Around mid-season each year, Major League Baseball teams swap players, with struggling teams often dealing stars for prospects. However, no MLB trade cut-off period rocked the sports world quite like 1976.
Minutes before the June 15 trade deadline, Oakland A owner Charles O. Finley sold stars Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $ 1 million each and Vida Blue to the Yankees of New York for $ 1.5 million to avoid losing it for nothing in the sport’s first free agency period.
“The biggest sale of human flesh in the history of sport …” Ron Fimrite of Illustrated sports called the deal, unprecedented in MLB history for the stars and the amount of money involved.
Three days after the sale, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn infuriated longtime nemesis Finley by rescinding the deals, citing his power in the best interests of baseball. Finley’s A’s, a behemoth in the 1970s, were crippled when Rudi, Fingers and other stars left the team after the free agency season because the owner couldn’t afford them.
Since the advent of free agency – a revolutionary right negotiated for players by MLB Players Association executive director Marvin Miller in late 1975 – the sport has never been the same. Salaries have skyrocketed and team building has become even more complex.
Babe Ruth among the stars sold
In April 1976, Finley began the dismantling of the Oakland Dynasty by trading star outfielder Reggie Jackson and pitcher Ken Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles. His all-star sale in June angered A fans, the five-time reigning American League West champions and World Series champions in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
“[Finley] can put his money on that [expletive] mound and come here and clap for your money, ”one A fan told Oakland Coliseum. San Francisco Examiner.
Other MLB owners were wary of the advent of full-fledged free agency, but none of them attempted to sell their stars like Finley had.
Deals involving star players and substantial sums of money weren’t new to MLB: in January 1920, the future Hall of Famer Babe Ruth was sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees for 125,000. $ and $ 300,000 in loans. Eighteen years later pitcher Dizzy Dean, another future Hall of Fame member, was sent by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Chicago Cubs for $ 185,000 and three players. In the early 1930s, Philadelphia A manager / owner Connie Mack sold future Hall of Fame members Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove.
Because the A’s were hosting Boston when Finley sold them, Rudi and Fingers simply headed to the Red Sox clubhouse to get ready for their next game. Before Kuhn ordered his return to Oakland, Fingers – who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 – even had his picture taken in a Red Sox uniform on the grounds of Oakland Coliseum. But none of the three players in the sale have played for their “new” team.
“If such transactions now and in the future were allowed, the door would be wide open to the purchase of success by the wealthier clubs,” said the commissioner. “Public distrust would be aroused. Traditional and sound methods of player development and acquisition would be compromised, and our efforts to maintain competitive equilibrium would be significantly compromised.”
“Village idiot!” Finley called the Kuhn dour after his decision to call off the sale of the players.
That mid-summer baseball circus of 1976, capped off by Finley’s $ 10 million lawsuit against the commissioner and the MLB, served as fodder for days to sports writers across the country:
“It took the creation of Finley’s first annual garage sale, the passing of $ 3.5 million in small unmarked bills and the appearance of obituaries coast to coast for his sport, but ultimately Kuhn did something, ”wrote Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe.
“Innovative, arrogant and, above all, flamboyant”, Kevin Lamb of Chicago Daily News writing sales attempts.
“It has been said by and by Charley Finley that he has the right to sell his baseball players.” wrote Dick Young from New York Daily News. “They are his property, and that’s the American way, the capitalist way. Not enough. When you join a men’s club or a country club, you agree to abide by its rules.
MLB commissioner and A’s owner have a contentious relationship
Kuhn and Finley had a gasoline-match relationship for years: in 1972, the commissioner ordered the frugal Finley to reopen contract talks with Blue, who won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the American League the previous season. During the 1973 World Series against the Mets, he asked Finley to reinstate infielder Mike Andrews, who “Charley O” had released after making two mistakes in a Game 2 loss.
With ace Blue, outfielder Rudi and backup pitcher Fingers back on the roster, the A’s finished second in the American West League in 1976. But, as Finley feared, Rudi (at the California Angels) and Fingers (San Diego Padres) left Oakland in free agency in the offseason. Blue lasted for one more season with the As before being traded to the San Francisco Giants. Oakland also lost third baseman Sal Bando, wide receiver Gene Tenace and shortstop Bert Campeneris in free agency after the 1976 season, with Charley O getting nothing in return. The following season, the A’s lost 98 games and Oakland made just one playoff appearance from 1977 to 1987.
As for the $ 10 million lawsuit, Oakland manager Chuck Tanner was convinced his boss would win. “You should own the American League after you’re done with it,” he told Finley, according to the Oakland Grandstand.
But Finley, who sold the A’s in 1980 and died in 1996, got nothing in court. Ultimately, a US appeals court ruled in favor of Kuhn, who served as a commissioner until 1984 and died in 2007. Charley O’s bitterness towards his antagonist lasted for years.
“All I can say is I think it’s a red letter day for baseball,” Finley said after Kuhn announced his resignation. “He kicked me out of baseball…”