As we start the new year, I want to look back in time at the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season. I was too young to remember much about them. I only recall seeing them play once on TV, and I’m guessing that game would have been in the summer of 1967. It stands out in my memory because I remember seeing the A’s bright green and yellow uniforms. Most teams wore dull greys and whites in those days. Many players and sportswriters made fun of the A’s brightly colored uniforms, but I thought they were the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
The only thing that stands out is the A’s TV announcers for the Athletics were constantly gushing about Bert Campaneris. And it wasn’t just Bert Campaneris, it was Bert “Campy” Campaneris. Campy had been around since 1964, and in fact in 1967 he was on his way to his fourth consecutive American League stolen base title. But more on Campy in the future.
Prior to Kansas City, the Athletics had been one of the cornerstone franchises in the American League, owned by Connie Mack and located in Philadelphia. They began play in the 1901 season and by the 1931 season had appeared in eight World Series, winning five. Beginning in 1935, the Athletics started a long, painful tailspin that ultimately led to their re-location to Kansas City. During the 1954 season, their last in Philadelphia, the club only drew 304,666 fans to Connie Mack Stadium, which was formerly known as Schibe Park. With Connie Mack on the verge of bankruptcy, the club was sold to Chicago businessman Arnold Johnson for $3.5 million dollars. Johnson, coincidentally owned Yankee Stadium and Blues Stadium in Kansas City, which was the home to the Yankees top farm team. American League owners approved the deal and gave Johnson permission to move the club to Kansas City, ending the Athletics 54-year reign in Philadelphia.
Johnson almost immediately sold Blues Stadium back to the City of Kansas City, who then leased the facility back to the Athletics. The city ran three shifts of workers around the clock and completely rebuilt the stadium in a 90-day span in order to make opening day.
Johnson hired former Cleveland Indian great and future Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau as the first manager of the Athletics.
Major League Baseball kicked off in Kansas City on Tuesday April 12, 1955 with former President Harry Truman throwing out the first pitch in front of a capacity crowd of 32,147 including Connie Mack and A’s legend Jimmie Foxx. Centerfielder Bill Wilson stroked the first hit in Kansas City A’s history, a second inning double off Detroit Tiger starter Ned Garver. Wilson had a big day at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a walk, including the first Kansas City home run, a solo shot to left field leading off the eighth inning. Ewell Blackwell got the final nine outs and the Athletics had their first victory by a score of 6-2.
In many ways, this first Kansas City team was almost like an expansion team. The 1954 Athletics had gone 51-103, finishing a whopping 60 games behind the American league champion Cleveland Indians. In the 1955 season, 56 different players appeared in at least one game. Sixteen of those players were in their final season in the bigs. They also fielded five rookies and six players whose 1955 season would be their only season in the majors.
There was some concern around the league about Johnson’s close ties with the Yankees and over the years, as we shall explore in this series, it was well founded. Seventeen players who appeared for the 1955 Athletics had either played for the Yankees or would play for them in future seasons.
It’s almost impossible to compare teams from different decades, though I do like to do it. I understand the pitching is different today. Pitchers generally throw harder in 2019 than they did in 1955, plus managers today use their bullpens, and fresh arms, with more regularity than they did in 1955.
Looking at the stats, it appears that offense was not a problem for the 1955 Athletics. The team had six regulars with an OPS+ of greater than 100, compared to the 2019 Royals who only had three with an OPS+ greater than 100. The ’19 Royals only had one regular bat better than .300 while the ’55 Athletics sported four with averages of .300 or better.
First baseman was manned by 27-year-old Vic Power, who slashed .319/.354/.505 with 19 home runs, 76 RBI and 190 hits.
Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a 29-year-old outfielder who slashed .301/.356/.414. Simpson was one of the early black pioneers in the American League. Yankee manager Casey Stengel once called Simpson the best defensive right fielder in the American League.
Left field was manned by Gus Zernial, age 32. Zernial slashed .254/.304/.508 with 30 home runs and 84 RBI.
The Athletics also had two other outfielders that hit well: Elmer Valo, age 34, who hit a robust .364/.460/.484 over 112 games and future Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter, who slashed .322/.408/.453 in 108 games of his age 39 season. Slaughter also led the majors in pinch hits, with 16.
25-year-old third baseman Hector Lopez chipped in with a .290/.337/.422 slash with 15 home runs and 68 RBI.
In a July 8th game, Athletic shortstop Joe DeMaestri became the first Kansas City player to collect six hits in a game.
I asked my father about this team, as he had seen them play. Why did they call Slaughter “Country”? Pop says that Slaughter got the nickname Country because of his appearance - the way he combed his hair, his speech mannerisms. He said Slaughter always had a positive outlook and a never give up attitude. He said he was “hell bent for leather”. Being from a different generation, I had to look that phrase up. “Hellbent for leather”, in a nutshell is defined as “recklessly determined”. Slaughter was best known for scoring the winning run with his mad dash from first to home on a single in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1946 World Series. Hell bent for leather.
Back in the ‘30’s and 40’s, there was a clear divide between the country and city ballplayers. Many country boys ended their schooling early to work. In those days, before cable TV, internet and daily papers, you can see how country kids could be isolated and thus a little more naïve and innocent. Heck, even I would have been considered country. When I left my small farming town for college at the age of 17, I was every bit the small town, naïve hick. I had never been outside of the United States. Kansas City was the largest city I had traveled to.
In the sporting world, look no further than people like Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller and even more recently, Larry Bird. They were country with a capital C. Understand, I’m not saying this in a negative light. It doesn’t mean that small towns kids are not as smart as their big-city counterparts. Country boys have their own skills that most city kids lack. Country kids can hunt and fish. They can make shelter and fire. Wide open spaces and fast-moving storms don’t freak us out. Country kids can fix things. They’ll drop everything to help you out when you are in need. They love their mama’s and papa’s and they go to church. I met people from New York in the late ‘70’s who actually asked me if there were still wild Indians in Kansas. How do you answer something like that? I think my reply was on the lines of, “No wild Indians anymore, but we do have indoor toilets now. And cars. You should see it!” With the internet, ESPN and the rise of AAU sports, I think there is less of a cultural divide today between city and country kids. That’s probably a good thing, but we’ve also lost something that we’ll never have again.
In looking over the stats from the 1955 Athletics, hitting was not their downfall. They pounded out 1,395 hits over 5,917 plate appearances while the 2019 Royals only managed 1,356 in 6,080 plate appearances. Plus, those Athletics only played 154 games.
They weren’t much on the base paths, only stealing 22 bases and they didn’t have a lot of power with only 121 home runs to their credit, but they put the bat on the ball.
One of the more interesting games of their year, and in recent major league history, occurred on September 20 when they traveled to Detroit for a game against the Tigers. The left side of the Athletics infield featured 18-year-old Clete Boyer and 16-year-old Alex George in what might have been the youngest third-short combo in major league history. Remember Enos Slaughter? He made his major league debut on April 19, 1938. Clete Boyer was born on February 9, 1937 while Alex George was born on September 27, 1938.
Third baseman Boyer, a Cassville, Missouri native, had been signed by the Athletics on May 31, 1955 as an amateur free agent bonus baby. He made his debut on June 5, 1955 and collected his first two hits in his fourth game. He played 47 games that summer and hit .241, in what was the birth of a solid 16-year career worth almost 28 WAR.
George was a completely different story. The Kansas City native had been a star at Rockhurst High and was signed by the Athletics on September 15, 1955. George was on his way to the University of Kansas to play basketball and baseball when the Athletics stepped into the picture. In his first major league at bat against the White Sox, Sox catcher Sherm Lollar told George what was coming on every pitch, a knuckleball, from pitcher Al Papai. It didn’t matter as George went down swinging. The September 20 game was the fourth of George’s young career. He started at short and batted leadoff. Boyer started at third and batted seventh. In the first inning, with Duke Maas on the mound, George laid down a perfect bunt and beat the throw for his first and only major league hit. George also drew a walk later in the game off future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. Boyer also collected a hit in that game, a fourth inning single. Boyer’s older brother, Cloyd, also pitched an inning in that game for the Athletics. The Boyers were some kind of baseball family as brother Ken also had a stellar 15-year career, which included winning one MVP award, five Gold Gloves and being named to 11 All-Star teams. Unfortunately, Ken played most of his career for the other Missouri team.
George played in one more game for the Athletics before spending most of the next eight seasons bouncing around the minors. After his baseball career ended, George returned to Kansas City where he had a long career in radio and TV advertising. He spent several years as a Royal Lancer and still resides in Prairie Village. He remains one of the youngest to ever play Major League Baseball.
Pitching was the Achilles’ heel of that 1955 team. The Athletics used 27 pitchers that year, trying to find someone, anyone, who could get people out. They had some big names - Bobby Schantz, Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Sain. By 1955, Sain was 37 years old and in the final season of a stellar career that saw him go 139-116. Sain was particularly outstanding during a five-year run from 1946 to 1950 where he compiled a 95-71 mark and led the National League in wins, with 24 in 1948. Sain was the last pitcher to face Babe Ruth and the first to face Jackie Robinson. His name was part of one of the most famous phrases in baseball history, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” Sain had come to the Athletics with Slaughter in a trade with the Yankee’s for pitcher Sonny Dixon and cash (Cash! From the Athletics? No way!).
Blackwell, known as “the Whip” was also in the final year of an illustrious career. Blackwell’s career number was only 82-78 as he battled arm injuries, but he was a six-time National League All-Star and led the National League in wins (22) and strikeouts in a sterling 1947 season, in which he also threw a no-hitter. In his first start after that no-hitter, he took another no-hitter into the ninth inning, before giving up a hit. Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Roy Campanella both said that Blackwell was the toughest pitcher they ever faced.
The staff also featured Vic Raschi, another former Yankee star, also in the final year of an outstanding ten-year career. Raschi hailed from Springfield, Massachusetts and accordingly was known as The Springfield Rifle. In today’s hypersensitive times, that nickname would not fly, but back in the day athletes had far more colorful nicknames. Raschi averaged 236 innings pitched per year and ended with a career mark of 132-66. From 1948 to 1953, he was almost unbeatable, going 111-48 in those seasons for the Yankees. As a hitter, Raschi set the record for most RBI in a game by a pitcher, with seven. That’s a record that might never be broken. By the time Raschi arrived in Kansas City, his arm was shot. He appeared in 20 games, starting 18 and going 4-6 in 101 innings of work.
The 1955 staff was led by Alex Kellner who won 11 and lost 8 with a 4.20 ERA. Art Ditmar chipped in with a 12-12 mark and a 5.03 ERA.
The Athletics finished the season at 63-91, sixth in the American League, 33 games behind the pennant winning Yankees. The Athletics pitching staff finished at the bottom of the league in ERA with a 5.35 mark. The Washington Senators were the next closest staff with an ERA of 4.62. The Athletics had the fourth-best team batting average in the league at .261. The Chicago White Sox led the circuit with a .268 mark.
The fans of Kansas City answered the call and came out in droves to watch their loveable losers. The Athletics drew 1,393,054 to Municipal Stadium, second only to the Yankees who drew 1,490,138 to a team that won the pennant. Plus, in 1955, metro New York was home to almost 16 million people whereas the Kansas City metro population in 1955 barely eclipsed 700,000 people. That is an amazing testament to how badly the citizens of Kansas City wanted a Major League team.
1955 was a very different time in the world and the United States. The older generation revels in the memory of a simpler and more wholesome time. In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Bums, finally broke through and won the World Series. A pair of catchers, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, were named their respective league MVP’s. Mickey Mantle had the first of several monster years, putting up 9.6 WAR. The Chicago Cubs had a rookie pitcher named Sam “Toothpick” Jones who led the National League in strike outs (198) and walks allowed (185). On May 12th, he twirled a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates but not before walking the bases full in the ninth, then striking out the side. In the American League, an 18-year-old wunderkind named Harmon Killebrew hit his first career home run playing for the Washington Senators.