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The Abbreviated History of the Kansas City Athletics - Part Two

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Charlie Finley - Genius or villain?

Arnold Johnson’s untimely death gave Chicago Insurance executive, Charlie O. Finley, another chance to buy the Athletics. His earlier bid, in 1954, was deemed to low and the team was awarded to Johnson. In December 1960, Finley purchased a controlling interest in the Athletics from Johnson’s estate, then proceeded to buy out the minority owners a year later.

It’s almost impossible to write about the Athletics stay in Kansas City without making the story about Charlie Finley. Finley was a larger than life figure, who at times was maddening and brilliant. The best I can describe him would be as a hybrid of Bill Veeck and George Steinbrenner.

Upon purchasing the Athletics (they wouldn’t start using the A’s name until 1963), Finley promised fans a new day, proclaiming that the Athletics “were no longer beholden to special relationships”. The special relationship being of course, Arnold Johnson’s cozy ties with the New York Yankees. Finley even purchased a bus, pointed it in the direction of New York and set it ablaze. No word on how that went over with the Kansas City Fire Department.

Finley was viewed by many fans in Kansas City as a savior and he got right after it, spending over $400,000 of his own money on upgrades to Municipal Stadium. He improved the outside lighting, piped radio broadcasts of the game into the restrooms had the stadium seats painted yellow, turquoise and orange. He said, “My intentions are to keep the Athletics permanently in Kansas City and build a winning ball club. I have no intention of ever moving the franchise”. With statements like that, Finley might have made a better politician than baseball owner as he almost immediately began shopping the team to other cities, beginning with Dallas-Ft. Worth in 1961 and 1962, followed by a dalliance with Louisville in 1964, which the American League owners rejected with a 9-1 vote. He also petitioned to move the club to Oakland in 1964, which again failed on another 9-1 vote, with Finley, in both cases, being the only owner casting a vote to move. This led to future romances with Atlanta, Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle. Finley became so impossible to deal with, he threatened to move the Athletics to a cow pasture outside of Peculiar, Missouri, complete with temporary grandstands.

All of this led to Finley’s most famous and inflammatory quote, “this (Kansas City) is a horse-shit town. No one will ever do any good here”.

Despite all the distractions brought on by Finley’s meddling, the Athletics continued to play baseball.

1961

In Finley’s first season as owner, he had the team’s uniforms redesigned. The road jerseys read “Kansas City” and the caps were changed to an interlocking KC. This was the first time the city had been identified on the jerseys. Finley also installed a mechanical rabbit, Harvey, to run on a track to homeplate and bring the home plate ump additional baseballs. Joe Gordon, who was later the Royals first manager, started the season in the dugout but was later replaced by Hank Bauer. The A’s limped to a 61-100 record, finishing ninth in the ten team American League. 25-year-old Dick Howser played in 158 games at shortstop and hit a respectable .280 with 171 hits and 92 walks, good for a .377 OBP. In April of 1961, the team signed 19-year-old free agent Bert Campaneris.

1962

There were few bright spots for the A’s in 1962. First baseman Norm Siebern had a terrific season, hitting .308 with 25 home runs, 117 RBI and 110 walks, which was good for a .412 OBP and a seventh-place finish in the American League MVP voting. Siebern was one of Kansas City’s most underrated stars. Between 1960 and 1963, he was a two-time All Star and received MVP votes in three seasons. In those four seasons, he slammed 78 home runs and drove in 367 along with collecting 343 walks as an 11 WAR player. By comparison, Eric Hosmer’s four best seasons in Kansas City, cherry picked – not consecutive, he collected 87 home runs, 369 RBI with 218 walks, good for 10 WAR.

On August 26th, Jack Kralick of the Minnesota Twins threw the first no-hitter in Twins history against the Athletics. Once again, the Athletics finished in ninth place, with a 72-90 record.

1963

Finley, never content with the status quo, made several changes to start the 1963 season. He ditched the teams traditional red, blue and white colors and outfitted the team in Kelly green and Ft. Knox gold uniforms that drew ridicule across the conservative baseball universe. He also replaced Connie Mack’s elephant mascot with a Missouri mule, which he named “Charlie O”. Charlie O stood seventeen hands tall. The mule became a quasi-celebrity, staying at the team hotel on the road and often drinking from punch bowls at cocktail parties.

On the field, the A’s improved slightly, to finish at 73-89 and eighth place in the American League. Bauer was replaced as manager by Eddie Lopat. Siebern had another fine season, hitting .272 with 16 home runs and 83 RBI. 1963 also marked the debut of future broadcasting homer, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, a 21-year-old first baseman and Tony LaRussa, who made his major league debut as an 18-year-old, playing in 34 games at shortstop and second base. Charlie Lau, who later steered George Brett and Hal McRae to stardom, played in 62 games at catcher, getting 187 at bats and hitting .294.

In November of 1963, the A’s and the Baltimore Orioles swapped first basemen, with Kansas City trading their one legitimate star, Norm Siebern for Jim Gentile.

1964

The wheels started to fall off in 1964. Finley left the reservation and signed an agreement to move the team to Louisville, a move that was promptly swatted away by other American League club owners. After another slow start, Lopat was fired and replaced by Mel McGaha. The A’s struggled all season and closed with a 57-105 mark and finished in last place. The ’64 season did mark the arrival of a couple of mashers: Gentile and right-fielder Rocky Colavito. Both players put up decent numbers with Gentile hitting .251 with 28 home runs, 71 RBI and 84 walks and Colavito, in his only season in KC, hitting .274 with 34 home runs and 102 RBI. 22-year-old Bert Campaneris made his debut as did 19-year-old pitcher, John “Blue Moon” Odom. Campaneris made his debut on July 23rd and homered on the first pitch he saw from Jim Kaat and added another dinger later in the game to announce his arrival. Worn down by the losing and Finley’s shenanigans, fans voted with their wallets and attendance dropped to 528,344, the lowest mark ever by the A’s in Kansas City. Ever the innovator, Finley hired Betty Crawford, a Chicago TV weather girl, to be the first female broadcaster in Major League Baseball history, in an attempt to appeal to female fans.

1965

1965 was one of the more interesting years in the history of Kansas City baseball. On the field, the Athletics were still terrible. They finished at 59-103, once again last place in the American League. After a 5-21 start, Haywood Sullivan, who had just retired as the Athletics catcher in 1963, replaced Mel McGaha and became at age 34, the youngest manager in baseball. If you looked past the terrible record, you could see something special starting to bloom in Kansas City. The team was loaded with young talent, such as Hawk Harrelson, Bert Campaneris, Blue Moon Odom and Dick Green. They were joined in 1965 by a trio of young pitchers: 19-year-old Jim “Catfish” Hunter, 22-year-old Lew Krausse and 23-year-old Paul Lindblad.

Say what you will about Finley’s dark side, but he was starting to put together a decent farm system. Finley also helped develop the amateur draft, as a way to help the weaker franchises compete with the powerhouse franchises like the Yankees and Dodgers. 1965 was the first year of the draft, and the Athletics had the first overall pick, which they used to select Arizona State outfielder, Rick Monday. The 1965 draft was a bonanza for Kansas City. Besides Monday, they selected Joe Keough, Bob Stinson, Sal Bando, George Lauzerique and Gene Tenace, all of who had productive careers. Keough and Stinson later played for the Royals. It remains one of the more impressive draft hauls I have ever seen, with those six accounting for 146 WAR in their career.

On the field, Campaneris led the A’s with a .270 batting average, while Harrelson slugged 23 home runs. The real story of 1965 though was two separate promotions that highlighted the genius of Charlie O. Finley. The first occurred on September 8th in a game against the California Angels. With his team in last place, and attendance lagging, Finley was desperate for ideas. On this date, Finley declared it “Bert Campaneris day” and announced that Campy would become the first player in major league history to play all nine positions in one game. Campy had a terrific career and still holds the A’s record (Kansas City and Oakland) for games played (1,795), hits (1,882) and at-bats with 7,180. Campaneris led the American League in stolen bases six times between 1965 and 1972 and led the league in putouts three times. Campy was a 53 WAR player over his 19-year career, which included six All-Star games and eight years where he received MVP votes. By comparison, Fred Patek, considered by many to be the Royals greatest shortstop, complied a respectable 24 WAR over a 14-year career while the current incumbent, Alcides Escobar has accumulated 9 WAR (and dropping) over an eleven-year career. After Campaneris left the A’s following the 1975 season, he bounced around between California, Texas and the Mexican league, before returning to the show in 1983 with old nemesis Billy Martin and the New York Yankees. Campaneris found the fountain of youth in the Big Apple, hitting a career high of .322 in sixty games platooning at second and third base.

On this night, at Municipal Stadium, 21,576 fans showed up to see history made. Campaneris started the game at shortstop, then played second base, third base, left field, center field, right field and first base in the proceeding innings. In the eighth, Campaneris moved to the mound, where in an added twist, he pitched ambidextrously, throwing right handed to right handed batters, and lefty to left handed batters. He escaped the inning after allowing only one run. Campy started the ninth at catcher and all was going well until the Angels put runners on first and third with two outs. The Angels attempted a double steal, with Campaneris throwing to Dick Green at second. Future Royal Ed Kirkpatrick, the runner on third, broke for home on the throw. Green alertly fired the ball back to Campaneris. Kirkpatrick was out by a country mile but crashed into Campaneris in an attempt to dislodge the ball. Campy held on for the final out of the inning, and after a brief scuffle, Campaneris was forced to leave the game and have his shoulder examined. The Angels scored twice in the 13th inning to defeat the A’s 5-3. The loss dropped Kansas City to 51-88 on their way to a 103-loss season. The promotion was a success though, as the next night, only 1,271 fans showed up. The game featured several future Royals: Bobby Knoop, Kirkpatrick and Paul Schaal for the Angels, plus former Athletic star Vic Power. Aurelio Monteagudo pitched for the A’s. Also playing for California was Campaneris’ first cousin, and future Royal (1980) Jose Cardenal.

The second Finley promotion was even more audacious. Finley declared that September 25th would be Satchel Paige day, and in addition to honoring Paige, Finley signed the 59-year-old pitching legend and stated that Paige would start the game against the powerful Boston Red Sox.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige was a story by himself. Satchel got his nickname as a boy while working as a luggage carrier at the Mobile, Alabama train station. He soon found his true calling as a pitcher and the world was a richer place for it. From 1927 to 1948, Paige was reportedly the highest paid pitcher of his time. He pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1939 to 1942 and led the team to four consecutive Negro American League pennants, including a four-game sweep of Josh Gibson and the Homestead Greys in the 1942 Negro League World Series. Revolutionary owner Bill Veeck, signed Paige to a major league contract with his Cleveland Indians, and on July 9, 1948, a 42-year-old Paige made his Major League debut. Paige went 6 and 1 with a 2.48 ERA for the eventual World Series champions. Even more astounding, Paige made the American League All-Star teams in 1952 and 1953 at the ages of 45 and 46.

By 1965, Paige was more than a star in Kansas City. He was a living legend. His night started in pure Satchel fashion, with Paige sitting in a rocking chair, a blanket draped over his legs and a pretty nurse rubbing liniment on his famed pitching arm. When the game started, the rocker was moved to the A’s dugout, which was below field level. Paige rocked away while the A’s batted. When asked about the rocker, Paige delivered this pearl: “at my age, I’m close enough to being below ground as it is.”

Finley asked Paige if he could pitch three innings. Paige replied, “that depends. How many times a day?”

For this promotion, Finley did it right, inviting former stars of the Monarchs and the Kansas City Blues to a luncheon honoring Paige and even hosted a three-inning exhibition prior to the game, which drew the likes of Buck O’Neil, Hilton Smith, Cool Papa Bell and Bullet Rogan. To this day, one of the funniest stories in baseball is the story on why Paige used to call O’Neil “Nancy”. That’ll be for another day.

It had been twelve years since Paige pitched in the majors. He ran into a little trouble in the first, giving up a two out double to Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski, before retiring Tony Conigliaro on a fly ball to left to escape the jam. Paige sailed through the second and the third while Kansas City squeezed across a single run to give Paige the lead. Paige came to the mound in the fourth, but after throwing his warm up pitches, manager Haywood Sullivan came to the mound, to thunderous boos, to pull Paige. As Satchel approached the dugout, the fans erupted in a wild standing ovation, which prompted Paige to doff his cap twice and bow to the adoring crowd. The stadium lights were then turned off, matches were lit and the crowd of 9,289 sang “The old grey mare”.

In attendance that night was a nine-year-old from Independence named Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe later said, “I’m quite sure that game had something to do with me wanting to be a baseball player.”

Home plate umpire Bill Valentine said that Paige was really pitching, and that Boston was doing their best to hit him. “He kept the ball down, kept it moving below their knees” Valentine recalled. “I’ll bet he wasn’t throwing 80 MPH, and the they’d swing and say, son of a bitch, that pitch was right there.”

Jim Gosger, who later played for Kansas City, made the first and last outs against Paige, later said, “My two biggest thrills in baseball were batting against Satchel Paige and hitting a home run against Whitey Ford the only time I faced him. As far as I’m concerned, Satchel was a prince.” Indeed.

Paige even got to the plate in the second and struck out to end the inning. Kansas City led 2-0 after six innings, but Boston, sparked by a two-run inside-the-park home run in the 8th by Conigliaro, won the game 5-2. Also playing in the game were Jose Tartabull (father of future Royal slugger, Danny) and Diego Segui (father of David).

Paige was paid $3,500 for his three innings of work and only needed twenty-eight pitches (28!) to get through ten batters.

1966

The A’s made a nice jump in 1966, improving to 74-86 under new manager Alvin Dark. The win increase was only good for seventh place in the A.L.

Twenty-year-old Rick Monday made his debut and got into seventeen games. Another selection from the 1965 draft, Sal Bando, made his Kansas City debut and played in eleven games. A full-fledged youth movement was now under way, including two more young pitchers, Jim Nash and Chuck Dobson. The A’s held the second selection in the 1966 amateur draft and they didn’t miss, once again mining Arizona State for a young outfielder named Reggie Jackson.

1967

The summer of 1967 was not the Summer of Love in Kansas City, as the youngsters learned how to play ball. The team slipped to a 62-99 record in what would be their final season in Kansas City. Finley openly feuded with the Kansas City Star and many of his players, most notably Ken Harrelson. Finley decided that Kansas City was too small for two out sized personalities and that one of them had to go, so he released Harrelson in August, despite the fact that the Hawk was hitting .305. Boston signed Harrelson, and buoyed by his good fortune, Harrelson played a key role in helping the Red Sox win the American League pennant. Other American League owners had finally tired of arguing with Finley to keep the team in Kansas City and voted to allow him to move the team to Oakland. Kansas City Star sports editor, Ernie Mehl made a last-minute push to keep the team in Kansas City by approaching a group led by Ewing Kauffman, to no avail. On the field, the youth movement continued with the debuts of Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson and Dave Duncan. The A’s once again scored big in the draft when they selected Vida Blue in round two. They also selected Darrel Evans in the seventh round but were unable to sign him. The 1967 draft in itself was fascinating, with future Royals John Mayberry going to Houston with the sixth pick, Wayne Simpson to Cincinnati with the eighth pick and future ace Steve Busby to the San Francisco Giants with pick number 78, though Buzz elected to attend USC instead.

1967 was the year I became a Kansas City Athletic fan. One thing I love about America, is that even poor people have really nice television sets and we were no exception. Our set was an enormous console, with the TV situated in the middle and two speakers on each side. The upper left of the console contained a turntable and the upper right had an AM/FM radio. There was also a small cabinet that held LP’s. The entire thing probably weighed three hundred pounds. That summer, I was six, and remember my dad watching a Kansas City A’s game. In those days, baseball teams were very conservative and nearly all teams wore a drab white or grey uniform. What caught my attention about the A’s was there bright uniforms and that the announcers constantly referred to Bert Campaneris as Bert “Campy” Campaneris. Every time Campaneris made a play, they would dutifully say, “That was a fine play by Bert “Campy” Campaneris. He’s going to be a big star for this team.” And you thought Hud got on your nerves. I don’t recall who the A’s were playing or even who won, but I was hooked. When Finley moved the A’s, I took a one season break from baseball and picked back up with the Royals.

Speaking of Finley, the name Charlie Finley still provokes strong emotions in Kansas City. Many people spit out the name as if they have a piece of rotting food in their mouth. Despite the hard feelings, Finley did have his moments of brilliance. He did hire the first female broadcaster. His Satchel Paige promotion was of the likes that will never be seen again. He later introduced ball girls to sit along the outfield foul lines. He floated the idea of using brightly colored baseballs. He was instrumental in establishing the amateur draft, which helped restore some competitive balance to baseball. Finley also had a thing for nicknames. Jim “Catfish” Hunter was a great one. John “Blue Moon” Odom was a classic. He also had some misses. Finley had encouraged Vida Blue to change his first name to True. Thankfully Blue declined. I mean, how do you improve an uber cool name like Vida Blue?

The fans in Kansas City could tell that the A’s, with their collection of young talent, were on the verge of something special. It didn’t take long to happen, as the team went 82-80 in 1968 to kick off one of the most impressive dynasties in baseball history. For Kansas City fans, it stung, watching “our guys in Oakland” win three consecutive World Series Championships between 1972 and 1974. Had Finley just done the right thing by committing himself to keeping the team in Kansas City, paying his players well and continuing to develop his farm system, he could have owned Kansas City.

In the final history of the Kansas City Athletics, there were four players who played for both the Athletics and the Royals. Aurelio Monteagudo, Dave Wickersham, Ken Sanders and Moe Drabowsky, all pitchers. Wickersham and Sanders made their major league debuts with the A’s and retired after their final pitches were thrown with the Royals.

The Kansas City Athletics. Thirteen seasons. A lot of losses. A lot of memories.