Of the 339 elected members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, only a dozen – including several from the Negro Leagues – were team owners who contributed something special to the game. That’s an oversight that needs to be corrected.
The list of innovators and influencers is short and sweet but the list of recent electees from the ownership ranks is virtually non-existent.
Not since 2008, when Walter O’Malley was chosen by a veterans committee, has anyone from ownership joined the immortals in the Hall of Fame gallery. Here are five who should be considered:
During a 20-year tenure as owner of the Athletics from 1960-80, Charlie Finley proved to be a successful promoter and innovator who infuriated players, managers, and commissioners with his publicity stunts and tight-fisted management style. But he was also a visionary whose ideas were adopted by the baseball establishment and a talented executive whose teams won three straight World Series and five consecutive division crowns despite a limited budget.
An Alabama native raised in Gary, Indiana, Finley made a fortune in the insurance business before he bought the Kansas City A’s from Arnold Johnson just before Christmas in 1960.
Teaming with cousin Carl Finley in a bare-bones front office, Finley barred trading with the Yankees but copied the team’s short right-field dimensions, building a “Pennant Porch” at Municipal Stadium to match Yankee Stadium’s distance of 296 feet from home plate. When the league disallowed it, he had a white line painted on the field to mark the spot for fans.
Finley also dressed his team in green-and-gold – then regarded as garish colors for the conservative game – and brought in a Missouri mule, named after himself, to entertain fans. Charlie O wore a green-and-gold get-up under his saddle and made a myriad of public appearances, from hotel lobbies to cocktail parties.
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When the owner offered players $300 bonuses to grow mustaches in an environment devoid of facial hair, virtually all complied, with future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers finding as much fame for his handlebar as he did for his relief pitching. But Finley, realizing that free agency would ravage his roster, was unable to sell Fingers, Joe Rudi, and Vida Blue because Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said the moves violated “the best interests of baseball.”
Along with Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, and Ken Holtzman, all three stars had been integral parts of the Finley teams that won World Series from 1972-74 and division crowns from 1971-75.
Finley lost Hunter to the hated Yankees on a contract technicality that made him the first high-priced veteran free agent in 1974. Within two years, almost all of the other Athletics stars were gone – forcing the Finleys to forage for such new talent as Rickey Henderson.
During his bombastic tenure as an absentee owner based in Chicago, Finley moved the team from Kansas City to Oakland; devised player nicknames as colorful as their uniforms; traded manager Chuck Tanner for catcher Manny Sanguillen; made almost daily roster moves; and suggested World Series night games, the designated hitter, and even a designated runner (Herb Washington filled that role for Oakland even without MLB consent).
He hired ball girls, tried orange balls, and installed a mechanical pop-up rabbit to deliver new balls to umpires. But he feuded with his own players and managers, not to mention Kuhn, new players union chief Marvin Miller, and the media, especially Kansas City Star sports editor Ernest Mehl.
Like Finley, George Steinbrenner was a hands-on owner whose impact upon the game is still being felt. Also like Finley, he had an abrasive personality that deprived him of Cooperstown votes.
A one-time Cleveland ship-builder, Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS for less than $9 million in 1973, remaining as owner until his death at age 80 in 2010. His sons, Hal and Hank, still own the team.
Mercurial and enigmatic to a fault, the man called “The Boss” was blamed by other clubs for spiking player payrolls by offering lavish, often-outlandish deals to star free agents, including Hunter, Jackson, Dave Winfield, Goose Gossage, and Mike Mussina, five future Hall of Famers.
Before settling on Brooklyn native Joe Torre, whose success with the team also earned him a spot in Cooperstown, Steinbrenner changed managers 20 times in 23 years (including five terms for Billy Martin) and moved general managers, pitching coaches, and publicity directors like chess pieces, with several hired and fired repeatedly. Other than Gene Michael and Clyde King, few Steinbrenner executives had staying power.
Torre had the most longeity of any manager hired by Steinbrenner. Thanks in part to a calm temperament that allowed him to survive the owner’s outbursts, Torre took his teams, led by home-grown future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, to four world championships and eight postseason appearances in 12 years.
Steinbrenner, whose money built those teams, is immortalized in two bronze statues, one at Yankee Stadium and another at the team’s Tampa spring training site.
The owner mellowed over the years. A fan of the hit sitcom Seinfeld, he was portrayed in more than a dozen episodes but only shown from the back. He hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in comical Miller Beer commercials. But his comic persona was a sidelight.
The twice-suspended owner was so consumed with winning that he once fought with Dodger fans in an elevator during the World Series, referred to Winfield derisively as “Mr. May,” and drew scorn for apologizing to the City of New York for losing to Los Angeles in 1981. Some fans even said they rooted for the Yankees but against Steinbrenner.
Ted Turner inspired the same intense reaction. Variously called “the Mouth of the South” or “Captain Outrageous,” he owned the Atlanta Braves from 1976 until 1996, when Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time Warner.
During that time, he converted a small-time local channel into the first baseball SuperStation, changing its call letters from WTCG to WTBS, and revolutionized the way baseball is televised. The one-time billboard magnate also created the first cable news outlet, CNN.
A Cincinnati native who starred in debating and sailing at Brown University, Turner began in broadcasting by buying a fleet of radio stations, then trading them for a TV outlet. He won broadcast rights to the Braves and basketball Hawks, later buying both teams, and kept them in town despite poor fan support.
The appropriately-named Turner Field, first used for the 1996 Olympics, became the baseball team’s home for 19 seasons.
Like Steinbrenner, Turner wound up paying more for individual players than he did for his entire franchise. His original deal for the moribund Braves, then housed in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, was $1 million per year, to be paid over a 10-year span.
Also like Steinbrenner, Turner thought he could fix multiple problems with his wealth and charismatic personality. He couldn’t, though he did attract to Atlanta such prominent free agents as Andy Messersmith, Gary Matthews, Al Hrabosky, and Bruce Sutter.
Turner took a page from Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, personally embracing zany publicity stunts that included Headlock & Wedlock Day, wet T-shirt contests, and a Farrah Fawcett-Majors lookalike contest. He pushed a ping-pong ball around the infield with his nose, joined a pre-game bathtub race, helped ballgirls sweep the bases between innings, jumped fences to greet home-run hitters, and even managed the team for a day after a 16-game losing streak and donned a uniform before Kuhn killed the idea. He even had THE ENEMY painted on the roof of the visitors’ dugout.
The tempestuous Turner fired Bobby Cox as manager, announcing at the press conference that he hoped his next manager would be just like Bobby Cox.
Then he brought Cox back as general manager four years later, allowed him to invest in player development, and returned Cox to managing after hiring Kansas City GM John Schuerholz. Then he watched the pitching-oriented team start a string of division titles that eventually reached 14, a major-league record.
Turner and his movie star wife, Jane Fonda, were there for the 1995 World Series, when the Braves became the first Atlanta sports team to win a world championship. Six members of that team, including Cox, Schuerholz, and players Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Chipper Jones are now members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Turner has since become the second largest landowner in North America and the owner of the largest private buffalo herd, with more than 50,000 bison grazing on ranches in six states. A two-time Emmy Award winner with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he has won the Edward R. Murrow award for lifetime achievement in communications, the Walter Cronkite award for excellence in journalism, a Peabody award, and membership in the Television Hall of Fame.
The late Gene Autry also moved from show business to baseball. The first owner of the expansion Los Angeles Angels, Autry belongs to the National Radio Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is in the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City. Autry is also the only person with stars in all five categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: film, television, music, radio, and live performance.
Once a lonely telegraph man on the midnight shift for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, the guitar-playing Autry was offered a chance to sing professionally after he was accidentally overheard by passing customer Will Rogers. He went on to make 640 recordings, nearly half of them his own, and sell 100 million copies.
Dubbed “the Singing Cowboy,” the native Texan appeared in 93 movies, hosted his own television show, and owned numerous broadcast outlets in Southern California.
Once a minority owner of the Hollywood Stars minor-league team, Autry applied for the broadcast rights when the American League created the Los Angeles Angels expansion team in 1960. He even led the team on bike-rides from the hotel to the ballpark when the team held spring training in Palm Springs.
During his 35 years as team owner, the team was also called the Anaheim Angels, California Angels, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Although he retired from show business in 1964, he did live to see the team retire No. 26 in his honor, with management choosing that number because the owner was such a fan that the players considered him “the 26th man” on the 25-man roster. His second wife Jackie often represented the American League at All-Star games and other showcase events.
When the Angels won their only world championship in 1982, star slugger Tim Salmon lifted Autry’s cowboy hat into the air as players celebrated to the tune of Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again.” He was best-known for the holiday songs “Frosty, the Snowman,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
P.K. Wrigley also had California connections. A Chicago native who inherited the Wrigley Gum company and the Cubs after the death of his father William in 1932, he spent 45 years at the helm of the team until he passed away in 1977. The Cubs trained on Catalina Island, where radio announcer Ronald (Dutch) Reagan was overheard by actress Joy Hodges and lured to Hollywood for a film career that opened his path to politics.
The Wrigley family owned the island, 26 miles off the California coast, until 1972, when Wrigley created the Catalina Island Conservancy and transferred ownership to the environmentally-friendly group. Long before that, however, Wrigley made his mark in baseball by donating planned ballpark light towers to the military during World War II and by creating the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL) to maintain interest in the game while most major-leaguers were fighting overseas.
The Walter Harvey character in the 1992 film A League Of Their Own was based on Wrigley. Wrigley also promoted broadcast baseball at a time other clubs thought it would interfere with attendance. Competing radio stations sometimes carried the games simultaneously but WGN had exclusive television rights after the war and later evolved into a SuperStation, broadcasting Cubs games nationally.
Attendance at Wrigley Field, one of the smallest ballparks in the game, boomed even though the team continued to play exclusively during the day at home until 1998, more than 10 years after Wrigley passed away.
Also a pioneer in integrating the majors, Wrigley approved the hiring of Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil as the first African-American coach in the majors. O’Neil, to be enshrined in Cooperstown posthumously next July, also scouted and signed future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock for the Cubs.
Always looking for an edge, Wrigley even attempted to play games without a manager. In an experiment that lasted five years, he employed a board of rotating instructors, which called a “college of coaches.” Although the idea of a leaderless team did not work, the concept of coaches with specialized jobs later expanded throughout the majors.
Despite Wrigley’s money, ideas, and devotion as both a fan and businessman, the Cubs had only a few winning seasons during his tenure. Under Phil Wrigley, they reached the World Series four times but lost, keeping intact a drought between world championships that stretched a record 108 years from 1908 to 2016, long after Wrigley’s demise (and sale of the team to the Tribune Company).
Keeping the aging ballpark and its adjacent North Side environs attractive encouraged attendance by fans who considered the Cubs “lovable losers” yet celebrated such heroes as Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, and Greg Maddux, all of whom found baseball immortality in the Hall of Fame.
Now it’s time for P.K. Wrigley and other owners of distinction to join them.