The 1955 edition of the Kansas City Athletics caused a minor buzz in baseball circles. In their first year since moving to Kansas City, the team drew over a million more fans than they had in their last year in Philly, finishing second in attendance to the mighty Yankees. The team also willed its way to 12 more wins than the 1954 version, finishing at 63-91. The future was starting to look brighter. In their annual baseball edition, that ran on April 9, 1956, Sports Illustrated gushed about the hustle of Enos Slaughter and their rising young stars: Vic Power and Hector Lopez. Also mentioned were a handful of rookies and new acquisitions who the magazine thought could make a difference, among them infielders Spook Jacobs and Rance Pless, outfielder Dave Melton and pitchers Glenn Cox, Lou Kretlow and Jack Crimian.
The Athletics won three of their first four games, including a 15-1 beatdown of the White Sox before the baseball gods woke up. The Athletics promptly lost eight of their next ten and for all intents and purposes, the season was over. The short story is, they finished the year at 52-102, becoming Kansas City’s first 100 loss team. After two seasons of playing in Kansas City, the team had yet to record a winning month. The 1956 squad played better on the road, going 30-47, compared to a pitiful 22-55 mark at Municipal Stadium. Nonetheless, 1,015,154 fans still made their way to 22nd and Brooklyn, a good number for a small market, but a drop of almost 400,000 from their initial campaign.
In March of 1956, the team purchased a young left-handed pitcher from the Brooklyn Dodgers. You might have heard his name before: Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda pitched in 18 games for the Athletics, going 0-4 with a 6.15 ERA over 45 innings before being traded to the Yankees on July 11 for another pitcher, Wally Burnette.
On May 21, the club released outfielder Elmer Valo, who was picked up by the Phillies. On June 14, they pulled off a good trade, sending pitcher Moe Burtschy and outfielder Bill Renna to, who else, the Yankees, for first baseman Eddie Robinson and a young outfielder named Lou Skizas. Finally, on August 25, they tried to sneak Slaughter through waivers, but lost him to the Yankees.
The offense took a step back but still had some stars. Harry “Suitcase” Simpson slashed .293/.347/.490 with 21 home runs and became the first Kansas City player to record more than 100 RBI in a season as he drove home 105 in 141 games.
The 24-year-old Skizas looked like a steal, slashing .316/.346/.485 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI in 83 games. Vic Power continued to develop, putting up a .309/.340/.447 line with 14 home runs and 63 RBI. Lopez hit .273 with 18 homers and 69 RBI and even Slaughter, at the age of 40, hit .278 before being waived.
The team didn’t have much speed, only stealing 40 bases. Centerfielder Al Pilarcik led the team with nine. They were also a free-swinging bunch, only drawing 479 walks, which was last in the American League.
Pitching was again their Achilles’ heel. The staff had a team ERA of 4.86 and finished near the bottom of the league in nearly every pitching category. Art Ditmar was supposed to be the ace of this team, but he went 12-22 with a 4.42 ERA over 254 innings, leading the American League in losses.
Bobby Schantz led the American League in victories in 1952 with 24 when the team was still in Philadelphia but had battled arm trouble ever since. Schantz, who stood 5’6 and weighed about 140 pounds, went 2-7 with a 4.35 ERA over 101 innings of work for the Athletics. Alex Kellner was one of two pitchers to post a winning record, as he went 7-4 over 20 games. The other was Moe Burtschy, who went 3-1 before being dutifully shipped off to the Yankees.
Rookie pitcher Troy Herriage went 1-13 with a 6.64 ERA in his only major league season. Herriages’ only win was a complete game three-hitter at Municipal against the Washington Senators on May 22. Herriage didn’t fare much better at the plate, only collecting three hits in 25 at bats. Future Royals Harmon Killebrew and Whitey Herzog appeared in that game for Washington in pinch-hitting roles.
Vic Power and Harry Simpson made the American League All-Star team for the KC A’s. It was the second consecutive All-Star appearance for Power. Jim Finigan, who was a starter on the 1955 All-Star team at third for the A’s, moved to second base for the 1956 season to clear the way for rising star Hector Lopez. The Athletics infield was pretty decent - Lopez at third, slick fielding Joe DeMaestri at short, Finigan manning second and Power holding down first. At catcher, the Athletics used a three-man platoon of Tim Thompson, Joe Ginsberg and Hal Smith. It sounds awkward, but it worked at the trio combined to hit .261 with 30 doubles, 4 home runs and 63 RBI. Once again, the Athletics didn’t possess much power, only hitting 112 home runs, which ranked sixth in the 8-team league.
What about those heralded newcomers? Jacobs hit .216 in 32 games. Pless, who was the American Association batting champ in 1955, hit a respectable .271 in a 48-game stint. Melton only got three at bats. For the pitchers, Kretlow went 4-9 while throwing 118 innings. Crimian, who was the International League MVP in 1955, led the Athletics pitchers in appearances with 54 and posted a 4-and-8 mark. Cox never got much of a chance, going 0-2 while appearing in only three games.
The 1956 season will be remembered for other things. Former Athletic owner Connie Mack passed away at the age of 93. Don Newcombe of Brooklyn and Mickey Mantle won their respective league MVP awards. Mantle won on the strength of his Triple Crown performance: .353/.464/.705 with 52 home runs, 130 RBI, 132 runs scored, 376 total bases and a league leading OPS+ of 210. Mantle retired after the 1968 season. I never got to see him play, but in his prime he must have been something to behold. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in a seven game World series, highlighted by Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game Five.
Washington third baseman Eddie Yost drew an astounding 151 walks. Yost had some kind of an eye. In an 18-year career, he drew 1,614 walks in 9,175 plate appearances. He led the league in walks six times and drew over 100 walks in eight different seasons and drew over 90 in two others. After the season ended, Brooklyn traded Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants. Robinson hated the Giants and refused to report, electing instead to retire.
The Athletics made a few noteworthy moves in the off-season. In October they purchased a 31-year old outfielder named Bob Cerv from the Yankees. Cerv had been languishing on the Yankees bench, but would soon rise to stardom in Kansas City. In December they shipped Crimian, Finigan, Bill Harrington and Eddie Robinson to Detroit in exchange for Wayne Belardi, Ned Garver, Gene Host, Virgil Trucks and $20,000 cash.
In February of 1957, the Athletics sent six players to the Yankees, including Clete Boyer, Bobby Schantz and Art Ditmar. They received back seven players, comprised mostly of spare parts and sore arms, the best being a right-handed pitcher named Tom Morgan. With this trade it was starting to become apparent that Johnson’s close relationship with Yankee owners Dan Topping, Larry McPhail and Del Webb was not beneficial to Kansas City baseball.
On the bright side, the 1956 Topps baseball cards were one of the best-looking sets ever produced by Topps. The team also hosted the Kansas City Livestock night and gave out a nice looking 28 card set to attendees. These black and white beauties still command a premium price in the resale market.
Next time: The 1957 Athletics