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The 1963 Kansas City Athletics

Tony! Tony! Tony!

Wayne Causey and Ed Lopat in Dugout

If you’re an American of a certain age, 1963 was one of those years that forever dwell in your memory. 2001 was a year like that too. Maybe 2020 will end up being one of those years. Of course, there were other things going on in 1963. My sister was born on April 8, which I always remember because that was the day that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record (albeit in 1974, but still). The Vietnam war was heating up. Gordon Cooper flew the final Mercury mission. The Beatles released their debut album “Please please me”. The movie “The birds” ruled at the box office. But 1963 will always be remembered for November 22, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. An event that shook the world and forever changed the way millions of young Americans looked at politics and life.

Before the tragedy, baseball had a banner year. Stan Musial retired after the 1963 season. Pete Rose made his Major League debut and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. Elston Howard became the first African-American player to win an MVP award. In Houston, rookie John Paciorek went 3-for-3 with two walks and scored four runs in his debut for the Colt 45’s on the last day of the season. He never played another game in the big leagues.

1963 though will always be remembered as the season of Sandy Koufax. Koufax had a monster year as he went 25-5 and led the National League with 306 strikeouts, 11 shutouts while posting an ERA of 1.88. He was the unanimous selection for the Cy Young award and won the National League MVP with a 10.7 WAR season. He led the Dodgers to the World Series title with a nifty four game sweep of the Yankees.

In Kansas City, 1963 will forever be remembered as the year the team debuted their colorful new uniforms. Seeing that television was the wave of the future, and viewers wanted to see color, owner Charlie O. Finley moved away from the Athletics traditional colors of grey, red and blue and went with a garish mixture of green and “Finley” gold. At the time, the uniforms were so outlandish that not only were the Kansas City players embarrassed to be seen in them, it also subjected them to endless ridicule from bench jockeys around the league. In retrospect, Finley was ahead of the curve on the color issue. Who can forget the uniform’s that the Houston Astros wore for most of the 1970’s and ‘80’s? Or the Montreal Expos?

In fact, love him or hate him, Finley was ahead of the curve on a lot of baseball ideas. It’s no secret that of all the major sports, baseball has traditionally been the most resistant to change. The National League won’t even consider the designated hitter. Don’t we all love seeing a pitcher hitting .139 flail away at the plate? How about a pitch clock? It’s used in AAA and I thought it was the best change I’ve seen in years. I can’t be the only fan who gets frustrated when each batter steps out of the box after every pitch to adjust his gloves, bang the dirt off his cleats and readjust his privates, usually burning up 45 plus seconds. I love baseball but spending four plus hours sitting in a hard-plastic seat in 90-degree weather can test my patience. To spend four plus hours in a hard-plastic seat watching a team that loses 100 games a season really tests my patience. You get the drift. To his credit, Finley was not afraid to try different promotions to make the fan experience more enjoyable.

But at the end of the day what fans really want to see is a winning team. Nothing brings more joy to the fan base than a pennant winner and unfortunately, Finley had too big of a hole to dig out of in Kansas City. He tried. According to Finley, he lost about $1.5 million on the Athletics in 1961 and 1962, and by 1963 this cash bleed was hurting Charlie O. His first move was to cut the scouting staff from 17 to 11.

Over the winter Finley replace manager Hank Bauer with pitching coach Eddie Lopat. They made their typical handful of minor trades. One trade of interest was made in November of 1962 when the Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels agreed to a gentleman’s agreement in which the Athletics would ship prospect Dan Osinski to the Angels for a player to be named later, which was agreed would be playboy pitcher and problem child Bo Belinsky. Commissioner Ford Frick, with an assist from the Los Angeles Times, sniffed out the deal and voided it for circumventing the rules. Belinsky had rated Kansas City (and Baltimore) the worst American League city for nightlife. Of Kansas City, he famously said, “I wasn’t going to no goddamn Kansas City. They got a lot of stews there (in KC) but what the hell do you do with them after you ball them? There’s no place to go.” Charming guy.

Belinsky had thrown a no-hitter in his fourth career start. That start, plus his good looks and loud personality probably blinded a lot of people to the fact that he was, at best, an average pitcher. The Angels finally unloaded him after the 1964 season to Philadelphia. He finished his career with short stints in Houston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. For a guy who loved his nightlife, this was a fitting end. His career record was 28-51. Instead of Belinsky, the Athletics ended up with the last two years of pitcher Ted Bowsfield.

The club was aggressive in signing amateur free agents, inking Dave Duncan, Paul Lindblad, Tommie Reynolds, Ramon Webster, Roberto Rodriguez and Marcel Lachemann, all who saw eventual playing time either with Kansas City or Oakland.

On April 5, the team made one bad move, probably necessitated by Finley’s cash flow problems. They sold young first baseman Deron Johnson to the Cincinnati Reds. Johnson was blocked by All-Star Norm Siebern, but a trade for players or prospects would have been more beneficial. Once freed from Kansas City, Johnson bloomed. In the eight seasons from 1964 to 1971 he slammed 176 home runs while driving home 644. He finished fourth in the 1965 MVP race. Talent evaluation was never a strength of the Athletics.

The pre-season scouting report once again centered around the Athletics talented infield: Siebern, Jerry Lumpe, Dick Howser and Ed Charles. Wayne Causey was penciled in as a jack of all trade’s utility man, capable of playing second, short or third. The outfield still had question marks: Gino Cimoli, Jose Tartabull, Manny Jimenez, Bobby Del Greco and Chuck Essegian, who was back for his second stint in Kansas City.

The pitching staff was young and improving. Ed Rakow, Dan Pfister and Diego Segui all possessed above average fastballs. Orlando Pena would be on staff for the entire season and Dave Wickersham was a proven arm out of the bullpen.

The season opened with a 1:30 start on Tuesday April 9 against the New York Yankees. For the opener, 20,975 fans came out to see the Yanks pound out 13 hits, including two home runs by Joe Pepitone and one from Elston Howard to stymie Diego Segui and the Athletics by a score of 8 to 2. Former Athletic Ralph Terry picked up the complete game win for New York. The Yankee’s also won the second game of the series the next day, in front of an announced crowd of 3,855. Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard both connected for home runs, leading the Yanks to a 5-3 win.

Then a strange thing happened. The Athletics started to win. Despite losing to the White Sox on May 6, the Athletics record stood at 15-10 and they had a half game lead in the American League. After beating Boston on May 19, the team stood at 20-15 and was only a half game out of first.

Resident poet and third baseman Ed Charles had this to say:

A month of play has passed away

And the critics’ predictions are beginning to sway

For we A’s, picked for ninth place

Stand proudly amidst the pennant race

The early season star for the Athletics was Wayne Causey, who had taken over shortstop duties from an injured Dick Howser and had hit at a .355 clip. In fact, Causey had played so well that the Athletics decided to trade Howser and catcher Jose Azcue to the Cleveland Indians on May 25 for catcher Doc Edwards and $100,000. Haywood Sullivan and Billy Bryan had been doing most of the catching, though their batting averages rarely exceeded their weight. I’m sure the cash was important too. Causey, a Louisiana native, was extremely popular with his teammates and was a bit of a character. After making a great play, Causey would often shout, “Hey! Did you see that!?”

Denver Post Archives
Wayne Causey
Denver Post via Getty Images

Bobby Del Greco described him as “30 days ahead of Piersall.” Jimmy Piersall, who was thought by many to be the number one kook in baseball, was fighting bi-polar disorder, something that was not diagnosed at the time and I’m certain that Del Greco had no idea of.

One of the most interesting games of the season took place on July 13 at Municipal. In front of 13,655, 43-year-old Early Wynn took the mound hoping to get the 300th win of his storied career. As late as 1959, Wynn had gone 22-10 for the Chicago White Sox, but by 1963 he was running on fumes. His last victory had come on September 8, 1962 and he had been winless in his next 15 appearances.

On this day Wynn held it together just long enough to get a lead. The Indians picked up four runs in the top of the fifth and Wynn wobbled through the fifth, allowing three Kansas City runs before he departed with a 5 to 4 lead. Former Athletic Jerry Walker came on in relief and pitched four scoreless innings, only allowing three hits to his former teammates. He Indians added a couple of insurance runs and got Wynn his 300th and final career victory with a 7-to-4 triumph. Drabowsky took the loss for Kansas City, dropping him to a hard luck 0-6. In addition to being the losing pitcher to Wynn’s 300th, Drabowsky also gave up Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit back on May 13, 1958 while pitching for the Chicago Cubs.

Clips of the Wynn game can be seen on this YouTube video.

Said Ed Charles, “Wynn couldn’t have been throwing more than 80 mph! We just couldn’t hit it!” There’s so much great stuff in the film: Ed Charles hitting a first inning three run dong off Jack Kralick. The shepherd wandering around the left field berm. Some great shots of the stadium, including the iconic Hamm’s Beer sign above the scoreboard. Several frames of Harvey the Rabbit, including some of his creepy flashing eyes. There is some great film of Wynn warming up before the historic game, bearing a strong bodily resemblance to Bartolo Colon. Dick Howser went 2-for-5 for the Indians. Another former Athletic, Woodie Held stroked a pinch hit double for Cleveland. Every team in the league seemed to have four or five former Athletics on their rosters.

Also note a young Tony LaRussa in the film. LaRussa was 18 years old at the time. I love it how the team just had his first name on the back of his jersey: TONY. He had made his debut on May 10 and had been used primarily as a pinch runner. He collected his first hit on August 17th. In fact, LaRussa collected 11 of his 35 career hits in that 1963 season. He collected 21 more in the 1970 season and that was pretty much his career. It’s funny to see that now but based on the number of Tony LaRussa baseball cards I used to get, I thought he was a much better ballplayer than he was. Perception is often very different from reality.

Tony LaRussa

The other footage on the film comes from the next day, Sunday July 14, when the Athletics lost a doubleheader to the Yankees by scores of 11-to-6 and 5-to-0. The Yankee pitcher in the film was Al Downing, who on my sister’s birthday in 1974, gave up Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. There’s clips of the Mick and Yogi coaching first base. 1963 was Yogi’s last season as a player as well. There’s good footage of Elston Howard hitting a big fly.

When I see this clip, I think of how the current owner must feel seeing the man and woman in the film, who were most likely either his parents or grandparents. Old film always makes me melancholic.

Besides Tony LaRussa, the team saw several of their youngsters’ debut in 1963. 21-year-old Ken “the Hawk” Harrelson made his debut on June 9. He collected his first hit on June 12 with a first inning single against the Twins Jim Kaat. In the eighth inning, Harrelson hit his first career home run, a two-run dong off Twins reliever Bill Pleis, helping the Athletics to a 12-to-4 win.

Second baseman Dick Green made his debut on September 9 in a game against the Yankees. He collected his first hit on September 21, in a game against New York at Yankee Stadium with a fifth inning double off Ralph Terry in a game won by Kansas City, 5-to-3.

21-year-old leftfielder Tommie Reynolds made his debut on September 5 against the White Sox. He picked up his first and only hit of the season on September 24 at Fenway Park with a seventh inning double off future Royal Dave Morehead.

The team was finally starting to put together some young talent. They just needed more of it. Reality eventually caught up to the nattily dressed team. They went 9-21 in June to fall out of contention. The team ended the season at 73-89 which was good for eighth in the league. The Yankees ran away with the league, posting a 104-57 record.

Causey led the hitters with arguably the best season of his career: .280/.345/.395. He collected 155 hits which included a career best eight home runs. Ed Charles’ numbers were down a little from his fine rookie campaign. He finished at .267/.332/.395 with 15 home runs and 79 RBI. The same can be said for Norm Siebern, a decent season, but nothing like the year he had in 1962. Siebern, who was the team’s lone representative at the All-Star game, clocked in at .272/.358/.410 with a team leading 16 home runs and 83 RBI.

The Athletics finished close to the bottom of the league in most hitting categories, finishing eighth in runs scored, hits, batting average and OPS and ninth in home runs and total bases.

As you can guess, without much run support the pitching suffered. Wickersham and Pena led the staff with 12 wins apiece. Pena also led the staff in losses with 20. Diego Segui and Bill Fischer both went 9-6, while John Wyatt went 6-4. Fischer had started the year on fire. He had a 5- record by May 4, before cooling off. Moe Drabowsky had the best ERA at 3.05 over 174 innings of work.

Moe Drabowsky

Wyatt was also a bit of a character. He had a language all his own. Once, when he was short of cash, he told General Manager Pat Friday that “he needed some hogs.” Friday asked how much? “Oh, about a yard and a half.” Said Wyatt. Friday lent him $150. Wyatt spent time during the season working on his curveball because he can see “those batters all jacked up waiting for the smoke.”

John Wyatt

The 73 wins matched a Kansas City franchise high. The 1958 squad went 73-81. The team’s improved play led to an increase in attendance of 126,689 for the season.

After the season ended, Finley, fretting about the lack of power hitters in the lineup, instructing Pat Friday to find some thumpers. On November 18, Friday traded Jerry Lumpe, Ed Rakow and Dave Wickersham to the Detroit Tigers for Bob Anderson and slugger Rocky Colavito. And $50,000. Finley was hurting for cash and many of his recent deals came with cash.

On November 27, the team shipped All-Star Norm Siebern to Baltimore in exchange for Diamond Jim Gentile. And $25,000. It got worse. They lost one of their best pitchers, Bill Fischer to the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, and on December 15 traded young left-hander Fred Norman to the Chicago Cubs for an outfielder named Nelson Matthews, who would be out of the majors at the end of the 1965 season. Matthews hit .232 in his 224 game Kansas City career and led the American League in strikeouts in 1964 with 143. Norman meanwhile was just getting started on a 16-year career that would see him go 104-103 with over 1,900 innings pitched. The team did sign Felix Milan as an amateur free agent but lost him to the Milwaukee Braves in the first-year player draft before he could play a game for Kansas City. Milan went onto a 12-year career that was worth almost 18 WAR. He won two Gold Gloves as a second baseman and made three All-Star teams.

This is my ninth installment of this series and for the life of me I cannot figure out what the Athletics plan was. They seemed to be able to find young talent but lacked the patience to hold onto and develop that talent. Their master plan seemed to change from year to year, which often resulted in a series of bad trades. Between Rakow, Fischer and Wickersham, the team sent away pitchers who accounted to 30 wins and 508 innings of work in 1963.

Team owner Charlie O. Finley was desperate to move the franchise to another city, having flirtations with Dallas-Ft. Worth, Atlanta and Louisville. He even threatened to move the team to Peculiar, Missouri and have them play in a cow pasture. He also was somewhat quietly shopping the team to other buyers. Investors in Seattle, Denver and San Diego expressed interest, but either would not or could not meet Finley’s requested price.

With an ever changing roster and an owner who didn’t want to be here, it created a contentious atmosphere for Kansas City baseball fans.