Oakland Athletics 3-Player Sale Negated By Commissioner in 1976

Mar 3, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; A's former players Rollie Fingers and Bert Campaneris were part of the 1976 team and eventual free agents with other teams in 1977. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; A's former players Rollie Fingers and Bert Campaneris were part of the 1976 team and eventual free agents with other teams in 1977. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

Thursday Throwback: On June 15, 1976, Oakland Athletics Owner Charles Finley, with free-agency on the horizon, attempted to sell three key players.

No one today would question an organization’s mid-season deals when the team is out of contention and those players are set to be free agents the following year. It’s become common place as teams unload high-dollar stars to those in contention, with hopes of gaining future prospects or cash to re-sign those they wished to keep or acquire on the market.

But this was 1976 and the basic rules of player contracts were changing. With the Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally ruling ushering in free agency for players, A’s Owner Charles Finley foresaw the pending demise of his three-time World Champion and five-time AL West Division winning team as nearly all the team’s key players would be available to the highest bidder by season’s end.

Sal Bando, Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Don Baylor, Phil Garner, Billy Williams, and Claudell Washington would all become free agents in 1977. Finley, knowing he did not have the funds to bid against large market teams, sought to build for the future or gather funds to at least hold on to a few.

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The make-up of the “Mustache Gang” had substantially changed by the mid-1976 season. Gone was Jim Catfish Hunter who Finley lost in 1975 after he was ruled a free agent for a contract violation. Catcher Ray Fosse had been sold to the Cleveland Indians and set-up reliever Darold Knowles was traded to the Cubs. At the start of the season, Reggie Jackson and pitcher Ken Holtzman were traded to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Don Baylor and pitcher Mike Torrez.

On June 15, with the A’s in fifth place and 11 games back, Finley reacted by Rudi and Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million each, and pitcher Vida Blue, who he anticipated would garner the most money, to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million.

The move was shocking then, but something sports wires today predict as the annual July 31 trade deadline approaches.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was opposed to the free agent system but had a cantankerous relationship with Finley, voided the transactions as “not in the best interests of baseball.”

Finley responded that he would much rather get something for his players now, than nothing when they became free agents at the end of the season. He felt that Kuhn had a vendetta against him, publically announcing the commissioner “sounds like the village idiot.” (Finley later apologized to all “the village idiots” modifying his quote that Kuhn was the country idiot).

Many felt Kuhn’s action was solely to get back at Finley and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who had both voted to oust Kuhn at an owners meeting that winter. Other owners, who rarely sided with Finley, even questioned the blockage of the deal.

The Rudi, Fingers and Blue sat for nine days as the A’s and MLB attempted to figure out their return, with Finley stating they now belonged to other teams. The A’s eventually finished the 1976 season in second place, 2 ½ games behind the winning Royals. Fans have to wonder how the A’s would have done had the players not sat those nine games

Finley sued Kuhn (and other baseball parties) in federal court in Chicago in June 1976 and nine months later, after the season had ended, the district court ruled against Finley and upheld Kuhn’s power to halt the sales.

By 1977, the A’s were an altogether different team without Rudi along with Baylor who signed with the Angels and Fingers along with Tenace who were signed by the Padres. Third baseman Sal Bando ended up with the Brewers, Claudell Washington and Campaneris departed for the Rangers, and Phil Garner signed with the Pirates. Finley was left with nothing in return after the mass exodus.

Only Billy North and Blue – who Finley tried to trade in another rebuked deal – were still with the team.

Next: Brothers Who Have Played For The A's

Looking back at this 40 years later, was Finley just ahead of his time? Particularly, if one applies the examples now used by owners of non-contending teams. It almost seems that Finley was a forerunner to Moneyball and managing a small market.