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What if the Athletics had stayed in KC?

It’s the baseball twilight zone!

Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Max Rieper has previously explored some alternate histories, such as “what if the Royals never trade David Cone” and “what if the Royals don’t take Luke Hochevar with the first overall pick.” In Kansas City, we have several events in sports history that would make for some interesting alternate histories.

1. What if on Christmas Day, 1971, Jan Stenerud makes that chip shot field goal late in the 4th quarter to send the Chiefs to Super Bowl VI? Would there be another flag flying over Arrowhead?

2. What if Lin Elliott makes his field goals in the 1995 playoff game against Indianapolis?

3. What if Marty Schottenheimer doesn’t overthink things in 1997 and starts Rich Gannon in the playoffs against Denver?

4. What if Dee Ford doesn’t jump offsides against New England in 2018?

5. What if Whitey Herzog sticks with Steve Mingori in the ninth inning of Game five of the 1977 American League Championship Series?

6. What if Don Denkinger calls Jorge Orta out at first base?

7. What if Dayton Moore drafts Anthony Rendon instead of Bubba Starling?

You get the idea. There is a never-ending well of “What ifs” for sports fans of every city. Here I want to look at possibly the biggest “What If” for Kansas City sports fans. What if Charlie O. Finley decided to keep the Athletics in Kansas City?

This would probably mean that baseball, long loathe to change, would not have expanded in 1969. Where would John Mayberry, Freddie Patek and Amos Otis get traded too? Where would George Brett, Willie Wilson, Dan Quisenberry and Steve Busby have played?

Even though the Athletics never enjoyed a winning season during their tenure in Kansas City, you could see that it was not far off. Finley had rebuilt the farm system through a series of shrewd free agent signings and a series of excellent amateur drafts. The 1967 Athletics finished at 62-99 and drew 726,639 to Municipal. Their roster was dotted with a plethora of young stars: Bert Campaneris, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, and Catfish Hunter. Campaneris, already in his fourth season was the oldest player in this group and he was just 25. Percolating in the minor leagues were other immense talents like Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, and Darrel Evans. Unfortunately, Evans would be lost to the Atlanta Braves in the 1968 Rule Five draft upon which he embarked on a 21-year career that is borderline Hall of Fame worthy.

In the spring of 1967, Jackson County voters approved a bond issue to build a new baseball stadium at what is called the Leeds site, at the intersection of I-435 and I-70. In our alternate history, Finley is thrilled with the plans and holds a press conference gushing about the team’s future in Kansas City. He promises that once the new facility is opened that “I will light the match to burn down Municipal!” Mayor Ilus Davis cringes. In May of 1968, land is purchased at the Leeds site and ground is broken.

Finley hires Bob Kennedy to manage his young charges and the Athletics respond with the first winning record in Kansas City Athletics history, 82-80. Catfish Hunter provides the highlight of the season when on a game at Municipal on May 8, he threw only the ninth- perfect game in major league history. Rollie Fingers makes his debut on September 15 against Detroit. Kansas City loves a winner, and more than 950,000 fans pour through the turnstiles at Municipal. The Athletics score again in the draft with their first-round selection of outfielder George Hendrick.

Optimism abounds with the start of the 1969 season. Since the Athletics stayed in Kansas City, there is no expansion. The Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots never existed. Thus, bereft of material, Jim Bouton never writes Ball Four and eventually retires to near anonymity. Baseball fans continue to believe that Mickey Mantle was an All-American boy.

1969 is the year that the American League splits into two divisions and the Athletics are placed in the Western Division along with Minnesota, California, Cleveland, and the Chicago White Sox.

Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Boston, and New York make up the Eastern Division. Hank Bauer takes over as manager of the Athletics and leads them to an 88-74 record, which is good for second place in the American League West. Minnesota wins the division with 97 victories while Baltimore takes the East with a 109-win season. More than a million fans file into Municipal to watch their Athletics. Kansas City fans, hungry for a star since Roger Maris was unceremoniously shipped off to New York in December of 1959, found one in Reggie Jackson. Mr. Jackson announced his presence in 1969 by slamming 47 home runs with an OPS of 1.018. He finished fifth in the MVP vote, though a case can be made that he should have won it. Gene Tenace makes his debut on May 29 in a game against the Tigers and a 19-year-old fireballing lefty with a cool name, Vida Blue, makes his debut on July 20 against California.

Roger Maris of the Kansas City Athletics

Out east, the new stadium is starting to rise from the prairie. It’s announced that the new ballpark will be ready for opening day, 1971.

Kansas City fans are gaga about their team and with 1970 being the last season in Municipal, Finley devises all sorts of publicity stunts, including an old timer’s game and fireworks after every Saturday night win. It’s not necessary, because Kansas City fans love a winner and the Athletics deliver again, finishing 89-73. There is some grumbling among fans, as that mark is only good for second place, for the second year in a row. Minnesota, riding its young core of Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, once again take the West with 98 victories. Baltimore, a budding dynasty, runs away in the East with 108 wins.

The other disappointment is that Finley can’t keep a manager for more than one year. John McNamara was the new skipper in 1970 and he did a fine job. Vida Blue had the city buzzing with his September call-up. Blue only started six games in 1970 but threw a one-hitter in his second start and just so everyone knew that wasn’t a fluke, he twirled a no-hitter against the powerful Twins in his fourth start. Blue struck out nine Twins and only walked one. The Athletics bid farewell to Municipal on October 1, when they defeated the Cleveland Indians in a thrilling 5 to 4 walk-off win. Entering the ninth, the A’s trailed 4 to 3. Joe Rudi hit a one-out single and Sal Bando drew a walk. Reggie Jackson, who established himself as a rising star, slammed a double into the right-center gap to score both runs and give the fans something to look forward to over the long winter.

1971 was the year it started to come together for the Athletics. As can be expected, John McNamara was out as manager, replaced by former Athletic player Dick Williams. After that, it was all wine and roses. The new ballpark, christened Finley Field, opened to rave reviews on Wednesday April 7 with a standing room crowd of almost 40,000 fans. Tony John and the Chicago White Sox ruined the evening by slipping by the A’s and Catfish Hunter by the score of 6 to 5. Sal Bando hit the first home run in the new stadium, a third inning, three-run shot, which gave the A’s a short-lived lead.

Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

1971 was the summer of Vida. Mr. Blue turned in a 24-8 season with a sparkling 1.82 ERA to win the Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player award, both firsts for the Kansas City squad. Reggie Jackson also broke out in a big way, slamming 32 home runs. Reggie captured the nation’s attention at the baseball All-Star game on July 13 in Detroit. In the third inning, Jackson came on as a pinch hitter for teammate Vida Blue. Facing Pittsburgh’s Dock Ellis, Jackson connected on a home run that nearly left Tiger Stadium. The ball was on its way out of stadium when it struck a light tower above the right field grandstands. “You’ll never see five balls hit like that in a lifetime.” Said Frank Howard of the Washington Senators. Harmon Killebrew of the rival Twins said, “it was one of the hardest hit balls I’ve ever seen.”

Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Almost 1,400,000 million fans poured into Finley Field to watch their beloved A’s win their first division title with a record of 101-60. Blue was featured on the cover of both Time and Sports Illustrated, and Kansas City was quickly becoming the center of the baseball universe. The Athletics lost the first two games of the ALCS to the powerful Orioles, before returning to Kansas City for Game Three on October 5. Despite two home runs from Jackson and one from Sal Bando, the Athletics fell to Jim Palmer and the Orioles by a score of 5 to 3.

The A’s scored again in the draft, when they selected Phil Garner in the first round. They made one controversial trade in the off-season, shipping their first-ever draft pick, Rick Monday, to the Chicago Cubs for left-handed pitcher Ken Holtzman.

Across town, the Kansas City Chiefs played the final sporting event ever in Municipal Stadium on Christmas Day, 1971. After the Miami Dolphins tied the game with 1:48 left, Ed Podolak returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Dolphin 22. After three Wendell Hayes plunges in the middle of the line, Jan Stenerud came on and drilled a 27-yard field goal as time expired to send the Chiefs to Super Bowl VI. The Chiefs defense, led by future Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and Emmitt Thomas, rose to the occasion and shut down Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys by the score of 27-14. The win was the Chiefs second Super Bowl title in three years. When the 1972 season kicks off, the Champion Chiefs will move across the parking lot from Finley Field to the glistening 73,000 seat Arrowhead Stadium.

Miami Dol;phins v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When you talk about baseball history in Kansas City, 1972 is the year that many of us remember most fondly. Williams came back as manager (surprise!) and led his talented team to another American League West crown with a 93-62 record. Catfish Hunter won 21 games and new arrival Ken Holtzman pitched in with 19 victories. Blue and Charlie Finley clashed over salary in the off-season and Blue held out most of the year. When he did return, he slumped to a 6-10 mark. The team also brought in Denny McLain for five early season games, before wisely flipping him to the Atlanta Braves for Orlando Cepeda in May. Mike Epstein led the team with 26 home runs while Joe Rudi established himself as a star by hitting .305. The A’s had acquired the nickname “The Swinging A’s” for their colorful day-glo uniforms, mustaches, and big personalities.

The A’s met the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, which was a best-of-five affair. The first two games were played in Kansas City and the A’s won both before raucous sell-out crowds. The Tigers came back to win games three and four to even the series. Game Five was played in Tiger Stadium with John “Blue Moon” Odom taking the hill for the Athletics. The game was a thriller. With the Tigers holding a 1-0 lead in the second, Reggie Jackson and Mike Epstein pulled off a perfect double steal with Jackson swiping home to knot the game at one. The play came at a cost, as Jackson pulled his hamstring, an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the playoffs. In the fourth, Gene Tenace stroked a two-out single to score Jackson’s replacement, George Hendrick, and give the A’s a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish. Odom scattered two hits over five innings before giving way to Blue who closed out the game by only allowing three Tiger hits in the last four innings. The victory sent the A’s to the World Series for the first time in Kansas City history, where they would be underdogs facing the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati.

The Series opened in Cincinnati and the A’s won Game one behind two Tenace home runs and took Game two from the shocked Reds behind a strong pitching performance from Catfish Hunter and a Joe Rudi home run.

Game Three moved to Kansas City. There’s nothing quite like the first World Series game in your city’s history. Finley Field was decked out in its finest bunting and another sell-out crowd filled the beautiful stadium. The Reds got a fabulous pitching performance from Jack Billingham and sent the hometown crowd home disappointed with a 1-0 loss.

Game Four was one of the most thrilling nights in Kansas City baseball history. Holtzman, Blue, and Fingers scattered seven hits and Tenace hit another bomb to give the A’s a 3-2 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead. The benches cleared in Game four when the Reds Hal McRae took out Dick Green with a vicious cross-body block at second base. No one was ejected, but the slide lit a fire under the A’s.

The A’s were hoping to wrap things up the next afternoon, but Cincy nicked Hunter for three early runs and manager Sparky Anderson used six pitchers to keep his Reds alive with a 5-4 victory that sent the series back to Cincinnati.

Vida Blue got the start for Kansas City and was cruising along until Johnny Bench nicked him for a long home run. The wheels came off in the seventh, when Cincy put up five runs en route to an 8-1 victory which knotted the series at three games apiece.

Odom got the start in Game seven against Billingham. A’s manager Williams was masterful in managing his pitching staff. He got 4 13 solid innings from Odom before calling on Hunter and Holtzman. Rollie Fingers came on and got the six-out save as Gene Tenace drove home two runs and Sal Bando chipped in with one. When Fingers got Pete Rose on a fly ball to left for the final out, the fans back in Kansas City erupted with joy. Gene Tenace had a terrific series and was named MVP. They held the parade on Wednesday, October 25 and over a million people packed downtown to see their heroes. Finley gave an impassioned speech about how much he appreciated the Kansas City fans. Nearly 2 million fans made their way into Finley Field for the 1972 season. When combined with the Chiefs recent Super Bowl victory, many people suggested that Kansas City should take the title of “Titletown” away from Green Bay.

1973 brought change, as baseball expanded. Toronto was added to the American League East while Seattle was added to the West. The A’s were the overwhelming favorite to repeat as American League champs and they did not disappoint, finishing with a 94-68 record. Reggie Jackson returned to form, hitting 32 home runs while winning the American League MVP. The pitching staff featured three 20 game winners: Holtzman and Hunter with 21 and Blue, who rebounded with a fine 20-9 season. In the offseason the A’s, in another shrewd trade, acquired a young outfielder from the Cubs named Bill North. They started to crack a bit in the draft. Their picks were fine, having selected Warren Cromartie and Floyd Bannister, but Finley, whose behavior had become increasingly erratic, refused to negotiate and the A’s were unable to sign them. They were able to sign other picks, including Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Wayne Gross, and Dwayne Murphy, a quartet who would lead future Kansas City teams to the playoffs. In July, Kansas City Star sports editor, Joe McGuff, wrote an explosive column suggesting that A’s owner Charlie O. Finley was suffering from an undisclosed mental illness. Sides were taken and journalists were banned from the A’s locker room.

The A’s met the Orioles in the 1973 ALCS and once again survived a five-game affair to advance to their second consecutive World Series. Waiting for them were the New York Mets. The series opened in Kansas City on October 12 and the A’s squeezed out a 2-to-1 victory. The game was notable in that Kansas City fans got to see Willie Mays in his final season. Mays started Game one in center field and collected one hit in four at bats.

Game two was one of the more bizarre games in baseball history. The A’s committed five errors, including two consecutive errors by second baseman Mike Andrews in the 12th inning. The errors led to a 10-to-7 New York victory and after the game Charlie Finley announced that he was firing Andrews from the team. Manager Dick Williams was so disgusted by his owner, that he resigned in protest. It was becoming apparent to the nation that Finley was losing it, something Kansas City fans had known for several years. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reinstated Andrews and Williams reluctantly came back as manager. Overlooked in the carnage was the fact that Kansas City fans got to witness the final hit and RBI of Willie Mays career, a 12th inning single that gave the Mets a 7-6 lead.

1973 World Series - New York Mets v Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Series moved to New York for Game Three and the A’s managed to overcome Tom Seaver to take a 2-1 Series lead. The Mets captured Game four behind a Rusty Staub three-run home run to knot the Series at two games apiece. Mike Andrews made a pinch-hitting appearance in the eighth inning of Game Four, prompting a standing ovation from the New York crowd in what would be his final at-bat in the big leagues.

Jerry Koosman outdueled Vida Blue in a brilliant pitching duel in a Game Five Mets win, to put New York in position to win the Series. Game Six moved back to Kansas City. Catfish Hunter outdueled Tom Seaver and Reggie stroked three hits to lead the A’s to a 3 to 1 victory and set up a winner take all Game Seven.

Holtzman got the call for the A’s and was masterful in Game Seven. In the third inning, Bert Campaneris hit the first A’s home run of the Series, a two-run shot. Two batters later, Reggie connected on another two-run blast which gave the A’s an insurmountable 4-0 lead. The sellout crowd went wild with every pitch as Holtzman, Fingers, and Darrel Knowles shut down the Mets to give Kansas City their second consecutive World Series title.

They once again held the parade on Wednesday the 24th. The day was overcast and cool, but that didn’t stop the celebration as over a million revelers packed Washington Square Park and the lawn of Union Station. Reggie Jackson sent the crowd into hysterics when he promised a “three-peat”.

By the start of the 1974 season, Charlie Finley’s erratic behavior was threatening to derail what should have been a golden era of Kansas City baseball. Finley had been raking in the cash, as the A’s drew nearly 2 million fans to Finley Field in 1973. Finley also collected a slice of the parking and concessions. Long known as a notorious skinflint, Finley was methodically alienating his players and the fans. Catfish Hunter threatened to become a free agent unless Finley paid him “back pay” he claims he was owed. Reggie Jackson won an arbitration case which more than doubled his salary. Manager Dick Williams, disgusted by Finley, resigned as manager and was replaced by Alvin Dark. Joe McGuff continued to question Finley’s sanity in his Star columns. Finley announced in February that he was putting the team up for sale for the price of $15 million. Rumored potential buyers were Marion Labs founder Ewing Kauffman and his wife Muriel.

To say the year was bizarre would be an understatement. Finley commandeered one roster spot to “Hurricane” Herb Washington, a track star who Finley dubbed his “designated runner”. This was a first for major league baseball but par for the course for Charlie O. Finley.

Reggie and Bill North had a clubhouse fight in June in which Jackson injured his shoulder and catcher Ray Fosse, who attempted to break up the combatants, suffered a crushed disk in his neck. Later in the summer, Blue Moon Odom and Rollie Fingers engaged in fisticuffs. Despite the disfunction, the A’s rode banner years from Hunter (25 wins), Jackson (29 home runs, 93 RBI), Sal Bando (22 home runs, 103 RBI) and Bill North (54 stolen bases) to their 4th consecutive American League West crown. Their record of 90-72 bested the Texas Rangers by five games.

The fans looked past the dysfunction and attendance broke 2 million for the first time in club history. The A’s faced the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS with Game One in Kansas City. Catfish Hunter had an off day as the Birds nicked him for eight hits and six runs in four innings on their way to an easy 6-3 win. After that, it was all Kansas City, as the A’s swept the next three games behind strong performances from Bando, Rudi, Fosse and a 19-year-old rookie outfielder Claudell Washington. Blue threw a two-hitter in the Game three victory. Game four was one of the more bizarre games in A’s history. Mike Cuellar and Ross Grimsley held the A’s to one hit, a seventh inning RBI double by Jackson, but gave up 11 walks. Hunter and Fingers limited the Birds to one run and five hits and the A’s returned to the World Series with an improbable 2-to-1 victory. Can you imagine a Kansas City team taking 11 walks in a single game?

The A’s met the 102-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The series opened in Los Angeles with the A’s taking Game One and the Dodgers winning Game Two. The teams returned to Kansas City for Games Three, Four and Five and it was all Kansas City, as the A’s rode strong pitching performances from Hunter, Holtzman, Blue, Odom, and Fingers to capture their third consecutive World Series title. The parade was held on Saturday, October 19th and was a bittersweet affair. The fans knew in their hearts that their dynasty was crumbling.

Indeed, it was. In December of 1974, an arbitrator ruled that Hunter was owed back pay, as he claimed, which Finley had not paid. This breach of contract made Hunter a free agent and the beloved Catfish drove a stake through the heart of Kansas City fans when he signed with the New York Yankees. Finley received numerous offers to sell the club but rebuffed all of them. The A’s won their fifth consecutive American League West title but attendance dropped to 1.7 million, as fans began to sour on Finley’s antics. After the A’s were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the 1975 ALCS, Finley went on the offensive, threatening to move the team to New Orleans. Finley fanned the flames when he said, “fifteen years ago, I said this was a horseshit town, and I was right.” By 1977 it was all over. Reggie and Ken Holtzman were traded to the Orioles in 1976. Bando, Fingers, Tenace, Rudi, Campaneris, Claudell Washington, and Phil Garner were all gone by the end of the 1977 season. The dynasty was over, and it would take another ten years to rebuild.

A costly divorce finally forced Charlie O. Finley to sell the team in 1980 to Ewing Kauffman. The A’s returned to the playoffs in the strike-shortened season of 1981 under the direction of Billy Martin, who once played in Kansas City. Finley Field was renamed Kauffman Stadium in 1982.

The A’s finally returned to prominence in 1988 with former player Tony LaRussa at the helm. General Manager Sandy Alderson called it “the process II”. They lost the World Series that year to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in 1989 behind young stars Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Rickey Henderson, the A’s brought another World Series title back to Kansas City with a four-game beatdown of the San Francisco Giants. They returned to the Series in 1990 but were swept by the underdog Cincinnati Reds.

Kauffman Stadium underwent a renovation in 2009 and remains one of the showcase fields of major league baseball. By the end of the 2020 season, the Kanas City Athletics have made 21 playoff appearances and captured four World Series titles.