The Pennant Porch Pie-in-the-Face

Say what one might about Charles O. Finley, he wasn’t timid. Finley, who owned the Athletics franchise (first in Kansas City, then in Oakland) from December 1960 until August 1980, was never one to allow lack of precedent, widespread hostility, or much of anything else to get in the way of a trying out an idea.

As we saw last time, for years Finley insisted that his field managers deploy players in a unique role as pinch-running specialists. Also, frequently in the 1970s, Finley demanded that his managers execute an in-game rotation of second basemen, pinch-hitting for the second baseman multiple times. In Kansas City, Finley installed an automated “rabbit” that emerged from underground behind home plate to supply the umpire with a supply of fresh baseballs. If Finley had his way, those baseballs would have been colored day-glo orange.

Some of Finley’s ideas were widely adopted; night games in the World Series, as well as the Designated Hitter Rule, were concepts he had ardently championed.

But one of Finley’s ideas bombed spectacularly.

The Situation

Finley had purchased the perennial-doormat A’s in the winter of 1960-61. In his first year of ownership, his team lost 100 games and tied for last place with the first-year expansion Washington Senators, drearily par for the course for the sadsack franchise.

But Finley, along with all his other attributes, had an exceptionally keen eye for baseball talent. Even though he employed a succession of titled general managers, Finley himself was always pretty much directly handling major league player transactions and roster management, and his knack for acquiring overlooked talent at bargain prices was evident early on. Two December 1961 trades netted the Athletics four players with little or no major league experience (Ed Charles, Manny Jiminez, Joe Azcue and Jose Tartabull), all of whom would develop into useful major leaguers. Two scrap-heap retread pickups made in August 1962 would emerge as solid pitchers for the A’s: Orlando Pena and Moe Drabowsky. Though the 1962 Athletics moved up only to ninth place in the standings, they did so with a winning percentage (.444) which had been topped only once by the franchise since 1952. It wasn’t instant success by any means, but it did appear that Finley’s A’s might be making competitive progress.

His 1963 ball club, anchored by a generally solid pitching staff, and featuring the blossoming of 26-year-old shortstop Wayne Causey (previously a utility man) into a minor star, inched a bit further up in the standings, to 73-89 (.451) and eighth place. Attendance, at 9,412 per game (also eighth in the league) wasn’t great, but it was a 20% improvement over that of 1962. Things appeared to be modestly heading in the right direction.

However, patience with modest progress wasn’t Finley’s way. He was anxious to make something happen more boldly and quickly.

The Idea

Lore has it that the light bulb went on over Finley’s head following a conversation he had sometime in 1963 with his field manger, former New York Yankees ace southpaw Eddie Lopat. Finley was apparently inquiring as to what the key might be to the Yankees’ continual dominance of the American League, and Lopat, whether he thought it was truly a significant issue or not, supposedly made mention of the fact that Yankee Stadium was a uniquely configured ballpark: with the extreme short porch (296 feet) down the right field line, the Yankees had long made good use of left-handed-hitting power hitters to take full advantage of their home field.

Finley was a very shrewd judge of baseball talent, but in this instance he seems to have suffered a major lapse. Apparently he instantly seized upon the idea that the Yankees had been deploying some kind of a trick, and that all he needed to do was emulate the short porch in right field, and retool his roster with sluggers, and he’d be ready to match them.

Finley swung two blockbuster trades in November 1963. First he sent his regular second baseman (Jerry Lumpe, a sound fielder and good on-base hitter) and two solid, dependable starting pitchers (Dave Wickersham and Ed Rakow) to Detroit in exchange for veteran star slugging outfielder Rocky Colavito, plus a sore-armed relief pitcher (Bob Anderson). Then he sent his excellent-all-around first baseman (Norm Siebern) to Baltimore in exchange for an all-or-nothing home-run-hitting first baseman, Jim Gentile. (Finley also netted cash payments of $50,000 in the Colavito deal and $25,000 in the Gentile deal, a lot of money in those days. Say whatever else one might about Finley, he knew his way around a dollar bill.)

The Porch

And then Finley, who always seemed to be jiggering with the outfield fences, reconfigured Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium to resemble Yankee Stadium as closely as possible: he bumped left-center field out and pulled right field in. Most distinctively, he tightly curled the fence in the right field corner to a distance that exactly matched that of Yankee Stadium: 296 feet. The new right field corner in Kansas City, which featured a little wooden-seat bleacher in its triangular footprint, was brightly painted with the moniker “K.C. Pennant Porch.”

Two pre-season exhibition games were played in the freshly-configured Municipal Stadium, before the American League office contacted Finley and informed him that a 296-foot foul line distance was in violation of the major league rule, adopted in 1958, that held that no ballpark from that point on could introduce a foul line dimension of less than 325 feet. Yankee Stadium had been grandfathered in, but Municipal Stadium wasn’t allowed to copy it in 1964. The Pennant Porch as configured had to go.

Finley pitched his typical fit, but reluctantly dismantled the Pennant Porch. But he moved the fence back only to the 325-foot limit, and ensured that the overall right field configuration at Municipal Stadium would still be extremely home run-friendly. Finley dubbed the revised setup the “One Half Pennant Porch.”

It’s likely the case that comprehensive data on the matter wasn’t readily available to Finley, but he might have been well-served to understand that Municipal Stadium was already a conducive environment for home runs. In its 1962-63 configuration (adjusted by Finley from its 1961 status, of course), the ballpark had yielded 22% more home runs by the Athletics at home versus on the road and 37% more home runs by their opponents. Rigging his ballpark to be still more home run friendly was throwing gasoline on an already-thriving flame. And doing so while having sacrificed two-fifths of the starting rotation was begging for blowback. But that’s what Finley did.

Don’t Try This At Home

The three primary starting pitchers held over from the 1963 staff were all good talents. But Orlando Pena, Moe Drabowsky and Diego Segui were also all quite similar in style: they threw hard, with decent control (in Pena’s case, excellent control), and generally racked up good strikeout rates, but they were flyball pitchers, vulnerable to the home run. And they were all right-handers particularly vulnerable to left-handed power hitters. And they would be handling the bulk of the Athletics’ innings in 1964, in a home ballpark specifically outfitted with an extremely reachable right field fence.

The A’s were also blessed with a better-than-average ace reliever, the remarkably durable John Wyatt. But Wyatt was—you guessed it — a high-fastballing right-hander.

Moreover, despite the addition of the left-handed-batting Gentile, the Athletics featured a predominantly right-handed-hitting lineup, including Colavito, Charles, newly acquired center fielder Nelson Mathews and rookie second baseman Dick Green (replacing Lumpe). Other than Gentile, the only left-handed-hitting regular they would deploy was Causey, a line-drive hitter, not prone to hit home runs in any ballpark.

Okay, Strap On Your Helmet

The A’s opened the regular season on the road (while the Pennant Porch was being hastily reconfigured). In a rainy April week, they played just three games, one each in Detroit, Cleveland and Washington. The A’s lost two of the three. Gentile and Jiminez each had a home run for the Athletics, while the pitchers allowed three.

The home opener was played on Tuesday night, April 21, against the Indians, before a crowd of 28,165 (quite large by K.C. standards). Diego Segui started against Cleveland’s Mudcat Grant. The contest was scoreless through three and a half innings, until the A’s pushed across a run in the bottom of the fourth, with Green hitting a two-out single to drive in Charles. The Indians immediately tied it in the top of the fifth, when Johnny Romano doubled home Tito Francona.

The 1-1 deadlock was broken in the bottom of the seventh inning, as Segui himself led off with a home run, the first of the season in the K.C. ballpark. But in the next frame, Cleveland’s left-handed slugger Leon Wagner connected for a two-run homer off Segui to give the Indians a 3-2 lead. In the ninth, the Tribe scored two more off Segui and Wyatt. A’s catcher Billy Bryan’s solo homer in the bottom of the ninth inning wasn’t enough, and the Indians, with submariner Ted Abernathy coming in to finish off the ninth and get the save for Grant, won 5-3.

One home game, one loss, attributable largely to an opponent’s home run. The 1964 Kansas City Athletics were on their way.

In that initial homestand, home runs flew over Municipal Stadium’s cozy fences at a dizzying pace: 51 in 13 games. In a four-game series hosting Minnesota on May 1-3, the Twins alone blasted 15 homers, including three in succession in the 11th inning on May 2. But still, the A’s split that four-game set, and they pretty much held their own amid this opening barrage, hitting 25 homers to the 26 of their opponents, and the ball club was 6-7 over the homestand. Their record at this point was a so-so 7-9, but Colavito had eight home runs and Gentile five.

The Cruel Road, and Home Sour Home

Then the Athletics embarked on their longest road trip of the season: a grueling coast-to-coast crisscross, with 20 games in 19 days, including four doubleheaders. Even away from the homer-happy Municipal Stadium, the A’s pitching staff was not up to the challenge. The trip was a disaster: the Athletics lost 15 of the 20 games, hitting 13 home runs while surrendering a whopping 32. They dropped to 12-24, last place, and their pitchers had allowed 61 home runs. And now the team returned to hitter-friendly Kansas City.

In their second homestand, the volume of home runs wasn’t quite equal to that of the first, with 36 struck in 12 games. But opponents hit 23 of them, and the Athletics went 4-8.

They hit the road again, and after losing three out of four in Washington, with their record a major league-worst 17-35, and having surrendered a major league-most 295 runs (including 90 home runs), on June 11th Finley fired manager Lopat. His replacement was Mel McGaha, a 37-year-old who had managed the Indians in 1962.

The Dismal Summer

The Athletics rallied briefly under McGaha, winning eight of nine from June 13 through June 20, threatening the Senators for ninth place. But Washington swept a doubleheader in Kansas City on June 21, 13-2 and 5-2, and the A’s would never get much of a hot streak going again.

The long season dragged on, with the familiar pattern repeating: each time the team would manage to put together a stretch of good games, they would quickly be crushed by a fusillade of opposing home runs, especially at home. They concluded the year with their most dismal slump yet, losing 29 of their final 38 games.

The Damage Assessment

Vivid illustrations abound of the colossal failure to convert the Athletics into a power-hitting winner, taking advantage of their Pennant Porch:

- Dropping back to dead last, the A’s lost 105 games, the most in their tenure in Kansas City. In franchise history going back to Philadelphia, no Athletics team had lost more since 1920.

- The 1964 A’s were bad on the road (31-50) but worse at home (26-55).

- The 20% increase in attendance they had achieved in 1963 was lost back almost completely.

- They hit 107 home runs at home, by far a franchise record. But they surrendered 132 at home, setting a new all-time major league mark.

- The 239 home runs produced in the Kansas City ballpark in 1964 wasn’t quite a major league record, but it was close. It fell just short of the 248 that had been hit in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field in 1961, a substandard major league venue with 345-foot power alleys.

- Overall, the A’s pitching staff allowed 220 home runs, shattering the major league record of 199, which the A’s had set in 1962. No team would surrender more until 1987.

Colavito and Gentile delivered 34 and 28 homers, respectively, fourth- and tenth-most in the league. But both sluggers were actually in decline, with their totals inflated by Municipal Stadium: they hit just 12 and 10 home runs on the road. Overall the 1964 Athletics hit 166 homers, third-most in the league, and tying the Kansas City record, but it was an entirely one-dimensional offense. Only one team in the league hit for a lower batting average, and only two scored fewer runs.

The K.C. pitchers absorbed a brutal beating. Pena gave up 40 home runs, becoming just the third pitcher in major league history to allow that many; he suffered two games (May 9 at Minnesota and July 25 at home versus the Angels) in which he surrendered four bombs, and another (September 2 at home versus the Red Sox) when he gave up three. Segui allowed 30 homers, 22 of them at home. Drabowsky was hit so hard he was removed from the starting rotation after mid-June and ended up with 24 home runs allowed in 168 innings. Bullpen ace Wyatt worked 128 innings in a new MLB-record 81 appearances, but gave up 23 homers (at home, 14 homers in 63 innings).

But it was a quartet of rookie right-handers who took the worst of it. Vern Handrahan was battered for nine home runs in 36 innings; Aurelio Monteagudo 11 in 31, Blue Moon Odom five in 17, and Jack Aker six in 16.

The Lesson Learned

All in all, not only was it a disastrous season, but the bandbox-configuration ballpark was clearly a terrible environment in which to attempt to develop young pitchers. Finley wasted no time in swallowing his pride (wiping the whipped cream off his face, one might say) and scrapping the whole idea. Both Colavito and Gentile were traded away in early 1965. The K.C. outfield dimensions were completely revamped again, and the ballpark’s home run friendliness changed overnight. In 1964, the Athletics had hit 81% more homers at home than on the road, and their opponents 50% more; in 1965, the Athletics hit 25% fewer homers at home than on the road, their opponents 27% fewer, and only 115 home runs left Municipal Stadium, fewer than half of the ’64 total. In 1966, Finley mounted a 40-foot-high screen on top of the right field fence, and Municipal Stadium became one of the most home run-stingy venues in modern major league history, yielding just 45 homers between the A’s and their opponents combined in ’66, and 57 in ’67. (Remember that 51 home runs were hit in Kansas City in the first homestand of 1964.)

Then Finley moved the franchise to Oakland, but he did so with many young pitchers on the roster who had enjoyed the benefit of learning to pitch at the big league level in 1966-67 in an extremely forgiving environment, including Odom, Paul Lindblad, Jim Nash, Chuck Dobson, and Catfish Hunter. Finley cannily collected a core of very talented young players, and as they eventually developed (patiently allowed to do so by Finley, at last), he would be rewarded with phenomenal success.

References & Resources
A photograph of the original K.C. Pennant Porch (pre-revision), including the high school-quality bleacher squeezed into it, appears on page 181 of the Official Baseball Guide for 1965, published by The Sporting News.

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