Book review: ‘Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic (Reggie, Rollie, Catfish and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s’); by Jason Turbow; 2017; 386 pages; Haughton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Co.

“When Roy Eisenhardt showed up at the Coliseum toward the end of the year to familiarize himself with the front office he was stunned by the organizational wasteland before him.”

So begins a footnote near the end of Jason Turbow’s exceptional book about the rise, dominance, fall and endless bantering, boasting, bickering, and sometimes unsanctioned boxing among members and notably the owner of arguably the best major league baseball team of the 1970s – the “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic” Oakland Athletics.

book blog Oakland A'sNo other team in recent baseball history won more consistently amid such nonstop turmoil, including the much more publicized New York Yankees dynasty launched — not without coincidence — as the A’s era of three consecutive world championships came to an end. It was a demise caused by the inevitability of a change in how baseball teams would be operated, baseball players treated and the intractability of owner Charlie Finley who saw the future, understood its implications but refused to concede to it. Indeed, he helped hasten it.

The footnote, contained on page 313, is the sad summation of this drop from greatness to ruin. Roy Eisenhardt arrives at the stadium offices of the Oakland A’s in 1980 after Finley sold his team for a paltry sum to the Haas Family, heirs to the Levi Strauss Co. in San Francisco. Eisenhardt, a son-in-law to Walter Haas was there to take over in an official capacity. The footnote continues: “’Here I was,’ he said, ‘in the office of what was supposedly a major league franchise in the middle of a season, and all I could find was a switchboard operator, a controller who collected gate receipts and Charlie’s cousin, Carl Finley, answering phone calls and practically running the whole show himself.’ The team’s three championship trophies were on a secretary’s desk propping up folders.”

How the once high-flying and flamboyant A’s at one time led by Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter fell so far is a fascinating story in the fabric of not only professional sports history but the evolution of American pop culture. The A’s under owner Charlie Finley were the bridge spanning the mid-1960s protests, the mod late 1960s, Watergate and the fall of President Richard Nixon and the disco era of the late 1970s. Donned in loud green and gold uniforms, white shoes, long hair and mustaches the A’s were the embodiment of counter-culture loosely developed for mass consumption. They were big talents – Jackson, Fingers and Hunter are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame – with even bigger egos. And none had a bigger ego than the owner himself.

No one who followed baseball then was wishy-washy about the A’s. They either loved them, or hated them. And almost no one understood them, including the A’s themselves.

Finley, who managed his insurance business far better than he did personalities, encouraged his players down this path as a marketing ploy that never really drew Oakland fans to the often near-empty Oakland Coliseum but it gained the A’s plenty of national attention. By comparison, their rivals for baseball supremacy during this period were the clean-cut and corporate New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers. Teams constantly foiled by the A’s incredible run of success. In many cases those rivals, particularly the Dodgers, couldn’t comprehend how a rag-tag group like the Oakland players pulled it off at all. Collectively the A’s didn’t look much like professional athletes and often didn’t act that way. But they were superior baseball players who took winning very seriously. On the field it was all business.

Finley, on the other hand, couldn’t fully grasp the implications of assembling a volatile team of talented and vocal malcontents then treating them in the shabbiest way possible. It was a recipe for disaster, but greatness arrived first.

Turbow, an outstanding reporter and author of “The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime,” brings sharp perspective to events that were thoroughly documented as they occurred in the late 1960s to the late 1970s. They Oakland A’s made news, lots of it. There was a freewheeling nature about the team, its players and owner. Most notably, Finley tried to shape press coverage of the day by offering his own sometimes warped narrative to unfolding events, such as the unfortunate “firing” of second baseman Mike Andrews after he committed two errors in a World Series game – an act that touched off a protest by A’s players that threatened the remainder of the playoffs. Finley openly battled his players and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn through newspaper and TV coverage and they did so in return.

Conflict was the norm in an A’s clubhouse filled with players angered by salary disputes, slights by the owner that were perceived and real, and personalities prone to incessant needling and bantering. Often the fights among the players erupted for the most innocuous reasons and ended just as suddenly.

Turbow pieces this crazy narrative together beautifully. Much has been written about this redefining period in baseball history, where free agency began turning the game upside down. He tracks down all the source material available and interviewed most of the principal players who are still alive. Hunter, a key piece of the puzzle, died much too soon — taken by Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1999 at age 53. Finley died in 1996 at age 77. Jackson, another central figure, did not agree to be interviewed for reasons that aren’t given. Fortunately the book doesn’t suffer. Jackson, among the best, most charismatic and famous players of his generation has been a frequent topic of books largely stemming from his time with Hunter playing for George Steinbrenner’s Yankees under often controversial manager Billy Martin.

After Jackson was traded to Baltimore — just a pit stop before his legendary time in New York — and Hunter turned Finley’s own contract tactics against him, leading to the era of big money free agency and his own stint with the free-spending Yankees, Finley’s A’s scattered one by one. Finley tried unsuccessfully to sell them collectively to other teams or one at a time — a move that drew scorn from Kuhn, who put a stop to it. Players were in no rush to re-sign with the A’s when bigger money and better owners were out there and they were now free to leave.

In nearly every way, Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s was the franchise that defined baseball the 1970s and years beyond. Beyond the team’s remarkable success — three straight World Series titles make that part abundantly clear — how Finley operated his team led to a financial restructuring of the game’s foundations, freedom of movement for players, a stronger union and weakened ownership.

More than a nostalgic look back at an entertaining era in baseball, Turbow’s “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic” is an engaging and engrossing glimpse at an evolutionary time in baseball history.

 

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