The Kansas City connection

After a lifetime of reading about and watching the New York Yankees, there is a story that happened in the past that has floated by my consciousness from time to time. I often wondered about this story. As it goes with writers, the story floated by my consciousness one too many times and I had to find out what it was all about. The story goes that for a time, the Kansas City Athletics, a major league club, became a minor league team for the Yankees and funneled its best players to the Yankees thus allowing the Yankees to continue its dynasty. The years involved were from 1955 to 1960 when a man named Arnold Johnson purchased the Philadelphia Athletics from the Connie Mack family and moved the team to Kansas City. The period ended when Johnson died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage in March of 1960 which led to the Charlie Finley era later that year. I wanted to know if the stories were true and to what tune Johnson’s Athletics aided the Yankees to continue the Yankees’ winning ways during the late 1950s.

The first piece of this story is Arnold Johnson. Johnson (1906 – 1960) was a very successful and very rich man from Chicago and in 1953, he purchased as part of a real estate deal both Yankee Stadium and Blues Stadium in Kansas City where the Yankees’ minor league team played. It seems funny now thinking about somebody owning Yankee Stadium. But Johnson did. And supposedly, he was quite cozy with Del Webb and Dan Topping, owners of the Yankees. The story goes that the Yankees heavily influenced Johnson becoming the new owner of the Athletics and Johnson was confirmed as such in November of 1954. The wheeling and dealing started almost immediately. A story by The New Yorker outlines the relationships and also repeats the story line that Arnold’s Kansas City Athletics became a virtual minor league team for the Yankees.

But was it true? Did the Athletics with Johnson in command strip itself of its best players and best young players to benefit the Yankees? As The New Yorker pointed out, between 1955 and 1960, 54 players changed hands between the Yankees and the Kansas City Athletics. The New Yorker counts  fourteen trades, but I added a final one (15) made in 1960 that was made before Finley took over and included two more players. Finley would not deal with the Yankees and so that deal had to have been made before he had a chance to nix it.

Several of the players went back and forth including: Bob Cerv, Harry Simpson, Ralph Terry and Jack Urban. This one line from the story linked above is the crux that interested me in the first place:

“Year after year he traded his best young players—Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Ralph Terry among them—to New York in exchange for players whom the Yankees deemed too old (Hank Bauer) or just not Yankee-like (Billy Martin).”

But again, is that the full truth here? And so what I did was to go through every Yankee and Athletic player from 1955 to 1960 to see which ones were involved in the trades, see what value they garnered their new teams and what ages they were when they were traded. The value part of the equation is difficult because the A’s would go on to trade many of them elsewhere after acquiring them from the Yankees. It seems, after looking at the results, that the A’s made a lot of deals with the Tigers as well as the Yankees.

The first thing I discovered is that the meme that the Yankees sent their old players to the Athletics is not true. Yes, Hank Bauer was old when his deal to the A’s happened and so was Enos Slaughter, Johnny Sain and Eddie Robinson. But they were the only ones. So five players out of the thirty the Athletics received from the Yankees being old is hardly the basis for a theme. In fact, the average age of the thirty players that went to the Athletics was 28.5. The average age of the players the A’s sent to the Yankees was 29.7.

Did all of these deals favor the Yankees and not the A’s? That would not be true either. When the A’s purchased Bob Cerv outright (meaning no other players were involved, just cash), Cerv had his best years with the A’s. A 1958 deal that sent Hector Lopez and Ralph Terry to the Yankees for Jerry Lumpe and Tom Sturdivant was practically a break even deal for the A’s. Lumpe was an 8 WAR player with the A’s while Lopez compiled only 2.4 WAR for the Yankees and Terry compiled 8.5 WAR, but spread over eight seasons.

Another 1958 deal proved favorable to the A’s when they received Harry Simpson for an ancient Virgil Trucks. And when the Yankees sent Enos Slaughter to the A’s in 1955, he had his last good season and produced a 3.2 WAR season. The Yankees did not always receive the sweet deal. Seven of the 24 players the Yankees received from the A’s never played a game for the Yankees. Every player the A’s received played for the A’s in the majors. Granted, not all of them played well.

Assessing which team received the greater value is difficult for the above stated reasons, but from the best figuring I could do, the Kansas City Athletics received 30 wins above replacement from the players it received from the Yankees. The Yankees received 51 wins above replacement in play from players they received from the A’s. So, yes, the bottom line is that they Yankees received more total value from the deals. Most of the difference can be pointed to five players: Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Bobby Shantz Art Ditmer and Ralph Terry. But in reality, Maris was the only big boost the Yankees got in all those deals. Boyer garnered 6.2 WAR playing for the Yankees, Ditmer, 4.1 WAR, Shantz, 5.8 and Terry, 8.5. Those are not super stars. That leaves us with Roger Maris.

Let’s look at the Roger Maris deal. According to places like Wikipedia and others that may or may not be dead accurate, Maris was an up and coming player on the Athletics and a fan favorite. Maris was 24 at the time of the deal and had made his first All Star team in 1959 with the A’s on what was a 3.1 WAR season. That WAR total is very good, but not elite. Could anyone have predicted that Maris would go to the Yankees and put up two MVP seasons?

Maris was the biggest chip for the Yankees in that deal and Norm Siebern was the big chip for the A’s. And if you would have looked at where both were in their respective careers, you would have thought that this was a trade of equally talented players. Siebern had a 4.6 WAR season in 1958, stumbled a little bit in 1959 and was just a year older than Maris. If sabermetrics were around at the time, Maris with his 4.5 WAR combined for 1958 and 1959 would not have compared as favorably to Siebern’s 5.2 WAR over the same time period. This trade would have been considered an equal trade, all things considered.

But several things happened. First, Maris went from a stadium that was 350 down the right field line to one that was 296. I’m not saying all of Maris’ homers were cheap, but the short porch had to help. The second thing was that Maris became the Number Three hitter in the Yankees’ lineup in front of Mickey Mantle, the most fearsome slugger in the American League at the time. Then, in 1961, the leagues expanded, the pitching watered down and Maris exploded to rival Mantle right down to the end when he surpassed Mantle for the record.

Meanwhile, Norm Siebern was a very good player for the A’s for four seasons. His four year triple slash line for those four years was, .289/.381/.467. He was an All Star for two of those other years and came in seventh in MVP voting in 1962.

There are two deals that do paint a nasty picture for this story. The first was Clete Boyer. Boyer was one of those Bonus Babies of that era who were given big bonuses and had to remain on a team’s roster for two entire seasons. He did so on the Athletics and saw very little playing time as a young kid in 1955 and 1956. After his required two seasons, Boyer started 1957 with the A’s but then was thrown in as a player to be named later in one of the biggest megadeals of the period. Eleven players switched sides in that deal. The Yankees certainly got the better of that deal with Shantz and Ditmer also in that package. Two things make the deal look bad in retrospect. The A’s received nothing of value in the deal. The second was that it looked like the A’s did the Bonus Baby thing with Boyer just to give him away to the Yankees as a throw in. Boyer was a good, solid third baseman for the Yankees, but he was never a superstar.

The other deal that looked really bad was Ralph Terry. The Yankees traded Terry to the A’s when the pitcher was 21. When he was 23, the A’s traded him back to the Yankees. It appeared at the time that the A’s were simply growing him up for the Yankees. Two things in retrospect. First, Jerry Lumpe turned out to be a good player for the A’s. Secondly, Terry’s worth is overstated. He did have one big season and a couple of other good ones, but 8.5 WAR spread out over eight seasons does not a superstar make.

After looking at all of this for hours, the conclusions I come to are that the rap given Arnold Johnson and the Kansas City Athletics of the late 1950s is a bit undeserved. Yes, the two teams did move a lot of players back and forth to each other. But there were a couple of those trades that were just as beneficial to the A’s as they were to the Yankees. The average age of the A’s players in the deal disproves that the Yankees just sent the A’s old players. And the biggest deal breaker of all the deals was Roger Maris who gave no indication that he could produce what he did in 1960 and 1961 while with the A’s. He makes up 15 of the 20 WAR difference in the deals. The Kansas City Athletics of 1955 through 1960 were not a minor league team for the Yankees. They were a favored trading partner with one or two shady deals and one player that busted a home run record out of nowhere.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

9 thoughts on “The Kansas City connection

  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks, William!

  2. Chris J.

    There was an entire book written about this subject. Written by SABR member and Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz and titled "The Kansas City A's and the Wrong Half of the Yankees," it came out in 2007 and included a chronological account of how the Yankees controlled two of the eight American League teams during the second half of the 1950s.

  3. Frank S.

    Great stuff, as always, William.

  4. Bill

    Always a welcome treat to read these historical essays. The Maris deal is the one that in retrospect shook the world, but everyone should have seen it coming. It was a known fact that Roger was a dead pull hitter and should have absolutely thrived in the Bronx. The other deals were like any other trades, where you hope both teams prosper. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don't.

  5. jay_robertson

    Good work, Will. Yet another bit of history I'd never been aware of.

  6. ProfRobert

    I always enjoy William's historical pieces, and this one is particularly interesting.

  7. I think you are too easily dismissing the volume of trades between the two teams. 18 transactions, according to B-R.com, is a lot in five-year period. Regardless of the balance, such a high number is indicative of a "special relationship".

    I also don't think the 51-31 advantage the Yankees enjoyed is insignificant. In facts, three wins per season is pretty big. Besides, WAR may not be the best vehicle for a number reasons, not the least of which it relies on defensive metrics which obviously were not refined during the era. Also, the Yankees weren't using the "Athletics" to build a long-term roster, but rather fill in the blanks, much like you might use a far system. Even so, the impact of Boyer, Terry, and Maris was very significant.

    Is there some exaggeration about the relationship between the A's and Yankees during the late-1950s? Sure, but I think you are giving them too much benefit of the doubt.

    • williamjtasker

      Point taken, William (and no, I'm not talking to myself). I don't doubt there was a special relationship. But I still maintain that if Roger Maris hadn't gone boom as a Yankee, this story would have died a long ago death. There has to be other relationships like this in the past. I need to count up the KC A's trades with the Tigers during that same period because it was also significant.

      • Maris going boom is a big part of it though. If you keep going to well, you're going to find water.

        From 1955 to 1960, the Tigers and Athletics had only five transactions between them, and one involved KC purchasing a player from Detroit.

        I'd summarize it this way: the Yankees did have an extraordinary friendly working relationship with KC, but the benefit to them is probably exaggerated a little. I see where you'r going, however, and should have mentioned I enjoyed taking the ride.

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