Maverick Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley experimented with baseball rule changes in 1971, namely going to a three-ball walk to cut down on length of games and promote more offense. Milwaukee Brewers General Manager Frank Lane agreed with Finley, and in fact, had proposed the idea several years earlier.
“I suggested it a dozen years ago, but you know how it was then, some people said ‘there goes loudmouth Lane popping off again,’” Lane said.
Lane had only been on the job for a couple months, having replaced Marvin Milkes, but he was already living up to his reputation as “Frantic Frank” and “Trader Lane.” The 74-year-old had already completed four trades on his way to flipping over most of the 40-man roster within a year.
Finley and Lane had a contentious history, so the fact the two agreed on anything was a minor miracle. Lane signed a four-year contract to be the GM of Finley’s Kansas City A’s in 1961, but the deal fell apart after only eight months and ended with Lane being fired. Finley refused to continue paying Lane, so Lane took him to court. Lane was paid out over $100, 000, but it took three years for the case to go to court. He sat out of baseball during that time, but eventually got back in as a scout with Baltimore – a position he held until the Milwaukee GM job.
Of the three-ball walk agreement, Lane said, “Well, times change. I see where Charlie Finley is all for changing the rule to three balls now, and anytime you get Lane and Finley agreeing on anything, that’s a story in itself, isn’t it?”
Lane mentioned the current four ball/three strike rule being set in 1889 as the last big change to the pitch count. Prior to that, the count was nine balls and four strikes.
“My God, that’s 82 years without a change,” Lane said. “Pitchers waste anywhere from 40 to 60 to 80 pitches a game and reducing the number of balls required for a walk from four to three would eliminate a lot of periods of inactivity. It would also cut down the duration of the game.”
To defend his idea of cutting down wasted pitched, Lane recalled a pitcher named Saul Rogovin who pitched for the Chicago White Sox when Lane was general manager. Lane said, “He’d always start by getting two strikes on the batter and then I could close my eyes and say hurry up and throw the next three pitches and get the count to 3 and 2, and invariably, that’s what would happen. I used to ask Saul, ‘why in the hell don’t you just start the count at 3 and 2 and just concentrate on getting the next ball over. He’d say that was just the way he pitched.”
Rule change experiments were typically tested at the minor league level, so initially it wasn’t expected that Finley would get his wish, even in a spring exhibition game. He lobbied to attempt the experiment at A’s home games in Tempe, and on March 6, 1971, the A’s and Brewers gave it a test run – to the tune of 19 walks issued between both staffs.
The California Angels front office was not fond of being part of the Finley experiment. General Manager Dick Walsh and manager Lefty Phillips strongly objected to the idea. Walsh got into an argument with Finley on the phone over the concept, and Phillips later threatened to pull his team from the field when they played the A’s. Phillips relented and the game went on as scheduled.
Phillips said the pitch count changes would only hurt the pitchers after his staff allowed 11 walks in the game. The A’s allowed just five walks, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn had seen enough and told Finley to end the experiment.
Finley went back down the experimentation path two years later in spring training with orange baseballs. His thought was hitters could see orange better than white, thereby increasing offensive output. While orange wasn’t hard to see, the true difficulty came in picking up the red seams on the ball and having any idea at what was being thrown. Pitchers weren’t happy with what they thought was a slippery ball. Finley pulled the plug on the orange ball idea after two games.
The orange baseball legend followed Finley after that as Time Magazine featured him on the cover in 1975 with orange baseballs as part of the background. Orange balls signed by Finley litter internet auction and resale sites these days, with minimum prices often being set between $50 and $100.
What appeared to be a radical new idea by Finley had been floated nearly 50 years earlier in Athletic Park by the American Association Milwaukee Brewers. You can read a short story about the Brewers and their yellow ball test here.
My book Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee is available to be ordered on the McFarland website.
(The story you just read is not part of the book)