The A’s road show’s first stop

When the subject of Major League Baseball heading west comes up, one immediately thinks of California: the Dodgers forsaking cozy Ebbets Field for the oblong Los Angeles Coliseum, or the Giants vacating Manhattan for Baghdad by the Bay. Establishing a couple of beachheads in California heralded the dawning of a new era in MLB, but the Dodgers and Giants were not the first teams in the 20th century to push the envelope westward.

As the baseball history books often note, for the first half of the 20th century, MLB went no further west than St. Louis. The Browns and the Cardinals were the only teams west of the Mississippi, and just barely at that.

By 1954, the Browns were just a memory, leaving the Cardinals as the westernmost team in MLB. But their reign was short-lived, as Kansas City donned the westernmost crown the next season. Granted, Kansas City was only 250 miles west of St. Louis, and Missouri remained the westernmost state (unless you counted the Kansas portion of the KC metro area), but it was a significant change.

St. Louis might have been the gateway to the west, but Kansas City was the west, a real cowtown with the history to prove it. The city sits on the banks of the Missouri River and on the western boundary of the State of Missouri, across from the plains of Kansas. The Westport area of the city was the starting point for settlers, trappers, hunters, and adventurers making the long trek across the Great American Desert via the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.

Just 40 miles to the north, St. Joseph, Missouri was the starting point of the Pony Express, as well as the site where Jesse James was murdered. The outlaw legacy in western Missouri was strong, thanks to the James boys, the Younger Brothers and other bands of brigands. The area was particularly lively before the Civil War, thanks to the border ruffians of the Bleeding Kansas era, and during and after the Civil War when guerilla skirmishes kept things lively.

To be sure, the 1850s and 1860s were eventful decades in western Missouri, but eventually things settled down and, like everywhere else in America, people started playing baseball, initially for recreation, and then for paychecks.

The arrival of big league ball in Kansas City in the mid-50s shouldn’t have been a shocker. Strictly speaking, the move marked the return of major league ball, as the Kansas City Cowboys had played in the Union Association (1884), the National League (1886), and the American Association (1888-1889). For good measure, Kansas City even fielded a team (the Packers) in the Federal League in 1914 and 1915. Arguably, the famed Kansas City Monarchs of Negro League baseball were comparable to a major league team, and they opened for business in 1920.

Kansas City’s mid-century quest for a major league team came at a fortuitous time, because some cities with two teams found that one was sufficient. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, bringing major league baseball to that city for the first time since 1901. That original Milwaukee team that had become the St. Louis Browns was also on the move, heading east to become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

The Braves’ move had long been rumored, and attendance in Boston was anemic, so the shift was hardly a shocker. Ditto for the Browns, whose incompetence was legendary.

Like the Braves and the Browns, the Philadelphia Athletics were the bridesmaids in a two-team market. Like the Browns, the Athletics owned their ballpark but had discovered that their tenant, the Phillies (who had shared Shibe Park with them since 1938), had surpassed them in popularity. The Cardinals were the clear favorites in St. Louis, but it was understandable, since they had enjoyed far more success on the field. That was not the case with the Phillies, who had won just two pennants and no titles.

From 1901 through 1954, the Philadelphia A’s had won nine pennants and experienced two dynasties (four pennants from 1910-1914 and three pennants from 1929-1931). The other teams on the move were much less successful. The Braves had just two pennants (the 1914 Miracle Braves and 1948) and one title (1914) in the 20th century, and the Browns had just one pennant, a bit tainted since it occurred in 1944 during the talent-starved World War II era. The A’s had left a much bigger footprint in MLB history than the Braves or the Browns, so their transfer, while inevitable, was not something to be taken lightly.

Through the dynasty years and the down years (and there were plenty of them), there was Connie Mack. He not only managed the A’s, he owned them! People today talk about a prominent individual being the face of the franchise. Mack went well beyond that. He wasn’t just the face of the franchise, he was the franchise.

Unfortunately, by the early 1950s, the Philadelphia Athletics had been on the skids for two decades. Though the A’s had winning records from 1947-1949 and even set an attendance record with 945,076 in 1948, the Phillies were the first to hit the million mark (in 1946, despite a 69-85 record), and they won the pennant in 1950 while the A’s finished in last place with a 52-102 record. The A’s finished sixth in 1951 and followed it up the next year with a fourth-place finish—with a winning (79-75) record. That should have been cause for optimism.

Sadly, pessimism came roaring back, as the A’s sank to seventh in 1953 with a 59-95 record and back to last place in 1954 with a 51-103 record, an astonishing 60 games behind the pennant-winning Indians. Attendance for the season was just 304,666. By contrast, the Phillies were in the middle of the NL pack, in terms of both victories and attendance (fourth place, 75-79, 738,991). As a rule, mediocrity doesn’t have many defenders, but in truth, it doesn’t look so bad in contrast to gross underachievement.

Understandably, American League owners wanted a more profitable venue. The Yankees spearheaded the drive for the sale of the team. Here we must introduce Arnold Johnson, a friend of Dan Topping, the principal owner of the Yankees. Johnson is not one of the better known executives in the history of major league baseball, but he played a key role in American League affairs in the 1950′s.

Johnson was a businessman, not a baseball man. He had purchased the land under Yankee Stadium and sold it to the Knights of Columbus, who leased it back to the Yankees. As part of the deal, Johnson became owner of Muehlebach Field, home of the Kansas City Blues of the American Association (relegated to minor league status after the 19th century) since 1923. He was well positioned to acquire a major league team.

Of course, franchise shifts rarely go as smoothly as anticipated. American League owners initially were skeptical that Kansas City would support a major league team, even though the metropolitan area was respectably large and area voters had approved a bond issue to update the ballpark. A successful season-ticket campaign dispelled that fear. Then a group of Philadelphians started a “Save the A’s” campaign, but in the end, Johnson prevailed. AL owners unanimously approved the sale, and Mack personally accepted Johnson’s check as a down payment on the team.

The first order of business was to remodel Muehlebach Field. Using Detroit’s Briggs Stadium as a model, the plan was to add a second deck to increase the seating from 17,000 to 31,000. Unfortunately, the ballpark was not up to it structurally, so it was razed, and a new double-deck grandstand was built. The old scoreboard from Braves Field in Boston was shipped to Kansas City and put back into service.

While Municipal Stadium (as the new structure was called) is not one of the more storied ballparks in baseball history, there was an element of heroism in its construction. Work didn’t start until mid-January of 1955, so the A’s had 90 days to complete the project. It took three shifts of workers laboring through the winter to erect an acceptable major league ballpark in time for the first game on April 12, 1955.

The first context was played on schedule in front of 32,147 fans. At the time, it was the largest crowd ever to watch a baseball game in Kansas City. Former President Harry Truman, living in nearby Independence, Missouri, threw out the first ball, as he had done at Griffith Stadium in Washington just a few years before.

The A’s and Alex Kellner were victorious over the Tigers and Ned Garver by a 6-2 score. The Tigers might have lost the game, but they had to love the crowd, as 10,000 more people had seen them play this day than had wached them in Philadelphia during the entire 1954 season.

Surely, the crowd also made an impression on Connie Mack. As an invited guest on opening day, he must have experienced a range of emotions. Ironic that the ballpark in Philadelphia that bore his name (Shibe Park was renamed Connie Mack Stadium before the 1953 season) was now the exclusive home of the Phillies.

Mack died less than a year after opening day in Kansas City, and it might be convenient to speculate that the relocation of the A’s did him in, but since he was 93 years old when he passed, a broken heart was likely the least of his health problems. The real wonder is that he could make the trip from Philadelphia to Kansas City at age 92.

Mack’s memory was failing, but surely he would have remembered the old Kansas City Cowboys of the National League. As a member of the Washington Senators in his rookie year of 1886, he had played against them. More than likely, he was the only one in the stands at Municipal Stadium on opening day of 1955 who could say that.

Curiously, at the conclusion of that 1886 season, the Cowboys were in seventh place with a 30-91 record, and Mack and the Senators were in the cellar with a 28-92 record. That was 69 years before, yet it did point the way to the future, as Kansas City and Washington were annual favorites to bring up the rear in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Of course, a big crowd on Opening Day is no surprise at any major league park. A bigger surprise is that on Sept. 18, the last game of the A’s 1955 home season featured a crowd of 31,034. Even today, a crowd of that size for a team hopelessly out of the pennant race would be remarkable (unless there’s a really nifty giveaway). By way of contrast, on Sept. 19, 1954, the A’s last game ever in Philadelphia drew a mere 1,715 for a Sunday afternoon contest, a 4-2 loss to the Yankees.

Ironically, the relief pitcher credited with a save in that finale was Jim Konstanty, the hero of the 1950 pennant-winning Phillies pitching staff and the National League MVP that season. His presence on the mound at the bitter end seemed to underline the fact that the town now belonged to the Phillies, even if he didn’t.

If the A’s 1954 season in Philadelphia was funereal, their 1955 season in Kansas City was festive. The attendance was clocked at 1,393,054, third in baseball behind only the Yankees and the Braves. While the Yankees won the American League pennant and the Braves finished second in the National League, the A’s finished in sixth place at 63-91.

Sure, a lot of the attendance could be attributed to the novelty of major league ball in Kansas City, but there was no doubt that moving to KC was better than staying in Philly. If the A’s had played better ball, perhaps their attendance would have remained robust. But they didn’t, and the attendance tailed off:

Year     Record     Finish        Attendance
1956     52-102     8th place   1,015,154
1957     59-94      7th place     901,067

As it turned out, sixth place in the inaugural year of 1955 was the team’s high-water mark in Kansas City. After that, for the most part, the only drama was how deep the A’s would finish in the second division.

Even so, by 1950s standards, the figures for 1956 and 1957 are not bad for such a hapless team. In particular, for a last-place team that had lost more than 100 games, a turnstile count of more than 1,000,000 in 1956 was remarkable.

One couldn’t help but conclude that if the A’s ever could field a good team in Kansas City, attendance would take care of itself. Johnson said he would expand Municipal Stadium to 45,000 capacity if it proved necessary. It didn’t, and he was a big reason why.

Johnson measured success in dollars, not victories. Then, as now, it was possible for a sharp operator to maintain a losing team and still turn a profit. Johnson did it by seeing that the most promising young A’s (for example, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Ralph Terry) were traded or sold to the Yankees.

The Kansas City Blues had been an affiliate of the Yankees from 1936 to 1954, and under Johnson, Kansas City was still a de facto Yankee farm team. From 1955 to 1960, the two teams made eleven trades involving 62 players. Almost all of them worked to the benefit of the Yankees, who won five pennants during those six seasons.

The A’s lost their westernmost status in 1958. The attendance remained stable for a couple of years, but eventually baseball fans in Kansas City realized that there was little cause for optimism. Charlie Finley bought the team in 1960 after Johnson’s death, but even his colorful efforts—far too numerous to detail here—bore no fruit, and attendance shrank.

The American League expanded to 10 teams in 1961, so an eighth-place finish was no longer a last-place finish. Expansion notwithstanding, the A’s notched two ninth=place and two 10th-place finishes during the remainder of their tenure in Kansas City.

The 13-year experience of the A’s in Kansas City was, for the most part, an extension of the ineptness of the Philadelphia A’s. When the A’s moved to Oakland after the 1967 season, who would have guessed that it would turn out to be a win-win situation?

Major league baseball, responding to threats by Missouri Senator Stuart Symington to investigate MLB’s antitrust exemption, promptly put an expansion team in Kansas City in 1969. It turned out to be a model expansion franchise, and a new stadium followed in 1973.

Meanwhile, the A’s developed another dynasty soon after arriving in Oakland. In retrospect, a lot of the pieces were in place before the team moved. Take a look at some of the names on the A’s last roster in Kansas City:

Catfish Hunter
Blue Moon Odom
Dave Duncan
Sal Bando
Bert Campaneris
Dick Green
Joe Rudi
Reggie Jackson
Rick Monday

These were key members of the A’s dynasty in the early 70s, and they were there for all or part of the unlucky 13th year in Kansas City.

The A’s Kansas City sojourn turned out to be little more than a mid-continent layover between 54 years in Philadelphia and (so far) 45 years in Oakland. There was no dynasty in Kansas City—nothing remotely close to one. For three years, they were the westernmost outpost of major league baseball, but even that distinction was erased when the Giants and Dodgers took up residence on the West Coast.

Ten years later, the A’s took the hint and joined the Giants in the San Francisco Bay area. The results at the box office have been less than resounding, but the results on the field have been pretty good and in some years outstanding.

The Kansas City A’s era was not one of the high points in major league baseball history, but, lest we forget, that’s when those gold and green uniforms were introduced! Wonder what Connie Mack would have thought of them?

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Comments

  1. asym said...

    Those fans in Philly finally clued into the Connie Mack ownership method, look good in the first half to sell season tickets, finish second so that player salaries don’t need to be raised much if at all.  Still practiced today.

  2. Paul G. said...

    Ah, I’ve been to Westport.  These days it is partially a trendy restaurant district and partially a place you really do not want to go at night alone.  The historical monument is right between the two areas, or at least it was the last time I was there, and is surprisingly easy to miss.  The area is a short distance from the Plaza which contains, among other things, a park with the fancy fountain they always show on television.

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    Let’s not forget KC’s most unhappy alumnus, Billy Martin, who was sent there in the late 50’s, a far cry from hamming it up at the Copa with Mantle and Ford.

  4. rbt said...

    You commented on the size of the closing day crowd in Kansas City in 1955 and mentioned that, “Even today, a crowd of that size for a team hopelessly out of the pennant race would be remarkable (unless there’s a really nifty giveaway).”  It’s interesting to note that this year the Royals drew 30,383 for their final game, and no, there was no nifty giveaway.  Kansas City always was, and still is, a baseball town at heart.  Now if only someone would give them a team.

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