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The Abbreviated history of the Kansas City Athletics – Part One

Rebuilds are not a new thing to KC baseball

Before I move forward with the mid-70’s Royals teams, I want to take a look back at baseball history in Kansas City.

The Philadelphia Years

The Philadelphia Athletics were one of the original American League teams, playing in Philly from 1901 to 1954. In 1901, Connie Mack was recruited to manage the club. Mack also owned 25% of the team. The rules state that a player or manager must be in uniform to step onto the field, so Mack, who had a propensity for wearing three-piece suits and straw boater hats, had to remain in the dugout.

The early Athletic teams were a dynasty, winning the American League pennant six times between 1902 and 1914 and winning the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913. Those teams featured stars such as Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and Rube Waddell.

In 1909, the team moved into major league baseball’s first concrete and steel ballpark, Shibe Park.

In 1914, the Athletics posted a record of 99-53, but we swept in the 1914 World Series by the “Miracle” Boston Braves. The Series was clouded in controversy, as many A’s players were angry about Mack’s penny-pinching ways. There were rumors that the team did not play hard and there was also heavy wagering by bookmaker Sport Sullivan, who was later implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. After the Series loss, star pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank jumped to the newly established Federal League and Mack engaged in a wholesale rebuild, unloading his higher priced stars for cheaper, younger replacements. The results were predictable, as the Athletics stumbled to a 43-109 mark in the 1915 season.

The Athletics, and Mack, established a second dynasty, that won three consecutive American League Pennants from 1929 to 1931, including two more World Series Championships in 1929 and 1930. This team featured three future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, including stars Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and pitcher Lefty Grove. This run represented the Athletics last hurrah. The Great Depression hit Mack hard. The subsequent drop in revenue prevented Mack from building another winning team and the lack of cash flow strained the Athletics’ farm system. From 1935 to 1946, the Athletics finished in last or next to last place every season.

The Athletics had always been Philadelphia’s favorite team, but the losing took a toll on the fan base. During those same years, the Phillies began to rise, and soon passed the Athletics in popularity, buoyed by their appearance in the 1950 World Series.

By 1954, with Connie Mack suffering from health issues and the Athletics on the verge of bankruptcy, the Mack family began entertaining offers to sell the club.

The Johnson Years

The Mack family entertained several offers for the Athletics, including one from a gentleman named Charles Finley, before selling the ballclub to Chicago businessman, Arnold Johnson. Johnson owned the baseball stadium in Kansas City, then known as Blues Stadium, which was the home of the New York Yankee’s AAA ballclub. The purchase price was $3.5 million dollars and once accepted and approved by the American League, Johnson asked the owners for permission to move the franchise to Kansas City.

Johnson also owned Yankee Stadium and was a business associate of Yankee owners Dan Topping, Larry McPhail and Del Webb. After selling his share of the Yankees to CBS in 1964, Webb went on to acclaim as a real estate developer and founded a company that bears his name, Del Webb Corp., now Pulte Homes. To facilitate the Johnson purchase, the Yankee’s agreed to move their AAA team to Denver, while Johnson sold Blues Stadium to the City of Kansas City, which in turn leased it back to him. Blues Stadium was razed and hurriedly rebuilt, being christened Municipal Stadium. Johnson’s tenure as owner was clouded by suspicion of his close ties to the Yankee’s, and the Athletics checkered trading history with New York only added fuel to the fire.

Indeed. During the Johnson era, the Athletics traded several young stars to New York, including Roger Maris, Bobby Schantz, Hector Lopez, Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar and Ralph Terry, drawing the ire of other American League owners. The Maris trade was particularly galling. The Athletics had acquired Maris from the Cleveland Indians in June of 1958 for Woodie Held and All Star first baseman Vic Power. Maris immediately became a fan favorite, while making the All-Star team in 1959.

In December of 1959, the Athletics traded Maris and shortstop Joe DeMaestri to the Yankee’s for an over the hill Hank Bauer, a sore armed Don Larsen, Norm Siebern and Marvelous Marv Throneberry. Bauer and Larsen would soon be out of baseball. Siebern, a sweet hitting first baseman and left fielder, did develop into a solid pro, appearing in two All-Star games and garnering MVP votes in three consecutive seasons for the A’s before, you guessed it, the A’s traded him to the Orioles.

All Maris did with New York was win back-to-back American League MVP awards (1960 and 1961) while breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record with his historic 1961 season in which he hit .269 with 61 home runs and 141 RBI. Maris and Mickey Mantle, who finished with 54 home runs, battled for the home run lead all summer, capturing the nations imagination, much like Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa would in the Summer of 1998.

To illustrate how one sided most of these trades with the Yankees were, the 1961 Yankees, widely regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time, had ten former Athletics on their roster: Pitchers Bud Daley, Art Ditmar, Ryne Duren, Duke Maas and Ralph Terry along with position players: Clete Boyer, Joe DeMaestri, Bob Cerv, Hector Lopez and Maris.

The Athletics played their first game in Kansas City on April 12, 1955 in front of 32,844 fans. Former president Harry Truman threw out the first pitch. Connie Mack was also in attendance.

The Athletics first manager was former Indian great, and Baseball Hall of Famer, Lou Boudreau. The 1955 team finished 63-91, good for sixth in the American League. First baseman Vic Power blossomed into a star, hitting .319, good for second in the league behind Detroit’s Al Kaline. Left fielder Gus Zernial slammed 30 home runs and drove in 84. The 1955 team had some talented pieces. Hector Lopez developed into a solid third baseman and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson hit .301. Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter played 108 games in right field at the age of 39 and hit .322. Clete Boyer got into 47 games as an eighteen-year-old.

The pitching staff also had some talent with Ditmar, Alex Kellner and Bobby Schantz. Schantz had gone 24-7 with the 1952 Athletics and won the A.L. MVP, but arm troubles plagued his stay in Kansas City. Naturally, the Athletics gave up on him too early and in February of 1957 traded him to, you guessed it, New York (along with Ditmar and eventually Clete Boyer, as a player to be named later) for a bunch of spare parts in what ended up being such a one-sided trade, it almost makes one nauseous. The 1955 Kansas City staff also featured aged and colorful hurlers such as Vic Raschi, Johnny Sain and Ewell Blackwell.

The Athletics, constantly being gutted of its young talent, finished in last or next to last in every season of the Johnson era.

One wonders what the Athletics could have accomplished with dedicated ownership and a competent General Manager. An example would be Bob Cerv. Cerv was a native of Weston, Nebraska and had been acquired from the Yankee’s for cash considerations in 1956. Cerv had been a terrific athlete at Nebraska, playing baseball and basketball for the Cornhuskers. His best season was 1958, when he hit .305 with 38 home runs and 104 RBI. Cerv made his only All-Star team that season and finished fourth in the A.L. MVP race. The Athletics dutifully traded Cerv back to the Yankee’s in the 1960 season for third baseman Andy Carey.

Poor play led to a decline in attendance. There were persistent rumors that Johnson wanted to move the Athletics to the west coast. Ultimately, none of that mattered as Johnson was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage in March of 1960 and died at the age of 53.

Next week: The Finley Years