Sunday, April 17, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Kansas City Athletics for Moving to Oakland

September 27, 1967: The Kansas City Athletics play their last home game. Their last 2, actually: They sweep a doubleheader from the Chicago White Sox, 5-2 and 4-0.

April 17, 1968: The A's play their 1st home game in Oakland. They lose to the Baltimore Orioles, 4-1.

The A's had been bought from the Mack family by Arnold Johnson in the Autumn of 1954, and he moved them to Kansas City. He died in 1960, and Charlie Finley had bought them from his heirs. He wanted a new ballpark, and Kansas City wasn't willing to build him one. He threatened to move to other cities before settling on Oakland, California, across San Francisco Bay from, well, San Francisco.

Kansas City was glad to be rid of Finley. A few weeks after the A's played their 1st game in Oakland, Major League Baseball expanded, and put a team in Kansas City, the Royals, and the city approved a new ballpark for them.

In the short term, Oakland was a great sports city. In the long run, it has failed. The Golden State Warriors, at the peak of their influence, are building a new arena and moving back across the Bay to San Francisco, hoping to open it for the 2019-20 season. The Raiders have already moved to Los Angeles once, moved back, and may yet move again, possibly back to L.A. And the A's may yet move again, because the Oakland Coliseum, once such a fun place to watch a baseball game or a football game, is now old and dreary with a rotten atmosphere.

Indeed, Finley tried to get the A's out of Oakland. He was inches away from moving them to Denver for the 1978 season. He thought he could move them to New Orleans for 1979. He tried again to move them to Denver for 1980, before finally selling them to Walter Haas that year.

Did Finley screw up by moving the A's? No: The relationship with Kansas City was poisoned. He had to go somewhere.

Did he screw up by choosing Oakland? It sure looks that way.

But, as Brian Kenny tended to say on the ESPN series The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... , things aren't always what they seem.

First, let me discuss a couple of reasons that didn't make the final cut, The Best of the Rest.

The St. Louis Cardinals. Thanks to their radio network, and the accompanying promotion by the team's owners, Gussie Busch and his Anheuser-Busch brewing corporation, Kansas City and the surrounding area was still Cardinal territory. Not until the Royals came along and started making the Playoffs in 1976 did a Kansas City team effectively take the region away from the Cards.

The Kansas City Market. I once saw a photograph taken at Super Bowl I. The photo showed Pennants of each team. The Packers pennant showed a 1940s-style football player, complete with a facemaskless helmet, his arm back to throw a pass, a ball against an outline of the State of Wisconsin. The Chiefs pennant showed the same player in the same pose, against an outline of several States: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

There's a lot of people in that territory. But it's a lot of area. Check out these distances to downtown Kansas City:

Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas: 43 miles
Topeka, capital of the State of Kansas: 64 miles
Manhattan, home of Kansas State University: 122 miles
Columbia, home of the University of Missouri: 126 miles
Jefferson City, capital of the State of Missouri: 157 miles
Omaha, largest city in Nebraska: 188
Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska and the State capital: 194
Wichita, largest city in Kansas: 199
Tulsa, Oklahoma: 272
Today, the Kansas City Metropolitan Area has about 2.4 million people, ranking it 28th among MLB markets, ahead of only Milwaukee and Cincinnati. It had even fewer people half a century ago. So even if Finley and the Kansas City market had straightened out their differences, he still would have had to struggle in a market where football is king. (More about that in a moment.)

In contrast, the San Francisco market is huge, having 8.6 million, and it wasn't substantially smaller then. Before you tell me, "Oakland is a small market," no, it isn't: About half of the San Francisco market is in the East Bay. Throw in Sacramento, where the State Capitol is just 113 miles from the Oakland Coliseum (a 2-hour drive), and the market gets bigger. Even if you think only 1/3rd of the Bay Area market is A's territory instead of Giants territory, that's still nearly 3 million people, which is noticeably more than Kansas City.

Oakland. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum complex, a stadium and an arena, opened in 1966. The Oakland Raiders arrived in the Autumn of that year. The San Francisco Warriors played a few home games at the Oakland Coliseum Arena from 1966 to 1971, before moving there full-time in 1971 and changing their names to the Golden State Warriors.

The Oakland Clippers of the National Professional Soccer League (which merged with the United Soccer Association to form the original North American Soccer League) began in the Spring of 1967, and won the title. The team known at various times as the California Seals, the Oakland Seals and (under Finley's ownership and switch from blue & green to A's green & gold) the California Golden Seals arrived in the Autumn of 1967.
The Coliseum complex, prior to the construction
of the "Mount Davis" bleachers in the mid-1990s.

Oakland, every bit as much as the bigger, more glamorous city across the Bay, had become a place to be, including for sports. It would become more so in the 1970s, as, between them, the A's, the Raiders and the Warriors won 5 World Championships in a little more than 4 years, between October 1972 and January 1977.

By January 1981, the Seals were gone, the Clippers were forgotten, the A's had crashed and burned, but had gotten back up, and the Raiders had added another Super Bowl win. Although the Raiders left, the A's would have semi-glory days again: 1988 to 1992, and again 2000 to 2006.

No one yet knew that the Raiders would leave after the 1981 NFL season, or that they would come back but reach only 1 more Super Bowl as an Oakland team through February 2016; that the A's would win only 1 more World Series through October 2015; or the Warriors wouldn't win another NBA Championship until June 2015, and start building a new arena back on the San Francisco side of the Bay, hoping to open in October 2017; and that, as the 2010s dawned, both the A's and the Raiders would want out of the Coliseum.

The idea that Oakland would be a hip, happening place seems ridiculous now. It was not in 2003 (A's a Playoff team, Raiders in Super Bowl), or 1989 (A's World Champs, Warriors with "Run-TMC"), or 1975 (Oakland seemed to be the sports capital of the world). Or 1967, when the A's moved in.

Now for...

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Kansas City Athletics for Moving to Oakland

5. Football. When Finley was preparing to move, the Kansas City Chiefs were defending American Football League Champions. Since their arrival from Dallas in 1963, they were filling Municipal Stadium, 47,000 strong, 7 times a year. Finley had a baseball capacity of 35,000, and didn't fill that 7 times out of 81.

The Chiefs were the most popular sports team in Kansas City. Even in times of glory for the Royals -- the last couple of years, and in the George Brett era of 1976 to 1985, times when the Chiefs have not been particularly successful -- the Chiefs were more popular.

It wasn't (and isn't) just the Chiefs. The University of Missouri, the University of Kansas, the University of Nebraska, the University of Oklahoma... all are huge in their States. At Kansas, the basketball team is bigger than the football team, but the football team was then riding high on the recent success of Gale Sayers. Even on top of the world in 2016, the Royals have trouble competing for fans' attention and dollars with the Chiefs, Missouri football, Kansas basketball, Nebraska football, Oklahoma football and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But, mostly, with the Chiefs.

The Great Plains likes baseball, but it loves football. Theoretically, under a different owner, who cared more about winning than money, the A's could have ruled the East Bay, maybe even the entire Bay Area. They were never going to stand astride the Plains like a colossus.

4. Ballparks. Municipal Stadium, which had previously been home to the American Association's Kansas City Blues (a Yankee farm team) and the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, was not really major league-worthy. The lower level was built in 1923, and the upper deck was added in 1955.

It seated only 35,020 for baseball, and even adding bleachers only brought its football capacity to a little over 47,000. It had support poles providing lots of obstructed views, technically reducing capacity even further. And with no room to add outfield seating, except maybe down the left-field line, it wasn't expandable. Parking was also an issue, which, as with the expandability issue, you can see in this photo.
The Oakland Coliseum, at the time Finley decided to move there, was new, exciting, had 50,000 seats for baseball, had lots of parking, and construction on public transportation access was underway. (However, the BART system, including the Coliseum stop, wouldn't open until 1972.)

3. The Kansas City Government. Finley had feuded with them over getting a new ballpark for so long, and in such a nasty way, that they weren't willing to deal with him anymore. You'll notice that, once Finley was gone, and MLB was willing to put a new team in Kansas City, they got moving on getting a new ballpark going.

In the Autumn of 1972, Arrowhead Stadium opened for the Chiefs. The following Spring, Royals Stadium opened, and the area was named the Harry S Truman Sports Complex, in memory of the native son former President who had just died. Royals Stadium was renamed Kauffman Stadium in 1993, in honor of the Royals' founding owner, Ewing Kauffman. In spite of both stadiums now being over 40 years old, recent renovations have ensured that neither will have to be replaced anytime soon.

But Royals/Kauffman Stadium was not going to happen for Finley. Which leads to...

2. The Alternatives. Finley threatened to move to several other cities. Would any of them have been a better option than Oakland? Or even a better option than Kansas City?

* Dallas-Fort Worth. Finley thought he had an agreement to move there for the 1962 season. It fell through. But where would they have played? Burnett Field, home of the Texas League's Dallas Eagles, seated less than 11,000 people. LaGrave Field, home of their arch-rivals, the Fort Worth Cats, was even smaller.

The plan was to play in the Cotton Bowl -- a 75,000-seat football stadium that would, like the Polo Grounds in New York and the Los Angeles Coliseum, not really have enough space for a baseball field fit into it. At least one fence, either left or right field, would have to be really short. Clearly, a new stadium would have to be built.

Turnpike Stadium was built in Arlington in 1965, with 10,000 seats. By 1972, it had 35,000 seats, and was ready to take on the new Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers. By 1978, it had 43,000 seats. But it never looked like anything more than what the Cotton Bowl would have been: A stopgap facility. When the stadium now known as Globe Life Park opened in 1994, they looked like a permanent team for the first time.

Had they moved to Dallas, they would have had a substandard stadium, and Finley probably would have wanted to move them soon again anyway.

* Louisville. Finley thought he had an agreement to move them and become the Kentucky Athletics in 1964, but the 9 other American League owners all said no

It's just as well: Not only was Louisville a smaller market than any in MLB (and it still is), but they would have had to play in Fairgrounds Stadium, which seated just under 20,000 for baseball, and was eventually expanded to just 36,000 (under its current name of Cardinal Stadium, as former home of University of Louisville football and local Triple-A baseball). Finley would almost have had to move again, whether he liked it or not.

* Atlanta. As we've seen, it's a lousy market for baseball, even when the Braves are winning.

* Seattle. Sick's Stadium seated only 11,000, and even when expanded for the Seattle Pilots in 1969, it only seated 25,420. The Kingdome, as atrocious as it was, had to be built, but do you really think Finley would have waited until 1976? It wasn't until the Playoff season of 1995, and the voters approving the bond issue that made Safeco Field possible, that Seattle was saved as an MLB market.

In 1975, Finley proposed an idea: He would swap franchises with the owners of the Chicago White Sox, who would move the A's to Seattle, and Finley would run the team in his own area. (He had a mansion in Indiana near the Illinois State Line.) The AL owners put the kibosh on that, too.

* San Diego. Another small market, with what's now known as Qualcomm Stadium not opening until 1967, and there's a reason first the Padres, and now the Chargers, have wanted out. It's unsuitable for baseball, and far from downtown. The Padres wouldn't ensure their long-term survival until the 1998 Pennant led to the voters approving the bond issue that made Petco Park possible.

* New Orleans. Finley was from Birmingham, Alabama, and he thought another Southern team after the Houston Astros (the Braves hadn't yet moved to Atlanta) could work. Indeed, in between attempts in 1978 and 1980 to move the A's from Oakland to Denver (the 1st very nearly happened), in 1979, he thought he had a deal to move the A's to New Orleans, a city he had also looked into while still in Kansas City.

The Superdome had a baseball layout (the post-Katrina renovation makes that impossible at present), but it wouldn't open until 1975. This is another case where he would have had to use a stopgap stadium, as Pelican Stadium seated just 9,500, and playing at a football facility like the massive, already-obsolete Tulane Stadium, would have been a bad idea.

* Milwaukee. After the Braves left, Milwaukee County Stadium was available, and seated 44,000 at the time. And it was only 90 miles from Chicago, making it fairly close to his home.

Even so, Milwaukee is also a small market, and the idea of Finley staying there long-term was not serious. The Pilots, so badly flailing financially after their inaugural season in 1969, were moved right before the 1970 season began (you could do that in those days), and became the Milwaukee Brewers.

So unless you count Milwaukee -- which, rather than having failed as a Major League Baseball market, was more sabotaged by Braves management in the early 1960s -- Finley didn't have a great option before Oakland opened up as a potential home in 1966.

Compared to those options (except maybe for Milwaukee), working out his differences with the government and fans of Kansas City could well have been a better choice for Finley than moving anywhere, including Oakland.

But instead of looking at Oakland and the Bay Area through the prism of now, look at it from the perspective of half a century ago:

1. The Bay Area. In 1967, it was hip, it was happening, it was groovy, it was far out. It was now, baby.

It wasn't just sports. It was Haight-Ashbury. It was Berkeley. It was psychedelia. It was the Free Speech Movement. It was antiwar activists blocking the doors to the Oakland induction center and burning draft cards outside. It was the Hell's Angels. It was the Black Panthers. It was Rolling Stone magazine and The Berkeley Barb. It was The People stickin' it to The Man, man.

Sometimes, that hipness took a grotesque form (the People's Park protest in Berkeley and the Altamont killings, both in the East Bay in 1969), but it was there, man.

And the A's, with their bright green & gold uniforms, and an owner who was equally as loud and flamboyant, fit right in. And this was before they started with the Afros and the mustaches in 1972.
Top: Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue.
Middle: Reggie Jackson, Charlie Finley, Gene Tenace.
Bottom: Sal Bando, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Bert Campaneris.
Finley must've gotten that hat from his Alabama pal,
Coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.

Contrast that with Kansas City. You can't get much more Middle America, and not just in a geographic sense. The geographic center of the continental U.S. is in Lebanon, Kansas, about 260 miles northwest of Kansas City. The population center of the U.S. is near Plato, Missouri, about 210 miles southeast.

K.C. was not in 1960, and is not in 2016, a Charles Oscar Finley type of place. Whatever virtues K.C. has, it has not been hip since Count Basie and the other jazz acts of the 1930s. In 1967, the Summer of Love, Middle America looked like the past. At the time, California -- the Bay Area, L.A, even San Diego -- looked like the future.

The Bay Area looks like the future now. The successes of the Giants and the Warriors. Those teams, the San Jose Sharks and Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes all have (or, as with the Dubs, soon will have) new buildings. The 2 big colleges, Cal and Stanford, recently rebuilt their football stadiums. And the huge amounts of money in San Francisco, Marin County, Silicon Valley and the hill communities of the East Bay will keep those franchises in the pink.

Oakland? The Warriors aren't going far, but they are going. The Raiders would like to go, again. The A's, under current management, would prefer to stay, in a new ballpark. Will they get it? They're not currently close to getting it. But then, most cities that have been considered as new ones for the A's don't have major league-ready stadiums. (Montreal is an exception, and, even then, the Olympic Stadium would be only a stopgap facility.)

It looks likely that the A's will host their 2018 season finale in the Oakland Coliseum, whatever corporate name it will have at the time. Beyond that? It's hard to say.

But if Oakland baseball can survive Finley's mismanagement of his 1970s champions, maybe, just maybe, "Green Collar Baseball" can ensure its continued existence well into the 21st Century.

1 comment:

Dai said...

thanks for this piece -- it brought back KC memories, the vitriol surrounding Charlie O. and the Athletics, my early sports fandom and the Chiefs coming to prompted me to reflect on it here: