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The 1959 Kansas City Athletics

Kansas City, here I come.

‘The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images’ Photo by Don Wingfield/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

1959. Alaska was admitted as the 49th state to the union. On February 3, a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper went down outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all aboard. The day the music died. In August, Hawaii is admitted as the 50th state. Singer Wilbert Harrison had a huge hit with the song “Kansas City”. I sing it every time I drive into the city. Unlike my wife and children, I’m not blessed with a good voice. What I lack in tone, I make up for with enthusiasm.

I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come

I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come

They’ve got some crazy little women there

And I’m gonna get me one

I’ll be standing on the corner

On the corner of twelfth street and Vine

I’m gonna be standing on the corner

On the corner of twelfth and Vine

With my Kansas City baby and a bottle of Kansas City wine

You’ve probably heard the song a hundred times. If not, give it a listen. In case you’re wondering, there is no longer a corner of 12th and Vine. Back in the time the song was written, that area was filled with bars, restaurants, Jazz lounges and cat houses. It was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal and is now a park. There is a street sign in the park for 12th and Vine.

‘The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images’
Municipal 1959
Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Once again, heading into the 1959 season, baseball fans in Kansas City had to feel optimistic. Only four wins separated the 1958 team from having a .500 record. Fans could finally see that the team was assembling some young talent and manager Harry Craft seemed to get the most out of his players.

Entering the 1959 season, the Athletics had a new general manager. Gone was Yankee flunky George Selkirk, replaced by another Yankee flunky named Parke Carroll. Carroll had previously been the business manager of the Yankees two top farm teams, the Newark Bears and the Kansas City Blues.

Prior to the season, the Athletics signed two young men who would soon be contributors, pitcher John O’Donohue and 18-year-old first baseman Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson. Between the beginning of April and the end of May, the club had six player transactions. Five of those were with the Yankees. Carroll was going to be every bit the Yankee goober that Selkirk was. Maybe worse.

The last of those six trades, on May 26, was the worst. The Athletics sent Hector Lopez and Ralph Terry to New York in exchange for Johnny Kucks, Tom Sturdivant and Jerry Lumpe. Kucks and Sturdivant were over-the-hill pitchers. Lumpe did develop into a fine player for Kansas City. Lopez would carve out an eight-year career in New York, while Terry would go 78-59 in his eight-year Yankee career.

If this series is starting to sound like a broken record, it’s because it is. 1959 marked the fifth season in Kansas City for the A’s, and the team finished in last place or next to last every season, except for the sxith place finish in 1955. They have also continually allowed the New York Yankees to abuse them in the trade market. Add in the fact that their owner and both general managers they have employed had strong Yankee connections and you can feel why the good citizens of Kansas City were getting impatient and hostile.

Quality pitching had always been a problem with the Athletics, and with no amateur draft to help them restock their farm system with quality young players, you can see how teams like Kansas City, Washington and Philadelphia were caught in a cycle of despair. The season opened on Friday April 10, with the Athletics hosting the Cleveland Indians. The Athletics lost their first two to the Tribe but still came out of April with a 9-7 record. Carroll made an early season trade with his bosses in New York which netted the Athletics a promising 25-year-old rookie outfielder named Russ Snyder. Snyder would hit .313/.367/.420 with three home runs and 21 RBI in 73 games with Kansas City which was good for third in the American League Rookie of the Year vote.

On May 3, Carroll flipped Suitcase Simpson to the Chicago White Sox for veteran Ray Boone, father of future Royal Bob. Boone was in his 12th season of what would be a 13-year career. He performed admirably in his short time in Kansas City, slashing .273/.396/.364 in 61 games before the Athletics lost him to Milwaukee on a wavier claim.

On April 22, the Athletics and White Sox game featured one of the stranger innings in major league history. In a game played at Municipal, in front of 7,446 bewildered fans, the White Sox broke open a close game in the top of the seventh by scoring 11 runs on only one hit. You read that right. The score was 8-6 Chicago when Ray Boone (still with the Sox for another 11 days) led off against Athletic reliever Tom Gorman. The inning went like this:

Error on shortstop, error on third baseman, single with an error on the play, walk, walk, walk, (Gorman replaced by Mark Freeman), walk, ground out, walk, (Freeman replaced by George Brunet), walk, walk, hit by pitch, walk, strikeout (standing ovation), walk, walk, ground out.

That totaled up to 11 runs, 1 hit, 3 errors, 3 left on base, 10 walks, one hit by pitch. Whew. That’s got to be some kind of major league record. The White Sox sent 17 men to the plate. Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox both walked twice in the inning. Sox pitcher Bob Shaw, despite getting the win, probably had to endure some good-natured ribbing after the game as he accounted for two outs in the inning, grounding out to the pitcher both times.

The Athletics played a spirited game in New York on June 11. New York-Kansas City games had the feel of an A team-B team scrimmage. Of the 25 players who took the field this day, ten of them would or did play for both teams: Throneberry, Sieburn, Blanchard, Lopez, Schantz and Slaughter for New York. Lumpe, Bella, Hadley and DeMaestri for Kansas City. The Yankees also had Mickey Mantle who spent a season in Kansas City with the Blues and Elston Howard, who played for the Monarchs and the Blues.

In the bottom of the fourth, with Kansas City holding onto a 3-1 lead, Yogi Berra led off the inning with a drive to deep right off Athletic starter, Ned Garver. The ball appeared to have enough juice to clear the fence at the 344 mark, but right fielder Whitey Herzog had other ideas. He timed his leap perfectly and pulled the ball back into play for the out. Herzog crashed into the top of the fence on the way back to earth, injuring himself. Dick Williams came on as his replacement. One future Hall of Fame manager replacing another.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Athletics had extended their lead to 8-1 when with two outs, Bill “Moose” Skowron hit a monster drive into deep center field. Athletics center fielder Bill Tuttle raced to a spot 440 feet from home and made a remarkable backhanded catch behind the Gehrig monument. Old timers said it was the best catch in the stadium since Joe DiMaggio caught one behind the monuments. The out ended the inning and took a possible inside the park home run away from Skowron. Yankee Gil McDougald said, “This guy Tuttle has shown me the greatest center fielding I’ve ever seen.” The Athletic owners may have rolled over for New York, but the players did not.

After beating Boston on June 12, the Athletics were 26-26. They promptly lost their next seven games and the season appeared lost. They slogged through June with an 11-18 mark, then something miraculous happened. They caught fire and went 19-11 in July, a splendid .633-win percentage. From July 14 to August 1, they won 16 of 19 games, including a season best 11-game win streak. Granted, most of those wins came against fellow cellar dwellers Washington and Baltimore, but hey, wins are wins. The last win in that streak was a 2-1 victory over the Yankees at Municipal with former Yankee Johnny Kucks getting the win over former Athletic Art Ditmar. The victory improved the Athletics to 51-50 and left them in third place, nine and a half games back of the league leading Chicago White Sox. More importantly, it moved them ahead of the Yankees, who at 49-52 were laboring through a down year.

As hot as the Athletics had been in July, they lost it down the stretch. It’s hard to say what happened. Maybe the pitching staff starting to run out of gas in the hot weather. Maybe injuries started to take a toll. The Athletics limped to a 15-38 finish, which included a 13-game losing streak from August 26 to September 10. Down the stretch, 14 of those 38 losses came by one run. Maybe their luck just ran out.

The season ended with the team at 66-88, once again in seventh place. They did post winning or .500 records against three teams: Baltimore, Boston and Washington and they played the league champion White Sox tough, winning 10 of the 22 games they played. The Yankees continued to own the Athletics, posting a 17-5 advantage over their little brothers. Attendance bumped up almost 40,000 to 963,683, good for sixth in the league. The Athletics had two representatives at the All-Star game: pitcher Bud Daley and outfielder Roger Maris.

Kansas City Athletics v Detroit Tigers
Roger Maris slides into third
Set Number: X6042

Manager Harry Craft did an excellent job of platooning his over matched crew. The Athletics had ten players who got significant at-bats and finished with OPS+ of at least 100, led by Maris at 123.

Maris played in 122 games and finished at .273/.359/.464 with 16 home runs and 72 RBI. Bob Cerv had another strong season at .285/.332/.479 with a team leading 20 home runs and 87 RBI. Dick Williams, who broke in with Brooklyn in 1951, had his best season as a pro with a .266/.309/.436 slash while hitting 16 home runs and driving home 75 in 130 games. Bill Tuttle, in addition to his fine fielding, had a bit of a renaissance at the plate: .300/.369/.413 with 7 home runs and 43 RBI. His 74 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases were best on the team.

Kansas City Athletics v Detroit Tigers
Dick Williams #23
Set Number: X6042

The team led the American League in batting average at .263 and finished second in doubles and triples and third in hits.

The pitchers were led by knuckleballer Bud Daley, who put together a fine 16-13 season, with a solid 3.16 ERA. After finishing high school, Daley originally signed with the Cleveland Indians. As a teen, Daley used to babysit future Royal manager, and Cleveland great, Bob Lemon’s children.

Ray Herbert, in his third season with Kansas City, finished with an 11-11 mark. Ned Garver went 10-13 and the fourth starter, Johnny Kucks finished at 8-11. Those four threw over half of the season’s innings. Bob Grim and Tom Sturdivant led the team with five saves apiece.

The staff finished at or near the bottom of the league in eight statistical categories. Johnny Sain, just a few years removed from his playing days, was in his first year as pitching coach. Sain would later go on to a renowned career as a pitching coach, but the 1959 Athletics just did not have enough horses.

In 1959, the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. 23-year-old Harmon Killebrew shocked the American League by socking a league leading 42 home runs and driving home 105 more. Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams made their debut. The Boston Red Sox became the last team to break the color line, with Pumpsie Green. Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix threw 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee on May 26 but lost the game 1-0 in 13 innings. Hank Aaron was quietly making his case as the greatest player of his generation with another monster season: .355/.401/.636 with 39 home runs, 123 RBI, 116 runs scored on a league leading 223 hits, all good for an OPS+ of 182. He finished third in the MVP vote, behind Ernie Banks and teammate Eddie Matthews.

As if the 1959 season wasn’t enough of a disappointment, Johnson and Carroll broke Athletic fans hearts on December 11 when they shipped Joe DeMaestri, Kent Hadley and Roger Maris to the Yankees for 36-year-old Hank Bauer, a broken-down Don Larsen, an under achieving first baseman named Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Norm Siebern.