The virtual 1955-62 Kansas City A’s (Part 1:  1955-56)

Awhile back, we had some fun testing the propositions that a couple of notoriously terrible teams—the early 1960s New York Mets and the early 1950s Pittsburgh Pirates—didn’t have to be nearly as terrible as they were. Our hypothesis was that with more sensible transaction-making and player deployment, both of those franchises could have avoided the deep chasms in which they actually found themselves, and emerged as competitive teams more quickly than they did.

In that spirit, let’s turn our attention now to another franchise enduring tough times right in between those two.

In 1984, baseball researcher and writer Joe Reichler published The Baseball Trade Register, the first-ever compilation of historic transactions between franchises. The book was organized by franchise, and before each team’s list of deals, Reichler provided a few paragraphs of commentary on how well or poorly they’d performed in the trade market. His title for the section on the Kansas City Athletics was “The Strange Case of the Major League Farm Team”:

The A’s quickly came to bear the label “Yankee Farm Club” because of the numerous controversial, and sometimes scandalous, trades between the two clubs…. Kansas City had been the location of a minor league Yankee farm team for 18 years, and its management never seemed to understand that their role had changed when they were granted a major league franchise.

In his 1986 Abstract, Bill James presented a lengthy essay on being a lifelong Kansas City baseball fan. We’ll quote just a few snippets of it here:

Under current conditions it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for any baseball team to become as bad as the Kansas City Athletics were … Thirteen straight losing seasons … not many teams have ever had thirteen … even the Browns. Even the St. Louis Browns, the hapless Brownies … yes, even the Browns never had thirteen consecutive losing seasons.

This one fact, however depressing, testifies only to the duration of the frustration; there was more to it than that. The A’s not only never had a winning record, they never came close to having a winning record. They were never in any danger of having a winning record.

They very rarely had a winning month. Here, I’ll list all the months in A’s history in which they won as many games as they lost … [long list of years with precious few winning months] … that makes nine months in which they played .500-or-better ball, which means they had losing records in 69 months out of 78.

And so it goes, paragraph after devastating paragraph. Later in the essay, James addresses the issue of the Athletics ownership in the 1955-60 period:

Arnold Johnson, the first owner of the Kansas City Athletics, was a business associate and close friend of Del Webb, co-owner of the Yankees. Apparently believing that the way to make money in the outlands was as a supplier of talent to the wealthier organizations, Johnson funnelled talent to the Yankees in a long series of three-for-one and five-for-two trades … the certain facts were that: (1) the A’s were a bad team, (2) they traded all of their best players to the Yankees, and (3) after that, they were a worse team.

Rob Neyer, in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, says:

… suffice to say that Arnold Johnson was exceptionally chummy with Yankees co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb. To name just one of the trio’s ventures, Johnson—as part of a (legal) tax dodge—purchased Yankee Stadium and Kansas City’s Blues Stadium, then leased the stadium back to the Yankees. And everybody made out like bandits.

So what of it? What if the Athletics and the Yankees in those years hadn’t known such a suspiciously close relationship? What if the A’s hadn’t “traded all of their best players to the Yankees”?

What say we find out.

The ball club that the notorious Mr. Johnson purchased and brought to Kansas City in 1955 was about as bad as ball clubs get. The once-great Philadelphia A’s were a hollowed-out husk, and the 1954 edition—drawing a grand total of 304,666 attendance all season long—was pathetically uncompetitive. Their 51-103, last-place finish overstated their ability, as their Pythagorean record was 45-109. They were last in the league in team OPS+ with 78 (the next-worst was 85), and they were last in the league in team ERA+ with 76 (the next-worst was 93), and they were last in the league in DER with .689 (the next-worst was .696).

That’s the raw material we have to work with.

1954-55 offseason: Actual Athletics deals we will make

Nov. 22, 1954: Drafted pitcher Cloyd Boyer from the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.

Nov. 22, 1954: Drafted pitcher Art Ceccarelli from the New York Yankees in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.

Nov. 22, 1954: Drafted pitcher Bob Spicer from the Chicago Cubs in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.

None among this trio is anything remotely special—if they were, they wouldn’t be exposed in the Rule 5 draft, after all—but our pitching staff is an atrocity, and throwing cheap options against the wall to find out if anything sticks is one of the things the actual A’s did that we’ll be doing too.

Nov. 24, 1954: Released infielder-manager Eddie Joost.

Joost had been an outstanding Athletics shortstop for many years. For 1954, the A’s promoted the 38-year-old to player-manager, and even though he appeared to have something left in the tank as a player, Joost deployed himself only as a last-extremity utility man, focusing most of his attention on the managerial tasks. By all accounts it didn’t go well, as the team was terrible and Joost was miserable. Just as the actual A’s did, we’ll bid him farewell and go in another direction for 1955.

1954-55 offseason: Actual Athletics deals we will modify

The actual Athletics did this:

March 30, 1955: Purchased pitchers Tom Gorman and Ewell Blackwell and first baseman Dick Kryhoski from the New York Yankees for $50,000 cash.

None among this trio was good enough to make the Yankees’ roster as spring training drew to a close. Gorman was an unexciting but decent-enough soft-tossing reliever, Kryhoski a humdrum journeyman, and Blackwell a flamed-out former-star “project.”

Our pitching staff can certainly find room to find out what Gorman and Blackwell can do, but we don’t see any need for an extra first baseman.

So instead, we’ll do this:

March 30, 1955: Purchased pitchers Tom Gorman and Ewell Blackwell from the New York Yankees for $35,000 cash.

No doubt the Yankees would have been satisfied with that, and they could try to find a different buyer for Kryhoski.

1954-55 offseason: Athletics deals we will invoke

November, 1954: Released first baseman Don Bollweg.

November, 1954: Released infielder Pete Suder.

The actual A’s kept both of these winding-down veterans on hand into early 1955 before cutting them loose, but we see no reason to clog up roster space while postponing the inevitable.

November 1954: Traded pitcher Alex Kellner to the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Les Moss.

The 30-year-old southpaw Kellner had been a reliable innings-eating starter for several years, but had encountered a bad season in 1954. Our thinking is we’d better get something for him while he still has some market value. Moss doesn’t represent much value, but he’s something: slow-footed and so-so defensively, but presenting more power at the plate than most catchers.

Paul Richards, beginning his rebuilding in Baltimore by prioritizing run prevention, would plausibly take this swap, as Kellner was precisely the sort of pitcher he specialized in revitalizing.

Dec. 8, 1954: Traded outfielder Elmer Valo to the Chicago White Sox for infielder Jim Brideweser.

We love Valo’s on-base ability, but his batting average had plummeted to .214 in 1954, and given that he would be turning 34 in the spring of 1955, our sense is it’s time to cash him in as well. In Brideweser we get nothing exciting, but he is a competent utility infielder, and six years younger than Valo.

(Valo would bounce back with a resounding .364 performance in a platoon role in 1955. Goes to show you what we know.)

January, 1955: Traded outfielder Bill Renna to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Dick Marlowe.

“Big Bill” Renna had been acquired from the Yankees with high power-hitting expectations for 1954, and had disappointed rather severely. Given that he’s now 30 years old, we don’t see much reason to give him another chance. Marlowe was a second-tier young pitcher who’d hadn’t done anything notable in two full seasons in Detroit. In reality the Tigers would send him back to the minors for 1955; it’s plausible they’d have accepted Renna in exchange.

1955 season: Actual Athletics deals we will make

April 28, 1955: Purchased pitcher Lou Sleater from the New York Yankees.

Another in the category of throwing cheap options against the wall.

April 30, 1955: Released pitcher Ewell Blackwell.

And part of this approach requires being decisive about which ones don’t stick. We’ll agree with the actual A’s assessment that there was no stirring Blackwell comeback brewing.

May 1, 1955: Traded pitcher Al Sima to the Washington Senators for pitcher Gus Keriazakos.

We’ll agree with the actual A’s assessment that it’s more sensible to give this 23-year-old right hander a chance than that 33-year-old left hander.

May 11, 1955: Purchased pitcher Ray Herbert from the Detroit Tigers.

May 11, 1955: Purchased outfielder-first baseman Harry Simpson from the Cleveland Indians.

Both of these guys had once been highly prized, but hadn’t panned out and were now finally being cast aside by their original teams at this year’s roster “cut down” time.* It made great sense for the A’s to give both of them a shot.

May 31, 1955: Signed infielder Clete Boyer as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Signing Bonus Babies was something no major league team avoided during this period. This particular Bonus Baby situation would become notorious, as we’ll delve into next time. For now we’ll just ink the kid, put him on the roster, and be patient.

Sept. 10, 1955: Purchased catcher Joe Ginsberg and pitcher Lou Kretlow from the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League for $100,000 cash.

Ginsberg and Kretlow were serviceable big league spare parts. This cash price tag seems a little steep, but even talents as ordinary as these will likely serve to improve our ball club.

Sept. 12, 1955: Purchased pitcher Glenn Cox from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This guy was in the category of grade-B prospect, but what the heck.

Sept. 21, 1955: Purchased infielder Mike Baxes, outfielder Dave Melton and pitcher Bill Bradford from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for $75,000 cash.

Three more so-so prospects. This sort of thing was, literally, the price a franchise such as the Athletics paid for not having a competently productive farm system.

1955 season: Athletics deals we will invoke

April 16, 1955: Purchased outfielder Lloyd Merriman from the Chicago White Sox.

On this date the White Sox actually sold the 30-year-old Merriman to the Cubs—which required him clearing American League waivers. Our A’s won’t let him pass. Merriman was a light hitter, but his nickname of “Citation” (as in the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred) suggests what manner of speed he displayed, and we’ll make use of him as a utility outfielder.

May 10, 1955: Purchased pitcher Hersh Freeman from the Boston Red Sox.

And on this date the Red Sox sold the 26-year-old right-hander Freeman to Cincinnati, and that required the Athletics to let him clear waivers as well. Freeman was a soft-tossing reliever without star potential, but he’d demonstrated excellent control, and the A’s were in no position to be picky. We’ll claim him.

1955 season: Actual Athletics deals we will not make

April 26, 1955: Signed pitcher Vic Raschi as a free agent.

Taking a chance on a reclamation project such as Ewell Blackwell is one thing, but Blackwell was 32 in 1955. Raschi was 36, and had already been released that spring by the Cardinals. We recognize that our pitching is a mess, but we’ll devote that roster spot to someone with a chance at a future.

May 11, 1955: Traded pitcher Sonny Dixon and cash to the New York Yankees for pitcher Johnny Sain and outfielder Enos Slaughter.

This was the first of the many Athletics-Yankees transactions under the Johnson regime, and it didn’t bode well. The issue here wasn’t what the A’s surrendered—Dixon was just another mediocrity, whom the Yankees would simply farm out—it was what they received: Sain and Slaughter were entirely faded former stars, 37 and 39 years old respectively. The only productive role either of them could seem to fill at this point was spot player on a contending team, and if the Yankees were deciding they were no longer up to that task, then it was ludicrous for the tail-ender A’s to take them on.

What this deal (along with the Raschi signing) suggested was that the A’s were more interested in showcasing over-the-hill “names” (in particular, over-the-hill ex-Yankee names) than in building a team capable of improving. This dubious tactic was one that the early Mets would demonstrate (to hilariously bad results), and it was assuredly a tactic that openly insulted the intelligence of the local fanbase.

We’ll just say no.

Sept. 14, 1955: Selected outfielder Tom Saffell off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Saffell was basically a few-years-older version of Lloyd Merriman. Especially since we already have Merriman, we’ll decline to take Saffell.

1955 season results

Our theme for 1955 is basically, “let’s give this new guy a chance.” Newcomers who’ll play primary roles for us include Moss behind the plate and Simpson in center field. Others are rookie Hector Lopez, taking over for light-hitting incumbent Spook Jacobs at second base, and 29-year-old “rookie” (former Negro Leaguer) Joe Taylor in right field.

And the pitching staff is almost entirely turned over from 1954, and it’s in “all hands on deck” mode.

  Pos   Player         Age    G  AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
   1B   L. Limmer*      30  111 291  40   65   5   1  14  33  36  47 .223 .309 .392 .701   88
   2B   H. Lopez        25  128 483  60  140  15   2  15  68  33  58 .290 .334 .422 .756  103
   SS   J. DeMaestri    26  123 412  33  103  13   1   5  31  18  42 .250 .282 .323 .605   63
 3B-2B  J. Finigan      26  150 545  72  139  30   7   9  68  61  49 .255 .330 .385 .715   92
   RF   J. Taylor       29  128 417  48  108  19   4  14  53  31  61 .259 .308 .424 .733   96
 CF-LF  H. Simpson*     29  112 396  52  119  16   7   5  47  34  61 .301 .356 .414 .770  107
   LF   G. Zernial      32  120 413  62  105   9   3  30  84  30  90 .254 .304 .508 .812  116
   C    L. Moss         30  102 225  21   61   7   0   7  24  25  31 .271 .343 .396 .738   99

   UT   V. Power        27  147 596  91  190  34  10  19  76  35  27 .319 .352 .505 .857  129
   OF   B. Wilson       26   98 273  34   61  12   0  15  38  24  63 .223 .287 .432 .719   92
   IF   J. Brideweser   28   88 261  32   63  10   3   0  14  24  32 .241 .301 .303 .604   63
   C    J. Astroth      32   84 183  19   46   3   1   3  15  31  22 .251 .358 .328 .686   86
   CF   L. Merriman*    30   72 145  16   30   5   1   1   5  24  20 .207 .318 .276 .594   61
   C    Bi. Shantz      27   43 109   9   27   2   1   0   6   5   8 .248 .274 .284 .558   51
   IF   Cle. Boyer      18   47  79   3   19   1   0   0   6   3  17 .241 .268 .253 .521   41
   2B   S. Jacobs       29   21  52  11   13   1   0   0   1   6   1 .250 .333 .269 .603   64

        Others                   71   5   11   2   0   0   2   2  13 .155 .178 .183 .361   -2

        Pitchers                413  25   58   6   0   2  16  15 136 .140 .165 .169 .334  -10

        Total                  5364 633 1358 190  41 139 587 437 778 .253 .308 .382 .689   85

        * Bats left


        Pitcher        Age    G  GS  CG    W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        D. Marlowe      26   38  23   7    6  14   1 182 197  92  80   20   76   84 3.96  106
        A. Ditmar       26   33  26   7   12  12   1 175 182 108  99   23   85   77 5.09   82
        Bo. Shantz*     29   23  17   4    5  10   0 125 124  69  63    8   66   58 4.54   92
        A. Ceccarelli*  25   31  16   3    4   7   0 124 123  80  73   20   71   68 5.30   79
        Clo. Boyer      27   33  14   2    5   7   0 112 124  90  79   24   79   36 6.35   66
        A. Portocarrero 23   24  20   4    5   9   0 111 109  65  59   12   67   34 4.78   87
        R. Herbert      25   26  14   2    1  10   0 102 118  76  72   12   47   34 6.35   66

        T. Gorman       30   57  14   1    7  13   7 171 166  81  72   23   60   64 3.79  110
        H. Freeman      26   52   0   0    3   6   8  92  94  30  23    3   34   37 2.25  186
        B. Harrington   27   34   1   0    3   3   2  77  69  40  35    6   41   26 4.09  102
        L. Sleater*     28   16   1   0    1   1   0  26  33  22  22    3   21   11 7.62   55
        M. Burtschy     33    7   0   0    2   0   0  11  17  13  13    0   10    9 10.64  39

        Others                    9   0    0   8   1  74 116  98  89   19   55   36 10.82  39

        Total                   155  30   54 100 20 1382 1472 864 779 173  712  574 5.07   82

        * Throws left

There are some positive developments on the offensive side. Simpson and Lopez both hit splendidly. Jack-of-all-trades Vic Power, who’d been a disappointment as a rookie in 1954, blossoms with a terrific season, playing mostly first base but generally filling in all over the place as an everyday Supersub. Slugging left fielder Gus Zernial rebounds from an injury-plagued 1954; he isn’t where he was at his peak, but provides excellent power.

But third baseman Jim Finigan is something of a disappointment following an outstanding rookie year. Taylor is also just so-so, and platoon first baseman Lou Limmer struggles to hit for average. Slick-fielding shortstop Joe DeMaestri is true to form as a light hitter.

And as for the pitching … well, Freeman is a delightful surprise in the bullpen, and Gorman and Marlowe are both quite solid in workhorse swingman roles. But pretty much everyone else is somewhere between bad and worse. We’re playing our home games in a good hitters’ park, but still: Our staff leads the league in hits allowed, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, home runs allowed, and walks allowed. That tends to lead to problems.

It’s the extremely weak pitching that seals our fate as a last-place team. The actual A’s were fundamentally just as bad as we are, but they got very fortunate with their run distribution, and outperformed their Pythag by 10 wins and managed to finish sixth. We can’t assume we’d have done that, and will instead have to face the fact that our first season is spent in the basement.

Hopefully we’ve started to construct a framework that can be built upon. We’ll see.

1955-56 offseason: Actual Athletics deals we will make

Oct., 1955: Purchased outfielder Al Pilarcik from the New York Yankees in a conditional deal.

He came at minimal cost (I don’t know the specifics of this one, but typically a “conditional deal” is one in which the purchasing team has the option at a specified point, usually the end of spring training, to return the player to the selling team for a refund), and the quick-footed lefty-hitting Pilarcik can compete in ‘56 for the role held by Merriman in 1955.

Oct. 12, 1955: Traded pitcher Marion Fricano and $60,000 cash to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League for pitcher Jack Crimian.

For whatever reason—probably because he didn’t throw hard—Crimian had never gotten much of a chance in the majors. But he’d been an outstanding reliever for a long time in Triple-A, and he was just turning 30 years old, so it was sensible for the Athletics to make the investment to acquire him and give him the big league opportunity at last.

Nov. 27, 1955: Drafted pitcher Troy Herriage from the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in the 1955 Rule 5 draft.

Though he was the property of the Oaks at this point, the right-hander Herriage hadn’t yet risen above Class A. But his bush league stats in both 1954 and ’55 had been very good, and he was only 25. Herriage was worth the gamble for the A’s.

Nov. 27, 1955: Pitcher Lou Sleater drafted by the Milwaukee Braves in the 1955 Rule 5 draft.

The actual Athletics (and our version) had given this southpaw reliever a chance in 1955, and he’d done poorly, so it made sense to leave him unprotected on draft day. What was interesting was that it was a team as pitching-rich as the Braves taking an interest in a discard of a team as pitching-poor as the A’s.

Just another illustration of the eternal maxim that there’s always another opportunity for a left-handed pitcher.

March 2, 1956: Purchased pitcher Tom Lasorda from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Yes, that Tom Lasorda, who before he was a manager for the Dodgers, was a left-handed pitching prospect for the Dodgers, and one of non-trivial promise. Lasorda had put together a string of consistently good years for Brooklyn’s Triple-A Montreal affiliate from 1950 through 1955.

The fact that the big league Dodgers, who had some issues with pitching depth in that period, never saw fit to give Lasorda more than a big league cup of coffee might tell you something, but for a team like the Athletics the still-just-28-year-old southpaw was definitely worth a serious look.

1955-56 offseason: Actual Athletics deals we will modify

The actual Athletics did this:

April 16, 1956: Traded outfielder Tom Saffell, pitcher Lee Wheat and cash to the Brooklyn Dodgers for catcher Tim Thompson.

We don’t have Saffell, so we can’t make this exact deal. But clearly the Dodgers had no particular interest in the mediocrity Saffell, they were just looking for some manner of payment in exchange for Thompson, a 32-year-old left-handed-batting catcher who’d been hitting .300 for years in Triple-A.

Instead we’ll do this:

April 16, 1956: Traded pitcher Lee Wheat and cash to the Brooklyn Dodgers for catcher Tim Thompson.

In place of Saffell we’ll just sweeten up the cash portion. Probably would have made Walter O’Malley even happier.

1955-56 offseason: Athletics deals we will invoke

Oct. 18, 1955: In a three-club deal, sent catcher Les Moss to the Chicago White Sox, the White Sox sent infielder Bobby Adams to the Baltimore Orioles, and the Orioles sent outfielder Cal Abrams to the Athletics.

Actually on this date, the White Sox traded Adams to Baltimore straight-up for Abrams, and Moss was actually already with Chicago. But in the spring of 1956, the White Sox would farm out Abrams and keep Moss on the roster, suggesting that if they’d been offered a trade of Moss for Abrams, they’d have taken it.

From the perspective of our Athletics, Abrams is a high-OBP guy who can help out in our outfield, and we can find another right-handed-batting catcher to replace Moss.

Dec., 1955: Traded outfielder Gus Zernial to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Hank Foiles, outfielder Joe Caffie, and pitchers Jose Santiago and Marion Murszewski.

Though Zernial had been productive for us in 1955, he’ll be 33 in 1956, and is as one-dimensional as they come. It would be wise for us to cash him in while he’ll still bring something in return.

The Indians were a contender who could make use of Zernial in left field, and it’s reasonable to assume they’d have surrendered this assortment of B-grade prospects to acquire him. Foiles can compete for Moss’s job.

December, 1955: Traded pitcher Tom Gorman, infielder Jim Brideweser, and catcher Joe Astroth to the Detroit Tigers for pitchers Duke Maas and Bill Froats and catcher-outfielder Jay Porter.

Gorman had turned in a fine year for us in ’55, but the emergence of Hersh Freeman in the bullpen means that we can take the risk of leveraging Gorman’s value in the trade market when it’s at its peak. Brideweser and Astroth were solid bench players, and the Tigers, a young team that had taken forward strides in 1955 and was now on the verge of contention, would plausibly be interested in acquiring such dependable performers in exchange for less-proven talents.

1955-56 offseason: Actual Athletics deals we will not make

October, 1955: Purchased first baseman-third baseman Rance Pless from the New York Giants for $35,000 cash.

Pless was a pretty interesting guy, a corner infielder with a nice bat. But we just don’t see a roster spot for him, given as how we have to reserve one for the Bonus Baby Boyer again in 1956. We can’t justify spending $35K for a guy who probably won’t make the team.

April 16, 1956: Purchased outfielder Johnny Groth from the Washington Senators.

Nor will our version of the A’s have room for Groth, the fleeting star who’d failed to develop and was prematurely in the nomad phase of his career.

1956 season: Actual Athletics deals we will make

April 18, 1956: Sold pitcher Cloyd Boyer to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.

Clete’s brother had, well, failed to impress in 1955, and like the actual Athletics we’ll accept this offer.

June 23, 1956: Traded second baseman Spook Jacobs to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Jack McMahan and second baseman Curt Roberts.

I have no idea why the Pirates were so interested in the mediocrity Jacobs, but we’ll just say “yes” and not ponder that question.

July 11, 1956: Traded pitcher Tom Lasorda to the New York Yankees for pitcher Wally Burnette.

Lasorda struggled mightily in his opportunity in Kansas City, and it made sense to take this offer to give a different minor league veteran an opportunity instead.

Aug. 17, 1956: Traded catcher Joe Ginsberg to the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Hal Smith.

Paul Richards’ trading record in Baltimore was generally superb, but this one made no sense. Smith was a 25-year-old who hit better than most catchers, while Ginsberg was a 29-year-old who hit pretty much like most catchers. And neither was noted for his defensive chops. Like the actual A’s, we’ll won’t try to figure it out, and instead just say “thank you.”

Sept. 17, 1956: Traded players to be named later to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Jim Pisoni and a player to be named later. (On Sept. 21, 1956, the Orioles sent pitcher Ryne Duren to the Athletics, and on Oct. 11, 1956, the Athletics sent outfielder Al Pilarcik and pitcher Art Ceccarelli to the Orioles, completing the deal.)

It’s not clear what was going on with the naming-players-later bit here, but at the end of the sequence it was Pilarcik and Ceccarelli for Pisoni and Duren. We’ll take that deal every time, as did the actual A’s this time.

1956 season: Actual Athletics deals we will modify

The actual Athletics did this:

June 14, 1956: Traded outfielder Bill Renna, pitcher Moe Burtschy and cash to the New York Yankees for first baseman Eddie Robinson and outfielder Lou Skizas.

We don’t have Renna anymore. However, neither do we have any interest in acquiring Robinson, who at this point in his career fell into the same category as Sain and Slaughter.

So we’ll change it to this:

June 14, 1956: Traded pitcher Sonny Dixon and cash to the New York Yankees for outfielder Lou Skizas.

We know the Yankees actually liked Dixon (having acquired him in the Sain-and-Slaughter deal in 1955), and he’s better than Burtschy anyway. So it’s likely the Yankees would accept this offer for Skizas, a good-hitting 24-year-old corner outfield prospect for whom they just didn’t have any room.

1956 season: Athletics deals we will invoke

May 15, 1956: Traded catcher Hank Foiles to the Pittsburgh Pirates for first baseman-outfielder Preston Ward.

Actually on this date, this trade was made between the Pirates and Indians. But we’ve got Foiles, and we’ll be happy to accommodate Pittsburgh’s wish to acquire him. Ward provides a decent left-handed bat, and he can play first base, corner outfield and even a little third base.

June 14, 1956: Sold outfielder Joe Taylor to the Cincinnati Redlegs.

We’d given Taylor the full shot at our right field job in 1955, and he had his moments, but didn’t bowl us over. He’s off to a slow start in ’56, and we’re ready to move on. Taylor was actually acquired by the Reds in 1956.

June 22, 1956: Selected pitcher Paul LaPalme off waivers from the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Actually it was the White Sox claiming the journeyman southpaw LaPalme on this date. But alas, we’ll be trailing the White Sox in the standings, so we’ve got priority and we’ll add him to our bullpen.

June 25, 1956: Selected outfielder-infielder Dick Williams off waivers from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And it was the Orioles claiming the versatile 27-year-old Williams. But we’ll be trailing … okay, you know the drill.

1956 season: Actual Athletics deals we will not make

May 16, 1956: Purchased pitcher Jose Santiago from the Cleveland Indians.

Because we already acquired him last December.

Aug. 25, 1956: Sold outfielder Enos Slaughter on waivers to the New York Yankees.

Because we never acquired him at all.

1956 season results

The shuffling of personnel remains chronic, but we hope there is a method to our madness: We’re trying to get younger, and in general we’re endeavoring to fill holes by providing opportunities to players who haven’t had them before. We’ll give first-time shots at regular big league play to Porter behind the plate, and midseason acquisitions Skizas in the outfield and Williams at third base. And our pitching staff is essentially an “open casting call.”

  Pos   Player         Age    G  AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1B-OF  P. Ward*        28   87 195  22   50  12   0   7  25  20  28 .256 .318 .426 .744   95
   2B   H. Lopez        26  151 561  91  153  27   3  18  69  63  73 .273 .343 .428 .771  103
   SS   J. DeMaestri    27  133 434  36  101  16   1   6  34  25  73 .233 .276 .316 .591   56
 3B-OF  D. Williams     27   87 318  41   92  16   4  13  38  25  37 .289 .335 .487 .823  116
 RF-LF  C. Abrams*      32   90 230  38   55   7   1   4  19  45  47 .239 .356 .330 .686   83
 CF-LF  H. Simpson*     30  141 543  81  159  22  11  21 105  47  82 .293 .347 .490 .837  119
 LF-RF  L. Skizas       24   83 297  39   94  11   3  11  39  15  17 .316 .344 .485 .829  117
  C-RF  J. Porter       23   87 246  27   57   9   1   6  33  26  48 .232 .307 .350 .656   74

   UT   V. Power        28  127 530  77  164  21   5  14  63  24  16 .309 .338 .447 .785  106
   OF   B. Wilson       27   90 200  20   46   8   1   8  29  22  46 .230 .310 .400 .710   87
   CF   A. Pilarcik*    25   62 191  22   48   8   1   3  18  24  26 .251 .330 .351 .681   81
   3B   J. Finigan      27   52 163  25   37   6   2   2  19  24  13 .227 .318 .325 .643   71
   C    J. Ginsberg*    29   64 156  12   38   6   1   1  10  18  14 .244 .318 .314 .632   68
   C    H. Smith        25   37 142  15   39   9   2   2  24   3  12 .275 .284 .408 .692   81
   1B   L. Limmer*      31   48 127  13   29   4   0   4  16  14  14 .228 .303 .354 .658   74
   C    T. Thompson*    32   61 134  10   35   6   1   1  13   8  12 .261 .306 .343 .649   72
   IF   C. Boyer        19   67 129  15   28   3   1   1   4  11  24 .217 .280 .279 .559   49
   SS   M. Baxes        25   73 106   9   24   3   1   1   5  18  15 .226 .328 .302 .630   68
 LF-RF  J. Taylor       30   34 109  13   24   5   0   4  14  11  20 .220 .293 .376 .669   76

        Others                   92  13   26   1   0   2   8   9  20 .283 .347 .359 .705   85

        Pitchers                364  19   45   3   0   1  17  23 134 .124 .164 .140 .304  -19

        Total                  5267 638 1344 203  39 130 602 475 771 .255 .313 .383 .696   83

        * Bats left

        Pitcher        Age    G  GS  CG    W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        A. Ditmar       27   44  34  14   13  20   1 254 254 141 125   30  108  126 4.43   98
        W. Burnette     27   18  14   4    7   7   0 121 115  48  39   13   39   54 2.90  150
        L. Kretlow      35   25  20   3    5   8   0 119 121  75  70   17   74   61 5.29   82
        T. Herriage     25   31  16   1    2  11   0 103 135  83  76   16   64   59 6.64   65
        D. Marlowe      27   24  13   2    2   6   0  83 116  68  63   11   39   35 6.83   64
        D. Maas         27   21  12   0    0   7   0  69  93  59  53   11   34   36 6.91   63
        J. McMahan*     23   23   9   0    1   4   0  62  69  40  33    7   31   13 4.79   91
        J. Santiago     27    9   5   0    1   2   0  22  36  26  20    8   17    9 8.18   53

        H. Freeman      27   64   0   0   11   8  11 109 113  49  45    2   41   51 3.72  117
        J. Crimian      30   48  13   0    4   8   1 129 134  90  82   20   47   57 5.72   76
        B. Shantz*      30   45   2   1    3   6   7 101  95  51  49   12   37   67 4.37   99
        P. LaPalme*     32   29   0   0    2   2   1  46  32  15  13    2   28   22 2.54  171
        T. Lasorda*     28   18   5   0    0   3   1  45  40  38  31    6   45   28 6.20   70
        S. Dixon        31   18   0   0    2   1   1  29  29  15  11    4   13   11 3.41  127

        Others                   11   1    2   6   0  75  80  61  55   12   62   31 6.60   66

        Total                   154  26   55  99 23 1367 1462 859 765 171  679  660 5.04   86

        * Throws left

Some of those tossed headlong into the fray thrive, including Skizas, Williams and the midseason pitching acquisition Burnette. Another pitcher, 27-year-old sophomore Art Ditmar, handles a withering workload with commendable effectiveness.

But many others fail to take advantage of their opportunities, including catcher Porter, and pitchers Crimian, Herriage and Maas. Veteran role players Abrams and Kretlow are less than solid. Marlowe takes a distinct u-turn from his 1955 showing.

Add it all up and we’re in last place again. In no meaningful way are we any better or worse than the actual last-place 1956 Athletics. If we’ve learned anything after these first two seasons, it’s that the challenge we’ve created for ourselves ain’t easy.

Next time

We’ll see if we can find the stairs leading out of the basement.

References & Resources
* Unlike current-day rules, which require each team to cut down to a 25-man active major league roster as of Opening Day, in this period the rules allowed teams to carry up to 28 players for the first 31 days following their first game. Thus the final “cut-down day” took place in mid-May, and is the explanation for countless releases, waiver claims, and other transactions that occurred in the early weeks of May in the 1940s/’50s/’60s.

Joseph L. Reichler, The Baseball Trade Register, New York: MacMillan, 1984, p. 349.

Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986, New York: Ballantine, 1986, pp. 39-41.

Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, New York: Fireside, 2006, p. 84.

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, but it was vastly more convoluted and intertwined than that term implies—is found in The Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New York, by Neil J. Sullivan, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 83-90.

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Comments

  1. mando3b said...

    It’s occurred to me that if the records of Barry Bonds, Mark Mcgwire, et al., are going to get asterisked, the pennants/World Series of the Yankees between 1956 and 1962 should, as well. I mean, them getting away with using the A’s as their personal farm club is arguably worse than individual players loading up with steroids, in my opinion.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    In my opinion the near-syndicate relationship between the Yankees and Athletics in this period was a vastly worse undermining of the integrity of the sport than players using PEDs.

  3. Paul G. said...

    Oh, this is going to be fun.

    Before you put any asterisks next to the 1956-1962 Yankees, it would be interesting to discover how good the Yankees would have been without Kansas City feeding them talent.  That might be an interesting follow-up project to this one.  The Yanks were absolutely stacked with talent so it is quite possible that if all the trades were disallowed the Yankees would still have won.

    And if you are going to be throwing around star punctuation, you want to start with the 1899 Brooklyn squad and then mark up the 1901-1903 Pirates (and probably the 1909 team as well).  That would be another interesting project.  Who wins in 1899 and 1900 without the syndicates?  1900 might be very difficult, given that if there is no syndicates there would be a bevy of available talent from Baltimore and Cleveland that could have technically gone anywhere.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    Very interesting thoughts.

    For sure, the Yankees were so loaded with talent that even without the sweetheart deals with the A’s, they’d have continued to win pennants.  But they wouldn’t have been as dominant as they were, especially—as we’ll be seeing—into the early 1960s.

  5. mando3b said...

    Interesting ideas re: the syndicates at the turn of the 20th century. It has always struck me as terribly unfair that people so gleefully mock the 1899 Cleveland Spiders as the “worst team in MLB history”: the Fighting Arachnids were close to being a powerhouse in the 1890s NL, and the only reason they tanked so bad in 1899 is that the Robisons sent all their best players to what had been an awful St. Louis team.

  6. Matthew Namee said...

    This is great stuff, Steve.

    Back in that ‘86 Abstract, Bill James questioned how much those Yankees-A’s trades actually hurt the A’s:

    “In truth, how damaging these trades were is not absolutely clear. The group of players who had played well with the A’s—[Bob] Cerv, [Harry] Simpson, [Bud] Daley, etc.—were mostly players of marginal value who had one bright fling with the Athletics, and did very little to help the Yankees (or anybody else) after their trades. As for the trades of younger players like [Roger] Maris, [Clete] Boyer, and [Ralph] Terry, the A’s also received some good young players from the Yankees, including their two best players of the early sixties, Norm Siebern and Jerry Lumpe, and two other players that they gave up when they acquired Maris [from the Indians], Vic Power and Woodie Held. Terry was a big winner with the Yankees, but I doubt that he would have been much had he stayed in Kansas City.”

    I have a feeling your exercise will show just how much those deals hurt the A’s.

  7. AaronB said...

    To build on what Mando3b said…The Robinson brothers owned the Cleveland Spyders…then bought the St. Louis NL team (now the Cards).  So they actually owned two NL teams at the same time.  The St.Louis team had been a powerhouse in the old American Association, which was a ML at the time, but their move to the NL in 1892 hadn’t gone well at all.  Enter the Robinson’s who believed that a team would do better in St.Louis than Cleveland.  St. Louis was the 4th largest city in the US at the time which I’d guess played into their decision.  They kept the best St. Louis players in St. Louis, and then shipped Cleveland’s best players to St.Louis.  The St.Louis team became respectable, but not a winner.  Cleveland?  With nothing but the leftovers, they became the worst team in ML history.  So, the idea of cozy relationships between two ML teams has long been in existence.

  8. Steve Treder said...

    “I have a feeling your exercise will show just how much those deals hurt the A’s.”

    The intent of this exercise is to test exactly that.  (Well, not only the sweetheart deals with the Yankees, but also assuming the A’s were smarter in their dealings with other clubs as well.)

  9. Steve Treder said...

    “So, the idea of cozy relationships between two ML teams has long been in existence.”

    It has, but the syndicates that operated in the National League in the 1890s were scandalous.  It was believed by many at the time that they nearly destroyed the league, and it was for that reason that when major league baseball reorganized after the turn of the 20th century (setting up the National Association structure that became the basis of “Organized Baseball” essentially as it remains today), syndicated ownerships of two or more franchises within a league were expressly banned.

    That was what was so questionable about the relationship between Johnson and Webb/Topping:  they were effectively business partners in many different realms (for instance, when the K.C. ballpark was remodeled to major league standards for 1955, it was Webb’s construction company that got the contract), and the American League truly shouldn’t have allowed Johnson to own and operate the A’s.

  10. Paul G. said...

    On the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, the common description of the St. Louis/Cleveland syndicate scheme is Cleveland’s best players were sent to St. Louis and St. Louis sent its leftovers to Cleveland.  This is not quite accurate.  St. Louis was not given the best Cleveland players but ALL of the Cleveland players and vice-versa.  Basically the two franchises were swapped, down to Cleveland playing in old St. Louis uniforms with the insignia removed but still “visible” from prior indentations.  (The favorite St. Louis team got new uniforms).

    There were a few players that remained on their original team.  St. Louis retained the services of Jake Stenzel, one of their starting outfielders and the second best hitter on the team (a low standard, admittedly), but he did not play much in 1899 (why I don’t know) in favor of Cleveland transplant Harry Blake.  The Spiders were allowed to keep three players: Chief Zimmer (38-year-old catcher who was holding out), Sport McAllister (super-sub who could play every position including catcher and pitcher, which was good since he did not do anything else well), and Louis “Chief” Sockalexis (a Native American who seemed like a superstar in the making in 1897, but an injury and/or booze had resulted in a horrible 1898, and no one was even sure if he would show up).  The 1899 Spiders would have been better off with Stenzel, given that the awful Sport McAllister was made the starting right fielder, but that only made them a bit worse than the 1898 Browns which had gone 39-111.  Cleveland was also without the 1898 Browns best pitcher Jack Taylor (“best” being defined as a 15-29 record which a near league average ERA), but he was on Cincinnati, not St. Louis.  I don’t know what happened with Taylor or if the syndicate scheme had anything to do with it.

    Now, after the season started things did get worse.  St. Louis poached Lave Cross (Cleveland’s best hitter and fielder, plus their manager) and Willie Sudhoff (Cleveland’s opening day starter) in exchange for a couple of guys that St. Louis couldn’t use.  That hurt a lot.  But what really seemed to turn the Spiders from a very, very bad team to a historically awful team is the Robisons’ seeming indifference if not outright hostility.  On one day they released half the pitching staff (plus Zimmer who was batting .342 at the time).  To fill in that gaping hole in the roster, they signed a proven failure in “Crazy” Schmit, and Harry Colliflower, whose main selling point was he was friends with one of the players.  When Ossee Schrecongost, one of those guys thrown in the Cross/Sudhoff “trade”, actually succeeded in Cleveland, St. Louis took him back, leaving the team with only one real catcher for a while.  But what seems most damning is most of the players on the Spiders were basically useless.  If the Robisons wanted to use Cleveland as a farm team, they could have at least went out and signed some minor league prospects of some value to fill it out.  The team would have probably been significantly better rather than sending completely washed up veterans and never-weres out there every day.

  11. AaronB said...

    Thanks for the further info Paul.

    Steve:  when thing I’ve toyed around with is the idea of what if Branch Rickey had stayed with the St Louis Browns, instead of going to the Cards?  I’ve long thought that premise could make an interesting book because it could have influenced much of baseball as we know it. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually take a crack at it. 

    For those who don’t realize, Ricky actually worked for the Browns, and at the time, the Browns were the more popular team in St.Louis.  The Browns had some nice young talent at the time, most notably George Sisler, and into the early 20’s, were a very solid franchise.

  12. Steve Treder said...

    Very interesting indeed.  The Browns, in fact, owned Sportsmans Park; the Cardinals were their tenants.  The rent the Browns collected from the Cardinals was probably the single thing that kept the threadbare Browns franchise alive through their lean years of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s.

  13. Philip said...

    Looks like another good ‘what-if’ series in the making.

    While we know the Athletics will certainly be better, the big question is what will be the effect on the rest of the American League if Steve’s time-machine voids the uncompetitive wheeling and dealing between the NY-KC axis and will that be enough to dethrone the Yankees from a few flags?

    Will Maz still hit that shot in 1960 or will the Bucs be playing the Birds instead? Does Norm Cash get to bring his corked bat to the 1961 series? Will it be Killebrew vs. Mays for a 1962 World Series version of Home Run Derby?

    Looking a few years beyond 1962… will the Chisox end the Black Sox curse 41 years ahead of schedule?

    But if the Cardinals still win the ‘64 Series, will rookie outfielder Rick Monday step in nicely for an injured Tony Conigliaro and help led the Red Sox over St. Louis in the 1967 World Series?

    (Yes, had to get that one in since an improved KC club won’t be last in ‘65 and therefore won’t be drafting first. The inept Mets will likely still draft Les Rohr and the pitching-poor Senators still draft Joe Coleman. Then again, if Washington inks Monday, imagine that young talent being looked after by manager Ted Williams.)

  14. ksw said...

    very nice piece on the a’s, and tangentially, the yankees, indians, white sox.
    looking at the al during the late forties till the early sixties, wow, what a job stengel did.
    year-in, year-out, that teamed fielded five really (pitchers included) good major league players; five major leaguers, and a whole bunch of dross.
    somehow, the manager, berra, and mantel, whipped home a quad a team to lots of pennants (yanks 1949-60, possibly the fourth best team in the nl, more likely, the fifth best).
    talk about managing to the level needed to advance.

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