Charlie Finley Discovers MC Hammer
…In the front office, many teams had upwards of 60 to 100 employees in baseball operations; Finley’s A’s employed less than two dozen mostly clerks and secretaries. Besides Finley and his son Charlie Jr., who was listed as the team’s Secretary-Treasurer, the A’s listed only three other executives: Executive Vice President and PR head Carl Finley, Controller Chuck Cottonaro, and Minor League Director Norm Koselke. In fact, most Class AAA and AA minor league clubs employed more front-office/baseball operations staff than Finley’s A’s. And the ones they did have were often part-time workers, such as a young teenager named Stanley Burrell.
Charlie Finley first met Burrell in the 1973 season in the Coliseum parking lot. The eleven year old African American child was, in his own words, “doing a dance with ten friends…just being crazy and Mr. Finley walked over and said I looked like Hank Aaron. Then invited me up to his box.” So strong was the resemblance, in fact, that Finley reportedly gave Burrell Aaron’s nickname, “Hammer.”
Hammer became a fixture in the A’s dugout and front office, picking up numerous odd jobs around the A’s organization. He helped the clubhouse managers, ran errands, and provided Finley with telephonic play-by-play broadcasts of the A’s games back to his offices in Chicago. At first, Burrell just arranged the phone calls so Finley could hear the actual radio broadcasts of the games, but later Hammer actually began doing the play-by-play himself. In a 1978 People magazine article, Burrell demonstrated his broadcasting talent for a reporter, “Here’s the pitch,” purred the youthful voice into the telephone. “Swung on and missed, one ball, two strikes, runner on first. This is station WCOF coming to you directly from Oakland Coliseum. This is the Hammer. I want all you people to know that Charlie Finley is the greatest general manager in the game. I’m a Charlie Finley man. He treats me good and he pays me good.” His style amused the cantankerous A’s owner, who paid Burrell $7.50 per game. Despite his stingy reputation, Finley always enjoyed helping out the underdog, and Burrell, fit the profile, having grown up poor with his mother, who worked as a police department secretary, and eight siblings in a cramped apartment in a very rough section of East Oakland.
Burrell seemed to make an impression everywhere. As time went on, Finley gave Hammer an honorary position as a club vice president. In the HBO documentary The Rebels of Oakland, Reggie Jackson recalled, “Hell, our chief executive, the guy that ran our team, that communicated [with] Charlie Finley, was a 13-year old kid.” Years later Burrell recalled, “Every time I come down to the clubhouse, you know, Rollie [Fingers] would yell out ‘Oh, everybody be quiet! Here comes Pipeline!’” Burrell earned this second nickname from several A’s players because they suspected he fed Finley information on what they were saying about him. “Finley has always had someone around giving him reports on what players say in the clubhouse,” said an unnamed observer in People magazine. “They think Hammer is that person now.”
A’s Equipment Manager Steve Vucinich remembered Burrell as a clubhouse fixture, “So Charlie just kind of liked having the kid around and it got to the point where Charlie actually took him on a road trip to Toronto one time to do some business as Vice President in just a joking way but that’s Charlie Finley… Charlie upset the regular broadcasters, because he had Stanley go on air and do an inning or half inning occasionally on the radio broadcast.”
Longtime A’s announce Monte Moore also remembered the first time Finley ordered Burrell to broadcast an inning of an A’s games: “Charlie called one day before the broadcast and said, ‘I want you to put Hammer on the air tonight with you.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I want him to broadcast some innings.’ I said, ‘Charlie! This is a Big League broadcast.’ He said, ‘I want him to do it!’” Burrell managed only a half inning of live radio commentary before executives from the team’s flagship radio station ordered him off the air.
Hammer grew up in the A’s locker room. At first surrounded by the stars of the A’s championship seasons, then later, surrounded by the retreads and young players that dominated the teams of the late 1970s. As Burrell matured, his respect for Finley grew as well. “He’s a great person,” said Burrell of Finley. “He’s done nothing but good for me.” A’s pitching coach Lee Stange summed up Burrell best by saying, “Stanley was a piece of work then, too. He was a good kid, he never caused any problems. He’d come down on the field once in a while and I’d harass him but he was a pretty good kid. He had a tough job talking to Charlie for the whole game on the phone every night.”
Ultimately, the 18 year-old Burrell needed to grow up and find a real job. He dreamed of playing professional baseball, but he found his baseball talent lacking. Drugs and crime always nipped at his heals on the tough east side of Oakland, but Burrell resisted and joined the U.S. Navy after high school. Several years later, Stanley Burrell, who dreamed of playing major league baseball but lacked the skills, became an international superstar in his own right as an acrobatic rap singer and dancer known to world by his old nickname: MC Hammer.
—excerpted from Charlie Finley by G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius, forthcoming in July from Walker & Co.