Most people assign that distinction either to the old Washington Senators (3 pennants, 1 world championship in nearly 60 years) or to the St. Louis Browns (1 pennant in more than 50 years). While the Athletics enjoyed success in Philadelphia (9 pennants, 5 world championships) and in Oakland (6 pennants, 4 world championships), during their 13 year stay in Kansas City they proved totally inept. They never finished higher than 6th in the American League, their first year in KC, and finished in the cellar 5 times. For my money, during the 13 year period the Athletics were in Kansas City they well may be the worst team in the history of Major League Baseball.
And these were not the New York Mets of the early 1960s, lovable losers who captured the hearts of fans and finally achieved redemption by miraculously winning the World Series in 1969 over a heavily favored Baltimore Orioles team. They were an embarrassment to the American League and scaled new heights in dishonor on the field. Actually, the story of the Athletics in Kansas City is really one about exploits off the field well. The business of baseball is critical to understanding this history, for it shows much about how MLB teams are organized and promoted, and winners are built.
Arnold Johnson bought the Athletics from Connie Mack and moved them to Kansas City for the 1955 season. The team then began making so many trades with the New York Yankees, including the famous deal that sent Roger Maris to the Yankees in time to win MVP awards in 1960 and 1961 and to hit *61 homers in 1961. As another example, in 1957 the Yankees sent pitcher Ralph Terry to the Athletics and then two years later got him back in a second trade. Terry then went on to help the Yankees win five straight pennants between 1960 and 1964.
Additionally, Enos Slaughter did not fit into Yankee plans in 1955, so off he went to Kansas City for a year, and then right back to the Yankees in time to play on three pennant winners. But these famous transactions tell very little about Johnson’s success in the trade market. In all, Johnson made sixteen trades with the Yankees in five years, involving sixty-seven players. Most of these trades, when using the Bill James “Win Shares” system, turned out relative well, a trade record of 1,572-1,109 that was impressive. What he did in trading with the most successful organization in baseball was t help his own cause.
What Johnson failed to do, A’s historian John E. Peterson writes in his very fine book, The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History, 1954-1967 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2003), was to develop a farm system that could produce quality major leaguers. He comments, “During this same period [as the trades with the Yankees] the Athletics produced only one player, Lou Klimchock, who became an everyday player in the major leagues….These trades, especially the trades with the Yankees, were blamed for the team’s poor record, but the real reason the team failed to improve during the Johnson era was the failure of the Athletics minor league system to produce major league players.” (p. 288).
After Arnold Johnson’s death in 1960 Charles O. Finley purchased the Athletics and his hijinks in Kansas City contributed to further A’s instability until he finally moved the team to Oakland after the 1967 season. Finley hated the stadium from the time he took over the team, and constantly sought to negotiate deals to get a new one either in Kansas City or elsewhere. He hated the baseball establishment which kept him from doing what he wanted with his team. He hated the local sportswriters, especially Ernie Mehl, whom he believed failed to give him fair treatment. He hated the local politicians who refused to give him largesse from the public coffers for his team. Needless to say, Finley wore out his welcome quickly.
Finley also steamrolled his employees on a regular basis. In 21 years as owner of the Athletics he went through nineteen managers (three of them twice), more than thirty coaches, and dozens of office employees and broadcasters. He was notoriously cheap, engaging in exceptionally public and enormously petty arguments with players over salaries. At the same time, if it was his idea, he could be outrageously generous. He would haggle in the most desperate manner with a player over $1,000 and then turn around and reward another a $25,000 bonus.
But Finley was also full of ideas, and he wanted everyone to hear them and to embrace them and feuded with those who dismissed them. In another strength of this book, Peterson discusses how Finley scrapped the standard issue home white and gray road flannels in favor of colorful uniforms for his players. Clothing them in his favorite colors of Kelly Green and Ft. Knox Gold, the Athletics were the subject of ridicule for years. Only in the 1970s did most of the other major league teams adopt colorful and unusual uniforms. He dressed young women on his ground crew in skimpy costumes.
He instituted a mechanical rabbit in Kansas City, complete with a little Athletics uniform, to deliver balls to the umpire during the game. He set up picnic tables beyond the outfield for fans to come and have supper. He placed lights in the dugout so that the fans could see what the team did there. He adopted several ideas from Bill Veeck, including an exploding scoreboard that launched fireworks whenever a Kansas City player hit a homerun. Finley’s innovations included the primetime World Series and the Designated Hitter rule, ideas that many consider unfortunate decisions for MLB.
Wherever Finley went he engendered contempt, or so it seemed. And he never seemed to mellow with age. In Kansas City in 1961 many people thought him a jerk. Twenty years later, when he finally sold his team in Oakland, many people still thought him a jerk.
But Finley did something very important, investing in the farm system to sign and develop good ballplayers. In Kansas City, and this may be Finley’s lasting contribution to the Athletics, acting essentially as his own general manager he signed the stars—especially Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, and others—that carried the Oakland A’s to three successive world championships between 1972 and 1974.
Throughout his ownership of the A’s in Kansas City Finley constantly tried to move them elsewhere. Additionally, Finley was always duplicitous about his commitment to Kansas City. Rumors circulated every year that Finley was moving the team, first to Dallas, then to Seattle, then to San Diego, then to “who knows where.” Finley always publicly denied these rumors, announcing his loyalty to Kansas City and to Missouri. All the while he was negotiating to move the team first to Dallas, then to Seattle, then to San Diego, then to “who knows where.”
He only stayed in Kansas City because every time he went to the league for approval to move the Athletics the other owners denied it; the vote was always 9-1. By the time of the departure of Finley’s Athletics, few mourned the loss. Missouri Senator Stuart Symington summed up the position of most Missourians about this move, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”
So, were the A’s the worst team in the American League during their Kansas City sojourn? You bet. I’m glad that they left and were replaced by the Royals. The Royals have had their ups and downs, but they had great teams in the 1970s and 1980s and again in the 2010s. It’s enough to make you forget about the Kansas City A’s.