The Yankees made them do it. That’s the time-honored explanation for the American League’s decision to move the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City in 1954. After strong-arming the rest of the league to install a friendly, compliant owner in Kansas City, the Yankees looted the Athletics franchise, acquiring such key players as Roger Maris, Ralph Terry and Clete Boyer in return for nobody in particular.
That conventional wisdom has been disputed recently by historian Bill Deane, who argues in his book, Baseball Myths, that the A’s actually got the better of their many deals with the Yankees. Now newly discovered evidence blows away the conspiracy theory surrounding the franchise move.
The American League had cured its biggest and longest-running financial headache with the transfer of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954. Just a few months later it faced an equally vexing, and even more agonizing, problem: the imminent failure of its Philadelphia club, owned by Connie Mack, one of the league’s founders, who was revered as the Grand Old Man of Baseball.
Connie Mack was born during the Civil War. He was 20 years older than Franklin D. Roosevelt, 10 years older than Calvin Coolidge, and five years older than Wilbur Wright. Mack began playing professional baseball in 1884, before catchers wore mitts, began managing 10 years later, and did not stop until 1950. He was 91 in 1954, and his time was up. The league was debating the future of Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Winner of nine pennants and five World Series, all with Mack as manager, the franchise was bankrupt in everything but name.
The end of the Connie Mack era is a tale of three families: the Macks, the Macks and the Shibes. Benjamin Shibe, a sporting goods manufacturer, put up most of the money to establish the team in 1901. Connie Mack eventually bought out some of the Shibe heirs and gained majority ownership. By the late 1940s, when Mack was in his 80s, his physical and mental decline touched off a struggle for control that proved fatal to the Athletics franchise in Philadelphia.
Connie Mack had two families two decades apart. His first wife, Margaret, died in 1892, leaving him with sons Roy and Earle and a daughter, Marguerite. He remarried in 1910; he and his second wife, Katherine, had a son, Connie Jr., and four daughters.
The two eldest Mack sons joined the family business early. Roy, after trying several lines of work and demonstrating his incompetence, took charge of the Athletics’ ticket sales and ballpark concessions. Earle played and managed in the minors, making a few token appearances for the A’s, before becoming his father’s assistant manager. He was often mentioned as the heir apparent to the manager’s chair, but a succession of coaches—including Eddie Collins, Al Simmons and Earle Brucker—had more to do with running the club on the field.
Mack had given all three sons and his wife substantial amounts of stock in the team, but not his five daughters; that would be crucial in the strife to come. The sons served on the board of directors along with two representatives of the Shibes.
After years of losing, the 1948 Athletics contended for the pennant and finished fourth, winning 84 games, the most since 1932, as attendance reached a record 945,000. The next year they won 81 and came home fifth. But the 86-year-old patriarch was losing his grip. Connie Mack Jr. threw in with the Shibes and forced changes. The board fired coaches Simmons and Brucker after the 1949 season. Another old Philadelphia favorite, Mickey Cochrane, joined Jimmy Dykes on the coaching staff. Both were former managers.
“It was crazy and really sad,” Cochrane recalled. “We wouldn’t know who we were working for from day to day. Lots of times Mr. Mack wasn’t speaking to his oldest sons and vice versa.”
The 1950 season was Connie Mack’s 50th as manager, a year to celebrate the Grand Old Man’s Golden Jubilee. He was honored at every stop around the circuit. But the team got off to a horrible start on the way to a last-place finish. Attendance nosedived, and Connie Mack missed several games because of illness. The dissident board members delivered what they thought was the coup de grace: They dismissed Earle as assistant manager in May, replacing him with Dykes, and named Cochrane general manager. Earle said, “Maybe seeing what can happen to the boss’ son will scare the players into greater effort.”
Roy and Earle — although they didn’t always speak to each other — fought back against the common enemy. Roy enlisted his friend John McShain, a construction tycoon whose company built the Pentagon, to finance a takeover. The older brothers and their father bought out Connie Jr., his mother, and the Shibes. Now they owned the franchise outright. Connie held 48 percent of the stock, Roy and Earle each 26 percent.
But the victory came at a price: To pay off the McShain loan, the Connecticut General insurance company took a $1,750,000 mortgage on the club and its home, Shibe Park. The Macks had to make a $50,000 mortgage payment each quarter, a crushing burden for a business with annual revenue of just $1,200,000.
Connie Mack retired after the 1950 season. Dykes took over as manager, but not even a winning team in 1952 could lure the fans back. The Athletics’ attendance remained seventh in the league, ahead of only the rapidly failing St. Louis Browns. Rent from the Phillies and NFL Eagles, who shared Shibe Park, was keeping the franchise afloat.
Roy Mack, who was running the business side, estimated the club needed to draw 600,000 to break even. In 1953 the gate fell to 362,000, and 1954 started even worse. Stories surfaced that the Macks were ready to sell, but Roy said, “We’ve been down before; why, one year I remember we drew 278,000, but we got by. And we’ll survive now.”
“Forget all that talk about moving and disregard anything you may hear about a sale.”
All that talk included rumors of a new home for the franchise. Minneapolis-St. Paul? Los Angeles? Buffalo? Toronto? Philadelphia mayor Joseph Clark formed a committee of business leaders to save the Athletics and proclaimed “Let’s Go Out to the Ball Game Week.” Philadelphians ignored it; four of the week’s games drew fewer than 2,000. By season’s end, the attendance of 304,666 would be the smallest since the Depression.
Differences between the Mack brothers flared into the open in July. Earle and their father wanted to sell, and Roy was trying to find backers to buy them out. He said Earle had agreed to give him an option to buy, then reneged when he didn’t like the offered price. Earle snapped, “Go ask Roy where he’s going to get the money.” The two refused to pose together for a photo. Connie Mack’s wife and four younger daughters, who did not own stock, were also reported to be pushing for a sale to convert their inheritance into ready cash. Hearing of the family schism, several members of the mayor’s booster committee resigned.
Earle and Connie Sr. didn’t have to wait while Roy scrounged for money. A Chicago businessman, Arnold Johnson, offered $3,375,000 for the team and the ballpark. Johnson planned to move the franchise to Kansas City, where voters had approved $2 million to expand their minor league park. The Boston Globe quoted Connie Mack’s first public comment: “We’re washed up in Philadelphia. I want to sell. Earle does, but I can’t understand why Roy doesn’t. The club is through in Philadelphia. There is no more interest in the team there.”
Despite that dash of icy water, several rich Philadelphians were reportedly preparing to make offers. Roy and Earle even buried the hatchet—not in each other’s backs—and said they would work together to find new investors. The rapprochement lasted just a few days.
By September the confusing signals coming out of Philadelphia were making other American League owners restless. League president William Harridge called a meeting to find out where things stood. This account of that meeting and others that followed is based primarily on the notes of a witness: Earl Hilligan, manager of the American League Service Bureau, the league’s publicity office. Hilligan’s handwritten notes and detailed, typed summaries, in the AL papers at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, provide a play-by-play description of the debate over the future of the Athletics.
The other owners were divided and their discussions were often heated. They were also exasperated by the Mack brothers’ constantly shifting positions. The brothers couldn’t make up their minds, giving rise to a gibe that “Connie’s sons were senile before he was.” Roy was 68 years old, Earle 64. They were fighting over the family’s largest asset and their place in the family legacy.
The meeting notes provide no evidence to support the notion that the Yankees engineered the A’s move to Kansas City, which had long been home to one of the Yankees’ Triple-A farm clubs. Yankees co-owner Del Webb, whose construction company built the Sun City retirement communities, was the power behind the scenes in the AL, but he was not present at any of the three meetings for which we have attendance lists. Co-owner Dan Topping, general manager George Weiss, and a lawyer represented the club, but they were not active participants in the discussions. At the time Webb, a native Californian, was pushing the AL to beat the NL to Los Angeles.
Harridge convened the first league meeting at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 28, at the Commodore Hotel in New York. The owners were arriving in town for the start of the World Series between the Giants and Indians the next day. The Mack brothers and the team’s lawyer represented Philadelphia; their father did not attend.
Harridge called on Roy Mack to clarify the Athletics’ situation, but Roy had a different agenda. He outlined the club’s desperate financial position: $500,000 in debt due at once, including $179,000 owed in taxes. “If I had $250,000, I could carry on to December first,” he said. He asked the league to lend him the money.
Washington’s Clark Griffith, the only other survivor from the AL’s founding in 1901, supported him. “I am opposed definitely to going to Kansas City,” the 84-year-old Griffith said. “Philadelphia is too fine a city to lose.”
He had a more pressing reason to keep the Athletics in Philadelphia. When Baltimore replaced the St. Louis Browns in the circuit, it was classified as a western team for scheduling purposes, so the Senators and Orioles never played at home on the same day. If Kansas City replaced Philadelphia, the A’s would go into the West and Baltimore to the East. Griffith feared competition from the Orioles.
Harridge shot down the idea of a loan; the league couldn’t afford it. Moving on to Harridge’s agenda, the Athletics’ attorney, J. Channing Ellery, reported on three offers to buy the club. Two Philadelphia groups had stepped up, but their bids were contingent on all debts being paid, including the biggest one, the Connecticut General mortgage. The Macks had no hope of paying it off. Arnold Johnson’s $3,375,000 offer was more than enough to settle the debts, but it came with the condition that the AL approve a move to Kansas City.
Orioles president Clarence Miles asked Earle, “Is the Johnson offer acceptable to you?” Earle replied, “Yes, I would accept it.” Roy said, “No, I can’t.”
Then Roy said, “Connie wants to stay in.” What? All summer Connie Mack—no doubt pressured by his wife and daughters—had been allied with Earle. He had given Earle his proxy to sell. Now attorney Ellery said Connie had told him that he would do what Roy wanted. The explanation was sad, Ellery believed: Connie, no longer able to command, was trying to satisfy both sons.
After a lunch break, Arnold Johnson made his pitch. He named his partners, fellow Chicago businessmen. He said Kansas City was enthusiastic, with 3.5 million people living in a 50-mile radius (but fewer than 1 million in the immediate metropolitan area). He needed immediate approval so work could begin to expand the stadium in time for the 1955 season. A Kansas City delegation followed him, talking up their city.
Then a new bidder appeared, one well known to the league owners. Tommy Richardson, president of the Class A Eastern League and a Williamsport, Pa., car dealer, promised to match Johnson’s offer and keep the Athletics in Philadelphia, at least for now. Next came the “but:” Richardson didn’t have the cash. He asked for time to put together a deal.
Baltimore’s Miles moved to authorize the transfer of the franchise to Kansas City, if the Macks would sell to Johnson. The motion was met with silence. While the owners pondered their next step, Ellery, the club’s attorney, asked for a $150,000 loan to pay the federal tax debt and save the league from the embarrassment of having the IRS place a lien on one of its teams. That plea fell flat.
The owners wouldn’t give Roy money, but they were willing to give him time to find a way to buy out his brother and father. AL attorney Benjamin Fiery asked if Roy would sell if he couldn’t raise the money. Roy wouldn’t commit himself. The frustrated owners agreed to a two-week delay while Roy looked for an angel. Arnold Johnson was asked to keep his offer open.
Harridge told the press, “We are primarily concerned with the assurance that Mr. (Connie) Mack will get his money so that he can set up the trust funds he desires for his daughters.”
In truth, the votes for Kansas City weren’t there. A franchise transfer required a three-fourths majority, six of the eight teams. In addition to Clark Griffith’s opposition, Detroit’s Spike Briggs said he might accept Toronto or Minneapolis-St. Paul, “but never Kansas City.” He didn’t think the market was big enough. Cleveland general manager Hank Greenberg believed the league should be looking to Los Angeles rather than a smaller Midwestern city.
Those three could veto the move. Boston general manager Joe Cronin, whose wife was Clark Griffith’s niece, was another likely “no” vote; he usually went along with his in-laws.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 12, the league met again in Chicago. Potential buyers were now falling all over themselves to get into the room. A Philadelphia syndicate presented a bid. Tommy Richardson had lined up another Philadelphia group, with a Chicago insurance man, Charles O. Finley, as a partner. Two Washington, DC, investors proposed to keep the club in Philly. A representative of Texas oilman Clint Murchison Sr. wanted to move it to Los Angeles.
Bill Veeck, the deposed owner of the Browns, was said to have an option to buy LA’s minor league ballpark, Wrigley Field, and he was hanging around outside the meeting room. That alone may have been enough to scotch LA, because the owners had run Veeck out of the league just a year before, but LA presented other complications. Travel, for one thing; Los Angeles was two thousand miles from Chicago, the nearest AL city, and jet airliners did not yet exist. The Pacific Coast League would demand a big payoff for the loss of its LA and Hollywood franchises.
Besides, Murchison—who could have bought and sold every man in the room—was offering only $1 million in cash, with the rest to be paid in installments. The other bidders had the same deficiency.
Harridge said, “They talked in thousands and millions, but produced no money.” Only Arnold Johnson laid cash on the table.
As the meeting ground on, Roy Mack still refused to sell. His own attorney told him he had no choice. Finally Roy, his eyes filling with tears, agreed, but asked for time to go home and talk to his wife. He and his son, Connie III, left early. The other owners, seeing the end at last in sight, voted to move the Philadelphia franchise to Kansas City.
Harridge explained, “The weakness of the A’s hurt all seven other clubs as well, and there was no prospect that things would get any better in Philadelphia.” He said they took the vote so they wouldn’t have to call another meeting when the papers were signed.
Kansas City’s celebration was joyous, but premature. Roy Mack had been flailing, flipping and flopping for months. Now he backtracked again. Two days after the meeting he announced, “I have not sold my stock.” Yet another group of Philadelphia financiers said they were ready to match Johnson’s offer and keep Roy in charge of the team. Will Harridge remarked, “Well, where have these people been all this time before?”
On Sunday, Oct. 17, Connie Mack posed with the Philadelphia buyers as he and Earle signed the sale documents. But Roy balked. Several of the prospective buyers stormed out, grumbling that they were fed up with the Macks.
Arnold Johnson arrived in Philadelphia expecting to close on his own purchase of the Athletics. When a reporter told him about the sudden new bid, he sputtered that Roy had agreed to sell to him in front of witnesses in Chicago. Johnson left town threatening to sue to recover the money he had spent preparing to expand the Kansas City ballpark.
When the AL owners convened again in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Oct. 28, they too were fed up with the Macks. The note-taker, Earl Hilligan, recounted, “President Harridge read a chronological statement of events leading up to the meeting.” That must have taken awhile. Then Harridge called on Roy. Flip-flopping again, Roy urged the league to accept the new Philadelphia group, who were men “of good reputation.” Earle Mack’s attorney, Albert Luongo, described the eleventh-hour offer as “a miracle.”
Now just a minute, several of the league owners protested. Hadn’t the Macks committed themselves in Chicago to sell to Arnold Johnson? The Athletics’ attorney, Channing Ellery, replied that “Roy felt he had made no legal commitment to Johnson.” (Arnold Johnson felt differently.) Ellery said Connie Sr. wanted to sell to the Philadelphians. Connie Sr., who had been present when the meeting began, had gone back to his room after less than an hour.
Three of the Philadelphia buyers were given 15 minutes to present their bona fides. They had deposited a down payment and were prepared to close the sale the next day. They certified that none of them had any connections with racetracks (i.e., gambling). They had adequate working capital.
Then the league owners went into executive session. Earle Mack, along with the attorneys for both brothers and the Athletics, left the room. In the privacy of the ownership brotherhood, Roy plunged a knife into the backs of the Philadelphia buyers: “I do not think this is the best group to bring into baseball.” He related several incidents when he believed they had deceived him.
Baltimore president Clarence Miles, an aristocratic lawyer, said he had found out certain things about the prospective buyers, but what he discovered was not recorded. Roy was asked if he had made a firm commitment to Arnold Johnson in Chicago. “I would say yes.”
After a discussion lasting more than 90 minutes, president Harridge called for a vote on accepting the Philadelphia offer. On a secret ballot, the owners deadlocked, 4-4. The motion failed. The owners agreed to tell the press only that the Philadelphia offer had not been approved.
Roy left the meeting to try to reach Arnold Johnson and find out whether he was still interested. The owners waited for an hour and a half, but Roy couldn’t track down Johnson. Meanwhile, Connie, Earle and the Philadelphia group were told about the negative vote. Earle and Connie declared they wouldn’t sell to anyone else. When he heard this, Roy said, “I would definitely like to accept the Kansas City offer; if we talk of any other offer the Lord knows when we would accomplish anything.” The other owners, by now wondering if they would ever accomplish anything, voted to “adjourn and leave the problem to the Mack family.”
One of the Philadelphia financiers said, “We’d like to know what the objections are.” The probable votes against them were Baltimore, because of Clarence Miles’ dislike of the buyers; Chicago, because Chuck Comiskey believed the Macks had committed to sell to Johnson; New York, for reasons that would become obvious later; and Philadelphia, though Roy Mack publicly denied that he had voted no. Detroit’s Spike Briggs was a certain yes; he was on record against Kansas City.
Washington’s Clark Griffith wanted to keep the A’s in Philadelphia in his own self-interest. Joe Cronin cast Boston’s vote with Griffith. Cleveland’s Hank Greenberg favored Los Angeles over Kansas City, but there was more to it than that.
Cleveland’s principal owner, Nate Dolin, came to believe that the owners had blackballed the Philadelphia group. Several of the Philadelphians were Jewish, as were Dolin and Greenberg.
Back in Philadelphia, Katherine Mack, Connie’s wife, was fed up, too. The next day she issued a statement in her husband’s name, charging that the American League was giving them “the runaround” because the league wanted to move the team to Kansas City. She said Roy “was telling everybody one thing and doing something else.” Earle, on the other hand, had been “wonderful.”
Several of the spurned Philadelphia moneymen scrambled to put together a new offer. Arnold Johnson, who was still interested but fed up with the Macks’ runaround, said he would withdraw unless the Macks made a decision, pronto. Katherine Mack summoned Johnson and the Philadelphia bidders to the family apartment at 10:00 a.m. on Nov. 4.
Johnson arrived at 9:00. He had had dinner with Roy and Earle the night before. After midnight Earle agreed to sell to Johnson, if his father approved, but said he thought the patriarch preferred the buyers who would keep the club in Philadelphia. In the morning Johnson found Connie in bed, where he had stayed in the days since the last league meeting.
Connie signed over his stock and Earle left the building in tears. Katherine Mack said, “Johnson offered too strong a proposition. There was nothing else we could do. Mr. Johnson is a nice man, and he won out.” Johnson’s was the only cash offer, and the Macks wanted cash. After the debts were paid, Johnson estimated that Connie would clear about $600,000, with more than $300,000 apiece for Roy and Earle.
In view of the twists and turns, the AL’s lawyers advised taking another vote to approve the sale and transfer of the franchise. When the owners assembled in New York on Nov. 8, Connie Mack was absent. He, Roy and Earle had notified the league in writing that they had sold their stock to Johnson. This time none of them backed out.
But a new complication arose. Arnold Johnson was the Yankees’ landlord; he had bought Yankee Stadium the year before, and the club had signed a long-term lease. Opponents of the Kansas City move seized on that relationship as a conflict of interest. The league attorney, Benjamin Fiery, said there was no conflict, but the owners deadlocked, 4-4, on whether to approve the arrangement. The meeting was adjourned for two hours.
Johnson and his partners had been waiting outside the room drinking coffee. During the break, he sat down with two of the naysayers, Boston’s Cronin and Cleveland’s Greenberg. When the meeting resumed, he promised to sell Yankee Stadium, even at a loss, if that’s what it took to win approval. Two of the opponents, Cronin and Spike Briggs of Detroit, switched their votes and the sale was approved by the minimum margin necessary, 6-2. Washington and Cleveland held out against it.
The destruction of the Mack dynasty followed a familiar pattern for family businesses as they reach the second and third generations. The founder establishes no clear succession plan. The heirs are divided by different desires and needs, and may be less capable than the founder. The result is internal debate, then dissension, then failure and/or sale of the business.
The move to Kansas City was a disaster. The Athletics drew nearly 1,400,000 in their first year, but never approached that total again as the team settled near the bottom of the standings. The Yankees’ acquisition of Maris and other young, talented A’s led to charges that Kansas City was still a Yankee farm club.
After Arnold Johnson died unexpectedly in 1960, his estate sold the Athletics to Charles Finley, who almost immediately began threatening to leave town. Finley got his wish with the move to Oakland in 1968. That led to another debacle. Political pressure from Kansas City forced the American League to expand again in 1969, creating the Royals and also taking in the undercapitalized Seattle Pilots, who lasted just one year.
As the meeting notes show, the Yankees exercised little apparent influence over the vote. The other owners had their own motives for favoring or opposing the franchise shift. Mack’s Philadelphia club had been limping along for years, with only five winning seasons, and 11 last-place finishes, since he sold off his stars during the Depression more than two decades earlier.
All the owners understood that Connie Mack was no longer able to run the A’s. They had no reason for confidence in his squabbling sons. While several other cities were touted as possible destinations, the only firm offer came from Los Angeles, which presented too many complications. With Arnold Johnson waving cash, Kansas City offered a chance at a fresh start for the franchise. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Earl Hilligan’s notes are in the American League papers, BA MSS 125 Series III, Box 24, Folder 1, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.
Norman L. Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball. University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Macht, Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915-1931. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
The Sporting News and other contemporary newspapers.