My favorite part of Jude’s new book Should Have Known Better is buried
somewhere deep in the middle, documenting The Beatles’ reluctant visit to
Kansas City toward the end of their ’64 North American tour.That
chapter is a fascinating read on its own, but only a brief glimpse into The
Beatles unlikely but ongoing encounters with baseball over the years.They
weren’t fans of baseball or almost any other sport (“except swimming,” John
once let on), and yet from 1964-66 they found themselves in one American
baseball stadium or another.But the Kansas City story is unique because
of the colorful personality of Charles O. Finley, the baseball owner who would
not be told “no”.Jude’s humorous write-up of his negotiation with
equally hard-headed John Lennon is classic.What follows here is a
little more backstory on “Charlie O,” his hapless baseball team, and why The
Beatles were so important to him at that moment…
He was never in it to win. Not really. For
him, it was more about making a statement.
Charlie Finley was the kind of guy who wore a
loud hound’s tooth jacket with a white narrow-brimmed fedora in a room full of
buttoned-down businessmen and considered it high-style. And under those
caterpillar eyebrows, he would habitually glance out of the corner of his eye,
always wary of who might be coming at him from behind, ready to play an angle
before others could play him. Perversely, this may explain why as a baseball
team owner he was okay being last in the American League—that way no one could
sneak up on him.
“Charlie O” sold baseball the way he sold
insurance in his younger days in Indiana—with eye-catching gimmicks, flyers in
the mail, and lots of self-promotion. Anything to lure people to the seats. The
”O” stood for Oscar, and he would have won at least a couple of those if they
gave them out for clever promotional stunts. First, it was green and gold
uniforms in 1963, in a black-and-white league bound by tradition. A decade
later it would be paying players to wear mustaches. (Until his 1970's A’s, only
two players had ever worn mustaches in modern baseball history.) Every now and
then, however, his gimmicks would become “innovations,” and sometimes in
hindsight, even revolutionary. The designated hitter was his idea to make the
game more interesting to fans, and in 1973, the American League adopted it for
good. Night games at the World Series to juice prime-time TV? That was Charlie
O’s idea too.
But in 1964, there would be no World Series,
day or night, for his Kansas City Athletics. The A’s were terrible, almost
historically bad. They finished that season 57-105, deep in the cellar of the
10-team American League, 42 games back and with little hope ahead. But that was
nothing new for a franchise without a winning record since 1947. They couldn’t
draw fans at their last home in Philadelphia, and after a promising season or
two in Kansas City following the team’s moved there in 1955, it was the same
old story again. The running joke was that in those years the A’s had become a
glorified “farm team” for the powerful Yankees, trading every hopeful great
prospect to them for cash and watching them become stars in New York, while the
A’s languished in the basement. In Kansas City, there wasn’t a team worth
watching, and so the fans stopped coming.
When the team’s owner died in 1960, Charlie O
bought the A’s, and he vowed to make some changes. But he wasn’t a baseball
man, he was really an insurance salesman with a flair for promotion. So first
it was those green and gold uniforms. Then he got really creative: goats and
sheep grazing on the grassy slope behind the right-field fence, the mechanical
rabbit that popped up behind home plate with a supply of new baseballs for the
umpire, and the new team mascot, a mule named Charlie O.
But sheep can’t pitch, and mechanical rabbits
don’t hit, so not much changed on the field. The 1964 Kansas City A’s were
still a joke. In spite of the on-field menagerie, even curious fans soon lost
That season, attendance slipped to less than 8,000 per game,
second to last in the American League. As the boys faded from contention by
June, they’d be lucky to draw 5,000. (Only the equally inept Washington
Senators drew fewer that year, which recalls the old baseball joke about
Washington: “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”)
So for Charlie O, news of the 1964
globetrotting Beatles represented a rare opportunity, a beacon of hope, a shot
of lightning out of the blue—if he could land them. What would it take to get
them to come to Kansas City? And how soon could they arrive?
It wasn’t about winning. Or making money. It was about connecting
with the fans.
And of course, as he usually did, he got his
way, and The Beatles came and played, on Thursday, September 17. For a steep
price of course, but the fact is for that one night, he put 20,000 happy fans
in the normally lonely seats of Municipal Stadium. His hope was that maybe some
of those parents who dropped off their thrilled kids to see the Fabs might show
up at one of his games next week. Or next year.
Sadly, they didn’t. When the A’s returned home
on the 22nd to face the Minnesota Twins, now with little over a week left in
the lost season, barely 3,000 hardcore (or bored) fans turned the stiles. The
next night, it was more like 2,000. In just a few days, Municipal Stadium had
become a ghost town once again, most of its 35,000 seats cricket-empty.
So where was the team that night when The
Beatles came to town? Back East, as it happens, on a three-city road trip, far
from the temporary glow and din coming from all those kids and screams and
music in Municipal Stadium, now finally resurrected from the dead without the
A’s. While The Beatles were playing a one-off cover of “Kansas
City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” before an appreciative crowd back home, that Thursday was
an off-night for the team, spent in a cheap New York hotel, still licking its
wounds from back-to-back shellackings in Boston over the previous two days. And
over the coming weekend, they’d be swept out of town for good, three straight
by the eventual league champion Yankees. If anyone bothered to check (or care),
the A’s had been outscored 40-4 in the five games since Tuesday. The season
couldn’t end soon enough.
To add the final insult, just as the team was
flying home that Sunday from New York, The Beatles were arriving in the Big
Apple, and played that night to a packed house at the Paramount Theatre. The
poor A’s must have felt like they were being followed, mocked, unloved,
unnoticed. They were not The Beatles. Not that year.
But for that one summer night, Charlie O
didn’t mind, because his fans were happy. As for The Beatles, they had no idea
who the A’s even were. Not baseball fans. Or were they? From the press
conference in Kansas City:
Q: "Do you like baseball?"
John: "Not particularly."
Ringo: "You throw the ball, and then another ten minutes you have
a cigarette and throw another ball."
Q: "Is it true Charlie Finley asked you to wear kelly green
and gold baseball outfits?"
All, laughing: "No!"
George: "Not true. We wouldn't wear 'em,
anyway. Not even for 300,000 (dollars)."
But, there is photographic evidence:
The A’s languished through three more similarly dismal seasons in
Kansas City before Charlie O pulled up stakes and headed west, to Oakland.
Happily, in the coming years his teams steadily improved, and in the early
1970's, they won the World Series three straight years! Along the way, his
post-modern mustachioed players created a swagger and new look in
super-conservative Major League Baseball. But winning and mustaches weren’t
enough for Charlie O. When the courts upheld the concept of free agency in
baseball in 1975, the flood gates were now opened for players to move and seek
greener pastures elsewhere when their contracts expired. But Charlie wanted no
part of that coming bidding war, and watched his best players leave in short
order, so that by the end of the decade, the team became a skeleton crew of
minor league talent, returning to the listless shadow it once displayed in
Kansas City. Attendance of course plummeted. No amount of promotion could fix
the problem this time, and he sold the team before the 1981 season.
Charlie O returned to his hometown of LaPorte, Indiana, spending
his final years living on the family farm, always loved in his community, where
he died in 1996. Back in Kansas City, Municipal Stadium is long gone,
demolished in 1976. And the A’s? Still in Oakland, and still wearing Charlie
O’s green and gold.
Oh, and by the way, Charlie’s first wife’s
maiden name was…McCartney. That would have been Shirley McCartney, who didn’t
play bass. Or baseball.