Finley v. Kuhn

July 13, 2009


Over the past few months we have looked at a time period of baseball when the dynamics and economics of the game shifted tremendously. Koufax and Drysdale's negotiations with the Dodgers gave us a look at how even a great superstar like Sandy Koufax was limited in his ability to command his market value because of the reserve clause. Then Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in court, claiming that it violated antitrust law. The matter eventually went before the Supreme Court, but, in a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court let the reserve clause stand. Later, because of Charles Finley’s mistake with Catfish Hunter’s contract, a player could see his value on the open market. Then the decision of arbitrator Peter Seitz set the stage for a major power shift from owner to player.

Today we look at the first example of an owner feeling the effect of free agency on his franchise and trying to act in the best interest of his club. The case of Finley v. Kuhn, is important for both a Commissioner acting in the best interest of baseball, and for an owner trying to get something of value for players who are soon to be free agents.

 In 1976 Charles O. Finley’s Oakland Athletics were coming off an unprecedented run with three World Championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974 as well as a division title in 1975. This team was loaded with outstanding players. Finley, though, was able to understand what the dawn of free agency meant to his ability to run a franchise. Three of his best players, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers would soon be free agents. Finley thought he could at least take some of the sting out of losing these players to free agency by selling the contractual rights to them during the 1976 season. Thus, Finley himself would blow-up the club before free agency did it, his demolition being a controlled implosion, in which he got value for his players.

In the Spring of 1976 Finley traded away superstar Reggie Jackson to Baltimore. This, though, was only the beginning. Finley’s idea was to create a bidding war between the Yankees and the Red Sox (some things never seem to change) to sell off several more of his players. Finley called the Boston Red Sox and offered Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, Vida Blue , Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace for a million dollars apiece, and Sal Bando was also mentioned for a price of half a million dollars. Boston Red Sox General Manager wanted Rudi and Fingers and agreed to the price. O’Connell, though, was worried about the Yankees getting Vida Blue, so he phoned the Detroit Tigers to get in on that bidding. Blue was eventually sold to the Yankees for 1.5 million dollars.

Today news of this type of behind the scenes sale- a historic sale at that- would be difficult to keep quiet. It took a little longer to reach the press in 1976, but when it did it created a fire storm.

Tomorrow: “The Village Idiot”

 

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