Cooperstown Confidential: Oakland’s Mad Managerial Search of 1973-74

Alvin Dark managed the A’s not once, but twice.

The ongoing managerial search being conducted by the New York Yankees could be called “Stranger Things.” In the aftermath of the somewhat surprising firing of Joe Girardi, general manager Brian Cashman has compiled a list of candidates that comes with little rhyme or reason.

At one point, Cashman talked to team broadcasters David Cone and John Flaherty, neither of whom has coaching or managing experience, but ultimately chose not to grant them formal interviews. On the other hand, Cashman has interviewed internal candidates like Rob Thomson, who has years of coaching and minor league managing experience. At another moment, he interviewed ESPN broadcaster Aaron Boone; the next game that Boone coaches or manages will be his first. Out of nowhere, Cashman has also interviewed Eric Wedge, who hasn’t managed since 2013 and had only one first-place finish during his 10 years combined in Cleveland and Seattle.

The Yankees’ managerial search could go on for quite a while. Cashman said he was suspending all interviews while attending the general managers’ meetings. Presumably, Cashman won’t be doing interviews during Thanksgiving weekend, either. At this rate, the Yankees won’t have a new manager in place by the time the winter meetings convene in Las Vegas in early December. Yes, this search could take a long time, given the glacial pace at which Cashman likes to operate.

In some ways, the Yankees’ managerial saga is reminiscent of what happened with the Oakland A’s after they won their second consecutive World Series in 1973. Right after the Series, manager Dick Williams announced his resignation. For him, the last straw was the way that team owner Charlie Finley mistreated Mike Andrews. Finley essentially fired Andrews in the middle of the Series, using the phony excuse of an alleged shoulder injury. Ultimately, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn determined that Andrews was healthy and ordered Finley to reinstate Andrews, but by then, the owner had completely alienated Williams and his players.

Williams’ resignation upset Finley, who then prevented him from becoming manager of the Yankee, on the basis that he still had a signed contract to work for Oakland. Finley hoped Williams would change his mind and return to the A’s, but the owner nonetheless embarked on a frantic search for a new manager. That search would last for nearly four months and would involve a revolving door of candidates, including several Hall of Fame brand names.

Finley considered a long list of names. In terms of in-house possibilities, third base coach Irv Noren and Triple-A manager Sherm Lollar led the parade, but neither brought name value to the job. One particularly creative writer in the Bay Area mentioned the possible candidacy of veteran second baseman Dick Green, long regarded as one of the most intelligent A’s players.

Outside of the organizations, Finley also had several candidates in mind. One who came up repeatedly was Dave Bristol, who had led the Cincinnati Reds to several strong finishes in the National League before giving way to Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson. More recently, Bristol had managed the Milwaukee Brewers, who were essentially an expansion team (having moved from Seattle) and had predictably won few games under his leadership. Early in 1972, the Brewers fired Bristol, who then moved on to another expansion team, the Montreal Expos, to become their third base coach. But Bristol yearned for the opportunity to guide a talent-rich team like the A’s.

But he lacked glamour; he was not a headline name, which was the kind of manager that Finley preferred. So Finley continued to look at bigger names, like two former managers of the Texas Rangers: Ted Williams and Whitey Herzog. Both were available, though it seemed unlikely that either man, both known for strong personalities, could have co-existed with Finley.

Finley’s growing list featured several other intriguing candidates. In an interesting twist, Finley appeared to be considering three current or former major league stars who happened to be black. The three men represented a who’s who of baseball: Satchel Paige and Maury Wills (both retired) and Frank Robinson (at the time a DH with the California Angels).

At this time, the major leagues had never had a black manager. In fact, only a handful of teams had even employed black coaches. Finley looked at the situation as a win-win. Not only would he succeed in bringing in a famous name to lead his team, but he would also be advancing the game’s social cause by having the courage to hire a man of African-American descent.

Of the three, Paige’s name appeared the most curious. Paige did have a connection to the A’s; in 1965, he had pitched for the Kansas City A’s, owned by Finley, part as publicity stunt and part an effort to obtain service time for Paige’s pension. But Paige did not exactly fit the standard managerial profile of the day. As a player, Paige had never been particularly disciplined, even though he was known as a competitor and a phenomenal athlete who somehow managed to pitch until his late 50s. He was also regarded as a showman who woud jump teams during his Negro Leagues career to his maximize his salary. He also hated conditioning drills, especially the endless running that managers required their pitchers to do in spring training and on days when they did not pitch. Skeptics wondered how Paige could demand a disciplined regimen from his players when he had always abhorred such a concept.

By contrast, Wills looked like a more legitimate candidate—at least at the time.  Wills had persevered to arrivedfulltime as a major leaguer at the relatively late age of 27. Within three seasons, he established himself as one of the National League’s best all-around shortstops and its most prolific base stealer, setting a single-season record with 104 stolen bases. Given Wills’ work ethic and high baseball IQ, he appeared a reasonable choice tobe a manager.

In retrospect, we now know that Wills, who was beset with alcohol and cocaine problems, would have been a disastrous choice. He would eventually become the manager of the Seattle Mariners, where he established a reputation as one of the worst managers in major league history. Infamously, Wills once walked to the mound and summoned a reliever only to realize that he had no one warming up in the bullpen. On one occasion, he berated one of his batters, Brad Gulden, for not telling him that a left-handed pitcher had come in to the game, as if it was Gulden’s responsibility to inform his manager of pitching changes.

Wills also ordered the grounds crew at the Kingdome to lengthen the batter’s box by a foot, a clear violation of the rules opposing manager Billy Martin noticed. A litany of such errors led to Wills’ firing after parts of two seasons on the job. In fact, Wills was such a bad manager that he might very well have derailed the A’s’ efforts to win a third consecutive world championship.

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While Wills had already retired as a player, Frank Robinson remained on the Angels’ active roster. He had played the 1973 season as an outfielder and DH, hitting 30 home runs and accumulatinga .489 slugging percentage. Even at the age of 37, Robinson could still play.

Unlike Wills and Paige, Robinson did have some managerial experience. He had managed Santurce of the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1970-71, where his roster of players included current Oakland star Reggie Jackson. Ever since, Jackson had raved about Robinson’s positive influence, especially his calming, reasoned approach to the game. After that experience, Jackson made three consecutive All-Star Game appearances, and won the league MVP Award in 1973.

Jackson had first heard about Robinson’s possible hiring during the latter stages of the World Series, when rumors swirled about Williams’ impending resignation. At first, Jackson publicly recommended that Robinson stay away from the soap opera atmosphere that affected the A’s. “Robby has too much class to manage for Charlie Finley,” Jackson told Neal Russo, a longtime baseball writer in St. Louis.

Jackson’s words carried some merit. As the first black manager, Robinson figured to be working under heavy pressure to begin with, but working for Finley, known for his meddling and his sometimes irrational behavior, might have made the job excruciating. For a proud man like Robinson, the job might not have been worth it.

Two weeks later, Jackson seemed to soften his stance on a marriage between Robinson and Finley. He felt that Robinson could not only succeed, but legitimately thrive with the A’s. He compared Robinson to Williams, who had been regarded as one of the game’s top managers before his resignation.

“Both Frank and Dick are similar in personality and in handling people,” Jackson told Red Foley of the New York Daily News. “Now I think all the class [Robinson] has might be what he needs to manage our club. What Finley is interested in is production. He’s only concerned about winning.” For most of his career, Robinson had done nothing but win.

On the surface, Robinson looked like the strongest candidate, but there remained a huge obstacle: He was still under contract, as a player, to the Angels. According to the rumors of the day, the Angels were willing to trade Robinson for a prospect or two. If Finley were amenable to that, a deal seemed possible.

Assuming that the A’s could adequately compensate the Angels, the addition of Robinson made perfect sense for Oakland. He had long been regarded for his work ethic, his high intelligence and his fiery passion, all of which made him an excellent candidate to manage in the early 1970s. He was also tough enough and grizzled enough to know that he could not retain too amicable a relationship with players who happened to be his contemporaries, but now would be following his orders.

Robinson’s hiring as baseball’s first black manager would have represented a public relations success for Finley. After the negative fallout of the Andrews and Williams controversies, Finley needed and wanted some good publicity. As the first owner to hire an African-American manager, he would have become a more sympathetic figure, especially to the media. Jackson believed that sentiment would motivate Finley to bring in Robinson.

“Knowing Charlie Finley, it’s possible that Frank Robinson could be hired,” Jackson told Black Sports magazine. “Finley wants to be first in everything.” As a bonus, Robinson hailed from the Bay Area. By hiring him, Finley would have been rewarding a local hero.

Unfortunately, Finley’s plan fell through at the winter meetings. Finley and the Angels could not agree on compensation for the future Hall of Famer. Robinson remained in southern California, never to manage, or play for, the A’s organization. But by 1975, he would become the player/manager of the Cleveland Indians, thereby becoming the game’s latest racial pioneer.

Christmas came and went, and the A’s remained without a manager. By the middle of January, much of the speculation returned to Bristol. One newspaper reported that Finley planned to hire Bristol as a “head coach.”  Under the unusual plan, Bristol would manage the team only if Finley failed to convince Williams to return. (Williams, having lost his bid to become the Yankees’ manager, had been rumored to have some interest in returning to Oakland. Technically, he remained under contract to Finley, who seemed to have no interest in allowing him to manage any other team.) By giving Bristol the mysterious  title of head coach, Finley could still claim Williams as his manager, thus deterring any other team from attempting to sign him.

For his part, Finley tried to put the Bristol rumors to bed. He denied that he had hired Bristol in any capacity. Finley made it clear he wanted to move in a different direction.

As Williams observed the managerial soap opera from afar, he publicly recommended his own candidate through an interview with the New York Times. “For a time I thought Dave Bristol was going to be the head coach of the A’s this summer,” Williams told the Times, “but now I’m leaning toward Sal Bando. He’s the only guy not having salary problems with Finley. He could do the job.” Several other major league managers agreed with Williams. They regarded Bando as the smartest on-field player in the American League.

For his part, Bando had no interest in the job; he wanted to concentrate his efforts on playing.  “I was flattered that Dick thought enough of me to say what he did, but I’m not really interested in managing now,” Bando told UPI. ” Given that Bando was still only 29, his reasoning made perfect sense.

As January turned to February, the A’s remained rudderless. With spring training a few weeks away, Finley’s franchise appeared to be in disarray. Not only did the A’s not have a manager, but they also lacked a fulltime public relations director and had no other announcer to share broadcast duties with Monte Moore, their longtime play-by-play man. As young baseball fan at the time, I can remember joking with my friends that the A’s might play the 1974 season without a manager. And given the talent that the A’s had at their disposal, we thought they might be able to win it all even without a manager.

With spring training only days away, Finley had struck out in efforts to bring Robinson or Bristol aboard as manager. He also passed over the chance to hire either Wills or Paige. By now, Finley realized that Williams had no interest in returning and would prefer to sit out the season. So, in late February, Finley placed a call to one of his many former managers—Alvin Dark, who had most recently managed  Cleveland. Finley asked Dark if he were willing to manage the A’s, but did not actually offer him the job.  “It’s a tough spot to put a man in,” Dark told Sports Illustrated. “No matter what [the new manager] does he’ll probably be wrong. The first time he loses a close game the second-guessers will have a field day.”

Dark, whom Finley had fired in 1967, realized that the new manager would be subjected to endless comparisons with predecessor Williams. Dark realized that anything less than a third straight world championship would be regarded as a failure and a disappointment. “So to answer your question,” Dark said slyly, “I’d love to.”

On Feb. 18, Finley told Dark to come to Oakland right away. When Dark arrived, the owner offered him nothing more than a one-year contract, with bonuses for winning the division, the American League pennant, and the World Series.  The deal lacked security, but Dark agreed to accept the contract, telling Sports Illustrated that it was “better than I’ve ever had in baseball.”

That seemed hard to believe. As it would be revealed later, Dark’s new contract provided him with an even smaller degree of security than the usual managerial contracts. According to a report that came out after the 1974 season, the contract between Finley and Dark was essentially a non-guaranteed, day-to-day agreement.  In other words, Finley could fire Dark at any time without having to pay him the balance of his salary.

On Feb. 20, three days before the start of spring training, Finley held a press conference to introduce  Dark as his new manager. Dark brought with him a solid pedigree; he had led the Giants to four straight seasons with records of .500 or better, capped by a pennant-winning campaign in 1962. But he had also run afoul of the Giants’ Latino players, at one time banning them from speaking Spanish in the clubhouse. He had also criticized some of the Latino players for what he called “dumb” decisions on the playing fields. As a result, several of the Giants players, including Orlando Cepeda, regarded Dark as a bigot.

By 1974, Dark claimed to be a different man. He was now a born-again Christian. He didn’t drink, nor did he use foul language. He also promised that he would no longer publicly criticize his players, as he had done in previous managerial stops.

Ever impatient at the press conference introducing Dark, Finley took questions from reporters, attempting to answer the queries before they even been asked. “Yes, he was fired in 1967… Yes, I hired him again… Yes, he expects to be fired again someday.” It was vintage Finley.

A reporter then dared to ask Finley how much he would try to influence Dark on roster usage and strategy. “If I have any suggestions, such as putting [Ray] Fosse at shortstop and he [Dark] doesn’t like it, then he’ll explain to me why he doesn’t,” Finley told The Sporting News.  “And if I say Fosse is at shortstop, then Fosse will be at shortstop.”  This was classic Finley, too.

While Finley never suggested anything as radical as moving his catcher to shortstop, Oakland players would come to perceive Dark to be the owner’s puppet. At times, they openly criticized Dark’s decisions, claiming that he was simply doing what Finley had ordered. Said Vida Blue: “I knew Alvin Dark was a religious man, but he’s worshipping the wrong god—Charles O. Finley.”

Following Finley’s directives throughout the season, Dark somehow led the A’s to their fourth consecutive American League West title. After that came a win over the Baltimore Orioles in the Championship Series, followed by a five-game victory in the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. For the third straight year, the A’s had become world champions.

Somehow, that mad managerial search, which lasted from November to February, and ended with the hiring of Alvin Dark, had turned out all right.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Finley was a blowhard from the get go. His relationship with his players was downright cordial compared to what his fellow owners thought of him. But give Dark his due. He won 90 games in 1974 and went all the way to win the WS. But not mentioned here is the fact that the A’s under Dark won 98 games in ’75 only to lose to the Red Sox which set up an historic showdown with the Reds.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Member
Psychic... Powerless...

Exceptional piece. Bravo!

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Dark’s might be the greatest managerial job ever. Of course, he had a lot of talent, but what a hell of a spot to be in. The players didn’t trust him and the owner was ready to fire him on a moment’s notice. Finley was a complete lunatic; I guess today that would qualify him to be President of the United States.