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The 1966 Kansas City Athletics

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Youth will be served

Portrait of Bert Campaneris

Now were starting to get into my time. I remember 1966 like it was yesterday. Can’t remember what I had for lunch three days ago, but I remember 1966. The war in Vietnam was now going full tilt as the US had over 500,000 troops in the country. Anti-war protests roiled the country. Charles Whitman barricaded himself in a bell tower at the University of Texas and killed 14 people in a shooting spree that shocked the nation. The Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominated the music scene. Star Trek debuts on TV. Neil Armstrong and David Scott narrowly averted disaster with their Gemini 8 mission. The Kansas City Chiefs win the AFL championship by defeating the Buffalo Bills 31 to 7. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 34 to 27 to win the NFL championship. Texas Western (Now UTEP) defeated Kentucky to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

In the world of baseball, Casey Stengel and Ted Williams were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta. Roberto Clemente won the National League MVP award while Frank Robinson won the American League triple crown with a .316, 49 home run, 122 RBI effort which also earned him the junior circuit’s MVP honors. Sandy Koufax had another monster season, going 27-9 while striking out a league leading 317 in 323 innings of work. He had 27 complete games and a sparkling ERA of 1.73. He unanimously won the Cy Young award for the third time. He led the Dodgers into the World Series then retired after the series was over, a move that shocked baseball to its core.

Koufax had gone 129-47 over the previous six seasons. He had stuck out 1,713 batters over 1,633 innings while posting an otherworldly ERA of 2.19. It appeared he was just hitting his peak, but the workload had left his left arm in a near crippled state and the pain was too much to bear, so at the age of 30, Sanford Koufax walked away from the game he loved. Before he departed, Koufax led his Dodgers to another World Series where they met the Baltimore Orioles. Just a few years earlier, the Orioles had been a second division mate of the Athletics. They developed and traded for a core of young stars and rode that group up the standings, culminating in their 1966 American League Championship. They didn’t fool around in the World Series, as they swept the favored Dodgers. The Oriole pitching staff only allowed two runs to Los Angeles in the four games. Athletic castoff Moe Drabowsky turned in a brilliant relief performance to win game one and future Royal Wally Bunker tossed a 1-0 shutout to win game three.

For the fans of the Kansas City Athletics, 1966 was the best and the worst of times. The combined stench of the 59-win 1965 squad and the cities and fan’s disgust with owner Charlie O. Finley hung over the city like a cloud from the stockyards. On the other hand, to baseball observers, you could see that something special was starting to take shape in Kansas City. They had a strong core of youngsters on their roster: Bert Campaneris, Jim Hunter, Ken Harrelson, Dick Green. And thanks to the newly instituted draft, the farm system was brimming with talented prospects. For the first time since they arrived in Kansas City, the future was looking bright for the Athletics. The big question remained: Would Finley move the team before the young core matured?

For the second time in two seasons, Finley rebooted the Athletics. He quickly fell out of love with the long ball and now was shifting back to speed and defense. He moved the outfield fences waaay back at Municipal – 370 down the left field line, 421 to dead center and 325 to right. As if that wasn’t enough, he also erected a 22-foot-high barrier over the left field wall and a 30-foot-high fence running from the right field corner to center field, reminiscent of Ebbets Field. You had to be a man to hit it out of Municipal in 1966.

1966 was the summer that the Athletics caught my eye. Even though I was only five, I was already a baseball fan. I fell in love with the team when I saw them on TV, with their bright yellow and green uniforms. My father had a friend who went to a game and gave me the program when he got back to town. The program had been roughed up a little on the five-hour drive back. The front cover was missing as were several pages. No matter. I thumbed through that program many times over the years, reading all of the player bio’s. Amazingly, I still have it to this day, no worse for the wear than when I first received it.

1966 program

Alvin Dark was named manager of the team after Haywood Sullivan bolted to Boston. Dark was a three-sport star at LSU and a captain in the Marine Corp. during WWII. He enjoyed a 14-year career in which he won the Rookie of the year in 1948 and made three All-Star teams. He was on base (after hitting a single) when Bobby Thompson hit his “shot heard ‘round the world.” He came with top credentials. He managed the San Francisco Giants to 366 wins and only 277 losses and one World Series appearance from 1961 to 1964. Today a record like that would get a manager a ten-year contract. Back in those pre-wildcard days, you either won your league (and went to the World Series) or you stayed home. Dark’s team stayed home three seasons’ despite winning 85, 88 and 90 games. That wasn’t good enough for Giants hard ass owner Horace Stoneham, who fired Dark in the sixth inning of the last game of the season.

Dark had been hurt by a controversial quote he made about Hispanic and African American players, in which he said he was misquoted. Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson both came to his defense. Orlando Cepeda was Dark’s harshest critic, though it’s important to understand the context of the times. Baby Bull was unhappy because Dark had bumped Cepeda off first base in favor of Willie McCovey. It was a time of an embarrassment of riches for the Giants as McCovey and Cepeda were both All-Star performers. Also on Dark’s staff were his former Giant teammate Bobby Hoffman, Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling, Cot Deal and Al Vincent.

With Finley revamping the stadium for speed, where does that leave the team’s two sluggers, Hawk Harrelson and Bill Bryan? When asked by a reporter if he was part of the speed team, Harrelson replied, “Definitely,”

“Definitely not,” countered Alvin Dark.

Harrelson, never short for words, came back with this pearl. “you have to love talent, baby, and I have nothing but talent. Why, I amaze myself.”

The team dodged a bullet in the off season. Young ace Catfish Hunter had been sent to Venezuela for winter ball work. When General Manager Ed Lopat found out his young star had his arm in a sling, he blew a gasket. “What in the world has been going on down there?’ screamed Lopat. Turns out the Venezuelan team had been using Hunter up to four times a week, in both starts and relief. Lopat instructed Hunter to catch the next plane home, whereupon the team physician went over his arm with a fine-tooth comb. The only thing they found wrong was a slight muscle tear. Maybe the Athletics luck was changing.

The season opened in Bloomington, Minnesota on April 12. Hunter got the start against the Twins Mudcat Grant. Both pitchers were outstanding. Each team pushed across an early run and the game went into the bottom of the ninth tied at one. Zoilo Versalles drew a lead off walk then Catfish made a crucial mistake. He uncorked a wild pitch to Sandy Valdespino which moved Versalles into scoring position. Valdespino made him pay with a run scoring single to walk off the Athletics. Hunter had allowed only four hits (two to Valdespino) but was hurt by two walks and the untimely wild pitch. Grant was nearly as good, allowing only six hits and working out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings.

And that’s how April went for the Athletics. They finished the month with two wins and 10 losses. Six of the losses were by two runs or less. The young team was also facing some of the best arms in the American League: Grant, Jim Kaat, Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Mickey Lolich and Mel Stottlemyre all defeated the Athletics during that rough start.

They finally found their footing in May, going 13-15. They continued to play close to .500 ball through June and July, going 30-32 in those months.

On another trip to Bloomington, a Thursday night game on June 9, the Athletics broke out of the box early, sending Twins starter Camilio Pascual to the showers after two thirds of an inning, having pushed across four runs. Kansas City had to feel confident with Catfish Hunter on the mound and indeed, Hunter held the powerful Twins scoreless through four innings. The Twins scraped across a single run in the fifth and added two more in the sixth on a Harmon Killebrew home run before the wheels came off.

Hunter walked Earl Battey leading off the seventh. With one out, Rich Rollins tagged him for the two-run dinger. Zoilo Versalles, the next batter, went back-to-back, sending one into the left field bleachers.

Dark called on Paul Lindblad. Lindblad got Valdespino for the second out before giving up two consecutive dongs to Tony Oliva and Don Mincher. Dark gave Lindblad the hook and brought in John Wyatt. Harmon Killebrew greeted Wyatt with a long home run to left. Dark let Wyatt work out his troubles. The next batter, Jimmie Hall, just missed a home run with a drive that struck the top of the right field wall. Wyatt finally got Bernie Allen to mercifully hit a nubber in front of the plate that allowed catcher Phil Roof to throw him out at first.

When the dust had settled, the scoreboard showed the Twins leading 9-4 and their five home runs in the inning had tied a major league record. The Twins had some serious power. They had victimized the Athletics with four consecutive home runs in a 1964 game.

There were a couple of other interesting games in the 1966 season. On May 18, Hunter pitched a brilliant four-hitter against the California Angels in the first game of a doubleheader. Teams seemed to play more doubleheaders then than they do now. Hunter surrendered two singles and two doubles. He walked four and struck out a season high ten batters in leading Kansas City to a 7-1 victory over an Angels team loaded with future Royals. Playing that night for California was Bobby Knoop, Jackie Hernandez, Rick Reichardt, Ed Kirkpatrick, Paul Schaal and Jose Cardenal.

It was obvious that Hunter was developing into a star. He was the only Athletic to make the All-Star game, which was played in St. Louis. Hunter had arm problems late in the season. He made a start on July 24, giving up four runs in six innings in a loss to the Washington Senators. He didn’t make another start or appearance until September 3, and only lasted one inning against the Red Sox, giving up five runs. He made three short relief appearances in September before starting the final game of the season on October 2. He went eight and a third innings in a game against Detroit which the Athletics won by a score of 7 to 5. His opponent on the hill for the Tigers was one-time Dodger great Johnny Podres.

The big story of the 1966 season was the arrival of the first wave of new stars. Making their debuts in 1966 were Sal Bando, Chuck Dobson, John Donaldson, Rick Monday and Jim Nash.

Bando and Monday, former college teammates, both made their debuts on September 3 in a game at Municipal. Monday made the start in center field and Bando got the start at third base. Both went hit less though Monday did make a nice throw to get Tony Conigliaro trying to go first to third on a single by George “Boomer” Scott. Jim Lonborg was masterful in that game, walking one and only allowing two hits – a single and a triple to Bert Campaneris. Bando collected his first hit, a fifth inning single against Clyde Wright of the Angels, on September 6.

Monday had to wait a bit longer to collect the first of his 1,619 career hits. He endured a oh for 15 start to his career before ripping a third inning double against Jim Palmer in a September 22 game at Municipal. Strangely, Monday collected his first career RBI before he got his first hit. On September 9, Kansas City hosted the Detroit Tigers. Blue Moon Odom got the start for KC. The Athletics squeezed out a run in the fifth and Detroit tied it in the eighth. It went to the bottom of the ninth tied at one with Mickey Lolich on the mound for Detroit in relief of Johnny Podres.

For those of you who never saw him pitch, Lolich was a handful. He was a fire balling lefty with a three quarters delivery. During a 16-year career, he won 217 games and left-handed batters only hit .205 against him. He was always a little wild, which only made it tougher to hit against him. In this appearance, Bert Campaneris sliced a lead off single into right field. Mike Hershberger then laid down a perfect bunt which moved Campy to second. The Tigers then gave Ed Charles a free pass to set up the double play. That backfired when Danny Cater drew a walk to load the bases. That brought the left-handed hitting Monday to the plate. Monday had entered the game in the ninth as a pinch hitter. The A’s had threatened in the 9th as Monday reached on an error and Larry Stahl hit a single. Erne Fazio was intentionally walked to load the bases. Lolich struck out Sal Bando then induced Rene Lachemann to hit into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play. The Tigers were hoping lightning would strike twice, but Monday was a great hitter with a terrific eye. He worked Lolich for the game winning walk much to the delight of the 6,746 fans on hand that evening.

The biggest rookie splash was made by 21-year-old pitcher Jim Nash. Nash had been signed in June of 1963 out of the University of Georgia. He made his Kansas City debut on July 3 against the Tigers and proceeded to win his first seven decisions. He lost his first game of the season on August 19 to the Yankees and didn’t lose again, finishing the year 12-1. Nash appeared in 18 games that summer, starting 17 of them. Kansas City went 14-4 in games he pitched. Nash threw 127 innings and ended the season with a glittering ERA of 2.06. Unfortunately, Nash was dogged by arm problems and 1966 would be the high-water mark of his career.

As was the case in most past seasons, the Athletics couldn’t figure out how to manage their roster. They played 49 different players in the summer of 1966 and made their usual assortment of interesting and questionable trades.

On April 6 they shipped pitcher John O’Donohue to the Indians for Ralph Terry part two. Terry had started his career with the Yankees and came over to KC for the first time in 1957. The A’s dutifully shipped him back to New York for his prime. Once he was burned up, the Yanks unloaded him onto Cleveland. By the time he returned to Kansas City, he had nothing left.

On April 13, the team unloaded another starter by selling Diego Segui to the Washington Senators. On May 27, the Athletics made a move that was unpopular with their fan base when they sent Wayne Causey to the Chicago White Sox for Danny Cater. On June 10 they continued to purge their old pitching staff by sending Fred Talbot and catcher Bill Bryan to the Yankees for a trio of nobodies.

By this time, it would have been fair game to question General Manager Eddie Lopat’s mental state. On June 13 he sent pitchers Rollie Sheldon and John Wyatt and starting outfielder Jose Tartabull to the Red Sox (in a trade engineered by former A’s manager Haywood Sullivan) for Jim Gosger, Guido Grilli and Ken Sanders. On June 23 they traded young first baseman Ken Harrelson to the Washington Senators for the last eight games of pitcher Jim Duckworth’s career.

Barely a month later, they flipped Duckworth back to the Senators for…Diego Segui. The pitching musical chairs finally ended on August 6th when they sold Ralph Terry’s carcass to the hapless New York Mets.

The second amateur baseball draft took place on June 7. The New York Mets held the first pick in the draft and were widely expected to take Arizona State outfielder Reggie Jackson. Among scouts, Jackson was a near unanimous lock for the best player in the draft. There were ugly rumors that some teams were put off by Jackson dating white women. Remember this was 1966. Things were different then. Unbelievably, the Mets passed on Jackson and selected a California high school catcher by the name of Steve Chilcott. Chilcott never played a single game in the majors.

The Athletics could hardly believe their good fortune and wasted little time selecting Jackson and reuniting him with former college teammates Monday and Bando. The remainder of the draft wasn’t as good to Kansas City as the ’65 draft had been. The only other player of significance was their fifth-round selection, pitcher Dave Hamilton who enjoyed a nine-year big league career. There was plenty of talent in this draft. Ken Brett went to Boston with the fourth pick and the next summer was pitching in the World Series. Other notables in this draft were Steve Garvey, Elliott Maddox, Cliff Johnson, Dave Cash, Charlie Hough, Ken Forsch, Bill Russell, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey, Kurt Bevacqua and Steve Hovley.

During the 1966 season, Norm Cash of the Tigers hit one of the longest home runs in Municipal Stadium history, a shot that carried out onto Brooklyn Avenue. I’m uncertain of the date but baseball records show Cash hitting two home runs in Kansas City that summer. The first came on May 30 when Cash connected for a two-run, first inning jack off Chuck Dobson, part of a 5-2 Tiger victory. The second came on July 31, when in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, Cash drilled a Jim Nash fastball out of the park.

Another historical event took place on September 4 in the second game of another doubleheader. Man, those guys must have been beaten to a pulp playing all these doubleheaders. There were 13,738 fans at Municipal that day to watch the A’s and Red Sox split the twinbill. Boston took game one by a score of 3-0. Kansas City took the nightcap 7 to 2 highlighted by the only triple play in Municipal Stadium history. On the mound for the Athletics was left-handed Gil Blanco, a 20-year-old who had come over in the Bryan and Talbot trade. Rico Petrocelli opened the game with a single. Blanco then walked Joe Foy and Don Demeter putting himself into a world of hurt with slugger Tony Conigliaro coming to the plate. Conigliaro was only 21 himself, but he was already a beast, having slugged 24 and 32 home runs in the previous two seasons. He would connect on 28 more in 1966. Not this time though. Tony C. hit a sharp grounder to Campy who went to Dick Green who stepped on second and fired the ball to rookie Tim Talton at first for the second out. Petrocelli then decided to break for home. Talton’s peg to catcher Phil Roof was in time to get Petrocelli for the third out.

1966 was the year that the Athletics committed to a youth movement and the signs were encouraging. Dark’s young charges went 74-86, an improvement of 15 games over the 1965 squad. Attendance jumped by 245,585 to 773,929 as fans responded to the improved play. For the first time since they moved to Kansas City, the team tied or won the season series with five of the nine teams they played. Dismal showings against Baltimore, Chicago and New York (a combined 15 wins against 37 losses) kept them from climbing into the upper division.

Ed Charles once again led the hitters with a .286/.337/.444 slash with 9 home runs and 42 RBI and an OPS of 126. Bert Campaneris led the team with 153 hits, 29 doubles and 10 triples. His 52 stolen bases led the American League for the second consecutive season. Mid-season acquisition Roger Repoz led the team with 11 home runs. Second baseman Dick Green led the A’s in RBI with 62. The team led the American League in triples but were dead last in home runs and second to last in runs scored.

The Athletics had some good offensive teams in past years. Pitching had always been their Achilles heel. 1966 was a bad time to have a bad offense. Granted, baseball in those years was dominated by the pitcher and the 1966 Athletics staff was the best they had since the move from Philadelphia.

In addition to Jim Nash’s fine 12 win campaign, Lew Krausse looked like he was ready to cash in on his vast potential as he turned in a fine 14 and 9 season. Krausse was still only 23 years old. He threw 177 innings and ended with a sparkling 2.99 ERA. 25 year old Jack Aker had an outstanding year, appearing in 65 games and recording 32 saves, which led all of baseball. He threw 113 innings and had an ERA of 1.99. The team was loaded with young guns: Catfish Hunter (20), Blue Moon Odom (21), Chuck Dobson (22), and Paul Lindblad and Ken Sanders (24).

The future was so bright even Charlie O. Finley had to wear shades. The staff was stocked with young arms and the farm system was brimming with talent. 1967 had potential to be a summer to remember.