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Key Off-Field Moments in Oakland A's History: Major League Baseball Comes To Oakland

Reggie Jackson, an original Oakland Athletic.
Reggie Jackson, an original Oakland Athletic.
Jason O. Watson

The first four parts of this series discussed two main ideas: why the A's aren't competitive with the rest of the league in terms of revenue, and why they are competitive on the baseball field. Today's fifth and final installment, though, is much simpler, and I hope it isn't anti-climactic. But every story has to start somewhere, and the most important factor in the history of the Oakland A's was then-owner Charley O. Finley's 1960 purchase of the club, and his subsequent 1967 decision to move the team to Oakland.

The story really begins in 1954, when Midwestern stockbroker Arnold Johnson bought the Philadelphia Athletics and moved them from their relatively baseball-saturated market to a brand new one West of the Mississippi: Kansas City.

Ironically, a minor hurdle in the A's quest for Missouri was the territorial rights of the New York Yankees, the major-league affiliate of the AAA Kansas City Blues. The Yankees were forced to move the Blues to Denver upon the Athletics' arrival, but curiously, they waived the rights as soon as the sale to Johnson was approved. The A's faced widespread accusations of serving as a farm team for the Yankees throughout Johnson's tenure, which was tumultuous at best. Those accusations never really went away, did they?

As for a venue, Johnson had also purchased what was then known as Blues Stadium, the home of those same Kansas City Blues (incidentally, that's a really cool name for a baseball team). Johnson immediately sold the ballpark to Kansas City, which in turn renamed it Municipal Stadium and leased it back to Johnson. They two parties also embarked on a major overhaul of the venue, which added a second deck and a new grandstand in the left field corner (image here).

One downside of the A's moving in was that they effectively displaced the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs, the franchise where Jackie Robinson made his name and Satchel Paige continued his run as perhaps the best pitcher ever to play the game. The Monarchs could no longer afford to pay rent to use the ballpark, and as a result tried to barnstorm full-time, a telling sign of the Negro League's impending demise.

But enough about Kansas City — that was a short chapter in A's history, anyway. The beginning of the end of the club's run in KC came when Johnson passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53 after a trip to see the A's play a few Spring Training games in South Florida. The club was put up for sale later in the year, and Charles O. Finley bought a controlling interest in the same team he'd unsuccessfully bid for when Johnson bought it.

In response to the widespread accusations that Johnson ran his club as a farm team for the Yankees that happened to play at the Major League level, Finley bought a bus, pointed it East, toward The Bronx, and burned it. He was a big fan of fire, apparently, because he also held a special ceremony to burn the club's lease as Municipal Stadium, which left the team the option of buying out the rest of its lease should it be moved to another city. All was well and good in Kansas City, because it seemed to A's fans that their owner wasn't going anywhere.

That illusion was quickly lifted. As it turned out, Finley never burned the lease terms for Municipal Stadium — he burned a blank piece of paper instead. Finley was quirky, to be sure — he bought a mule, named it after himself, and made it the team's new mascot — but he was a savvy owner, and embarked on a project to revitalize the team's farm system almost as soon as he took over.

But it was quickly clear that Finley wasn't a huge fan of the Kansas City market. He shopped the team to the Dallas metro area in the early 1960s, firmly decided in 1964 to move it to Kentucky, a request denied by the American League owners, and then settled on Oakland a few months later. that request was also denied.

Finley was especially fed up, and pulled off another true-to-form stunt in which he publicly threatened to move the ballclub to Peculiar, Missouri (a town of less than 5,000) so that they could play in a "cow pasture". A.L. owners finally acquiesced a few weeks after the end of the 1967 season, giving Finley permission to bring the A's to the Bay Area.

As you can imagine, the move was not without controversy. Jackson County voters had just approved a ballot measure for the public funding of a new baseball stadium, now known as Kaufman Stadium, that the A's would never call home. Stuart Symington, the esteemed U.S. Senator from Missouri, called Oakland "the luckiest city since Hiroshima". Yes, he actually said that. Interestingly, Symington may have come closer than anybody else in the last century to overturning baseball's antiquated antitrust exemption, which expedited the arrival of the Kansas City Royals franchise.

So in April 1968, Oakland had a baseball team to call its own. After an odd single game in Baltimore that the A's lost 3-1 before heading south for a brief two-gamer against the Washington Senators. After two more against the Yankees, Oakland's record stood at 3-2 heading into a historic home opener in the East Bay.

The A's played their first game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on April 17 in front of 50,164, but fell to the Orioles 4-1. The only two Oakland players to record hits were Rick Monday, a 6th-inning home run, and some pinch hitter named Tony La Russa, who singled in the 9th inning.

The excitement died down rather quickly, though —the crowd at the Coliseum the next day was barely one tenth of the 50,000-plus at the home opener, and the team didn't draw a crowd of more than 20,000 for the rest of the homestand.

The important thing is that the A's were there, and a million factors had to conspire perfectly to make that home opener on 4/17/68 happen in the first place. We have every mid-1960s American League owner to thank for not allowing the A's to move to Louisville, and for every fantastic A's memory that's been made ever since.

Fans in Oakland wouldn't have to wait long for those memories — Catfish Hunter threw the first perfect game in franchise history just a few weeks later, on May 8. And within the next six years, the A's would go on one of the most dominant runs baseball has ever seen, taking home World Series trophies in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

Not much has changed. The Oakland Coliseum is still home, crowds still range from the 5,000s up toward the 50,000s, the team still sells players to the Yankees (though not as often this side of 2010), and the A's are still looking for a new home. When they get it, incidentally, it'll be the first time the franchise plays in a new home designed specifically for baseball since the A's moved into Shibe Park in 1909. No matter what, it'll be a fun chapter to write about 45 years after the fact!