The 1957 Kansas City Athletics

What would be your impression of a player who put up the following stat line:

 AB  R  H  2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB   BA  OBP  SLG
574 63 140 22  4 18  60 40 84  4 .244 .294 .394

What would you say: a free-swinging, slow-footed wannabe slugger; useful perhaps at the back end of the lineup, but certainly not the kind of guy you want to build your team around?

But how about if you had an entire team composed of these guys? Indeed, what if this was your team?

Then you would be the 1957 Kansas City Athletics. The stat line above is the team batting of the ’57 A’s, divided by nine.

Just for fun, here’s another team’s stat line divided by nine. We’ll reveal who this team is at the end, but take note how strikingly different this line is from the one above:

 AB  R  H  2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB   BA  OBP  SLG
569 81 146 24  5  9  76 87 55  4 .260 .358 .369

The Swingin’ A’s

The 1957 Athletics led their league in home runs, with 166, and they led by a wide margin: the second-best team hit 153, and the average of the seven other teams in the league was 123. Yet the A’s were dead last in their league in runs scored, with 563, and by a wide margin: the next-to-worst offense scored 597, and the average of the seven other teams in the league was 664.

Question: How exactly does a team solidly lead the league in home runs, and yet solidly trail the league in runs scored? Answer: With difficulty. If it happened at any other time in major league history, I’m not aware of it, and the 1957 Athletics accomplished the feat with a flourish.

Practically speaking, the way the A’s did it was as follows:

1. Their team batting average of .244 was quite low, tied for last in the league.

2. They drew just 364 walks, an astonishingly low total, one of the lowest totals in modern major league history.

3. This combination of low batting average and extremely scarce walks yielded a dismal team On-Base Percentage of just .294.

Here’s what that yielded:

1. When not hitting a home run, the 1957 A’s put up a team BA of .219, and a team OBP of .272. There are a few teams in history that have done worse while not homering, but you have to look long and hard to find them.

2. The 1957 A’s scored just 397 runs that weren’t scored by home run hitters themselves. Again, you can find a few lower totals, but not many, and not by much.

3. The percentage of A’s “home run runs” (166) divided by their total runs scored (563) is 29.5% — and if you can find a higher percentage than that for any team in history, then I congratulate you, because you have found something I couldn’t find. I believe the 1957 A’s featured the very most home-run-centric offense of all time.

And that’s just one of the things that makes this team unusual.

A Collaborative Pitch

Let’s take a look at the 1957 Athletics’ pitching staff. There we find no one who qualified for the league ERA title, pitching at least one inning per scheduled game (154 innings). No other team in major league history has ever managed that feat.

The top A’s starter (the recovering-from-arm-trouble Ned Garver) made 23 starts and handled 145 innings. They deployed eleven different pitchers in six or more starts. And this wasn’t some kind of circumstance that resulted from major mid-season roster shuffles: in their first 17 games of the season, the Athletics used 9 different starting pitchers.

And all those A’s starters didn’t stick around very long: the 1957 A’s had just 26 complete games, the very lowest total in major league history up to that time. Yet just like the starting staff, the Athletics’ bullpen was a free-for-all: despite the very high frequency of relief stints, only one A’s pitcher made as many as 40 relief appearances (Virgil Trucks with 41). Only one other Athletic made as many as 30 (Tom Morgan, with 33); every single one of the twenty pitchers the team employed that season worked at least once in relief. No pitcher among the thirteen who worked in more than ten games for the A’s that season worked exclusively as a starter or reliever.

None Dare Call It “Syndicate”

In 1957 the Athletics’ franchise was in its third year in Kansas City, and in its third year under the ownership of Arnold Johnson. Johnson was a real estate business partner of Del Webb, co-owner of the New York Yankees, and the two baseball organizations had co-mingled interests (including ballpark ownerships and leasebacks) that raised plenty of eyebrows at the time, and in good conscience shouldn’t have been allowed by MLB.

But they were, and the cozy relationship between the franchises revealed itself all too plainly in their player transactions. Between March of 1955 and June of 1957, the two clubs engaged in 12 different deals involving 32 different players – one of whom, Enos Slaughter, went from the Yankees to the Athletics, and then back again to the Yankees.

The most notorious of these transactions was the massive deal that commenced on February 19, 1957, with ten players changing sides, and then continuing with players-being-named-later on April 4th, April 5th, and June 4th. The notorious part was that final PTBNL: Clete Boyer, the Athletics’ Bonus Baby, who had just completed his required two-year stint on the K.C. major league roster. Sending Boyer off to the Yankees to begin his minor league development at that point made it appear for all the world as though the Yankees had simply been using the A’s as a front, and that Boyer had for all practical purposes been a Yankee Bonus Baby all along. Despite howls of protest, the deal was allowed.

(Boyer’s playing time with the Athletics in 1957 was yet another of the team’s oddities: he appeared in 10 games before being shipped off, but garnered zero plate appearances, zero runs scored, and zero fielding chances.)

The constant flow of talent between the organizations would continue through 1960, as long as Johnson owned the A’s. By that time, huge portions of each club’s roster had spent time in the other organization, and many of the players riding that shuttle were big-time talents: Roger Maris, Ralph Terry, Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe, Bobby Shantz, Ryne Duren, Art Ditmar, Andy Carey, Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, and on and on.

But for all of the frantic wheeling and dealing, the A’s made precious little progress in the standings. Johnson had purchased a last-place ball club, and under his ownership they only once got as high as sixth place (a weak 63-91 sixth place at that, in 1955). The 1957 edition was very typical, finishing at 59-94, in seventh place.

Suffering From, um, Irregularity

Perhaps a consequence of the chronic roster turnover, the 1957 Athletics presented nothing resembling a standard, regular lineup. Just as the pitching staff was all-hands-on-deck, so was the situation among position players. No Athletic played in more than 135 games or received as many as 500 plate appearances.

Shortstop Joe DeMaestri was the only guy who played in more than 113 games at any single position. After trading Harry Simpson and Jim Pisoni in June (to the Yankees, natch), the Athletics went the rest of the season with a four-man platoon in the outfield (Gus Zernial, Woodie Held, Lou Skizas, and Bob Cerv), all of whom were right-handed batters – one wonders upon what basis they were rotated.

Skizas also played 32 games at third base, where the primary guy, Hector Lopez, also played some in the outfield – why not? In that June trade, the A’s picked up Billy Martin, but rather than deploy him full time at second base (where they had no one else who batted higher than .191), they felt it necessary to use Martin in 20 games at third base, too.

Speaking of Skizas, how about another oddity: in 1957, “The Nervous Greek” batted .245 with 18 homers in 376 at-bats, and yet struck out just 15 times. In the history of major league baseball, only a smattering of batters with 15 or more homers have struck out less frequently than homering, and none of the others have done so with a batting average anything near as low as Skizas’ .245.

But with all of their frenetic lineup-juggling going on, here’s still another oddity about this ball club: in an era in which the third-string catcher was a given on nearly every roster, the 1957 Athletics didn’t follow suit. All season long, no one other than Hal Smith or Tim Thompson spent a single inning behind the plate.

The 1957 A’s lack of a set lineup (except at catcher), in either half of the inning, yielded one of the most spread-’em-around-like-peanut-butter dispersions of Win Shares of any team in history. Winning 59 games, the team had 177 Win Shares to go around, yet Held and Lopez tied for the team lead with just 13. Seventeen other players earned between 5 and 12 Win Shares.

And He Wasn’t Really Voted by His High School Classmates as “Most Likely to be Found Dead in a Motel Room”

Okay, one final oddity. Among the best pinch hitters for the 1957 Athletics was Mickey McDermott, who went 5-for-24 with 2 homers as a pinch hitter. Overall McDermott hit 4 homers in 49 at-bats, with rate stats of 245/362/510 (OPS+ of 135); he saw action in two games at first base as well as pinch-hitting. This was fortunate, because his pitching performance was a disaster: 1-4, 5.48 in 29 games and 69 innings.

All right. Remember that second stat line up top, the one that was completely different from that of the 1957 A’s? Know what team that was? That’s right, it was also the Athletics – the 1949 Philadelphia Athletics. Just eight years before 1957, the A’s fielded a team that played the game in an utterly dissimilar manner, drawing walks more than twice as frequently, striking out more than fifty per cent more often, and hitting fewer than half as many home runs. The 1949 Athletics also tossed 85 complete games (compared with 26 by the ’57 team), and featured three everyday regulars with 150 or more games at their position, plus a fourth with 144.

As has been noted before, few periods in baseball history demonstrated more rapid and dramatic change than the 1950s. No team represented this more vividly than the 1957 Kansas City A’s, and certainly none did so with more quirkiness.

References & Resources
A marvelous account of the perplexing relationship between Arnold Johnson, the Kansas City Athletics, and the New York Yankees — which all started with the circumstance that Johnson was, essentially, the Yankees’ landlord — is found in The Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New York, by Neil J. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 2001.

By my count, a major league season of hitting at least 15 home runs, and striking out less frequently than homering, has been achieved 56 times since 1900, by 26 different batters, including Lou Skizas in 1957. Joe DiMaggio did it the most times (7); Yogi Berra had five such seasons, and Bill Dickey and Ted Kluszewski four each. The mean batting average of the 54 seasons other than Skizas’ is .331, and the median .328. The highest BA is .406, by Ted Williams in 1941, and the next lowest other than Skizas is Frank McCormick’s .269 — interestingly, also in 1941. The most home runs hit in such a season is 51, by Johnny Mize in 1947. The first time the feat was achieved since the 1890s was in 1922, by Ken Williams. Since Skizas did it in 1957, it has been achieved only twice: by George Brett in 1980, and by Barry Bonds in 2004.

The nasty inference regarding Mickey McDermott is shamelessly inspired by the legendary Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, by Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris; Little, Brown, 1973. Page 131: “Maurice McDermott was Ellis Kinder’s drinking partner and the only person in the history of the Poughkeepsie, New York, public school system to be chosen unanimously by his High School graduating class as the man most likely to be found dead in a motel room.” Alas, the notoriously hard-partying McDermott confounded expectations, and lasted to the ripe old age of 74.

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