hitting first baseman-outfielder who came up with the A’s in 1963. Harrelson, known as Hawk because of his nose, was a tough guy who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. And he did exactly that in 1967 when Finley fired manager Alvin Dark. After Dark was canned, Hawk called the owner a "menace to baseball." It was in all the papers and, Hawk says, Finley was furious.
“I knew Charlie was gonna call after he read what I had said. He says, ‘what are you tryin to do to me?’ He said, ‘haven’t I been like a father to you?’ I didn’t say anything. He said, ‘I want a full retraction and I’ve set up a news conference there at 12:00 noon at the Lord Baltimore (Hotel) and I want you to retract all those things.’ And I told him I’m not gonna retract ‘em. Boy, when I said that, he went berserk. He started cussin me out and he says, as of this moment, you are no longer a member of the green and gold and he slammed down the phone.”
Hawk loved K.C. and didn’t want to leave. But 1967 just happened to feature perhaps the tightest race ever for the American League pennant. On September 1, Boston, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago were within a game and a half of each other. And all wanted to talk to Hawk. Hell, even the Tokyo Giants called.
Hawk signed with Boston for $150,000. He was making $12,000 in with the A’s. Sparked by timely hitting from Hawk, the Red Sox would go on to win the pennant. So by firing another manager, Charlie Finley opened up the first real bidding war in big league baseball for a free agent.
But Finley didn’t feud with just players and managers. He picked a fight with one of the most powerful sports writers in America.
“Ernie Mehl had been the sports (editor) of the (Kansas City Star) and Ernie had written some stories that Finley wanted to move the ball club and as a result he had a great deal of animosity toward Ernie. And he (Finley) came to me and asked me if I would go after Ernie Mehl on the air,” says broadcaster Bill Grisby.
Grigsby was best known for broadcasting Chiefs games and pro wrestling in Kansas City. But he was part of the A’s broadcast team from 1959 to 1963. And you’re about to here the story of Poison Pen night at Municipal Stadium.
Ernie Mehl played a big role in getting city leaders behind landing a major league team. But after he wrote a series of stories about Finley wanting to move the club and suggesting the owner was mismanaging the franchise, Finley went crazy.
On August 21, 1961 he had a big sign painted. On it, a man at a typewriter, a pen and a bottle of ink labeled Poison Pen Award. Above that “Ernie Mehl Appreciation Day.” Today, it would probably say fake news.
Between games of a double header with the White Sox, a flat bed truck pulled the poster around Municipal Stadium while the organist played ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.’ By all accounts, the crowd was not entertained.
The next morning the Kansas City Times gave the gag exactly two paragraphs at the end of its game story. The piece focused on the A’s losing a pair to the White Sox, 5-3 and 7-0.
After dropping the doubleheader on Poison Pen night, the A’s were in the A.L. basement, 37 1/2 games out of first place. A’s fans like myself just had to got used to that. But I’ll tell you what, as bad as the A’s were, I never got tired of this of listening to the A’s on the radio.
Up until the late 80s, if you wanted to follow baseball you listened to the radio.
And I rarely missed a game...The A’s are on the air! That’s our next episode of Archiver-The A’s In Kansas City.