Monday, May 14, 2012

Kansas City Athletics

Excluding the Seattle Pilots, who entered the American League in 1969 and left for Milwaukee one year later, the Kansas City Athletics had the shortest tenure in one city during the modern baseball era. An odd amalgam of names and an autographed baseball piqued my interest in this mostly forgotten team.

The Athletics – known colloquially as the A’s – were an original American League franchise in 1901. Owner Connie Mack would manage the team through 1950, dressed in a suit, tie and hat, for a record that certainly will never be broken. The A’s moved into Shibe Park, the first concrete-and-steel ballpark, in 1909. They shared the park with the Phillies beginning in 1938. The ballpark was renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953.

Connie Mack (center)

After the A’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1931 World Series, the team would never come close to contending for an American League pennant. In fact, quite often both Philadelphia teams finished in last place. The Phillies played in one World Series between 1915 and 1980. The A’s woeful record translated into dwindling attendance; from a record high of 954,076 in 1948, only 309,805 fans made it out to the ballpark on Lehigh Avenue two years later. Less than 400,000 showed up during the team’s last two years in Philadelphia.

Shibe Park, circa 1920

With baseball looking west – most particularly Los Angeles – Chicago investor and hotel magnate Arnold Johnson stepped up to purchase the A’s in late 1953. Disagreements within the Mack family (Connie would pass away in 1956) and high debt forced the sale to Johnson the following year. Johnson, who at the time owned Yankee Stadium and Blues Stadium, the home park for the Yankees’ Triple A Kansas City franchise, was a good friend of Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping. After getting the Macks’ approval, he acquired the team and announced its move to Kansas City (after selling Yankee Stadium). Some thought Kansas City would be a brief stop until the team moved to Los Angeles, but the Dodgers’ relocation from Brooklyn after the 1957 season ended that.

Arnold Johnson and President Harry Truman

The 1955 Kansas City A’s had nowhere to go but up. The 1954 Philadelphia A’s finished 51–103, in last place under manager Eddie Joost. No pitcher won more than 10 games and the staff ERA of 5.18 was a full run higher than the next worst team. The hitters fared just as poorly, with a league-worst batting average of .236, 10 points lower than the 7th place team. The home-run and RBI leaders had 15 and 62, respectively.

 1954 Philadelphia Athletics

Lou Boudreau, a University of Illinois contemporary of my father and player-manager for the World Series-winning Cleveland Indians in 1948, took over the reins at the newly minted Kansas City A’s for the 1955 season. His roster included these unique names, colorful nicknames and other notables.

  • Art Ceccarelli
  • Arnold Portocarrero
  • Ozzie Van Brabart (0-2 in 11 games over 2 seasons)
  • Gus Keriazakos (5 career games)
  • Bob Trice (A’s first black player, September 1953)
  • Marion Fricano (previous year almost killed White Sox infielder Cass Michaels with beanball)
  • Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell (two outs away from pitching two consecutive no-hitters in 1947)
  • Art Ditmar (pitched the last game at Shibe Park and would become one of many in the Yankees-K.C. exchange)

Arnold Portocarrero and Bob Trice 

  • Forrest “Spook” Jacobs (a nickname we will never see again)
  • Joe DeMaestri
  • Jerry Schypinski (22 career games, .217 batting average)
  • Harry “Suitcase” Simpson (nickname was not from being traded frequently)
  • Enos Slaughter (at the tail-end of his career, going from the Yankees to the A’s and back to the Yankees in a span of 15 months)
  • Elmer Valo (the greatest player born in Czechoslovakia)
  • Gus “Ozark Ike” Zernial (the team leader in ’55 with 30 home runs and 84 RBI)
  • Vic Power (second in the American League in ’55 with a .319 batting average)

 Forrest "Spook" Jacobs and Elmer Valo

Zernial and Power both became known for incidents involving the Yankees.

During spring training in California, Zernial, then with the White Sox, was asked by Twentieth Century Fox to take part in a publicity photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe. Recently retired Joe DiMaggio saw the photo and, considering Zernial a bush league player who had played in only one full season, the Yankee Clipper eventually got a date with Monroe and later married her. DiMaggio held a grudge against Zernial until the day he died for allegedly taking credit for arranging the date, which Zernial adamantly denied.

Gus Zernial (catching), Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dobson

Vic Power was the second black Puerto Rican in Major League Baseball (after pitcher Ruben Gomez) and was slated to be the first black player for the Yankees. He played in the Yankees’ farm system, including with the Kansas City Blues, from 1951 to 1953, registering impressive numbers along the way. The team, however, found Power too flamboyant for the very staid ownership and shipped him to the A’s in an 11-player deal before the 1954 season. Elston Howard broke the Yankees’ color line in 1955.

Vic Power

During the six years of Arnold Johnson’s ownership (he died suddenly in March 1960), the A’s and Yankees made 15 trades, some of them involving large numbers of players. The cozy relationship between ownerships is credited for this pipeline. In fact, the A’s were seen as an ersatz Yankees farm team, providing them with such players as Roger Maris, Art Ditmar, Clete Boyer and Ralph Terry. Also notable was the Yankees trading Billy Martin to the A’s in June 1957 after the infamous Copacabana incident. Martin has written on the heartbreak of the experience, which further cemented his desire to first and foremost be a Yankee.

Municipal Stadium

After Johnson’s death, Charles O. Finley, another Chicagoan, purchased the A’s and set forth to turn baseball upside down by its ears. Team attendance never exceeded 1 million after the second season in Kansas City, so it made sense to move the A’s to Oakland after the 1967 season. By then, the A’s had built a solid nucleus with Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom, and the former also-rans eventually won three consecutive World Series in the early 1970s.

Kansas City A's 1964 uniforms

My father’s cousin Rosalie traveled from New York to Chicago for a family function some time in the early 1960s. She was bringing an autographed baseball for my brother and me. Great anticipation and excitement awaited her visit, only to be disappointed as the red, white and blue Reach box contained a ball from the 1960 Kansas City Athletics. Much later I figured out that it had come from Johnson, who had been in a complex transaction with her husband and Arnold Kirkeby for the Warwick Hotel in New York. The now barely legible signatures for the last-place 58–95 A’s include Don Larsen, “Marvelous Marv” Throneberry, Hank Bauer and Dick Williams. It sits in a drawer next to a baseball personally autographed by Ernie Banks and four others retrieved before, during and after leaving a game (fouled off into the parking lot of Comiskey Park).

1960 Kansas City A's autographed baseball

1 comment:

  1. Vic Power was seen dating a white woman down in Florida during spring training. That was too much for the Yankees, who quickly traded him to K.C.