Rollie Fingers had a fabulous career in Major League Baseball as a relief pitcher, as he was 114-118, with 341 saves and an ERA of 2.90. No. 34 was also a three-time World Series champion, a World Series MVP, an American League MVP, an American League Cy Young Award winner, a seven-time All-Star and a four-time Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year. That all led to Fingers being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
I had a chance to talk with Fingers recently and we chatted about his career in MLB, as well as his time with the Milwaukee Brewers.
But it all started when Fingers was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in December of 1964. The team moved to Oakland in 1968, which was the first year Fingers was in the majors, although he only pitched in one game. In 1969, Fingers was 6-7 with an ERA of 3.71, plus started eight games. Plus, Fingers also had 12 saves. 1969 was also the season when the baseball world started to notice the talent on the A’s, as the team won 88 games. In 1970, the A’s won 89 games and Fingers was 7-9 with an ERA of 3.65, plus started 19 games and had two saves.
It was during the 1971 season when Fingers went from being a starting pitcher to strictly a relief pitcher. Fingers talked about how that all came together.
“I made the four-man rotation in ’71,” Fingers said. “About halfway through the season, I was put into the bullpen and long relief. As a starter, I had thrown a couple of shutouts, but I could never get in a rhythm where I could pitch more than five innings. Finally Dick Williams took me out of the starting rotation because I wasn’t getting anybody out.
“He started using me in mop-up games. I remember we were playing a game in New York and we were getting beat 11-3 and all of a sudden it’s the eighth inning and we were winning 13-11. And I was the only guy left in the bullpen. I pitched a couple of shutout innings and struck out a couple of guys. The next night I did the same thing. A day or two later, he brought me in the seventh inning and I got another save. Then he called me into his office and told me that from now on I would be his closer from the sixth inning on and to be ready.”
Fingers had 17 saves in 1971 and lowered his ERA to 2.99. But it was in 1972 when the Athletics became the rage in MLB with Fingers as their closer. It was the start of three straight World Series championships by the A’s, with Fingers being the World Series MVP in 1974.
Fingers talked about why the team meshed together so well.
“A lot of the guys came up through the minor leagues together,” Fingers said. “Myself, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan, Vida Blue and Gene Tenace. We all played together in the minors and we all hit the majors at the same time. Plus the team already had some really good pitchers with Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom and Kenny Holtzman. And Vida Blue had the great year in 1971 when he won the Cy Young and was also AL MVP.
“We just had a great pitching staff through those years. From 1969 though 1976, our team ERA was usually very good.”
Fingers was definitely correct. Here are the team ERA’s for the A’s from 1969 through 1976.
- 1969- 3.71 ERA
- 1970- 3.31 ERA
- 1971- 3.05 ERA
- 1972- 2.58 ERA
- 1973- 3.29 ERA
- 1974- 3.24 ERA
- 1975- 3.27 ERA
- 1976- 3.26 ERA
From 1971 through 1975, the A’s made it to the postseason five straight years and won three straight World Series titles. One of the big reasons why the A’s were so successful in the Fall Classic was because of the way Fingers performed. In the three World Series that Fingers participated in, he was 2-2 with and ERA of 1.35 in 16 appearances. In 33.1 innings, Fingers only allowed 25 hits, plus struck out 25 and had six saves. It was capped off in 1974 when No. 34 was named World Series MVP.
Fingers talked about why he was so successful in the World Series.
“It was because I learned how to pitch,” Fingers said. “When I first came into the majors I was just a thrower. But I studied guys like Catfish Hunter and Mudcat Grant who had pinpoint control. Catfish wasn’t overpowering, but he could hit a gnat in the ass with his control.
“By the time we started getting into the postseason in 1971, I had a pretty good idea as to how to pitch. I learned how to have good control, but I didn’t have a changeup then. I just threw hard at that time. But it was by watching Catfish and Mudcat pitch that really helped me develop as a pitcher.”
Although the A’s made the postseason again in 1975, things were changing. Hunter had moved on via free agency to play with the New York Yankees. And more moves were coming, as owner Charlie Finley just didn’t want to pay his talented players their fair market value. In 1976, Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman were traded to the Baltimore Orioles.
It was also during the 1976 season, when Blue was sold by Finley to the Yankees, while Fingers and Rudi were sold to the Boston Red Sox.
Fingers explained this surreal situation.
“We were playing Boston, as they had just come in for a three-game series,” Fingers said. “So I walked into the clubhouse and Frank Ciensczyk, our clubhouse guy, told me to grab my stuff out of my locker and he told me that Joe Rudi and I had been traded to the Red Sox. He said, ‘Yeah, Charlie sold you and Joe to the Red Sox.’ So I cleaned out my locker and said good bye to a few guys in the clubhouse and then went to the Red Sox clubhouse where I’m lockering next to [Carl] Yastrzemski. It was kind of crazy.
“Joe took it worse than I did, as I didn’t get along with Charlie that well anyhow. Anyway, going to Boston was great. Both of us were in uniform for three days, although neither of us played. I think Joe was hurt with a hand injury and although I got up a couple of times in the bullpen, I didn’t make an appearance. It was in the third game of that series against Boston when [Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn nixed the deal and told Charlie that he couldn’t sell his players like cattle. Charlie went nuts. So Joe and I took out all of our shit in our lockers in the Boston clubhouse and went back to the Oakland clubhouse.
“The thing that was really crazy about the whole thing is that we didn’t play for two weeks. Charlie wouldn’t allow us in uniform. Neither Joe and I, plus Vida, who had to come back too, didn’t play for two weeks. So our team played two weeks with 22 guys. We got beat by Kansas City that year by 2.5 games and we lost six games in that period of time that we weren’t playing.”
It was at that point when the team came as close to one can have in terms of a mutiny, as Fingers explains.
“We decided to have a team meeting,” Fingers said. “Minnesota had just come into town and we had this team meeting. We all voted and it was unanimous that we would not play that night. So Sal Bando goes into Chuck Tanner’s office and tells Chuck that he better call Charlie because we weren’t playing that night and we were going to forfeit the game because he wasn’t allowing the whole team to play. Which means that Charlie would have lost the gate for the game.
“So Chuck tells Charlie that he better play Rudi and put everyone back on the roster or the guys won’t play. Charlie said to Chuck that we couldn’t do that. And Chuck told him that we were doing it. He told Charlie that we were in the clubhouse with our street clothes on and were getting ready to walk out to the parking lot and get into our cars. That’s about 20 minutes before the game.
“After he finishes with Charlie, Chuck comes back in the clubhouse and read the lineup. He said, ‘Leading off, Bert Campaneris. Hitting second, Billy North. Batting third, Joe Rudi.’ We knew then that it was over with and we were back on the roster.”
After the 1976 season, Fingers left Oakland to play for the San Diego Padres via free agency. Fingers explained why he went elsewhere to play after spending so many years with the Athletics. In nine years with the Athletics in the regular season, Fingers was 67-61 with an ERA of 2.91 and 136 saves. In the postseason, Fingers was just lights-out for the A’s, especially during the World Series.
“I didn’t really want to leave,” Fingers said. “I don’t think anyone on our ballclub wanted to leave. We all wanted to stay together. But Charlie wouldn’t pay us. Free agency was getting started in baseball and basically Charlie let a championship team leave because of his stubbornness.
“San Diego was offering me the best contract. I wanted to stay in California, as I grew up in southern California. The Padres had a decent club, although they weren’t a first-division team. So I flew down and met with Ray Kroc and Buzzie Bavasi. At the time, I was making like $63,000 in Oakland. Ray and Buzzie said some nice things and that they wanted me on their club to be their closer.
“So I asked Buzzie what he was talking about in terms of a salary. And Buzzie says, ‘I’ll give you $250,000 a year for five years and a $500,000 signing bonus.’ I said, ‘Give me the pen!’ So I went from making $63,000 a year to $250,000 a year for five years, plus get a half a million for a signing bonus. That’s what free agency did for the game of baseball.”
In four years with the Padres, Fingers was 34-40 with an ERA of 3.12 with 108 saves. It was also in his time with the Padres that Fingers added another important pitch to his repertoire.
“I didn’t even throw a changeup in my first nine years in the big leagues,” Fingers said. “I was slider, hard slider, sinking fastball and cut fastball. I just rared back and let it go. But I had good control. But when I got to San Diego, I saw Randy Jones getting guys out with a ball going 78 mph and with his changeup going even slower. So we started talking and he told me that I should try picking up some sort of a changeup.
“The only thing I could come up with was the forkball. My hands weren’t real big, so I stuck a ball between index and middle finger and I spread them real far apart. I taped the baseball between my fingers to keep them apart. I did that everyday to stretch out those ligaments between those two fingers.
“It finally worked and I started throwing it. I would throw it hard and it would go about 10 mph slower than my fastball, but I still kept the same arm speed. It still looked to the hitter that it was a fastball coming in, which is what you wanted. Plus, the ball started sinking because of a lack of velocity and I got a lot more ground balls due to the pitch. So I used it a lot when I needed a double play ball.”
But at the end of his tenure in San Diego, Fingers couldn’t wait to go somewhere else. I was on December 8, 1980 when No. 34 was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Fingers remembers that moment.
“The winter meetings were in St. Louis that year,” Fingers said. “Whitey Herzog had me fly to St. Louis to meet with him. I only spent one day there. But at the same time, Whitey had acquired Bruce Sutter for the Cubs. So he had me and Bruce in the same bullpen. I knew that would be a bit crazy and I didn’t think it would work, as both of us needed a lot of work.
“So I get home after the winter meetings and I read in the newspaper that I had been traded by the Cardinals to the Milwaukee Brewers [on December 12]. That’s how I found out about it. No one called me. Bruce told me the same thing, as no one called him either. That’s how we found out.
“But it was a great deal for Milwaukee, as they needed three positions. They needed a closer, they needed a catcher [Ted Simmons] and they needed a starting pitcher [Pete Vuckovich] and they got all three in one deal. Plus, Vuckovich ended up winning the Cy Young the year after I did, so it really was a great deal for the Brewers.”
Plus, Fingers would now be playing with some normalcy, with general manager Harry Dalton running the front office and Bud Selig owning the team. It was a far cry from when Fingers played under Finley in Oakland.
Fingers compared Finley to Selig to me.
“Finley was definitely hands-on,” Fingers said. “He wanted to be involved in everything. He was always calling the manager up. He wanted to make changes in the lineup. He did all this from Chicago. He was constantly calling the dugout to talk to the manager. In fact, one time I went to get a drink of water at the water fountain which was near the phone and it rings. So I pick up the phone and go, ‘Hello Charlie?’ And a voice goes, ‘Who is this?’ And I go, ‘This is Fingers.’ And Charlie goes, ‘Don’t you ever answer the phone like that again!’ But that is why Dick Williams left. He couldn’t put up with Charlie, even after winning two straight World Series titles.”
I then mentioned how Selig would act during games when I would be in the mezzanine in front of the press box. I would see Selig pacing back and forth. Fingers recalled that as well.
“I would be standing on the mound and I would see Bud up there pacing,” Fingers said. “He would be pacing back and forth smoking a tiparillo cigar. He just couldn’t sit still, especially if the game was on the line.
“Bud very seldom came down to the dugout or the clubhouse. Every once in a while Bud would come down on the field and want to jump in the batting cage. But we really didn’t see a whole lot of him after ballgames. Bud was just a big baseball fan. He would have liked to have sat right behind the dugout with the fans. I enjoyed being around Bud. He’s a great guy. I’m glad he traded for me.”
The 1981 season was a magical one for both Fingers and the Brewers. The season was split into two parts due to a strike. The Brewers won the AL East in the second half of the season. It would mean that the Brewers would taste the postseason for the first time. It was also a great time for me personally, because that was the period in which I was covering the team.
Fingers was just magnificent. No. 34 was 6-3 with 28 saves and had a miniscule ERA of just 1.04. In 78 innings, Fingers gave up just 55 hits, while striking out 61. It’s no wonder that Fingers won the AL Cy Young Award that season, as well as being named AL MVP. Just like his old teammate Vida Blue had done 10 years earlier.
Fingers remembered that special season.
“That season my control was there and I got ahead of hitters,” Fingers said. “I also had great defense behind me. Robin Yount and Jim Gantner were a great double play combination. Paul Molitor was at 3rd and he could pick it. Cecil Cooper was very good. We just had a solid infield. Those four guys played like there were five guys out there. We also had pretty good speed in the outfield with Ben Oglivie in left, Gorman Thomas in center and Charlie Moore in right.
“I just felt comfortable, because I knew if I made a mistake, that offense of ours was going to come back and score some runs. So I didn’t have a lot of tension out there. It was just easier to pitch. I just had one of those years where everything went right. Nothing went wrong. I could come in with the bases loaded and give up three line drives and they would be hit right at guys. If I needed a double play ball, I got it. If I needed a strikeout, I got it. It was just one of those years where nothing went wrong.”
I was covering the October 3 game at County Stadium versus the Detroit Tigers when the Brewers clinched the AL East for the second half. I’ll never forget Ted Simmons running out to the mound and jumping up and hugging Fingers after the final out.
Fingers recalled that moment as well.
“Oh yeah. I didn’t realize how heavy Simba was,” Fingers said. “I was going to jump on him, but then I saw he was coming at me. He took a big leap and hugged me, but because there were four of five guys right there, that was the only reason I didn’t go down to the ground.”
The Brewers took the Yankees to five games in the 1981 AL Division Series and Fingers won Game 3 and saved Game 4.
It was a great feeling for most of the players on the Brewers to finally play in the postseason. It was old hat to Fingers and Bando, plus Cooper was a member of the 1975 Red Sox who were in the World Series. Pitcher Randy Lerch was also on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1978 when they made it to the postseason. But for the rest of the squad, it was a new and great adventure.
“Yes, it was great because most of the guys were kind of young,” Fingers said. “It’s always nice when you get in there for the first time. The next year the team made to the World Series. I remember Simmons coming up to me before Game 1 in St. Louis and he asked me how I felt playing in the World Series. I told him that it was just a game. I told him to pretend it was just a spring training game. Just relax.”
Simmons took the lesson well, as he hit two homers in the 1982 World Series.
Fingers also talked about Simmons as a catcher. No. 23 was known mostly for his hitting, but he did catch two back-to-back Cy Young Award winners in Milwaukee.
“Simba could stick down the right fingers,” Fingers said. “He was smart back there. There were times when I would shake him off and he would come back with the same signal. And I thought maybe he sees something with the hitter, maybe moving around the box, so he would call a certain pitch. Most of the time he was right.”
1982 was the year when the Brewers did make it all the way to the World Series. Milwaukee was floundering a bit early in the season and were just 23-24 when general manager Harry Dalton fired manager Buck Rodgers and hired Harvey Kuenn. The Brewers just took off under the leadership of Kuenn and went 72-43 under No. 32.
I recall that there was some discontent among some of the players regarding Rodgers and I asked Fingers about that situation.
“Everybody loved Harvey,” Fingers said. “Buck Rodgers never bothered me at all because I was sitting in the bullpen. The phone would ring and I would get up. I would come in and pitch. I didn’t have a lot of contact with Buck other than that. Harvey just kicked back and chewed tobacco and spit on the floor. He would just fill up the lineup card and tell the boys to go get ’em. The players were much more relaxed with him. I don’t know how the everyday players got along with Buck, as I was never in the dugout, but with Harvey, who had been around a while and all players liked him, it was just a matter of filling out the lineup card, chew some tobacco and watch the game.”
As the Brewers were heading down the stretch in the 1982 regular season, Dalton acquired pitcher Don Sutton in a trade on August 30. It was September 2, when Sutton would make his Milwaukee debut in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians at County Stadium. The first game was started by Moose Haas. The Brewers were nursing a 2-1 lead when Haas was first relieved by Dwight Bernard and then later Fingers. No. 34 pitched 1.1 innings and struck out three when he felt a pain in his elbow.
“I threw a pitch and it felt like a bee sting on my elbow,” Fingers said. “It was a real sharp pain. I kind of shook my arm a little bit because I didn’t know what it was. The next pitch really hurt. That’s when I called timeout and I asked Harvey to come out of the dugout. I told Harvey that something is wrong with my arm. Something with the elbow. So he took me out of the game. The team doctor looked at it and he thought it was just a strained muscle, but it was torn.”
Up to that point, Fingers was having another very solid year, as he was 5-6 with 29 saves and an ERA of 2.60. Unfortunately, that would be the last appearance for Fingers until 1984.
The Brewers could have certainly used him in the World Series, as the team lost two games with leads late in the contest. That occurred in both Game 2 and Game 7. The Cardinals had Bruce Sutter, while the Brewers had to rely on young Pete Ladd, who up to that point had done a nice job as the new closer for the Brewers. But Ladd was not Fingers and it showed in that Fall Classic.
Fingers would have liked an opportunity to pitch in the ’82 World Series, that’s for sure.
“Yes, there were a couple of games where I could have made a difference in had I been healthy,” Fingers said. “You never know, but I sure would have liked to have had a chance.”
Fingers missed all of the 1983 season due to his elbow injury and then came back in 1984 for the Brewers and was one of the bright spots on a team which went 67-94 under manager Rene Lachemann. Fingers was 1-2 with 23 saves and an ERA of 1.96. However, it was late in the year when Fingers injured his back.
“Yes, I hurt my back right around the first of September and had to have a back operation,” Fingers said. “That’s why I didn’t have as many innings pitched that year.”
In 1985, Fingers still had 17 saves, but his record was 1-6 and his ERA was 5.06. Fingers explained to me what the problem for him was in his final year with the Brewers and in the majors.
“I didn’t think [George] Bamberger was using me right,” Fingers said. “He would sit me down for sometimes two weeks before I would get in a game. You can’t go that long without pitching when you are a closer. Plus, there was an issue with my salary. They didn’t think I would make the club because of my back and my base salary was $200,000. But I also had a performance clause in the contract which meant every game I got in I would get an additional $20,000 for an appearance.
“Once we got to August and September and we weren’t in the pennant race, Bamberger just stopped pitching me. I didn’t pitch the last month of the season. They weren’t go to run me out there to get a save when it didn’t mean anything, plus they saved the $20,000. At the end of the season, I let Bamberger know how I felt about the way he managed me. They ended up releasing me.”
The ironic situation with that story is what I told Rollie about a conversation I had with Bambi in 1980. The Brewers were going through a stretch of games when the pitching staff had a number of complete games. In fact, the team had 48 complete games that year, which was second in the AL. Anyway, I asked Bambi why he didn’t utilize his bullpen that often in tight games.
Bambi told me, ‘Well, we don’t have f’ing Rollie Fingers. We have f’ing Reggie Cleveland.’ My guess is that Bamberger would have used Fingers early and often when the Brewers were pennant contenders while he was managing the team back then.
In his four years with the Brew Crew, Fingers was 13-17 with 97 saves and an ERA of 2.54.
The bottom line is that Fingers had a great time playing in Milwaukee with the Brewers. One of the reasons was because of the guy who called games in the radio booth, Bob Uecker.
“Ueck was great,” Fingers said. “Ueck had been on the field. He knows baseball because he’s been a player. So when you listen to Bob Uecker calling a ballgame, he could call it like a ballplayer.
“Plus, Ueck is a comedian. You can be listening to a 10-0 game and you would still be listening to him in the ninth inning because he is so entertaining. Ueck is a great announcer and have been friends with him for years, ever since I first met him. Plus, he’s still at it!”
Uecker is now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (as a broadcaster). As is Selig. Plus there are four players who played with Fingers in Milwaukee who have also been inducted at Cooperstown. I’m talking about Sutton, Yount, Molitor and now Simmons.
And so is obviously Fingers. No. 34 has had his uniform number retired by both the Athletics and Brewers. Fingers is also in the Athletics Hall of Fame and the Miller Park Walk of Fame. Fingers was just the second relief pitcher ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The first was Hoyt Wilhelm.
341 saves will get you to Cooperstown, not to mention winning an AL Cy Young Award and being an AL MVP. Plus, Fingers was on three World Series champion teams, in which he was the World Series MVP in 1974. A World Series ERA of 1.35 in 16 appearances doesn’t hurt either.
When Fingers was playing, he was known as a “money pitcher” when he was on the mound. Not so much because of his salary, but because he seemed to have ice in his veins in clutch situations like the World Series.
That’s why him not being able to play in the 1982 World Series will always be a sad memory for Brewer Nation.