Charlie O and The Beatles by John Rickenbach
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 interest.
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)."
And yet, 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.