Book details A’s on-field glory, clubhouse drama
By Lou Fancher
In 1971, Mary Barry dressed in hot pants and took her position near first base, scooping up foul balls and attention from fans and national media as an Oakland A’s ball girl and one of the first females hired to work on a Major League baseball field.
Flash forward to 2017, the Pleasant Hill professional massage therapist dresses more conservatively, but is no less enamored by her favorite Bay Area team.
Joining an audience at a Distinguished Speaker Series presentation at the Lafayette Library to hear best-selling Oakland sportswriter Jason Turbow introduce his new book about the A’s, “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” Barry said after the event, “I’m still an A’s fan.”
In the 2000’s, most traumatic for fans like Barry are undoubtedly the team’s lack of postseason winning play and the we’re-leaving-we’re-staying, back-and-forth headlines.
But in the early 1970s, baseball enthusiasts celebrated three-in-a-row World Series championships and relished or were roiled by owner Charlie O. Finley’s penny-pinching tactics and wildly creative marketing campaigns.
Mostly, they cherished a cast of quirky, brawling, and high-caliber players like Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers and others.
Turbow, (also author of “The Baseball Codes”) in conversation with former sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Glenn Schwarz, said Finley was the maelstrom at the team’s center.
“He shot out ideas right and left: designated hitter, colorful uniforms — but he also pushed for an orange ball.” Innovations that stuck included night World Series games and opening the series on a Saturday.
The team’s mule mascot, Charlie O., won fans’ oddly fervent devotion that Barry still feels, but can’t explain.
“I was born and raised in Oakland … I just know I was part of an era when it was exciting to be paid by Finley, to get free tickets for our families.”
During the interview for the job, Finley asked Barry to name her favorite ball player.
“He had a picture of Sal Bando on the wall behind him, so I said, ‘Sal Bando.’ I wanted the job.”
Finley hired then 14-year-old Barry and her best friend, Debbi Sivyer, a fellow Bishop O’Dowd student to generate publicity. Sivyer had a habit of serving cookies to the umpires between innings that led to her opening a small cookie shop in Palo Alto in 1977.
“She became Mrs. Fields Cookies — of the empire cookie chain?” said Barry. “We’re still best friends.”
But Finley’s oddities and frugality didn’t guarantee prosperity; it often hurt the team and fans, according to Turbow.
“Finley colored everything. He was narcissistic, called all the shots, was his own general manager,” said Turbow.
Along with each 1970s championship season, a major off-field drama developed. In ’72, it was Vida Blue’s holdout for higher pay.
With “crazy stats” so unprecedented that opposing teams would have Vida Blue Days to milk the financial rewards of a special promotion when the A’s came to town — a 24-8 record, 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts — the Cy Young and MVP award-winning pitcher in ’71 earned only $14,500.
“Finley offered $50,000 for ’72, the highest salary ever for a second-year player,” Turbow said. “But Vida knew he could get more.”
The standoff went on for six weeks, with dwindling attendance in Blue’s absence crippling the team.
“Finley didn’t care,” said Turbow.
Schwarz said that after the negotiations were resolved, Blue was uncharacteristically bitter and would complain about pitching while icing his arm and talking to the media.
Other costly mistakes involved scapegoating second baseman Mike Anders for a team loss, refusing to comply with contract terms for Catfish Hunter — a mess that ultimately set the stage for today’s free agency — and opening only one ticket booth, resulting in long lines for fans.
“But in the pantheon of things, what made this team great was that they executed so perfectly, so consistently,” he said. “(Manager) Dick Williams hammered fundamentals that made them great.”
Which made one member of the audience ask during a Q&A why as a teen born in 1961 and growing up in the Bay Area, he was the only one of his friends who followed the A’s.
“I find it odd they didn’t capture the imagination of Northern California. Why was there no geographic loyalty?” the man asked.
Turbow said there were two reasons: Finley had been told the Bay Area already had the Giants and wasn’t a two-team market. A research firm he hired to study it repeated the message, but he was an iconoclast and ignored the information.
“Ultimately, it was because he never integrated with his team into the fabric of the community,” Turbow said. “He never moved here from Chicago. That really cost him.”
To write most of the book, Turbow interviewed former players — conducting interviews in rental cars, home offices and with Dick Green in sub-zero weather near Mount Rushmore — and sports journalists like Schwarz, historians, and Finley’s son, Paul Finley.
Some stories were cut to pare the book down to 140,000 words. But fans need not worry that A’s history will be lost. There will always be people like Barry, whose memories — and devotion to the team — only sweeten and solidify with the each telling.