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The 1964 Kansas City Athletics

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Welcome to the Pennant Porch!

Kansas City Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The country entered 1964 reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy. The Warren Commission was convened and determined that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law and President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Despite that, there were race riots in many US cities. Congress authorized war against North Vietnam.

On the bright side, a young Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship. Beatle-mania kicked into high gear and the Rolling Stones released their debut album. Buffalo wings were first made at the Anchor Bar, in of course, Buffalo, New York.

In the world of baseball, the Polo Grounds were demolished. Sandy Koufax had another outstanding season for the Dodgers (19-5, 1.74 ERA, a no-hitter) but Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels won the Cy Young Award (back then it was a combined-league award). Koufax finished third.

Brooks Robinson and Ken Boyer of St. Louis won their leagues respective MVP awards. Tony Oliva and Dick Allen took home the Rookie of the Year hardware. Oliva also won his first batting title and led the American League in hits, runs, doubles and total bases and made a strong case for the MVP award.

The Philadelphia Phillies had a late season collapse, blowing a 6.5 game lead with 12 games to play, and lost the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals. At one point in their painful collapse, the Phillies lost ten straight games. The Cardinals, led by Bob Gibson, beat the New York Yankees in a seven game World Series.

In Kansas City, team owner Charlie O. Finley went rogue and signed an agreement with Louisville, Kentucky in January of 1964 to move the team and rename them the Kentucky Athletics. American League owners, tired of Finley’s outlaw nature, voted down the proposed move.

Finley, in typical Charlie O. fashion, decided in the off-season that the Athletics needed more big boppers. In November of 1963, the Athletics sent Jerry Lumpe, Dave Wickersham and Ed Rakow to the Detroit Tigers for a sore armed pitcher named Bob Anderson and noted thumper Rocky Colavito. The Athletics also received $50,000 which I’m certain greased the skids, as Finley was constantly complaining about losing money. Say what you want about Finley, but the guy knew his way around a dollar bill.

Wickersham and Rakow won 21 games and pitched 412 innings in 1963, so for a team that was chronically short of good pitchers, the move was questionable. Colavito had a career high of 45 home runs and 140 RBI in 1961 but had slumped to 22 and 91 in 1963.

A little over a week later, the Athletics shipped their only All-Star, Norm Sieburn to the Orioles in exchange for another big bopper, Gentle Jim Gentile. Gentile, a lefty first baseman, had a career high 46 home runs and 141 RBI’s. But like Colavito, Gentile’s career year occurred in 1961 and this was 1964. Gentile and Colavito had all the markings of players in decline, but that didn’t stop the Athletics.

The pitching-starved team made one more bone headed move on December 15 when they shipped young lefty Fred Norman to the Chicago Cubs for the final year and a half of Nelson Matthews’ uninspiring career. Matthews did lead the American League in strikeouts in 1964 with 143, so there’s that.

With Gentile now manning first, the rest of the infield went like this: Dick Green at second, Wayne Causey at short and Ed Charles at third. The catcher position was a dark hole manned by a platoon of Doc Edwards, Charlie Lau and Bill Bryan.

The starters would be led by Orlando Pena, Diego Segui and Moe Drabowsky. The bullpen was a strength with solid the arms of John Wyatt and Ted Bowsfield. There were also several young pitchers who were bucking to make the club, including 22-year-old Ken Sanders, 23-year-old Jack Aker, 19-year-old John “Blue Moon” Odom and 21-year-old Lew Krausse Jr. After creating a buzz in his first few games as an 18-year-old phenom during the 1961 season, Krausse had spent the previous two years in the minors trying to harness his control.

Oh yeah, then there was the “Pennant Porch” fiasco. Before the season started Finley got this crazy idea that the reason the Yankees were so good was because they played half their games in Yankee Stadium and benefited from the short dimensions down the right and left field lines. Never mind the fact that the Yankees almost always hit more home runs on the road than at Yankee Stadium. Or that they were loaded with Hall of Famers over the years like DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra. Finley was convinced that the fence distance was the key to leading the Athletics to the World Series. So, Finley had a construction crew revamp Municipal Stadium’s outfield fences to mimic that of Yankee Stadium. The crew bumped the left-center fence out and tightly curled the right field fence in so that the corner matched Yankee Stadium’s dimensions of 296 feet down the line. The right field corner now was home to a small, brightly painted triangular shaped bleacher section called the “K.C. Pennant Porch.”

The team played two exhibition games with the new dimensions before the American League contacted Finley and reminded him that the Pennant Porch was in violation of the major league rule that no ballpark could introduce a foul line dimension of less than 325 feet. Yankee Stadium had been grandfathered in. The Pennant Porch had to go. In a snit, Finley had George Toma and the grounds crew mow the grass so that fans could see which balls would have been out in Yankee Stadium. For a short time, he had the public address announcer say, “That ball would have been a home run at Yankee Stadium.” That practice stopped when the opposing team was hitting more balls “out” than the Athletics were.

While the team was trying to remake itself as some western version of the Bronx Bombers, they also had a handful of promising young position players who were knocking on the door. Among those were a pair of 22-year-old infielders, Ken Harrelson and Bert Campaneris. Also drawing attention was an 18-year-old catcher from San Diego by the name of Dave Duncan. In retrospect, you can start to see the pieces coming together.

The season opened on Tuesday April 14 with a single game in Detroit, which the Athletics lost by a score of 7-to-3. They broke into the win column in their third game, a road contest at Washington in which Orlando Pena outdueled Claude Osteen, winning 5-to-1 in a rain shortened affair.

On April 21, the team started a 13-game home stand with a 5-3 loss to Cleveland. Home runs flew out of Municipal Stadium: 51 in those 13 games. The keynote game of that home stand was the May 2 game against the Minnesota Twins. Finley was in Louisville that day, watching Northern Dancer win the Kentucky Derby. The game went to extra innings and was tied at three going into the top of the eleventh. Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew had already homered for the Twins earlier in the game.

Dan Pfister was on the mound for the Athletics. Oliva led off the 11th with his second home run of the day, a shot to deep right. Raytown native Bob Allison was next and hit another home run to deep left. That brought up Jimmie Hall, who you guessed it, hit one out to deep right. The Athletics called on rookie Vern Handrahan to stem the carnage. The first batter he faced was Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew was a fearsome slugger in those days, one of the best. He didn’t mess around with Handrahan, jacking a fastball deep over the left field wall for his second dinger of the day. Four consecutive home runs. Finley was on the phone with his publicity director, a man named Jim Schaaf, during the Twins outburst.

As Schaaf described the action, Finley said, “That’s impossible! I don’t believe it!”

“Just wait until you read the morning paper, “said Schaaf.

Orlando Pena got off to a hot start for Kansas City and by May 28 was sitting with a 6-3 record. That’s pretty much all the early season good news. That May 28 victory over the White Sox improved the Athletics record to a paltry 13-25, which put them solidly in last place in the American League. It didn’t get better. By June 10, Finley had seen enough and relieved Eddie Lopat of his managerial duties. The lucky guy to take the reins was 37-year-old coach Mel McGaha. One of the other coaches on that 1964 staff was 67-year-old Jimmy Dykes. Dykes had a terrific 22-year big league career with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox where he ended with 2,256 career hits. He was known as an affable guy and a practical joker who was especially fond of handing out exploding cigars. Baseball could use more guys like Jimmy Dykes.

The team improved slightly under McGaha (40-70) but there was no lipstick to make this pig prettier. The Athletics had a losing record every month of the season. They played .381 ball on the road (31-50) but were putrid at home, only going 26-55 (.321). They went 9-9 against Minnesota but posted a losing record against every other team in the league. The White Sox were especially tough on the Athletics, winning 16 of 18. The Pale Hose rode a quintet of strong pitchers to 98 wins and a second-place finish behind the New York Yankees. Kansas City ended the season with a dismal 57-105 record. Attendance dropped more than 120,000 fans to 642,478.

There were some exciting moments in the season. On June 8, Finley signed a young pitcher from North Carolina named Jim Hunter. Hunter had suffered a shotgun blast to his right foot, courtesy of his brother, in a hunting accident during his senior year in high school. The injury scared off most teams, but Finley remained committed to Hunter. Once signed, Finley sent Hunter to the Mayo Clinic for treatment and then had the young man recuperate at his LaPorte, Indiana farm. Finley, always the showman, dubbed Hunter with the nickname Catfish. On June 13, the team signed an 18-year-old junior college outfielder from California by the name of Joe Rudi.

On June 15, the team made one of their best trades of the season when they sent catcher Charlie Lau to Baltimore in exchange for pitcher Wes Stock. Lau had appeared in 43 games and was hitting a respectable .271 when he was dealt. Stock, however, gave Kansas City a much-needed pitching boost, throwing 93 innings in 50 appearances, ending with a 6-3 record and a sparkling ERA of 1.94.

The baseball All-Star game was played on July 7 at Shea Stadium. Colavito and Wyatt were selected to represent the Athletics. Wyatt pitched the fourth inning for the American League and in 1964 KC fashion gave up two hits, solo home runs to Billy Williams and Ken Boyer. Colavito came on as a pinch hitter in the seventh and cracked a double. The American League held a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, but Boston reliever Dick Radatz imploded, allowing Willie Mays to score the tying run before giving up a three-run walk off bomb to Johnny Callison.

On July 23, the Athletics called up Bert Campaneris and gave him the start as shortstop. Incumbent Wayne Causey was hitting .290 at the time, but the Athletics needed a spark and Campaneris had blitzed AA pitching to the tune of .325 at Birmingham. Campaneris’ first start came on July 23 in Minneapolis against Jim Kaat. In the top of the first, with one out, Campy drilled a Kaat fastball deep over the leftfield wall for his first career hit and home run, giving the Athletics a quick 1-0 lead. Harmon Killebrew wiped that out in the bottom of the sixth when he connected for a three-run shot off Diego Segui. Campaneris evened the game in the top of the seventh with a two-out, two-run blast to left off Kaat. The Athletics took the lead on an eleventh inning Doc Edwards home run and John Wyatt closed out the win, getting Tony Oliva, Killebrew and Don Mincher in the Twins half of the eleventh.

What a start by Campaneris! He went 3-for-4 with 2 runs scored and 3 RBI. Kansas City had their first homegrown star on their hands. Campy became only the second player in major league history to hit two home runs in his debut. The third player to accomplish this was Mark Quinn of the Royals in 1999. Wayne Causey still got most games at short, as the Athletics played the versatile Campaneris all over the field: short, left field and third base.

The most fascinating game of the season happened in Baltimore on September 12. Bob Meyer of the Athletics and Frank Bertaina of the Orioles locked up in a classic pitcher’s duel. Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the score was knotted at zero. The only hit of the game had been a fifth inning lead off double by Kansas City catcher Doc Edwards. Bertaina worked around a one out walk to Dick Green and left both men stranded by getting Meyer and Campaneris.

Meyer had pitched the game of his life and carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the eighth. That ended when Oriole catcher John Orsino roped a double into the left-center gap. Bob Saverine came on to run for Orsino. Bertaina helped himself by laying down a nice sacrifice bunt, which moved Saverine to third. Jackie Brandt then lofted a fly ball to right, deep enough to score Saverine, who beat the throw from Rocky Colavito. Colavito had one of the strongest arms in baseball and wasn’t shy about showing it off, but he couldn’t get Saverine. 1-0 Baltimore.

The Athletics had a chance in the ninth. Colavito drew a lead off walk and with Jim Gentile at the plate, Rocky surprised everyone by stealing second. Colavito ended his career with 19 stolen bases (in 46 attempts). His season career high was three, which he accomplished four time. The Rock wasn’t much of a threat on the basepaths. Bertaina then got Gentile on a fly ball to center which brought up Nelson Matthews. Matthews gave the Athletics bench a charge with a fly to deep left, but the ball died on the warning track for out number two. Bertaina then closed the store by getting Edwards on a ground ball to short. Thus, ended one of those rare games where both pitchers only allowed one hit. The Orioles also only had 19 at bats over their eight innings, which was a record at the time.

For the season, Rocky Colavito led the hitters with a .274/.366/.507 slash. His 34 home runs, 89 runs scored, 31 doubles and 102 RBI were all tops on the team.

Wayne Causey produced another solid campaign with a .281/.377/.386 line with a team leading 170 hits, 31 doubles and 88 walks. Dick Green had a good rookie season batting .264 with 11 home runs and 37 RBI in 130 games. This would be the start of a solid 12-year career with the Athletics. If you’ve never seen it, take a look at this play from the 1972 World Series. Two players with ties to Kansas City, Dick Green and Hal McRae. I remember watching it live and was a little startled by the ferociousness of the hit. Hard to believe now, but that’s how baseball was played for many decades.

The hitters had a better year in 1964, finishing third in the league in home runs and walks and fourth in doubles. The Athletics clubbed 165 home runs, up from 95 in 1963. They still finished near the bottom in runs scored (eighth) and batting average (ninth).

For the pitching staff, mid-season acquisition Wes Stock was a revelation. John Wyatt appeared in a major league record 81 games and went 9-8 with a 3.59 ERA. Diego Segui and Orlando Pena were the workhorses, throwing 217 and 219 innings respectively. With Finley in love with the long ball, he must have forgotten the part about the other team getting to bat also. Athletics’ pitchers allowed a major league record 220 home runs, a record that would stand until 1987! Orlando Pena gave up 40 home runs. Segui allowed 30 (22 of those at home). A quartet of rookie right handers really got pounded - Vern Hanrahan gave up 9 in 36 innings, future Royal Aurelio Monteagudo gave up 11 in 31 innings, Blue Moon Odom gave up 5 in 17 innings and Jack Aker gave up 6 in 16 innings.

On September 5, 19-year-old John “Blue Moon” Odom made his debut in a game against the Yankees at Municipal. In his first career start, Odom ran into problems immediately. He gave up a lead off single to Tony Kubek, then walked Bobby Richardson. He got Roger Maris to hit into a fielder’s choice for his first out. That brought up Mickey Mantle. I’m sure Odom was battling his nerves. He threw a pitch by Doc Edwards before grooving a fastball that Mantle yanked over the left field wall for a quick 3-0 Yankee lead. McGaha let Odom work through the second before pulling him. Rough night for the kid: 2 innings of work, 6 hits allowed, 6 earned runs. ERA of 27.00. Welcome to the bigs, kid.

Odom got his second start on September 11 at Baltimore and was a completely different pitcher, going the distance and only allowing 2 hits. He did walk 6 but struck out 7 in leading Kansas City to an 8-0 win. Odom didn’t allow a hit until the 7th inning and there was some controversy about the two Baltimore hits. Many thought they should have been scored as errors and Blue Moon would have had a no-hitter in just his second start. The Orioles got the home town discount from the official scorer, but Odom got the win. Several of his Athletic teammates were so incensed by the scoring that they threatened to storm the press box and beat up the official scorer.

After the season ended, the powers to be in baseball decided to throw the downtrodden franchises a bone and instituted the first ever amateur player draft. Kansas City was awarded the first overall pick and they hit a home run, selecting Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday. The team also scored in the third round with Bob Stinson, the sixth round with Sal Bando and again in the twentieth round with Gene Tenace. It was an exceptionally deep draft class with players such as Johnny Bench (2nd round, #36), Graig Nettles (Rd. 4, #74), Amos Otis (Rd. 5, #95), Hal McRae (Rd. 6, #117), Marty Pattin (Rd. 7, #127), Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Darrell Evans being selected. In the 22nd round, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected a shortstop from Seguin, Texas by the name of Freddie Patek. There were a lot of future Royals in this draft.

Before the year ended, the Athletics got themselves a Christmas present. On December 24th, they signed an 18-year-old free agent pitcher from Upland, California named Rollie Fingers. Looking back, 1964 was a pivotal year in the future of the franchise. Campaneris and Odom made their debuts. They signed Catfish Hunter AND Rollie Fingers, two future Hall of Fame pitchers. As a cherry on top, they also signed another free agent pitcher, 20-year-old Chuck Dobson, a local boy out of the University of Kansas. Add that to the draft coup of Monday, Bando and Tenace and the signing of Joe Rudi. Wow. The Athletics hit it big time in 1964.

The other big event for the Kansas City A’s in 1964 wasn’t even related to baseball. The Beatles had taken the United States by storm and Charlie Finley wanted a piece of it. Finley offered Beatles manager Brian Epstein $50,000 if the Fab Four would play a date at the stadium. For perspective, established stars like Frank Sinatra could be had for $10,000 to $15,000 per show. The band, worn out from touring and recording, politely declined. Finley doubled his bid. The band said, thanks but no thanks. Finley swung for the fences on his third attempt, offering $150,000 (the equivalent of $1.1 million today). The Beatles agreed to the sum and the date.

The Kansas City Star headline said, “Beatles put Finley on top” and had a picture of Charlie O. wearing a mop top wig. The concert was set for September 17. The band was flown into Municipal Airport and covertly driven to the Hotel Muehlebach. Ticket prices were $8.50 for a field seat, $6.50 for box seats and $4.00 for general admission. The weather was beautiful, and 20,280 people were in attendance, which was the second highest attendance of that year’s Beatles tour. Ambulances and the Red Cross were on duty to handle any fainting teenage girls. 350 police officers were on hand. That was the third largest assembly of police in the city’s history, behind the force that worked the 1951 flood and the 1957 Ruskin Heights tornado.

There were several lead acts: The Exciters, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Bill Black’s combo and Jackie DeShannon. Then it was time for the Beatles. They quickly bounded onto the stage, plugged in and Paul said, “Hullo Kansas City” and the band broke into Twist and Shout. Pandemonium enthused. The band played for 31 minutes, with one encore, “Kansas City”. What a great time to be alive.