Our story starts in Yankee Stadium on October 1, 1961. Phil Rizzuto is doing the game on WCBS radio and he’s about to call perhap the most important home run in baseball history.
It's the bottom of the fourth. On a 2-0 count, Rodger Marris hits home run number 61 off right hander Tracy Stallard, breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record.
“Hit deep to right, this could be it,” Rizzuto screamed into the mic. “Holy cow!”
While Yankee Stadium was delirious, you can’t help but think that A’s fans in Kansas City were lamenting over what could have been. Just a year earlier, Roger Maris was a Kansas City A.
“You have a club in Kansas City who is basically the kissing cousins of the Yankees,” says Philadelphia sports expert Mitch Nathanson. “Over the course of the next five, six years, I think there's 29, 30 trades between these two teams where all the good players are being groomed in Kansas City and sent to New York for either cash or really lopsided trades. And so Roger Maris and all these other players come over and they keep the dynasty going up through the early sixties. The Yankee Dynasty would have ended in the mid to late fifties if it wasn't for the Kansas City A's.”
In the 13 years the A’s were in Kansas City, they were simply terrible. The highest they ever finished was sixth place and that was in 1955, their first year in KC. The A’s worst year was 1964, they lost 105 games. They weren't the worst team in big league history, the ’62 New York Mets lost 120. A small consolation for young A’s fans such as myself.
While in Kansas City, A’s pitchers never threw a no hitter, A’s hitters never batted for the cycle. But the A’s didn’t get this dismal without some help. It all goes back to the New York Yankees, and the unholy alliance between Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping and their handpicked A’s owner Arnold Johnson.
“The 1960 season came along. Roger Maris still with the ball club. We started making some deals with the New York Yankees. Hector Lopez, Bob Cerv anybody that had any great ability. Vic Power. We moved them up to the New York Yankees” says famed Kansas City sportscaster Bill Grigsby who was part of the A’s broadcast team from 1959 to 1963 when he left to join the Chiefs. Turns out that trade for Roger Maris, a little sleazier than most knew at the time.
“I didn’t know at the time, but Arnold Johnson owed Del Webb some favors and some money from some construction deals they were in together. So he was sort of a hostage to Del Webb and whenever Del Webb needed a ball player who looked good, he’d pick up the phone, call the Athletic office and get a ballplayer. We became a farm club for the New York Yankees. Well, the Yankees wanted Roger Maris. Roger was in Cleveland so Arnold Johnson made a deal with Cleveland to get Roger Maris in Kansas City. Well, what they didn’t know when they traded him to the Kansas City Athletics was that Arnold Johnson (would send) Roger Maris to the New York Yankees.”
If the folks in Kansas City didn’t know it was one of the most lopsided trades of all time, everyone else knew it after the deal was struck in December, 1959. The New York Daily News called it a trade between the Yankees and their “Kansas City cousins.” Cleveland General Manage Frank Lane said the Maris deal was “morally wrong for baseball.” The AP wrote that the two teams were “old hands at swapping players.”
“It’s very true. During the time of Arnold Johnson’s ownership, which ended in March of 1960, upon his death, the Yankees and A’s made 16 trades. That was over 55 percent of all trades the Yankees made. In the five years before Arnold Johnson’s ownership, and in the five years after, the Yankees made very few trades with A’s ownership,” says A’s historian Bob Worthington. “Almost every trade is to the Yankee’s benefit and there are various themes to these trades. At the beginning, the Yankees sent a lot of washed up players to Kansas City. Ewell Blackwell, Johnny Sain, Enos Slaughter all end up in Kansas City by way of the Yankees.”
Another player that went to New York was third baseman Clete Boyer who would also be part of the menacing Yankee machine of the early 60s. Not all of the Yankees who came over to K.C. were dogs. Outfielders Norm Siebern and Bob Cerv would have very respectable careers. One of the best sports writers ever, Robert Creamer, tells a funny story about Cerv in the Ken Burns Baseball film.
One day Yankee skipper Casey Stengal sat down next to Cerv in the dugout. "There's not many people that know this, Casey said, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City." Cerv would go back to the Bronx and be there when Maris hit number 61.
While the the pipeline between 22nd and Brooklyn Avenue and Yankee Stadium exasperated most in organized baseball, it also caught the attention of the United States Senate.
The close relationship between the A’s and Yankees wasn’t the only reason the Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee called Major League Baseball before them on July 8th, 1958 but it was a major factor.
The panel was chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver from Tennessee, already famous for hauling mobsters before his committee in 1950 and ’51. One of the first committee field hearings, by the way, was in Kansas City on November 30th, 1950. Those hearing were tense, contentious and made the Fifth Amendment famous. The hearing on baseball, not so much. That was assured when the committee called Yankee manager Casey Stengel, called Casey because he was born in Kansas City in 1890.
Now Casey could certainly win baseball games, but he wasn’t the best person to testify about baseball and anti-trust issues. Nothing, as you might imagine, came of those hearings. Kefauver ran for vice president in 1960 with Adlai Stevenson on the top of the ticket. They lost to Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. After the sentate hearing, Casey and the Yanks finished third in 1959, but won the American League in 1960 largely because of the Roger Maris trade with the A’s.
But that pipeline that so benefited the Yankees suddenly and unexpectedly dried up on March 3rd, 1960. That’s when A’s owner Arnold Johnson died from a cerebral hemorraghe after watching a spring training game in West Palm Beach. The A’s were then bought by a man who dreamed of orange baseballs, white shoes and a mule named Charlie O.
“I don't think he ever watched the games when he was in Kansas City. He'd ride around all over the streets,” says Jeff Logan from the Kansas City Baseball Historical Society. “The fences would open and you could ride out onto the field, he would ride kids out on the field. One time he did it and he didn't even know the game and started.”
Charles O. Finley was one of the craziest owners in all of professional sports. So he gets the next two episodes of Archiver: The A’s in Kansas City.