1961. President Kennedy is sworn in as the 35th President. The Bay of Pigs invasion fails. Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space. The Vietnam War officially begins as US helicopters and 400 service personnel arrive in Saigon.
With Arnold Johnson’s sudden passing in March of 1960, there was major concern that Kansas City could lose their baseball team. In desperation, the city basically strong armed a group of eight local businessmen to form a syndicate and try to buy the team from Johnson’s widow. “Losing our ball club would have been a black eye that the city would have had a hard time getting over,” one of the eight said. “Admittedly, none of us wanted to be part owners of a ball club, but we were desperate. Then Finley’s bid came.”
Of course, Finley was Charlie O. Finley, one of the most infamous men in baseball history. Old time Athletics fans don’t need an introduction to Finley. Charles Oscar Finley, who made his pile selling disability insurance to doctors, was described as a “handsome, compact, white-haired man with aggressive black eyebrows and a chummy disposition who looks older than his 42 years.” Finley was also desperate to own a baseball team, originally bidding on and losing to Johnson when the Athletics were for sale in 1954. In 1956 he tried to buy a piece of the Detroit Tigers. In 1958 he made a run at the Chicago White Sox, followed by a 1959 attempt to win ownership of the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was rebuffed each time. Johnson’s untimely death and the lack of other serious bidders opened the door for Finley with Kansas City. In December of 1960, Finley bought 52 percent of the club’s stock from the Johnson estate for $1,975,000, followed by an identical payment in February of 1961 for the remaining 48%. This made Finley one of only two sole owners in the American League, the other being Tom Yawkey of Boston.
One of Finley’s first acts as owner of the club was buying a bus, pointing it in the direction of Yankee Stadium and setting it ablaze, symbolizing the end of the teams “special relationship” with the Yankees. The sheer number of trades with New York, and the lopsidedness of those trades, had soured Athletics fans. Said one fan, “The trouble is, we’ve got the wrong half of the Yankees.”
Finley also called a press conference and burned the existing lease to Municipal Stadium, which contained an escape clause linked to declining attendance. To Finley’s credit, he went right to work, pouring over half a million dollars of his own money into a city-owned stadium. The new field box seats were painted citrus yellow. The reserved seats and bleachers were painted desert turquoise. The stadium’s upright beams were painted orange and Finley had two vertical pink florescent lights installed to mark the ends of the foul lines. He had quartz lights installed every 50 feet outside the stadium. He also installed lights in the dugouts and had the game’s radio broadcast piped into the restrooms. He had a picnic ground built out past left field and who can forget the scoreboard messages on Fan-A-Grams? He relocated a large light tower in left field so the left field wall could be set back about 40 feet. Finely knew his numbers. “Last year, our opponents got 43 home runs over that wall and we only got 32. It’s stupid to give away easy home runs to the opposition. Now the fence is a respectable 370 feet from the plate.”
Finley also had a thing for animals. Out past the right field wall, he had two sheep who kept the grass at a reasonable length. And then there was the rabbit. Arising from an invisible spot in the grass behind the home plate umpire, “Harvey”, the mechanical rabbit, complete with blinking eyes and wearing an A’s home uniform, would magically appear with a cage of baseballs. The umpire helps himself to what he needs, and Harvey disappears back down his rabbit hole, while the organist plays “Here comes Peter Cottontail.” More than a few opposing batters were startled first time they saw Harvey.
Finley also unloaded Yankee flunky Parke Carroll and hired Frank Lane as his new general manager. Lane, who had a reputation as a swashbuckling trader, didn’t come cheap - he received an annual salary of $100,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. What could possibly go wrong? Lane lived up to his reputation as a wheeler-dealer, rolling off 17 trades or purchases before Finley canned him on August 22. The two had clashed repeatedly over the direction of the club, and Lane, no wallflower, was not afraid to lacerate his boss in the local press.
Prior to the season, the team signed several amateur free agents, most notably Ted Kubiak and Aurelio Monteagudo. Monteagudo made his Athletic debut in 1963 and became one of only four players to play for both the Athletics and the Royals. In January, Lane made a big trade with the Orioles, shipping Whitey Herzog and Russ Snyder to Baltimore in exchange for Jim Archer, Bob Boyd, Wayne Causey, Clint Courtney and Al Pilarcik. Causey was the key to the trade, putting up almost 10 WAR in his Kansas City career. Lane later acquired left-handed Joe Nuxhall from Cincinnati. Nuxhall had made his debut as a 15-year-old back in 1944. His Kansas City career lasted all of 37 games before being given his release. On April 25, the team made one of its best signings, inking a skinny 19-year-old Cuban with a catchy name: Dagoberto Campaneris Blanco, but you know him better as Bert Campaneris, of the Athletics all-time great players in a splendid 13-year career.
The season opened on April 11 with a single game in Boston, which the Athletics won by a score of 5-2. A Boston rookie named Carl Yastrzemski (that’s Carl “Bleeping” Yastrzemski to my mom) stroked a second inning single off Athletic starter Ray Herbert, for the first of his 3,318 career hits. Another new face on the field was a 23-year-old, blonde crew cut shortstop named Dick Howser. Howser looked a bit like a misplaced little leaguer, at 5’9 and 155 pounds, but there were none tougher than the former Florida State All-American. The scouting report on Howser went like this - can make the deep throw, is smooth in the field and has never hit less than .278 in three minor league seasons. Howser collected his first Major League hit that day with an eighth-inning double. He ended the year with a team-leading 171 hits, 108 runs, 37 stolen bases to go with a .280 batting average. He was the only Athletic selected to the All-Star game and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind pitcher Don Schwall of Boston.
The team went into June with a record of 19-20, but proceeded to go 29-65 through June, July and August to end any illusion that the team was ready to be a contender. Manager Joe Gordon was fired 59 games into the season, replaced by right fielder Hank Bauer. Once Bauer took over as player-manager, he only gave himself ten more at-bats over six games, collecting three hits. The team didn’t respond to Bauer, closing with a pitiful 35-67 mark. They had a few pieces. Their infield looked reasonable with 27-year-old Norm Siebern at first, 28-year-old Jerry Lumpe at second, Howser at short and 24-year-old Wayne Causey at third. Plus, they had a power hitting 22-year-old, Deron Johnson, who had been acquired from, yes, the Yankees, in June for pitcher Bud Daley. That trade also netted the Athletics Art Ditmar, for his second go-around in Kansas City.
Sieburn led the team with a .296 batting average with 18 home runs and 98 RBI. Lumpe hit .293 while Causey chipped in at .276. The outfield, however, was a complete mess with 13 players seeing action. Leo Posada, Bobby Del Greco and Jim Rivera got most of the innings, but none were a long-term solution.
The pitching was also a train wreck. Jim Archer led the staff in ERA at 3.20 and innings with 205, but only posted a 9-15 mark. A 22-year-old named Norm Bass went 11-11 in 170 innings of work. The team gave up on Bud Daley and shipped him to the Yankees - so much for the special relationship. The team churned through 22 different pitchers, looking for an arm that could get out major league hitters.
On June 8, the team signed 18-year-old right hander Lew Krausse, Jr. to a $125,000 free agent contract. This made Krausse a “Bonus Baby” who had to be kept on the major league roster. Krausse’s father, Lew, Sr. had been a pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics and was a scout for the Kansas City club, giving them the inside track to sign his talented progeny. On June 16, Krausse strode to the Municipal Stadium mound in front of almost 26,000 fans and twirled a three-hit complete game shut-out over the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Krausse also collected two hits in three at-bats, quite a debut for a young man who had graduated from high school barely two weeks earlier. Krausse appeared in 12 games that 1961 season, ending with a 2-5 record. Alas, he would spend most of the next four seasons in the minors, battling arm injuries and control issues. He wouldn’t throw another shutout until 1966. When Krausse made his June debut, he was the youngest player in the American League, joining his father in that distinction. When Lew the senior. made his debut with the Philadelphia Athletics on June 11, 1931 at the age of 19 years and 3 days, he too was the youngest player in the American League.
The woeful Athletics finished last or next to last in the American League in runs scored, home runs, OBP, slugging percentage and total bases. The pitching wasn’t any better, finishing last or next to last in wins, ERA, complete games, hits, innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs and strikeouts. And this was after two expansion teams were added! They were losing ground!! In fact, the expansion Los Angeles Angels finished in eighth place with a 70-91 mark, while the Athletics limped home with a 61-100 mark, tied with the new Washington Senators for last in a ten-team league.
The 1961 Kansas City A’s were consistent. They went 31-52 in the first half of the season and 30-48 in the second half. They somehow managed to go 23-17 in one run games but only had a winning record against one opponent, the Cleveland Indians. New York and Chicago White Sox were particularly hard on the KC crew, each spanking them in 14 of 18 games played.
There were a few entertaining games. On April 25, with a sparse crowd of 4,664 on hand at Municipal, Norm Bass pitched a sweet seven-hit complete game and the beleaguered Athletics rapped out 16 hits against seven Minnesota pitchers in in a 20-2 blowout win.
On Sunday July 23, the Athletics hosted the Detroit Tigers in a twi-night doubleheader. They lost the first game by a score of 6-4. The game was tied at two going into the ninth with Joe Nuxhall on the mound. Nuxhall had cruised through the seventh and eighth innings but walked the first two batters of the ninth. Gerry Staley came on in relief. Staley had once been an outstanding pitcher, winning 77 games from 1949 to 1953. In 1961 though he was 40 years old and in the final months of his career. He retired the first two men he faced, then the wheels fell off. A passed ball allowed one run to score. Al Kaline ripped a single to plate another run. Staley then gave up a double to Rocky Colavito and a single to Norm Cash to plate two more runs before getting Steve Boros on strikes to end the carnage. Yes, that Steve Boros, who would coach for the Royals from 1975 to 1979 and again from 1993 to 1994.
The Athletics gave it a go in the bottom of the ninth. Del Greco and Posado led off with walks before rookie phenom Howser ripped a run scoring single. Deron Johnson grounded out, but a wild pitch allowed another run to score giving the 17,852 in attendance hope that the young Athletics could pull this one off. But Sieburn and Lumpe were retired and that was the game.
The real action took place in the second game. Each team pounded out 17 hits in the nightcap in a wild one, eventually won by Detroit by the score of 17-14. Wayne Causey, Norm Sieburn and Bobby Del Greco each went 3-for-5. Deron Johnson and Causey both delivered long balls in the bottom of the eighth to make it a game, but Tiger reliever Phil Regan worked out of a bases loaded jam to preserve the win. Just for perspective, Phil Regan is now 82 and last season was the pitching coach for the New York Mets, taking over from former Royal pitching coach Dave Eiland.
The Athletics came out on the winning end of another blowout, this one on August 31 in a game played at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Wrigley Field was a pretty little park with a capacity of 22,000. The Athletics roped 19 hits off four LA pitchers in a 17-3 amputation of the expansion Angels. Posada, Siebern, Del Greco and Causey all went yard. The beneficiary of the hit parade was Jerry Walker, who pitched a fine complete game five hitter.
The rest of baseball seemed to be doing quite well. Former Athletics star Roger Maris shocked the baseball world by ripping 61 home runs, besting Babe Ruth’s previous record. For his efforts, Maris was awarded the league’s Most Valuable Player award, for the second consecutive year. Warren Spahn threw a no-hitter and collected his 300th win in 1961. Future Royal Vada Pinson collected 208 hits for the Reds. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron continued to torment National League pitchers. Ty Cobb threw out the first pitch in the Los Angeles Angels home opener on April 27 in his last appearance at a ballpark. Cobb, 74, passed away on July 17. To keep pace with the American League, the Senior Circuit agreed to place expansion teams in Houston and New York for the 1962 season.
But for an Athletics fan, what was there to look forward to? Finley naturally wanted to win, but the cupboard of players was very thin. There no was amateur draft, yet, so tanking made no difference. The team had been inept at trading off assets for future gain. It was indeed a dark time to be a baseball fan in Kansas City. I saw a great quote in a movie last night that to me summarized how an Athletic fan might have felt at that time. It went like this: “the truest darkness is not the absence of light. It is the conviction that the light will never return.”