CINCINNATI — Fifty years ago, Johnny Bench’s performance in the 1969 All-Star Game so impressed the Oakland A’s eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, that Finley wrote a check on the spot to buy Bench’s contract from the Reds.
Finley did a lot of crazy things in his day, but probably nothing more spontaneous than borrowing a personal check from a Cincinnati newspaperman covering the game.
Finley proceeded to sign his own name and draw a line through the newspaperman's. Then Finley scribbled “For purchase of John Bench” at the top, wrote “Cincinnati Reds” next to “Pay To The Order Of” and filled in what would have been double the record price for a player at that time:
Finley then asked Pat Harmon, sports editor of The Cincinnati Post Times Star, to deliver it to Reds General Manager Bob Howsam. Harmon wrote about his unusual encounter with Finley in a Page 1 story on July 24, 1969, right beneath the big news headline of the day:
“Hail Columbia! Our Moon Men Are Home”
Bench had been selected to start the All-Star Game, but in a twist of fate that would be unimaginable today, the 21-year-old catcher and U.S. Army reservist - the Vietnam War was still underway - was on two-week’s training at Camp A.P. Hill, Virginia. Pfc. Bench got out of cooking for his unit for a day when the Army gave him a 24-hour pass to play in the Midsummer Classic at RFK Stadium in nearby Washington, D.C.
Charles O. Finley was a cantankerous millionaire who bought the Kansas City Athletics in 1960 and moved them to Oakland for the 1968 season. He was part Barnum & Bailey, part ruthless tyrant in the demanding way he ran his businesses, including his baseball team.
Finley was used to getting what he wanted. Sound familiar?
Finley replaced the Athletics’ cartoon elephant mascot with a live mule, named it Charlie-O, and paraded it in the outfield and at private parties and news conferences. In that respect and more, he was Marge Schott before she was.
Among his other gimmicks, Finley installed a mechanical rabbit that popped up behind home plate and delivered new balls to the umpire, paid bonuses to players to grow mustaches and tried to convince Baseball to use orange balls and bases and realign the two leagues by geography.
While his estranged fellow club owners dismissed most of his ideas, Finley succeeded in promoting the designated hitter and night games in the World Series.
Unlike Schott, Finley knew baseball and ran every facet of the A’s baseball operations. Under Finley, the A’s won three straight World Series (1972-74), beating the Reds in '72. After the A’s won Game 7 at Riverfront Stadium, Finley danced with his wife on the dugout roof.
Finley knew a great player when he saw one and correctly predicted that Bench, the youngest NL All-Star in just his second full season in 1969, would become a Hall of Famer.
Bench only reinforced that notion in his first All-Star Game when he launched a home run into the second deck in the second inning, then was robbed of another homer by Carl Yastrzemski in the sixth. Yaz leaped above the under-sized 7-foot wall in left field and pulled the ball back.
WATCH Bench's homer and near miss.
“I used the fence to pull myself up with my right arm,” Yaz said. “I think the ball was 3 feet beyond the fence. I got it on the end of the glove right in the webbing.”
Bench also singled and walked in five innings of play. He didn’t allow a stolen base. Nobody dared to try.
Bench said he hadn’t played in almost two weeks and was worried about how he would stand up against the best players in the game.
“I’d hardly touched a baseball in two weeks,” he said after the game. “I was tense. I got a good feeling after the game warmed up.”
Bench would have won the game's MVP award in most years, but Giants slugger Willie McCovey hit two homers in the National League's 9-3 rout and took it home.
Bench was already on the bus back to Camp Hill - he had two more days to go - when Harmon ran into Finley, a longtime friend, in the lobby of the Shoreham Hotel. Finley asked Harmon to help him find Howsam.
Here's how their conversation went, according to Harmon's story:
Finley: “I can’t find Howsam at the moment, but if I find him, I’ll write a check for $1 million for John Bench.”
Harmon: “Let’s see the check.”
Finley: “You got it. Right now. Give me a blank check.”
Once Finley had filled it out and signed it, he scratched out the name of Harmon’s bank and wrote in his own bank’s name, "Gary National Bank, Gary, Ind."
Finley then gave the check to Harmon to deliver along with a note Finley wrote on hotel stationery. It read:
is my agent.
(signed) Charles O. Finley”
Finley told Harmon he knew the deal could not take effect in midseason unless Bench passed waivers, and he intended it to be finalized during the interleague trading period in the winter.
You can guess what happened next. Howsam turned Finley down flat.
“It is ridiculous … ” Howsam said, according to Harmon’s story. “My job is to bring Cincinnati a pennant, not sell it away. All our efforts are being put forward to build, not tear away.”
Of course, Bench went on to be recognized as the greatest catcher of all time. With Bench behind the plate, the Reds won two World Series, four National League pennants and six division titles. Bench never played for another team and retired in 1983 after 17 seasons with the Reds.
Harmon said Finley offered him 5% of the deal, then a normal fee for agents who arranged them. Harmon said he declined the chance to pocket $50,000, but he kept the million-dollar check.
After Harmon got home from Washington, people would stop him on the street and ask to see the check. Harmon said he carried it with him and he was happy to oblige.
Soon he got a call from his bank. Someone there had read his story.
“The last time a bank called me, it was to remind me I was overdrawn $2.46,” Harmon said.
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