Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History" -- Part I

The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History is an important part of the Athletics historical cannon; however, it is certainly not a beach book. Its length of 352 pages and academic writing style slow the casual reader down. In short, you will conk out a few pages in each night when reading before bed – making its completion a bit of an accomplishment.

One of the striking aspects of the book is that it makes the argument that the Kansas City/Arthur Johnson years were actually not effectively a time when the team served as a farm team for the New York Yankees, despite what many consider to be a series of one-sided trades, including shipping out a young Roger Maris. Author John E. Peterson contends that the swaps were more balanced than the team is given credit for by critics, including Cooperstown, N.Y.'s mayor Jeff Katz who -- in an unofficial capacity -- authored a strong counterpoint with The Kansas City A's and the Wrong Half of the Yankees: How the Yankees Controlled Two of the Eight American League Franchises During the 1950s

The bookends of the book also perhaps the most critical sections – the final years of the Philadelphia incarnation and the birth of the Charlie Finley era. The remainder, a season-by-season recap, is important, but dry material.

(Author’s Note: I read this book on my Kindle, making citing pages virtually impossible.)

Early on, we get a peek into the last burning embers of the once-mighty Philadelphia Athletics. 
This passage, regarding the 1950s finances of the team was telling:

The indebtedness of the team was staggering. The team had not even paid for the uniforms worn by players during the previous season.

A last-ditch attempt to save the Athletics by a group of Philadelphia businessmen, in conjunction with one of Connie Mack’s sons, is mentioned. Curiously, the author suggests that Johnson’s bid was successful thanks to two seemingly non-material issues: 1) he was kind to Connie Mack’s chauffeur – who had been pressed into shuttling the frail Mack to an American League meeting regarding the franchise's fate – and; 2) the Kansas City group showed up for the definitive meeting with Mack one hour earlier than scheduled. Johnson slipped a fifty dollar bill to the chauffeur and was granted access to Mack before the Philadelphia contingent. Of course, the story is more intricate, but this aspect was particularly interesting.

Historical reports laud Johnson as a shrewd financier. Peterson writes:

...he was an individual who could arrange mutually profitable deals involving millions of dollars through the ingenious use of lease-backs, second mortgages, large cash loans and special stock issues without any individual investing much of his own money. 

Regarding the purchase of the Athletics, Peterson summed up the feeling at the time of the deal:

In Chicago financial quarters, the talk was that Johnson swung the Athletics deal without a dollar of fresh money appearing on the table.

In reality, Johnson likely spent slightly more that $570,000, as sums moved in both directions, including payments by the Phillies for Connie Mack Stadium and Kansas City for Johnson's minor league stadium in town.

What seems clear, however, is that Johnson was a savvy businessman who did get a very good deal for the Athletics. (One thing to bear in mind is that if the Philadelphia contingent was successful in gaining control of the team, they would have been on the hook for the mortgage at Connie Mack Stadium and would not have received a pay-out from the Phillies for the facility.)

Six years later Charlie Finely purchased the Athletics for $4 million, a valuation that meant Johnson's Kansas City investor group reaped a 400 percent return on their investment.

When Finley Comes to Town

Of more interest to Oakland Athletics fans are the Charlie Finley origins. Charlie O. always talked a very good game, for instance, after purchasing the team:

"My intentions are to keep the A's permanently in Kansas City and build a winning ballclub....I have no intention of ever moving the franchise. I will spend any reasonable amount of money to get the Athletics into the first division....I believe the Athletics can be built up, but that will take money....I am not interested in capital gains, nor am I a fast-buck man."

Some of Finley's early plans included a sizable direct-mail campaign and offering, then-innovative, nine-game plans.

Much like what unfolded in Oakland, in 1962,, two years after his purchase, Finley was grumbling about attendance and was making eyes with a new city:

Reports indicated that Finely still wanted to move the team to Dallas. Before the season started, city councilman Charles Shafer was told Finfley refused to consider a two-year contract to broadcast the A's games because the team would move to Dallas after the 1962 season.

Finley formally applied to the league to move the team on May 18, 1962, but was denied as the American League meeting called was to discuss plans to aid the minor leagues, not relocation, thus making him out of order. A furious Finley issued his grievance to the media:

"Those goddam club owners think they can keep me from moving the team. I'll show them a thing or two. I've got some tricks I haven't used yet. My lawyers tell me they can't keep me in Kansas City, some kind of antitrust crap."

Beyond attendance, Finley's issues in Kansas City included parking, access roads, and concession problems.

The answer for Finley was a for the city council to submit a general obligation bond issue that would fund a 50,000 seat stadium with 15,000 parking spaces. For Athletics fans, this ultimate by Finley feels timeless:

"Unless Kansas City is willing to start action for a new and modern stadium, its days as a major league city are numbered. The present stadium is the worst in the major leagues in many respects."

Finley's grumblings did not lead to an immediate bond being floated, but did yield action in the form of feasibility (remodeling/parking additions/new stadium) studies and served as the origin

Birth of Green-and-Gold

In 1963, one of the on-the-field developments was that Finley put the lats names of players on jerseys, something that had not happened since the team's inception in 1901. However, this proved to be a one-year fad, with a twist -- Finley printed abbreviated names such as "Cooz" (Wayne Causey) and "Hawk" (Ken Harrelson).

Of greater historical importance, 1963 marked the launch of the Athletics current color scheme -- green-and-gold, The '63 squad donned vests in the "Kelly green"/"Fort Knox gold" variant. Peterson claims these colors were chosen because they were Finely's wife's favorite colors. (Other books have noted that Finley aped the scheme used by his hometown university, Notre Dame.)

Peterson offered this passage regarding the reception of the new duds:

The press ridiculed the uniforms and opposing players taunted the A's with comments like, "Hi there, beautiful."

The Athletics lone "All-Star," Norm Sieburn, did not play in the game as Yankees manager Ralph Houk felt the green-and-gold uniform would embarrass the American League.

The Athletics also changed the start time for games, moving weekday games to 7 p.m. from 8 p.m. and Saturday games to 6 p.m. Finley explained the team's calculus:

"Most of our fans come from 50 miles away. We want them to get to bed at a decent hour."

Enter the Chiefs

In February of 1963, Lamar Hunt announced that he was moving his Dallas Texans to Kansas City. The city gave him a very favorable lease, $1 a year for the first two years with the city taking half of concession sales. After the first two years, provided ticket sales were above $1.1 million, the city would receive five percent of gross receipts. However, should sales not reach the $1.1 million target, rent would revert to $1. In a sign of things to come, Kansas City also remodeled Municipal Stadium to make it more friendly for football.

Finley was inflamed and demanded similar terms. The city council responded that the team's rent was lowered in 1955 and 1956 (to $25,000) -- when the franchise first arrived. However, in comparison, the subsequent years' bills were north of $100,000 -- peaking at $148,000 in 1959 and clocking in at $125,000 in 1963.

Kansas City's then-mayor, H. Roy Bartle, and the outgoing nine-member city council hammered out and offered to Finley a seven year lease similar to what was offered to the Chiefs -- $1 a year for the first two years (regardless of attendance), then five percent of gross receipts if admission exceeded 950,000. If attendance dropped below this level, the rent became $1.

Peterson noted that Finley loved the contract, he was quoted as saying:

"...a wonderful contract. It was so wonderful, in fact, that no one in his right mind would ever have wanted to leave Kansas City."

The long-short, detailed in the book, is that the lease was subsequently ruled invalid and Finley was re-agitated. He telephoned a reporter at the Atlanta Journal and loudly complained. Finley then went to Atlanta and returned with a decision to move the team to that city.

The ever-combustible Finley, upon bumping into Cheifs' coach Hank Stram, informed him that Atlanta had a new stadium in the works and that Lamar Hunt should consider joining the Athletics in decamping from Kansas City:

"This is a horse-shit town. No one will ever do any good here."

By July 1963, Finley's focus had shifted to Oakland as several owners had expressed reservations about supporting a team in Atlanta -- travel costs and leaving the territory open for another club were mentioned.

Much like Atlanta, Oakland had plans to build a new stadium complex -- what would eventually become the Oakland Coliseum and Arena.

Finley's argument to the league for leaving Kansas City was financial: he claimed to have lost $800,000 in 1961 and $600,000 in 1962. At numerous points, Peterson details how Finley was somewhat ham-handed in negotiating broadcast rights. Finley claimed that the team took in only $200,000 in broadcast revenue in 1962, in comparison to $1 million collected by the Yankees.

With Oakland on his mind, and the Coliseum not yet constructed, Finley dialed San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham regarding sharing Candlestick Park until an Athletics stadium was ready. Peterson details:

Stoneham told Finley he would not share the stadium and told the reporters "one of the reasons we (the Giants) moved from New York was that we were assured we would have the Bay Area to ourselves.

However, in a bit of delicious historical irony, the Giants couldn't block the Athletics as Oakland was regarded as "open territory."

Four More Years

The real value of Peterson's text can be found in the juicy details of Finley's squabbles with Kansas City and his flirtations with different locales. Included on this list is Louisville, Kentucky. He even went as far as to sign a conditional two-year contract with the city to use its current AAA stadium. Peterson sums it up perfectly:

Finley had, in effect, moved the team without league approval.

Finley offered:

"I don't expect it to be a bed of roses, but after I have had an opportunity to present all the facts, I am sure they will be appreciative of our problems and definitely give us approval. We have these caps that have KC on the front and we don't want to throw them away, so I think we'll call ourselves the Kentucky Colonels. Or maybe we'll just scrap the caps and call ourselves the Louisville Athletics or maybe the Louisville Sluggers."

American League owners rejected the move by a margin of 9-1 and gave Finley until February 1, 1964 to conclude a lease with Kansas City.

Enter the Finley bluster:

"This is still a free country and I don't believe that anybody can force me to operate my business in a city where I've lost a million dollars in three years. If I'm forced to sign, I'll sue the league..."

Finley pivoted and a plan was hatched to move the team to Oakland, playing on an interim basis at Youell Field. AL owners also rejected this proposal by the same margin, 9-1. (The lone dissenting vote is Finley.)

Attempts to purchase the team by the business community in Kansas City were rebuffed or never considered by Finley and, ultimately, he signed a four-year lease.

Part II: Coming Soon!

There is still a lot of developments to cover, as we explore 1964 to 1968, weigh in on the KC years and examine parallels to today's stadium situation.

5 comments:

  1. The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History" -- Part I is very interesting book about baseball sport. Thanks for your review.

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