Kansas City’s sports fans might be forgiven for overlooking or choosing to forget that American League baseball did not begin in their city with the Royals in 1969. But before the Kansas City Royals, there were the Kansas City Athletics. The unillustrious A’s did not stay long, yet their thirteen seasons in Missouri embodied baseball’s expansion into truly nationwide major leagues and added a poignant chapter to its lore on hapless teams.
In the early months of 1953, the major leagues could look back on half a century of remarkable stability. The American and National Leagues each consisted of the same eight teams that had taken the field since 1901, when the American League was formed, and no team had relocated to a different city since 1903. Yet neither league had a team farther west or south than St. Louis. In the prosperous era following World War II, new population centers and faster transportation forged economic incentives that beckoned the major leagues to become more national in scope. From 1953 to 1969, six of the sixteen original teams left old markets for greener pastures and eight new teams were formed through two rounds of expansion, stretching major-league baseball from coast to coast and even into Canada. The transformation began with the National League’s Braves, who abandoned Boston for Milwaukee at the start of the 1953 season; a year later the American League’s Browns followed suit, leaving St. Louis for Baltimore. In late 1954 the Athletics became the third team to move, exiting Philadelphia to stake their claim on Kansas City.
Owned and managed for nearly their entire existence by the legendary Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics won five World Series in their first thirty seasons and are still remembered for the dynasty Mack built in the late 1920s and early 1930s with Hall of Famers such as Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane. But the last American League pennant had come in 1931, and the franchise had fallen on hard times. After Mack, eighty-seven years old, retired as manager following the 1950 season, the team veered toward bankruptcy. Last in the majors in both wins and attendance in 1954, the A’s were so depleted that other American League owners urged Mack to sell the team. He and his three sons, the Athletics’ other principal owners, were ready to comply.
Some ownership groups surfaced that wanted to keep the team in Philadelphia, while others sought to move the Athletics to Dallas, Minneapolis, or Los Angeles, none of which yet had major-league baseball. The winning bidder, however, was Arnold Johnson, a Chicago businessman with a talent for exploiting loopholes in the capital gains tax to revitalize run-down corporations. Sensing an opportunity in baseball, Johnson, already a business partner with New York Yankees co-owners Del Webb and Dan Topping, had engineered an intricate deal in 1953 in which he bought Yankee Stadium from Webb and Topping and then leased it back to them, with both sides profiting due in good part to the tax advantages the arrangement secured. As part of the deal, Johnson also bought the stadium of the Yankees’ top minor-league club, the Kansas City Blues. With a sale of the Athletics becoming increasingly likely, Johnson struck another deal in Kansas City in which the city would buy Blues Stadium from him, increase its seating capacity, and provide financial incentives virtually guaranteeing him an initial profit if he succeeded in buying the A’s and moving them to Missouri. With that deal in hand, Johnson made no secret of his plans to move the team to Kansas City. Owners of some of the other American League teams resisted the move, believing the other cities competing for the Athletics, all with larger populations, offered more promising markets. Even more contentious was Johnson’s cozy relationship with Webb and Topping—a circumstance that would give rise to more controversy later. But with Johnson agreeing to sell Yankee Stadium and divest himself from the Yankees, the league’s owners approved the sale of the Athletics to him on November 8, 1954.
Kansas City sprang into action, using a $2 million bond issue to get Blues Stadium ready for major-league baseball in time for the 1955 season. The stadium, opened in 1923 at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and East Twenty-Second Street, had served as the home of not only the Blues but also the Kansas City Monarchs, the city’s famed Negro Leagues team. The Yankees relocated the Blues to Denver, while the Monarchs, victims of baseball’s integration begun in 1947, could not afford the higher cost of playing in an American League stadium and essentially disbanded (a remnant of the team under a new owner moved on to Grand Rapids, Michigan). The ballpark was renamed Municipal Stadium. It needed more seats, more parking, and other renovations. The addition of a second deck increased seating capacity to more than 30,000, but Municipal Stadium was still the smallest ballpark in the majors, and Kansas City the smallest city.
What the city lacked in size, it tried to make up in enthusiasm. Preseason ticket sales were brisk—the Athletics would finish 1955 with season attendance of just under 1.4 million, second in the major leagues only to the Yankees. When the players and coaches arrived in town for Opening Day, a crowd estimated by the Kansas City Star at 200,000 flocked downtown for a parade honoring the team. Former president Harry S. Truman threw out the first pitch at the season opener on April 12, a 6–2 victory over the Detroit Tigers. With strong performances by All-Star first baseman Vic Power and power-hitting outfielder Gus Zernial, the team ended the year in sixth place, an improvement on its gloomy final years in Philadelphia. Coupled with the good attendance, it was cause for mild optimism that the A’s were headed in the right direction.
But while attendance hovered between 900,000 and just over a million for the next several years, on the field, the team failed to improve during the Arnold Johnson era. The Athletics finished last in the American League in 1956 and next to last in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Meanwhile, Johnson’s dealings with his former business partners in New York sowed disenchantment among Kansas City fans. From 1955 to 1959, the A’s and Yankees made an astounding sixteen trades involving sixty-one players (by comparison, the teams made only two trades with each other in the five seasons before Johnson became an owner). The transactions were often lopsided in the Yankees’ favor, helping them continue their run of dominance over the American League from the 1950s into the 1960s. The 1961 Yankees, widely considered one of the best teams in baseball history, had ten former A’s on their roster, including starting third baseman Clete Boyer, star pitcher Ralph Terry, and, most notably, outfielder Roger Maris, who hit a then-record 61 home runs in 1961 and won his second straight American League Most Valuable Player award. Furious owners of other teams, not to mention fans of the A’s and every other team that was not the Yankees, accused Johnson of running the Athletics as a de facto farm club that funneled fresh talent to New York and helped them win pennants year after year. Though Johnson protested he was committed to building a winner in Kansas City, one rival, Bill Veeck, who between stints as an owner of other teams had tried unsuccessfully to buy the Athletics in 1954, speculated that Johnson had no wish to stay long in Missouri, but merely expected to profit for a few years from the concessions Kansas City had given him before moving the team to a more lucrative market. Whether or not these suspicions were justified, Johnson’s long-term plans went unrealized after he died suddenly on March 9, 1960, at the age of fifty-three.
Once again the team went up for sale, with no guarantee that it would remain in Kansas City. An announcement in August 1960 that the major leagues would expand over the next two years from sixteen to twenty teams eased some of the competition from other cities, but concerned civic leaders in Kansas City still came together to make an offer for the Athletics that would ensure the team stayed in town. The group struggled to raise funds, however, and was outbid by Charles O. Finley, a Chicago-based insurance company magnate who had been trying to buy a team for several years, including a failed bid for the A’s six years earlier.
Though viewed with suspicion as an outsider, Finley at first soothed Kansas Citians by seeming to commit to keeping the Athletics in town. A man with a thirst for publicity stunts, Finley signaled his commitment before the 1961 season by staging a show of burning a stadium lease agreement with an out clause allowing him to relocate if season attendance dipped below 850,000. He also staged a bus burning to symbolize the shuttling of players from Kansas City to New York was over, declaring, “Kansas City will no longer be regarded as a Yankee farm team.” By midseason, however, Finley’s relationship with the fans, the city, and his own employees was already deteriorating. Controlling and mercurial, he bickered with city officials over spending on stadium improvements, sparred with the local press, and meddled and fought with the general manager he had just hired, Frank Lane, and the manager, Joe Gordon, before firing each of them during the season.
The situation soured further when Ernie Mehl, longtime sports editor and columnist at the Kansas City Star, reported on August 17 that the preseason lease burning had been a ruse, with Finley setting fire to office stationery while keeping the lease agreement intact. Mehl also wrote that Finley was resisting renewing the lease, which was set to expire at the end of 1963, and, most damaging, that he had engaged in talks with Dallas officials about moving the team to Texas. The ill will stemming from Finley’s duplicity, coupled with another bad team in 1961 (the Athletics lost 100 games and finished in ninth place), caused season attendance to plummet to just 684,000. A vicious circle began in which Finley demanded every season that the city build a better stadium so he could increase attendance or else he would move the team, while city officials countered that he needed to affirm his commitment to Kansas City and win more games before getting a new stadium. More acrimony came when city council members ratified a lease extension in April 1963, only to have a new council that took office later in the year void the agreement before it went into effect. Before the start of the 1964 season, Finley did renew his lease with Municipal Stadium for four more years, but not without a lot of pressure from the other American League owners; meanwhile, he continued courting civic leaders in other cities and sought the league’s permission to move elsewhere.
The Athletics remained a listless team in the first half of the 1960s, finishing ninth in the ten-team American League in 1962, eighth in 1963, and last in 1964 and 1965. Trades for veteran sluggers Jim Gentile and Rocky Colavito brought a surge in home runs in 1964, but the team still lost 105 games, and Gentile and Colavito were both gone in trades the following season. Attendance mirrored the team’s place in the standings, never rising higher than eighth in the league and sinking to a low of 528,344 in 1965, an average of barely 6,500 per game.
What little attention the A’s received often came from Finley’s penchant for promotional gimmicks, which sometimes bordered on the bizarre. At Municipal Stadium, Finley, an animal lover, instituted Harvey the mechanized “rabbit,” which popped up from a hole behind home plate to deliver fresh baseballs to umpires while “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” played over the public address system. He also installed goats and sheep to keep the grass trimmed on the hill behind the right-field fence and built a zoo with monkeys and other exotic animals in the picnic area for the enjoyment of children (and, one guesses, himself). By 1965 the zoo featured a stable for Charlie O., a Missouri mule, which Finley insisted replace the team’s traditional mascot of an elephant. Charlie O. figured in several escapades during the 1965 season, including a slapstick altercation in Chicago when Finley snuck another mule onto the field during a game at Comiskey Park after White Sox owner Arthur Allyn forbade him from bringing the team mascot to the stadium. In 1963, Finley replaced the A’s classic road grays and home whites with new uniforms in his favorite colors of green and gold. Baseball traditionalists as well as many of his own players considered the uniforms garish, but green and gold became permanent as the team’s colors.
In one area, Finley’s Athletics excelled: developing a productive minor-league system. Led in this effort by minor-league director and then general manager Hank Peters, the A’s began stockpiling talent in the minors, beginning with shortstop Bert Campaneris in 1962 and continuing through 1967 with other future stars such as third baseman Sal Bando, pitchers Jim “Catfish” Hunter, John “Blue Moon” Odom, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue, and outfielders Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson. Each of these players would be named league All-Stars more than once, and Hunter, Fingers, and Jackson made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. They would form the core of a team that won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974, but by then they no longer played in Kansas City.
Yet most of them made their major-league debuts in Kansas City uniforms. As the wave of young talent began reaching the majors, the 1966 team featured a starting pitcher rotation with an average age of twenty-one. The young pitchers led the A’s to a record of 74–86, the franchise’s highest win total in Kansas City, reaching that mark by playing above .500 for the second half of the season. Attendance rebounded to 773,929, although that was still just ninth-best in the American League. The team was unable to continue its promising performance in 1967, however, dropping back to last place with a 62–99 record.
The 1967 season might have been doomed from the start by the looming expiration of the stadium lease signed under duress four years earlier, which brought uncertainty that the A’s would still be in Kansas City in 1968. Plans were under way by 1967 to build the twin stadiums that became Arrowhead and Royals Stadium (later Kauffman Stadium), but Finley refused to commit himself. He opened discussions with Kansas City officials in July, but also ratcheted up the pressure by holding talks with Milwaukee, Seattle, and Oakland, California, about moving the team. Efforts to find a local buyer for the Athletics went nowhere; Finley didn’t want to sell. In September, Finley notified the city that he would not be renewing the lease on Municipal Stadium. On October 12 he announced his plan to move the team to Oakland.
Relocating the team was subject to a vote by the American League owners, who met on October 18, 1967, with two pressing agenda items: the Athletics, and expansion of the league to twelve teams. Kansas City’s supporters included Stuart Symington, US senator from Missouri, who threatened congressional hearings to potentially revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption if the American League allowed Finley to move the team. Knowing they could face legal as well as political trouble if Kansas City lost its baseball team, yet not wanting to prolong the failed relationship between the city and Finley, the league’s owners looked to expansion for a way out. Approving Finley’s move to Oakland, they also accelerated their expansion plans, announcing Kansas City would be awarded a new team that would begin play in 1969. It was a victory, but Symington, only partially mollified, still excoriated Finley on the floor of the Senate, calling him “one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene,” then adding, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”
Whether “disreputable” or merely a hard-nosed businessman, Finley followed a strategy that came to be widely adopted by team owners across professional sports during the late twentieth century: use the threat of relocation to extract every concession from the cities that hosted them. For Kansas City, Finley’s departure ironically paved the way for a better team under a local and more compatible owner. After a one-year hiatus from the major leagues, Kansas City returned in 1969 with the Royals, purchased by Marion Laboratories CEO Ewing Kauffman. A model expansion team, the Royals posted their first winning record in 1971, moved to a new stadium, which could have been Finley’s, in 1973, and supplanted the Oakland A’s at the top of the American League West division standings in 1976. In that same year Municipal Stadium, now vacant, was demolished. With it went one of the last tangible reminders of Kansas City’s ill-fated first major-league team.
Green, G. Michael, and Roger D. Launius. Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman. New York: Walker & Co., 2010.
Katz, Jeff. The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees: How the Yankees Controlled Two of the Eight American League Teams during the 1950s. Hingham, MA: Maple Street Press, 2007.
Mehl, Ernest. The Kansas City Athletics. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1956.
Michelson, Herbert. Charlie O: Charles Oscar Finley versus the Baseball Establishment. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.
“Oakland Athletics Team History and Encyclopedia.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/OAK/.
Peterson, John E. The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History, 1954–1967. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
Published March 28, 2023; Last updated April 5, 2023
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