During those years, baseball fan emotions bounced from joyous to tumultuous to downright silly at times, but there’s no doubt the A’s moving to Kansas City from Philadelphia changed the city’s image from a cowtown to a metropolis.
“Well, we had a big parade, had a big crowd, drew a big crowd. It was a very exciting time for us to get a major league team,” says former Mayor Charles Wheeler. “It helped get the Chiefs, it helped get the Scouts, the hockey team. And we got a basketball team. So we became a major league city with four different professional franchises. That was the beginning and it all resulted in the fact that we supported the team.”
To be honest, cowtown wasn’t the only image of K.C. before the A’s moved 1,500 miles west, the first major league team to really jump the Mississippi. It was a town known for political bossism with the Pendergast machine. A Mafia town with the growing and influential Civella family. A wide open city that was a playground for bank robbers on holiday and gave the country the Union Station Massacre. It’s image was anything but metropolitian.
That all changed when the A’s flew into town to open the 1955 season.
“When they did come into Kansas City, they were flying into the downtown airport. They see so many people celebrating that they made the, the plane circle the city several times just to see how excited the fans were in Kansas City for them to be here. And it lifted the spirits of the players,” says Jeff Logan, president of the Kansas City Baseball Historical Societ.
Sure the Kansas City fans loved the A’s move but what did the players who moved with the team from Philadelphia think?
“Well, I think the overall attitude was great,” according to Gus Zernial, a power hitter who made the transition from Philadelphia. Zernial spent three years in Kansas City, leading the team in homers two of those years. “The players wanted to move out of Philadelphia because playing before a small crowds and most of theem were booing no matter what kind of a year you had. We just couldn’t win and I don’t think we had a winning attitude. And that attitude changed greatly when we got to Kansas City with all the players.”
I should mention that these A’s interviews were done many years ago for a documentary film that has yet to be finished, so some of the folks you’ll hear from in the series have died. Zernail is one. He died in 2011 at age 87.
Clearly Kansas City had a long history with baseball. The Monarchs, of course, were the Yankees of Negro League Baseball and professional baseball stretched back to the 1880s. Fan Paul Blackman remembers how sports just felt different once the A’s were in town.
“ I can remember one of my first times at the stadium, a Saturday afternoon sitting up in the upper deck on a cold April day and the White Sox scored about 29 runs. But, they were our team and it was exciting and so that got me hooked. Going to A’s games was something that our family did, my sister, my parents. So it was um, it was a family love affair and an interest and there were some years when we would go 30 or 40 games a year. I’m a big Royals fan now. But, there’s always been a special place in my heart for the A’s because they were the, the team of my childhood.”
It was the team of my childhood too. My first big league game was at Municipal Stadium at 22nd and Brooklyn.
While the Yankees and A’s owner Arnold Johnson were sceaming to get the team out of Philadelphia, lots of people in Kansas City were, indeed, working to lure them here. The city sold bonds to add an upper deck to the ballpark. This turned out to be part of the caper to by the Yankees to get the A’s to Kansas City. The massive construction project was awarded to the constuction company controled by Yankee owner Del Webb.
Kansas City promised to put a million people in the stands, so backers had to sell a lot of season tickets. My dad knew nothing about sports, but he was a downtown business owner and as such felt obligated to buy four box seats, in the front row, right behind the hometeam dugout.
Carl barley knew the difference between a homerun and a hotdog, but he could pick out seats. And because he, and so many others on both sides of stateline, bought season tickets, the city would change its image and change big league baseball’s footprint in America.
Now when the A’s came to Kansas City the color barrier in the major leagues had only been broken nine years earlier by Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn. In fact, when the A’s played their first game in K.C. in 1955 the Tigers, Phillies and Red Sox were still all white. But the A’s would quietly lead the way in intrigrating the game.
Harry “Suitcase” Simpson and Vic Power led the way for black players not only in Kansas City but in the American League.
That’s in our next installment of Archiver: The A’s in Kansas City.