I’m reading the biography Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman, by G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius. It’s quite enjoyable, if just a bit academic, and the quotes and main factual claims are thoroughly footnoted.

Because of a recent HHS thread about Tim Lincecum and Vida Blue, this passage in the book that touched on Blue’s amazing year in 1971 caught my eye:

 

Finley also sought to ensure that Blue pitched during home games on Monday nights, Finley’s proclaimed Family Night. This was to bring more fans to the game, since Blue was such a powerful draw that summer. “Looking back on it now,” Blue said “I realized how we got manipulated, and I was no different…. [W]hen they would hold me back a day, claiming that I was getting an extra day’s rest, in all reality they were holding me back to pitch at home on Family Night … since I was a natural draw anyway because of the season that I was having, and that kind of disturbed me once I got a little older.”

Sounds plausible, right? And the more you know about Finley, the more you can believe it. But nothing like that actually happened on Mondays in 1971.

According to the game log on Baseball-Reference.com:

  • Just 5 of Oakland’s 73 home dates in 1971 were on Mondays.
  • Blue started just one of those five home Mondays, April 26. If there was a promotion on, someone forgot to tell the fans, as just 6,998 showed up. And Blue pitched that game on 3 days’ rest; remember, his complaint was about being held back a day.

Could the authors have mixed up which night was Family Night at the Coliseum in 1971? For most of baseball history, Monday has been the most lightly scheduled day of the week, so it seems odd to hold a recurring promotion on Mondays, even for a skinflint like Finley. But I found a separate source describing Monday as Family Night in 1972, when they had just 7 home Mondays. So it probably was Monday in ’71 as well.

To be thorough, I checked the day for each of Blue’s home starts in 1971: 6 occurred on Friday, 4 on Wednesday, 4 on Sunday, 3 Tuesday, 2 Saturday, and 1 on Monday. If Family Night had actually been on Fridays that year, maybe the gist of the story would stand up. But there’s no sign of Blue being “held back” (or moved up) for home Fridays; out of those 6 Friday starts at home, 4 were on 3 days’ rest and 2 on 4 days’ rest.

There’s nothing irregular about Blue’s rest pattern for 1971. After Opening Day, 36 of his remaining 38 starts came on either 3 or 4 days’ rest (19 and 17, respectively). One start came on 5 days’ rest because the A’s had two off days in a week, and one technically came on 6 days’ rest due to the All-Star game, in which he pitched the first 3 innings; he actually had just 2 days’ rest before his next real start.

Other pitchers with about the same number of starts that year had similar rest patterns.

There’s no sign that Blue was held back for home dates on any day of the week in ’71. The longest break he got in terms of team games was 4 games, which happened 14 times; those games were split, 7 home and 7 away. Over all, he started 20 times at home, 19 away.

So maybe the authors cited the wrong year? Blue did pitch on 3 home Mondays in ’72. The first of those was June 12, and there may well have been a promotion because over 50,000 turned out for the opener of a set with Baltimore, while the next two games of that series drew just 13,000 combined. And Blue did pitch that game on 5 days’ rest, unusual for that era. But he made 4 other starts on 5 days’ rest that year, none being a home Monday. His July 31 start in a Monday home game came on 3 days’ rest. His last Monday home start of ’72 came on August 28 with 8 days’ rest, perhaps nursing an injury; he had left his prior start after 1 inning. Above all, we come back to Blue’s quote: “I was a natural draw anyway because of the season that I was having.” That has to be about 1971, his only spectacular year.

Anyway, the notion of a pitcher boosting attendance is usually bunk, and there’s little reason to think differently in this case. If Blue really was a powerful draw that year — and bearing in mind that Blue had tossed a no-hitter and a one-hitter the previous September and was the Opening Day starter in ’71 — that drawing power should have been evident at least by May 19, when he took the mound with a record of 8-1, 1.27. But only 10,000 showed up. His subsequent home starts had attendance peaks and valleys, most likely due to weather and opponent and recent performance of the team, just like the vast majority of games. When he pitched on Friday, June 25, the A’s were humming along with a 10-game lead in pursuit of their first division title, and 34,000 turned out. His next start drew 35,000. But his next 7 home starts averaged 23,000, and his last 4 starts averaged just 9,000. Despite Blue’s brilliant season, the 3 biggest home crowds came to see Catfish Hunter (twice) and Blue Moon Odom.

Was there ever an attempt to get Blue more starts at home? His home/road breakdown for his 7 years in Oakland: 20/19, 12/11, 18/19, 21/19, 19/19, 19/18, 19/19. Total: 128/124, a disparity of less than 1 per year.

In conclusion, there is ample evidence of Finley mistreating his players, especially at contract time. But I looked as hard as I could for evidence of manipulating Vida Blue’s starts to fall on particular home days, and I couldn’t find anything.

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