After a disappointing 1957 season, Athletics general manager and Yankee flunky, George Selkirk went right to work. In November of 1957, he traded Billy Martin, Mickey McDermott, Tom Morgan, Lou Skizas, Tim Thompson and Gus Zernial to the Detroit Tigers for a nondescript package of seven players, the best who appeared to be pitcher Duke Maas. That ended Billy Martin’s short reign in Kansas City.
I had once heard a humorous story from a Kansas City native, unverified, about the exploits of Martin and Mickey Mantle during one of their Yankee road trips to Kansas City. The story goes like this: visiting baseball teams used to stay downtown at the Muehlebach Hotel. After a game with the Athletics, Martin and Mantle went out and sampled the Kansas City nightlife. That in itself is no surprise. If there were a Mount Rushmore of baseball party boys, Mantle and Martin would be featured prominently. When they returned to their room on the ninth floor, Mantle decided to get some fresh air. He opened the window and stepped out onto the narrow ledge that ran around the floor.
Martin peaked out to see what his buddy was doing and decided to join him. Once they were both on the ledge, severely inebriated, Martin got the yips and could not reverse himself to climb back into the window. The only solution they figured would be to shimmy around the entire building, on the narrow ledge, nine floors up, until they came back to their window. Slowly, carefully, the two Yankee stars edged along the building, around the corners, pausing occasionally to steady their breathing and allowing gusts of wind to pass. Finally, Mantle came to their open window, and made it in. Martin edged closer and Mantle helped pull his friend off the ledge. Now whether this is true or not or just urban legend, I don’t know. But it does make a colorful story and given Mantle and Martin’s past, it is plausible.
In December of 1957, Selkirk drafted catcher Harry Chiti from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft. Also, during the off-season, the team signed a 22-year-old Dick Howser as an amateur free agent. Howser started at the team’s Class B affiliate, the Rochester/Winona (Minn.) A’s, where he batted .288. In 1959, he made the jump to Sioux City, where he hit .278. In 1960, he hit .338 at AA Shreveport before earning a job with the Athletics in 1961. More on Howser in a future story.
Selkirk made two significant trades in the 1958 season. The first was a simple one-for-one swap of two pitchers with the Baltimore Orioles. Selkirk shipped Arnold Portocarrero to the Orioles in exchange for 25-year-old Bud Daley. Daley would soon blossom into a solid starter for the Athletics. In May, the team purchased infielder Whitey Herzog from the Washington Senators.
Then came the second major trade. On June 15, Selkirk sent Woodie Held and his only bona fide star, Vic Power, to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Dick Tomanek, Preston Ward and a young outfielder named Roger Maris. Tomanek and Ward would be out of baseball within a season. The key to the trade was the 23-year-old Maris, who had immense potential. During his 1957 rookie season, he slashed .235/.344/.405 with 14 home runs and 51 RBI in 358 at-bats. He immediately became a fan favorite in Kansas City.
On the same day, Selkirk made another trade, this one more questionable. He sent his best pitcher of 1957, Virgil “Fire” Trucks and the recently acquired Duke Maas, to his real bosses, the Yankees, in exchange for veteran pitcher Bob Grim and Harry Simpson. Simpson had been a mainstay in the Athletics outfield from 1955 to 1957 before being “called-up” to the Yankees. His Yankee career lasted all of 99 games before he was “sent back down” to Kansas City. Tough times for “The Suitcase”, going from the outhouse to the penthouse and back to the outhouse. Simpson took over the first base duties from the deposed Power.
One last transaction of note. In early October, the Athletics traded former all-star Chico Carrasquel, who’s Kansas City career lasted all of 59 games, to the Orioles for a 30-year-old utility player named Dick Williams. Think about this for a minute. In one season, the Athletics had in their system three of the best modern-day managers: Williams, Herzog and Howser. Two of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame as managers and all three guided teams to World Series titles.
Tthe acquisition of catcher Chiti meant that Hal Smith, the catcher from the 1957 team and one of their better players, would need to find a new position. Manager Harry Craft, who had done an admirable job down the stretch in 1957, plugged Smith into third base. That moved the previous third baseman, Hector Lopez, to second base. Joe DeMaestri held down shortstop, while Power and Simpson manned first. The outfield was manned by Bob Cerv, Bill Tuttle and Bob Martyn, until the arrival of Maris.
The Athletics were the only American League team without a television contract. The voice of the 1958 Athletics was 32-year-old Merle Harmon. Harmon had been broadcasting Athletic games since 1955. Harmon’s broadcast career stretched nearly five decades, covering everything from college football, including University of Kansas football, to the New York Jets to covering the Texas Rangers. His broadcast partner with the Athletics was Ed Edwards.
The team broke out of the gate strong, going 8-4 in April, the first winning month in team history. The Athletics were 38-37 going into the All-Star break and there was a sense of optimism in the city. The second half was not as generous, as the Athletics struggled to a 35-48 mark after the break, finishing at 73-81, 19 games back of eventual World Series champion Yankees.
Attendance bumped up slightly, to 925,090 as fans responded to a better quality of ball being played. The team enjoyed their best year at Municipal, going 43-34. The road was a different story, as they struggled to a 30-47 mark away from Kansas City. They did finish the season strong, going 14-12 in September, to record their second winning month as a Kansas City franchise.
For the hitters, 1958 was the year of Cerv. Bob Cerv, a 33-year-old Nebraska native, had a monster season, slashing .305/.371/.592 with 38 home runs and 104 RBI. He scored 93 runs and recorded an OPS+ of 159. His 6.3 WAR season earned him his first and only All-star berth and placed him fourth in the AL MVP vote. And he did all of this despite battling an array of injuries: a broken jaw, broken hand, two busted toes along with knee and ankle problems. Tough guy.
The ’58 MVP went to Boston outfielder Jackie Jensen, even though Cerv’s stats were slightly better. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the award could have gone to third place finisher Rocky Colavito or fifth place finisher Mickey Mantle. Jensen had been a college football star at California, and voters were swayed by home runs and RBI. Unfortunately, Jensen’s career would only last another 285 games. Jensen had an intense fear of flying and as the game expanded to western states, he could no longer handle the anxiety brought on by cross-country flights, choosing instead to retire.
Rounding out the infield, the Power/Simpson platoon at first performed adequately, combining for 11 home runs and 54 RBI while hitting .283. Lopez was his usual steady self, hitting .261 with 17 home runs. In the outfield, in addition to Cerv, Maris provided a glimpse of things to come, hitting .247/.298/.439 with 19 home runs and 53 RBI in only 99 games.
Herzog got into 88 games, playing all three outfield positions plus 22 games at first, hitting .240.
On June 26 in a game at Municipal against Washington, third baseman Hector Lopez had a big game at the plate. The popular Panamanian stroked three home runs off of three different Senator pitchers, the last being a two-run jack in the bottom of the 12th inning, which gave the Athletics an 8-6 victory. Lopez drove in five runs and scored three times. Over his 12 year career, Lopez developed a reputation as a clutch hitter and an excellent teammate. He had the ability to play all of the infield and outfield positions. His cheery disposition made him a favorite with teammates and fans. He often credited Harry Simpson, his early roommate in Kansas City, for helping him develop as a ballplayer. Lopez said he enjoyed his time in Kansas City.
Once again, pitching was hard to come by, though there were bright spots. Ralph Terry threw 216 innings at age 22 and finished 11-13 with a 4.24 ERA over 40 games. Ned Garver went 12-11 with 201 innings of work. Bob Grim, acquired in the Trucks-Simpson deal, posted a 7-6 mark with a 3.56 ERA.
At age 41, Murry Dickson had arguably the best statistical season for the Athletics. Dickson had signed as a free agent by the Athletics in January of 1958. He pitched in 27 games that summer before being traded to the Yankees for outfielder Zeke Bella in August. Dickson went 9-5 with a 3.27 ERA in Kansas City before being needed for the Yankees late season pennant drive. When the Yankees were done with Dickson, they sold him back to the Athletics in May of 1959.
There were small signs that the Athletics were headed in the right direction, though their constant dealing with the Yankees was disheartening. In the off-season the team signed three free agents who would become contributors to the teams of the mid-60’s: John O’Donoghue, Jose Santiago and Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson.
As always, 1958 held many good baseball stories. The Yankee’s won yet another World Series. Nellie Fox led the American League in hits with 187 and set a major league record by playing in 98 consecutive games without striking out. Former Athletic Vic Power stole three bases in the 1958 season. He got two of them in an August 14 game, stealing home twice. Ernie Banks won the National League MVP by smashing 47 home runs and driving home 129. Future Royal Orlando Cepeda won the National League Rookie of the Year. Albie Pearson won the American League Rookie award with former Athletic Ryne Duren (now of the Yankees) taking second. The Greatest Hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams won his sixth and final batting title with a .328 mark at the age of 40.