Kansas City is known far and wide for its dealings in wheat and cattle. André Maurois, the distinguished biographer, has called it one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But, deep down in its heart, the old cowtown (as even its most patriotic citizens like to call it) is most proud of its reputation for friendliness, and it is in the name of friendship that it has made warmly welcome a band of embarrassed young athletes in the uniforms of the Kansas City Athletics, most of whom are maintaining major league status by the skin of their teeth.
As the ballplayers and their principal proprietor, the rich stranger from Chicago, Arnold Johnson, quickly discovered, Kansas City gives its friendship as freely as the time of day and cuts it as generously as its celebrated sirloin steaks. Friendship is pressed upon the visitor from the moment he hits town. The Fred Harvey waitress at Union Station does not say, "What'll you have?" She fairly bubbles over with, "Well, my, don't you just look neglected here! I do believe you'll find the Kansas City Athletics salad there very tasty!" The cab driver does not growl, "Where to, Mac?" He exclaims, "Now where can I take you this fine beautiful spring evenin' and, oh man, don't you hope and pray it holds out for opening day?" The bellboy at the town's leading hotel, the Muehlebach, is not content to pocket a tip and depart in anonymity. He thrusts out his hand and declares, "My name is Newton and I'm just wonderin' if you plan to stay for the ball game?" The hotel management is heard from promptly with a bowl of fruit, which is old stuff, but in Kansas City there is that little extra friendly touch: nestled down in the grapes and tangerines is a pint of bourbon whiskey.
That's the everyday way of doing things, but to welcome these new baseball-playing friends, the old cowtown poured out its greatest display of friendly feelings since Harry and Bess came back from the White House to settle down again in suburban Independence. And in the spirit of true mid-western neighborliness, baseball fans swarmed in on the city like settlers bound for a house-raising in pioneer days. They came by car, by bus and plane and by excursion trains on the Wabash, the Katy, the Mopac, the Burlington, the Rock Island, the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe. They came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and from deep into what used to be St. Louis Cardinals' Missouri territory.
For the young athletes, the festivities began as their chartered plane settled down at the airport the day before the season's opening. As each man stepped from the plane, he was introduced over the loudspeakers by Manager Lou Boudreau, and then he was hurried to his own private convertible for the parade through the downtown section where nearly 200,000 applauding, cheering, beaming friends lined the streets or threw confetti from the office windows overhead. Everywhere a fellow turned, there were friendly signs of welcome, bunting and signboards, and kids and old folks—even hotel doormen—wearing baseball caps with big letter A's on them. There were 20 flowered floats and 10 marching bands, dancing drum majorettes and pretty girls in short pants. There were mayors from miles around, Governor Fred Hall of Kansas and Lieutenant Governor James T. Blair Jr. of Missouri. There was Ford Frick, the high commissioner of baseball, Will Harridge, president of the American League, Walter Briggs, president of the opening day enemy, the Detroit Tigers, Del Webb, co-owner of the New York Yankees and late co-owner of the departed Kansas City Blues of the American Association. There was 92-year-old Connie Mack, riding along with a brave half-smile and a faraway look in his tired old eyes.
April 24, 1955
Transplanted from Philadelphia, where brotherly love had long since turned to ashes, the ballplayers were plainly torn by conflicting emotions. At one moment, they looked as sheepish as the fellow who was mistaken for the returning war hero down at the railroad depot. But in the next moment, some of them appeared to be as recklessly abandoned to the pleasures of the occasion as the farmer's daughter out on a date with a traveling salesman she knows will never be true. Now and again, it seemed that one of the players would surely rise up and blurt to the crowd: "Folks, you're making a mighty big mistake! We ain't nuthin' but the old Philadelphia A's!"
It would not have made any difference to the Kansas City friends. For this day, anyhow, they had nothing but love and affection in their hearts. By the time the parade broke up, the ballplayers seemed to relax a little, but another pleasurable shock was in store for them. They were immediately whisked away to the rebuilt Municipal Stadium, a dazzling spectacle to the young men who had beat their way north through primitive bush-league ball parks and had, many of them, vivid memories of the Spartan accommodations at Connie Mack Stadium back in Philadelphia. They wandered wide-eyed through the grandstand and down onto the field and into the clubhouse with its shiny new showers and lockers. Then, when they had had time to absorb it all, Manager Lou Boudreau spoke to them of baseball matters in gentle and kindly tones as if he feared that, being overwrought, they might suddenly burst into tears.
NO ASPERSIONS, PLEASE
Meanwhile, in his penthouse suite atop Hotel Muehlebach, Arnold Johnson, tall, handsome, 48-year-old club owner, paced the floor and spoke feelingly of the cowtown's friendly ways.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Johnson said, shaking his head in wonder. "They wouldn't believe it back in New York. Here there's none of the suspicion and cynicism you find in the big eastern cities. People stop to speak to me in the streets, not as somebody whose picture they've seen in the papers, but just as a newcomer they want to welcome to town."
Johnson, only a few days before, had discovered that Kansas City not only gives its friendship freely, but deals swiftly with anyone who dares to cast aspersions on even the newest of its friends.
For instance, when Jimmy Cannon, a New York sportswriter, had dismissed the A's as a "boring" ball club, Macy's Kansas City department store promptly took a full page ad in the Star just to give Cannon the back of its hand. When Johnson himself was depicted, in a magazine article, as a smooth financial operator who had acquired the A's for peanuts, Ernie Mehl, the Star's sports editor, leapt to his defense. Johnson, said Mehl, actually had invested millions and risked millions more on the gamble of selling the Philadelphia stadium to Bob Carpenter of the Phillies. And furthermore, wrote Mehl, any man who paid $100,000 for the old Boston Braves scoreboard, $2,300 for a batting cage, enlarged the scouting staff to 12 men and the coaching staff to four cannot be accused of conducting a "peanut" operation.
Ernie Mehl's indignation was understandable, for if it had not been for Ernie, there would not yet be major league baseball in the cowtown. Ernie got the big league fever after observing the amazingly successful transfer of the Boston Braves franchise to Milwaukee. He immediately launched a one-man campaign to get the St. Louis Browns for Kansas City. When the Browns got away to Baltimore, Ernie Mehl looked around for the next most likely candidate for transfer. Sickest of the big league teams was the Philadelphia A's and when Arnold Johnson, the big vending machine man, appeared on the Kansas City scene as owner of the local ball park (purchased from his vending machine associates, Del Webb and Dan Topping of the New York Yankees) Ernie Mehl saw a prime prospect. Ernie had to talk in terms of millions and Arnold was a man who spoke that language fluently. But Johnson politely declined the opportunity to become a baseball man. "I've got headaches enough right now," he said. But every time Johnson came to town, Ernie tackled him again. Finally, as Johnson now recalls it, "Ernie wore me down in his sweet, quiet way."
No one concerned has forgotten the town's debt to Ernie Mehl. The Chamber of Commerce named him Man-of-the-Year. Arnold Johnson put him in his own car at the head of the welcoming parade and Ford Frick, baseball's high commissioner, cried out at the preopening television broadcast from Eddy's Night Club: "In all the excitement here tonight, let's not forget a boy named Ernie Mehl!" Ernie, a big, beefy, blond-haired boy of 50 who teaches Sunday School regularly, was called up to the mike to say a few words, and looking around at all the big leaguers present, he said it was the happiest moment of a lifetime spent in the best town in the whole wide world.
THEY'LL LOSE GRUDGINGLY
Ernie Mehl repeated what he has been saying all spring: nobody expects the A's to turn out a winner in the next couple of years. What Kansas City is sure of, though, as Ernie sees it, is that its ballplayers will lose a little less graciously, a little more grudgingly now that they are among friends.
"The important thing," said Ernie, "is that we've gone big league. And to go big league, you've got to take the best you can get. The successful ball clubs aren't on the market. But Arnold Johnson and his associates aren't the kind of men to just coast along. I know they'll do everything possible to give us a contender."
To that, Arnold Johnson himself replied: "Give us three years, five at the outside, and we'll build a winner!" Commissioner Ford Frick came to the microphone, put on a long face and said with mock seriousness, "I must tell you that I don't think the A's will win the pennant this year!" There was a roar of laughter and the commissioner shouted over it: "Maybe they won't even win the pennant next year!"
Friendly feelings soared high at Eddy's place. Georgia Gibbs, the singer, dragged Johnson, Frick and Walter (Spike) Briggs, president of the Detroit Tigers, onto the floor to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The quartet chanted "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City" while everybody clapped hands. Then Carmen (Mrs. Arnold) Johnson was introduced and in a few moments the television station's switchboard was flooded with calls from viewers who wanted a better look at Laraine Day's most serious rival as baseball's glamour girl. It was a hard spot to follow, but Kansas City's new mayor, H. Roe Bartle, a jolly fat man who took office that very morning, came on and addressed himself to Spike Briggs.
"Mr. Spike Briggs, sir," boomed the mayor, "tomorrow morning I shall call for you in the mayor's official car and drive you to our new municipal stadium. There I shall take you on a personally conducted tour, Mr. Spike Briggs, of this marvel, this miracle of construction, completed in 90 days (actually it took 22 weeks), and then, Mr. Spike Briggs, I shall be happy to escort you to the losing side of the field!"
As it turned out, that is precisely what Mayor Bartle did. With 32,844 fans overflowing the grandstand, with former President Harry S. Truman throwing out the first ball, the Kansas City Athletics, hopped up on the largest shot of friendship ever needled into a ball club, went out and played like the champions they are not likely to be for some time. At the bat they were there in the clutch, in the field they' were flawless and alert enough to turn three sparkling double plays. The crowd cheered everything: Vic Power striking out in the first inning as lustily as Bill Wilson hitting a homer in the eighth. Manager Lou Boudreau was as sharp and daring as Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher rolled up into one; he gambled on a big inning in the sixth and he got it to clinch the A's 6-2 victory in big league baseball's first game on its new western frontier.
Up in the press box, Ernie Mehl hammered his portable typewriter and banged out his first big league story, concluding it in sheer exultation with: "Phooie on the critics!"
As the deliriously happy fans—no, make that friends—filed out of the ball park, one of them jumped up on a railing and yelled:
"Man, if this is the kind of ball those A's are goin' to play, I don't see how we can miss!"
Next day, losing the first of four straight, the A's began to show their good friends how.