A brief and unhappy history of fire sales

Mike Ehrmann

The Marlins' latest auction of the great majority of their best players is just the latest example of a long and regrettable tradition, going back nearly a century.

What's apparently happening to the Miami Marlins right now isn't the first time, nor will it be the last. It's pretty rare, though. Sure, there have been a great number of mini-fire sales, and going back for a long, long time. But the full-scale selling off of a team's highest-salaried stars isn't something we see very often.

And most of them that anyone remembers have involved the Florida/Miami Marlins.

Oddly, most of them that nobody remembers involved the Athletics/A's.

The first big sell-off came after the 1914 season. The Philadelphia Athletics, managed (and owned!) by Connie Mack, had just won their fourth American League pennant in five years. They got swept in the World Series that fall, but had won the other three Fall Classics in which they'd played.

Mack took the sweep real hard. He attributed the loss not to strong competition -- and Boston's winning "Miracle Braves" really weren't that strong -- or to bad luck, but rather to the financial blandishments being offered to his players by the upstart Federal League, which was attempting to establish itself as a major league. According to Mack, half his players wanted to jump to the Federals, and half wanted to remain with the Athletics. Here's Mack, in his memoir:

Baseball fans throughout the country did not realize what was behind our collapse against Boston; neither did many of the sports writers. They said that the wonder team was taking it lying down. I knew that the "wonder team" was engaged in a civil war, fighting one another.

Future Hall of Fame starting pitchers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender both signed with Federal League teams. Mack sold future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins to the White Sox, future Hall of Famer Frank "Home Run" Baker to the Yankees, and every-day shortstop Jack Barry to the Red Sox. After going 99-53 in 1914, the A's lost 108 games in 1915 and 117 in '16; their winning percentage in the latter season was worse than the '62 Mets', and the A's finished dead last in eight straight seasons.

Eventually, Mack did rebuild the club. And while Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig's Yankees are famous for dominating the American League for many years, the A's actually won three straight pennants beginning in 1929. It's generally believed that Mack then dismantled a good team, but he actually waited until his team started losing before he really broke it up. The dynastic Athletics featured four future Hall of Famers: Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, and Jimmie Foxx.

After the '32 season, Mack sold Simmons, along with every-day players Mule Haas and Jimmy Dykes, to the White Sox. Really, that was all it took to drop the A's from contention. A year later, Mack sold Grove to the Red Sox and Cochrane to the Tigers, and then the A's were really finished. Afterward, they never finished higher than fourth place (and that, just once) before departing for Kansas City in 1955.

Ah, but we're not finished with the A's. There were terrible in Kansas City, but things improved almost immediately after the franchise, then owned by Charlie O. Finley, shuffled off to Oakland. There, Finley built another A's dynasty. Beginning in 1971, the A's won five straight A.L. West flags; beginning in '72, they won three straight World Series.

But there were a couple of things working against Charlie O. Finley. One, he hated paying his players the going rate, whatever that might be. And two, despite their success on the field, the A's didn't attract many paying customers. So with the advent of free agency in 1976, Finley decided he wasn't going to play. He certainly wasn't going to pay his stars the new going rate, nor would he pay anyone else's stars.

In '76, with Catfish Hunter already having left the A's for George Steinbrenner's millions, the A's were far behind the first-place Royals with the June 15 trade deadline approaching. Finley made his move. Just before the deadline, he sold superstar relief pitcher Rollie Fingers and outfielder Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for $2 million, and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million.

This isn't the place for the whole story; in a nutshell, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, applying the "best interests of baseball" clause, prevented the sales from going through. It was a huge story, though. After the season, Fingers signed with the Padres and Rudi with the Angels, while Finley ultimately traded Blue to the Giants for seven players and $400,000. None of the seven players ever did much with the A's, but Kuhn was happy, anyway. There were lawsuits, of course, but the lasting memory of the incident remains Finley repeatedly referring to Kuhn as "the village idiot". From 1977 through '79, the A's averaged 100 losses per season.

Which brings us to the Florida Marlins, roughly 20 years later. In 1996, their fourth season, the Marlins went 80-82. Owner Wayne Huizenga, of course a billionaire, apparently decided that building a winning team took too long. So he bought one, bringing in free agents Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, and Gary Sheffield; a year earlier, the Marlins had spent big on free-agent pitchers Kevin Brown and Al Leiter.

It worked. The Marlins won the 1997 World Series. And in 1998, Huizenga dumped every one of his high-priced stars: Bonilla, Alou, Sheffield, Brown, Leiter ... all were gone, and the Marlins lost 108 games. After the season, Huizenga sold the Marlins to John Henry ... which in a roundabout way, is how we found ourselves where we are today.

If Huizenga had simply kept his club instead of selling to Henry, Henry wouldn't have eventually become a part of the swap that wound up with him owning the Red Sox and ex-Expos owner Jeffry Loria owning the Marlins. And Moneyball would have been a different movie and ... well, when I start working on these counter-factuals, my head gets to spinning something fierce.

But Bud Selig, in his infinite wisdom, essentially gave the Red Sox their greatest owner, and the Marlins one of the worst in major-league history.

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