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Losing a sports team: The relocation of the Kansas City Athletics

St. Louis is losing the Rams, but long-time Kansas City baseball fans also remembering once losing a team.

Across the state of Missouri, a fanbase is having its team torn away from them. The Rams will relocate back to Los Angeles after spending 21 seasons in St. Louis. Kansas City is no stranger to relocation, having lost clubs in both the NBA (Kings) and NHL (Scouts). Almost 50 years ago, Kansas City also lost the first big-time professional sports franchise it ever had, Major League Baseball's Kansas City Athletics.

In 1955, Kansas City, a city of about 814,000 people, became Major League. That year, it landed its first franchise in one of the major sports leagues when the Athletics began play in Municipal Stadium at 21st and Brooklyn. Kansas City Star sports editor Ernie Mehl was the driving force behind bringing Major League Baseball to the city. After striking out in landing the St. Louis Browns, Mehl convinced Chicago businessman Arnold Johnson, owner of the baseball stadium in Kansas City, to purchase the Philadelphia Athletics for $3.5 million and move them westward.

The A's drew just under 4,000 fans per game in their last year in Philadelphia, but were welcomed to a crowd of 32,000 in their first game in Kansas City, finishing second only to the Yankees in American League attendance that season. The Athletics lost 91 games that first year, but had an All-Star first baseman in Vic Power, an All-Star outfielder with Gus Zernial, and a Hall of Fame outfielder in Enos Slaughter. Kansas City was major league, and the future looked bright.

The future lasted just thirteen seasons in Kansas City. The Athletics finished in last place or second-to-last place in ten of their thirteen seasons, and never finished higher than sixth. Johnson owed approval of his ownership bid to lobbying by the New York Yankees. He also had financial dealings with the team, owning the land Yankee Stadium sat on, land he would have to sell to the Yankees to own the Athletics. Those ties, combined with numerous questionable trades between the two franchises, led to speculation the two clubs were in cahoots to cripple the Kansas City franchise while enriching the Yankees and Johnson's pocketbook.

Rumors swirled from the get-go that Kansas City was simply a rest stop for the team to eventually move to Los Angeles, fueled by an escape clause in the lease if attendance dropped below one million. The Dodgers would beat Johnson to southern California, but Kansas City fans were constantly threatened by relocation. Johnson would die of a cerebral hemorrhage in the spring of 1960, leaving the possibility that perhaps steadier ownership could right the ship. The minority ownership group, led by Kansas City businessman Byron Spencer, offered $1.85 million for Johnson's share of the club. The probate court instead gave the controlling interest to a slightly higher bid from Chicago insurance salesman Charlie O. Finley.

"Kansas City is a great sports town and I'm sure we'll have excellent support. One of the first things I'm going to do is prove that Kansas City isn't a Yankees farm team."

-Charlie Finley

Finley was a huge baseball fan, who had been rebuffed several times in purchasing a Major League team, including the Athletics back when they were in Philadelphia. He also loathed the Yankees, accusing the American League of giving the club unfair advantages. Finley pledged to build a team full of homegrown stars and stated he was committed to Kansas City, signing a three-year lease. But the franchise would have a tumultuous run, with Finley establishing himself as one of the most eccentric owners in the game. He openly sparred with the Kansas City Star, meddled with players, and fined them every chance he got. He went through five general managers in seven seasons (sparring with one for three years in a legal dispute over backpay), with former insurance executive Pat Friday serving two stints as GM, before Finley finally named himself General Manager in 1967.

By 1962, Finley was openly looking to relocate. Attendance averaged less than 10,000 fans per game, near the bottom of the league, but the team had also failed to finished higher than eighth in a ten-team league since Finley had bought the club. At the owner's meetings in May, he informally asked owners if he could seek relocation to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but was denied. In the spring of 1963, while on a scouting trip to Atlanta, Finley was led to three potential stadium sites by the mayor. But Finley got word that there was no way the American League would let him bolt to Georgia, so he abandoned the plan.

He would stonewall Kansas City officials on a new lease for the 1964 season. He was upset at what he perceived as preferential treatment to his new co-tenants at Municipal Stadium, the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs. However city officials reportedly offered him the same deal as the Chiefs, a seven-year lease with $1 per year in rent, with Finley balking at the length of the deal.

Negotiations grew contentious, with Finley threatening to move the team to a "cow pasture" in rural Peculiar, Missouri. After talks fell apart in January of 1964, Finley flew to Louisville, Kentucky and signed a two-year lease to have his Athletics play at the 20,000 seat Kentucky Fairgrounds, with plans to expand seating to 30,000. The only problem was, the American League had not signed off on the relocation.

"Finley is a fool and his actions are inexcusable"

-White Sox owner Arthur Allyn

American League owners, never a fan of Finley, resoundingly rejected his proposed move 9-1. Undeterred, Finley flew out to Oakland and signed a 20-year lease to move the team to the West Coast to play in a multi-purpose stadium that was still being built. Once again, American League owners rejected him 9-1. They ordered him to sign a lease with the city of Kansas City, or risk losing his club. Finley begrudgingly signed a four-year lease with no attendance escape clause. He privately groused that Kansas City was a “horse-shit town.”

Finley claimed major losses, saying he would need attendance to reach one million fans per season just to break even. He sued the city to reclaim the previous lease because it had an escape clause to allow him to leave if attendance continued to lag. In the fall of 1964, he offered to sell the club and get out of the baseball business. Three Kansas City ownership groups showed interest, as well as two out-of-town groups wishing to relocate the franchise to Denver or San Diego. However none of the groups could match Finley's high asking price of $8 million, so he kept the club.

The club continue to flounder in the standings and at the box office, although Finley was finally beginning to build a team with young stars like Bert Campaneris, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, "Blue Moon" Odom, and a farm system with stars like Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, and Reggie Jackson. As the Oakland Alameda-Coliseum neared completion, rumors swirled that Finley would bolt for the West Coast as soon as his lease expired after the 1967 season.

Nonetheless, Finley continued to have discussions with Kansas City officials on a new stadium to house the Athletics. A proposed downtown multi-purpose domed stadium was shelved, in part, because Finley did not want to share a facility with the Chiefs. Instead, two stadiums were proposed at an alternate site in the Leeds area at the intersection of I-70 and I-435. In June of 1967, Jackson County voters approved a $102 million bond measure to built the Truman Sports Complex.

The proposed downtown domed stadium for the Athletics and Chiefs.

Even with the prospect of a brand new stadium, Finley had his heart set on leaving Kansas City. His plans to relocate the club hit a snag due to Oakland not having a television channel that could air Athletics games, starving any potential franchise of a major revenue source. The city of Milwaukee emerged as a possible suitor for the franchise, led by an automobile dealer named Allan "Bud" Selig. Late in the 1967 season, Seattle emerged as another relocation candidate. However, Finley was able to work out deals with San Francisco television and radio stations, and a move to Oakland seemed inevitable.

Following another last place finish in 1967, Finley formally asked for permission to relocate his franchise to Oakland. American League owners were growing tired of Finley's battles with Kansas City, feared litigation from the contentious owner, and were eager to place a second franchise in California. The votes seemed to be in favor of a move. Stuart Symington, a powerful U.S. Senator from Missouri, intervened on behalf of Kansas City. He threatened to open anti-trust hearings on Major League Baseball if the city was left with an empty baseball stadium. The American League had been mulling expansion, so they hastily arranged groups from Seattle and Dallas-Fort Worth (led by Chiefs owner and Dallas native Lamar Hunt) to make presentations on short notice. On October 18, the American League approved the relocation of the Athletics to Oakland and awarded franchises to Kansas City and Seattle to begin play in 1969.

"This loss is more than recompensed for by the pleasure resulting from our getting rid of Mr. Finley."

-Senator Stuart Symington

The announcement was a shock to the National League which wanted to expand jointly, and now had to scramble to add two clubs of its own. That December, the American League screened four local ownership groups interested in the new Kansas City franchise. The next month, they chose Marion Laboratories executive Ewing Kauffman over three groups headed by Crosby Kemper, Richard Stern, and John Latshaw. The Royals were born.

The loss of the Athletics was a blow to Kansas City sports fans and the psyche of the city. Luckily, city and state leaders were able to leverage a new team, and Kansas City baseball fans were the better for it.