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The 1957 Kansas City Athletics

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Temporada Tres.

Kansas City Athletics Set Number: X4432

It’s hard to imagine the kind of despair the players on a team like the 1957 Athletics must have felt. Going to the ballpark every day, knowing that you had no chance at winning the league. Hoping that management might trade you to a contender. When it’s 105 degrees in July and August, it had to be tough to get motivated. The expectations were not high for the 1957 team and they didn’t disappoint, going 59-94, good for a seventh place finish.

In the previous off-season, the team had traded away several of their best veterans: Jack Crimian, Jim Finegan, Art Ditmar and Bobby Schantz. If they had a plan, it was difficult to understand what it was. There was no amateur draft in those days, so finishing at or near the bottom carried no reward. There wasn’t a lot of talent in their minor league system, though their AAA team, the Buffalo Bison, did have 41-year-old Luke Easter who mashed 40 home runs and drove in 128, while hitting .279. He also drew 100 walks.

Luscious “Luke” Easter was a bit of a legend in baseball circles. He was a big man, 6’4 and 240 pounds. After World War II ended, Easter tried to catch on with the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs passed, feeling that Easter was too big and awkward to be a good ballplayer. Instead he signed with the Cincinnati Crescents, a touring outfit of African-American players led by Harlem Globetrotter impresario Abe Saperstein. Easter tore it up for the Crescents in 1946, which led to his signing by the Homestead Grays. In 1948, Easter hit .363, tied for the league lead in home runs and led the Negro League in RBI while leading the Grays to victory in the last Negro League World Series. This attracted the attention of Cleveland Indian owner Bill Veeck, who signed Easter.

From 1950 to 1952, Easter was a star in Cleveland, averaging 29 home runs and 102 RBI per season. He played parts of two more injury-plagued seasons with the Indians. He never got a chance in Kansas City, blocked by Vic Power at first base and Lou Skizas, the “Chicago strong boy” in right field. If there was ever a player who would have benefited from the designated hitter rule, it was Luke Easter.

Easter was described by teammates as a good-natured practical joker. He called his home runs “Easter eggs”. While playing with the Grays in 1948, he became the first player to hit a home run into the center field bleachers at the Polo Grounds, a shot of at least 475 feet. During his 1950 season in Cleveland, as a 34-year-old rookie, he hit a 477-foot shot over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field. The only other player to do that was Mickey Mantle. In 1957, he hit a blast in Buffalo that was estimated to travel 500 feet. When asked by a fan if that was his longest home run, Easter replied, “if it came down, it wasn’t my longest.” Unfortunately, Easter was murdered outside of a Cleveland bank in 1979, robbing the baseball world of one of its most colorful and beloved characters. He was only 63. Bill James rated Ester the second-best first baseman in Negro League history, behind Buck Leonard. It’s a shame the 1957 Athletics couldn’t find some at-bats for him.

Cleveland Indians
Luke Easter
Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Despite not having a big bopper like Easter in the lineup, the Athletics nonetheless led the American League in home runs with 166, which was 13 better than Boston and 21 more than the hated Yankees. Gus Zernial led the power surge with 27, while center fielder Woodie Held had 20. Skizas chipped in with 18, while Vic Power donged 14 more. As for the hitting, that’s where the good news ends. The team finished either seventh or eighth (out of eight clubs) in nine other offensive categories. They were dead last in the American League in runs, hits, RBI, walks, batting average and on base percentage.

Kansas City Athletics
Lou Skizas
SetNumber: X4432

Held was acquired in an early June trade from the Yankees, naturally. Besides Held, the Athletics also received Billy Martin, Bob Martyn and pitcher Ralph Terry in exchange for Ryne Duren, Jim Pisoni and Harry Simpson.

Catcher Hal Smith had a fine season, slashing .303/.328/.483 with 13 home runs and 41 RBI in only 107 games. Smith would later go on to star in the 1960 World Series for Pittsburgh, hitting a key home run that preceded the Series winning Mazeroski blast.

Harry Simpson was having another solid summer, .296/.339/514, before owner Arnold Johnson thought the Yankees could benefit from his services. So, “The Suitcase”, as he was known, packed his bags for New York.

Bob Cerv, freed from the Yankees, finally got a chance to play regularly and responded with a .272/.312/.420 mark over 124 games. Cerv, a Weston, Nebraska native, was a former baseball and basketball star at the University of Nebraska. There’s a story that goes like this. Supposedly Casey Stengel, then manager of the Yankees, approached Cerv and said, “Not many people know this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City.” Now this may or may not be true, but the Athletics acquired Cerv on October 15, 1956, so if the story is true the exchange between Stengel and Cerv happened after the season was over. Either way, it looked like Cerv had finally found a home for his skills.

Once again, pitching was the donkey’s ass for this team. The staff finished last or second-to-last in ten pitching categories. They finished at the bottom of the league in complete games, innings pitched, home runs allowed and strikeouts. They finished next to last in wins, losses, ERA, shutouts, saves and earned runs. Who was their ace? If I had to pick one, I would say it was 40-year-old Virgil Trucks, who went 9-7 with a 3.03 ERA. Trucks was a workhorse, nearing the end of a terrific 17-year career in which he won 177 and lost 135 games. He also had one of those great baseball nicknames - “Fire”.

For comparison, Baseball Reference says a similar modern pitcher would be someone like Dave Steib or Rick Sutcliffe. If you remember Steib or Sutcliffe, that gives you some appreciation for how good Virgil Trucks must have been. Music fans will also recognize the Trucks name. His nephew, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of the Allman Brothers. His great-nephew. Derek Trucks founded the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Ned Garver, who came over in the same trade with Fire Trucks, led the staff with a paltry 145 innings of work. Garver struggled to a 6-13 mark with a 3.84 ERA. 21-year-old Ralph Terry, on loan from the Yankees, went 4-11 with a 3.38 ERA over 130 innings.

The ’57 staff also featured, briefly, Ryne Duren. Duren was a well-known reliever of the times, known for his blazing fastball and his inability to control it. Duren had poor vision and wore thick glasses which added to the mystique. He was the inspiration for the character Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the movie Major League. His scouting report went like this: “Big guy. Throws like hell. Hitter can’t see it. Duren can’t see it either. He’s practically blind. Can’t hit, field or run. Curve not much. Neither is sinker. Just throws fast one. Unpredictable where it’ll go.”

Duren had been acquired by the Athletics as the famed “player to be named later” in a late September 1956 trade with the Baltimore Orioles. His Kansas City career only lasted 14 games and 42 innings before he was shipped off to the Yankees in the Held, Martin and Terry deal. Naturally, he made the All-Star team in three of the next four summers while playing for New York.

Another unusual member of the staff was 19-year-old bonus baby Dave Hill. Hill had been signed away from Northwestern University and skipped the minors, making his debut on August 22 against the Yankees. Hill came on in the sixth inning and worked around a walk to Enos Slaughter to get out of the inning unscathed. Hill came back out for the seventh inning and got the first batter he faced, Joe Collins, to ground out to second. The second batter of the inning was Mickey Mantle, who singled to left. The third batter of the inning was Yogi Berra, who yanked a home run to right. Welcome to the big leagues kid. He walked Harry Simpson before getting Gil McDougald and Tony Kubek to end the inning.

He made his next appearance on August 26 against the Red Sox. This outing didn’t go as smoothly, as Hill surrendered five runs in one third inning of work, including home runs by Frank Malzone and Jimmy Piersall, part of a 16-0 beatdown doled out by Boston. And that was it for Mr. Hill. Two games. 2.1 innings of work and a career ERA of 27.00. He spent the next four seasons bouncing around the Athletics minor league system before calling it a career at the age of 23.

Shortstop Joe DeMaestri was the only Athletic to make the All-Star team. DeMaestri, known as Oats, had a solid first half, slashing .288/.329/.376. He went into the tank in the second half of the season, limping home with a .204/.232/.345 line over the final 62 games of the season.

The Athletics continued their streak of months with a losing record to 18. Imagine that, three entire seasons of baseball and not a single winning month. They came close in April, going 6-7, and again in August, when they went 14-16. They played decent ball at Municipal, going 37-40 compared to an abysmal 22-54 mark on the road. New York, loaded with former Athletics, was tough on their kid brother, winning 19 of 22 from the Athletics. To add insult to injury, the Yankees also turned a triple play against the Athletics during a May 16 game. Kansas City did manage to win the season series with Detroit and Washington, and split with Cleveland, so there was that.

During an early August road trip to the east coast, Johnson evidently got tired of the losing and relieved Boudreau of his job. In his place stepped former Cincinnati Red outfielder Harry Craft. The change appeared to spark the team, as the Athletics went 23-27 over their last fifty games.

By this time there was no getting around the New York connections. Johnson was obviously in cahoots with his Yankee buddies. There was really no safety net. The Athletics general manager was George Selkirk. Selkirk had spent nine years in the majors as an outfielder with, you guessed it, the New York Yankees. Selkirk inherited the job from previous General Manager Parke Carroll, who prior to being the Athletics GM ran the Kansas City Blues, the minor league affiliate of….the Yankees.

This is only the third year of my Athletics recap and I’m already burning about the obvious giveaways to the Yankees. And the worst is yet to come. Ford Frick was the commissioner of baseball from 1951 to 1965 yet did nothing to stem the obvious flow of talent from Kansas City to New York. That should come as no surprise as Frick, formerly a New York sportswriter, was also Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter, so he had New York connections. American League president Will Harridge also turned a blind eye to the trade controversy between the two clubs. It bordered on criminal.

There were some bright spots in major league baseball in 1957. Hank Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to a seven-game triumph over the Yankees in the World Series. Aaron won the National League MVP award, while Mantle took the American League MVP. Ted Williams took second in the MVP despite hitting .388. The Washington Senators stole 13 bases. For the entire season. Still the fewest ever by a major league team.

Young Cleveland fireballer Herb Score, nearly died after being struck in the eye by a line drive. The Giants and the Dodgers played their final games in New York, before heading west. Their departure closed down a golden age of baseball in New York City and left vacated two of the most unusual and iconic ballparks in history: Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. The Philadelphia Phillies became the last National League team to break the color line, with shortstop John Kennedy, who plays in exactly…five games. Shameful.

Municipal Stadium Kansas City Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Speaking of ball fields, this is what Sports Illustrated had to say about the Athletics’ home park in their 1957 Baseball edition:

“Rebuilt two years ago, Municipal Stadium is one of the cleanest, most attractive parks in baseball. Seats are bright turquoise color instead of usual dark green; ushers are courteous, and tipping, although accepted, is not required. Rest rooms (14 of them) are clean and un-crowded; concession stands are handy, serve excellent food (including grilled hot dogs) at average prices. Park permits a car or two containing invalids to park inside the stadium outside the low wall that runs along the left-field foul line.

Stadium is located at 22nd St. and Brooklyn Ave. only 1½ miles from downtown area; it can be reached by express bus (35¢), taxi or car in about 15 minutes, although 30 may be needed when Yankees are in town. Parking space for 3,800 cars within two blocks ($1); traffic flow is smooth and no special police are required. Suggestion: many fans drive their cars to an originating point for an express bus, park there and take a bus to the park. Because of crowd’s taxi service after games can be inadequate.

Most of the 30,611 seats are good but watch out for first five rows of field boxes (lower deck) during midsummer days; it is quite possible to be baked alive. Only customers with 20-20 vision should occupy seats in upper deck. All others good and choice depends only on personal preference.”

There’s some gold in that paragraph. Invalids? And some truth: 30 minutes when the Yankees are in town! Quite possible to be baked alive! Any fan who has sat through a Sunday afternoon game in Kansas City will most readily agree.

Next: The 1958 Athletics