Vagabond A's led colorful past lives in Philadelphia, Kansas City

ByThomas Neumann ESPN logo
Friday, August 26, 2016

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.

Type the words "Oakland Athletics move" into a search engine and watch the suggestions pop up.

  • Oakland Athletics move to San Jose
  • Oakland Athletics move to Sacramento
  • Oakland Athletics move to Montreal
  • Oakland Athletics move to Portland

Like any professional sports franchise seeking a new stadium, relocation rumors swirl around the A's. If they ever do desert the city they've called home for nearly 50 years, it would mark another chapter of heartbreak to fans of a team that was previously yanked from Kansas City and Philadelphia.

The A's played in Kansas City from 1955 through 1967. Although they struggled on the field -- never even sniffing .500 during those 13 seasons -- the team developed its share of loyalists who bemoaned the team's flight to California. The expansion Royals replaced the A's in 1969 and went on to win World Series championships in 1985 and 2015, but it was the A's who transformed Kansas City into a major league town in the eyes of the nation.

"There are still bitter people," said Jeff Logan, president of the Kansas City Baseball Historical Society, who rooted for the A's as a child. "They'll die off someday. I'll die off. But a great number of people are still bitter about the A's leaving and wish they were still here."

The A's were quickly embraced in their first season in Kansas City, quadrupling their attendance from their last season in Philadelphia to nearly 1.4 million -- third in MLB behind only the Milwaukee Braves and New York Yankees -- and finishing in sixth place among the eight AL teams. However, the team would place no better than seventh in the AL during its remaining 12 seasons in Kansas City, and attendance fell off.

Charles O. Finley bought the A's from the widow of previous owner Arnold Johnson in December 1960 and pledged to keep the team in Kansas City. Within a year, however, reports indicated Finley was interested in moving the A's to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In subsequent years, Finley also flirted with Louisville, Atlanta, Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Milwaukee and New Orleans. He ultimately relocated the franchise to Oakland for the 1968 season, and the A's won three consecutive World Series from 1972 to 1974 with many players acquired in Kansas City.

Logan, who co-hosts a weekly radio show with former Royals second baseman Frank White, is the leading authority on Kansas City A's history and founded the historical society about a decade ago. Although the group also pays homage to the Royals, Monarchs, Blues, Packers and about a dozen other professional baseball teams, preserving memories of the A's was the primary reason the group was formed.

"The Royals don't really have much of a connection to the Kansas City A's," said Logan, who still roots for the A's -- at least when they're not playing the Royals. "They're a different team, and really, Oakland doesn't have a connection to the Kansas City A's, either. That was one of the reasons we formed. We'd meet so many of these players that only played for Kansas City, and they were kind of like a ship with no port. Never had a reunion. Never had an event. They were just out there all alone. So it's been a great joy to us that we get to bring these people together."

Indeed, the historical society has held many A's reunions over the years, keeping alive memories such as these:

  • A mascot you can ride: Charlie O the mule stood 17 hands tall, stayed at the team hotel on the road, drank from punch bowls at cocktail parties and even had his own song.
  • Animal house: The area beyond the outfield fence wasn't just the domain of Charlie O. Goats and sheep grazed on a grassy slope behind right field, and there was a petting zoo with monkeys, rabbits and pheasants.
  • Betty Caywood: In 1964, the A's hired a Chicago television "weather girl" to be the first female broadcaster in MLB history. "The idea is that by putting a woman on the staff we'll appeal to the dolls," Finley said.
  • September 1965: In two stunts separated by 17 days, the A's made baseball history. On Sept. 8, Bert Campaneris became the first major leaguer to play all nine positions in a single game. On Sept. 25, legendary pitcher Satchel Paige -- believed to be 59 at the time -- threw three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox.

The most notable public recognition of the A's time in Kansas City is at an area dedicated to the city's sports history on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and 22nd Street, where Municipal Stadium once stood. Monarch Plaza, named for the famed Negro Leagues team that played that played there for decades, includes a plaque noting the history of the venue and displays commemorating players from the Monarchs, A's, early Royals and the football Chiefs. But Logan's sizable private collection of A's memorabilia might be the best cache of the team's star-crossed stopover in the Midwest. He has an original scorebook from Paige's 1965 appearance, turnstiles and seats from Municipal Stadium, programs, bats, balls, gloves, caps and jerseys.

"When Charlie Finley left Kansas City, being the person he was, he took all the stuff that had anything to do with Kansas City -- all the signs, all the memorabilia -- and he threw it all in the trash. Dumped it. So most of what's left is what people dug out of the trash."

The Athletics had a much prouder tradition during their 54 seasons in Philadelphia -- winning five World Series and nine AL pennants. By the 1950s, however, the A's lagged far behind the crosstown Phillies in attendance. Johnson, a businessman from Chicago, bought the team in 1954 and moved it to Missouri the following year.

Some vestiges of the Athletics remain in the Philadelphia area today. The most notable is a statue of longtime A's owner and manager Connie Mack. It was originally dedicated at Connie Mack Stadium in 1957, a year after the Hall of Famer's death. The statue was later moved to Veterans Stadium in 1971 and to Citizens Bank Park in 2004. A church now sits on the former site of Connie Mack Stadium at the corner of 21st and Lehigh. A Pennsylvania state historical marker marks the history of the venue, which was known as Shibe Park from 1909 until 1953.

The Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society kept the team's memory alive for many years, maintaining a shop and museum in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. Although the group faded and closed its storefront in 2013, many of its mementos survive. The Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame now displays a number of artifacts from the A's society in a gallery at Spike's Trophies in northeast Philadelphia.

"When they were closing their store, instead of them auctioning off a lot of their really valuable items, we were able to bring them over to the Hall of Fame," said Ken Avallon, president of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. "So we're actually curators of a lot of that collection right now."

Among those items are a glove used by Jack Coombs in the World Series more than 100 years ago, tickets from the 1929 and 1930 World Series and a game-used pitcher's jacket from the team's final season in Pennsylvania. Likewise, the Cooperstown Gallery at Citizens Banks Park also contains A's memorabilia, including a turnstile from Connie Mack Stadium.

Meantime, unbeknownst to many, thousands of hidden A's artifacts are scattered all around Philadelphia. That's because remnants of Connie Mack Stadium were free for the taking following the venue's demolition in 1976. Many people took advantage and used the materials for various home projects.

"Throughout the Delaware Valley, there are fireplaces and outdoor patios made up of bricks from Connie Mack Stadium," Avallon said.

Back in the Midwest, Linda Haskins has unfinished business.

Haskins is a Kansas filmmaker who began work on a Kansas City A's documentary with television program director Dave Pomeroy about a decade ago. They began arranging interviews with former A's players and collecting home videos and photos provided by fans. Haskins estimates that they have conducted about 30 interviews with players, many who have since died.

"I got involved because I like to tell personal stories," Haskins said. "I liked the players we met and had fond memories of going to games as a child."

There are hundreds of personal stories to tell about Finley. He would regularly call the A's dugout from his Indiana business office to deliver instructions to his managers during games. He was always reconfiguring the distances of the outfield fences. He dressed his team in loud uniforms and white cleats. We could go on and on and on.

Unfortunately, Haskins and Pomeroy have been unable to secure the financial backing to complete the film. Haskins estimates it will take about $150,000 to pay for the remaining labor, archival materials and copyright permissions.

"The team was only in Kansas City for 13 years," Haskins joked. "I hope it doesn't take us 13 years to finish the documentary."