Bats and Hammers

Charlie O. Finley owned Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s from 1960 (when the team was in Kansas City) until just before the 1981 season. Along the way, the team featured a series of future Hall of Famers – Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and more – and won the World Series in three straight seasons, from 1972-1974. Unfortunately, the success of Finley’s teams was, perhaps, overshadowed by the owner’s eccentric shenanigans: orange-painted baseballs, paying players to grow mustaches, and (as recounted in these pages previously), the game’s only “designated runner.”

But one person’s rise to fame launched as a byproduct of Finley’s shenanigans.

In 1973, 11 year old Stanley Burrell and his eight siblings lived in a housing project in Oakland. To raise money for his family, Burrell went to A’s games, beatboxing and selling shagged foul balls. He caught Finley’s eye — Finley appreciated his flair — and soon both Stanley and his older brother Louis had a new job: Batboy.

While Louis carried out the actual batboy duties — bringing bats back to the dugout and fetching stray baseballs behind home plate — Finley had different plans for Stanley. An absentee owner — Finley lived in Chicago and rarely was at the A’s home games in Oakland — Charlie O needed intel. Stanley, situated in the dugout, provided a solution. Finley made Burrell (by now, a robust thirteen years of age) his “Executive Vice President,” replete with a baseball cap reading Ex VP.”  Burrell became Finley’s eyes and ears, relaying to him the every day goings-on with the team. For this, the players nicknamed Burrell “Pipeline” — a nickname which did not stick.

Another nickname, however, did stick. A few players thought Burrell resembled “Hammerin'” Hank Aaron, and started calling him “Little Hammer” or just plain “Hammer.”  As Burrell’s tenure with the team continued — he’d spend seven years as the Pipeline — he also began to travel with the team.  He retained the “Hammer” moniker as he performed his beatboxing, dance, and rap act at clubs across the country.  Soon he’d become known as M.C. Hammer.

This started Hammer’s ascent in the music industry — but it took another A’s connection to vault it into the next level.  In 1987, seven years after he last acted as batboy-slash-spy for Finley and the A’s, M.C. Hammer borrowed $20,000 from two former A’s players whom he had become friendly with. He used that money to start his own record label and self-produce his first album. That album became his stepping stone to fame.  He ended up selling that album (and re-recording it) to Capitol Records, who rewarded him with a $1.75 million, multi-album advance.

That was a good deal for Capitol Records, too.  Over M.C. Hammer’s career, he has sold over 50 million records worldwide.

Bonus fact: M.C. Hammer isn’t the only household non-baseball name to come out of Finley’s A’s. In 1969, Finley became the first owner to employ ball girls – young women who sat on stools in foul territory, ready to grab foul balls as they came by. (Gatorade put together an incredibly viral video ad featuring one in 2008; see it here.) One of Finley’s original ball girls was a 13 year old named Debbi Sivyer, who used her wage — $5 an hour – to buy ingredients for her cookie recipes. Eight years later, Sivyer, then married, formed a cookie company using her married name – Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.

From the Archives: Foul Tip: The story of an accidentally R-rated (okay, probably PG-13) baseball card.

Related: Beyond his music, M.C. Hammer is perhaps most famous for his style — specifically, his trademark gold lame parachute pants.  You can buy a replica version on Amazon, here.  But as the product’s one and only reviewer warns, do not wear the pants on a windy day.

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