50 Years Ago the Royals Helped Kansas City Redefine Itself

By Andrew McGregor

It wasn’t a strike, but the crowd didn’t mind. The 17,688 in attendance on that gray, cloudy Tuesday afternoon could not contain their enthusiasm. As the ball sailed towards home plate, they stood and roared. Senator Stuart Symington had delivered on his promise, and now, with his first pitch, baseball had officially returned to Kansas City.

After a year without baseball, Kansas City fans got their money’s worth that day. Lou Piniella, who went on to win the 1969 American League Rookie of the Year award, collected the franchise’s first hit (a double to left field) in the team’s first at bat. He scored on the next play, pushing the Royals to an early lead. Although the Twins fought back, the Royals prevailed after twelve innings.

Fans and long-time baseball observers lauded baseball’s return to Kansas City, but they had tempered expectations. “The Royals are expected to continue the city’s tradition of second-division finishes,” the New York Times’ Neil Amdur wrote.[1] The absence of Charlie O. Finely and his controversial antics, however, provided the city with a new opportunity to do things the right way. “The best thing to do is clear the air and start from scratch,” Elgin Smith believed.[2] Mrs. Joe Tate agreed. “It’s better for all concerned. Mr. Finely always seemed to be at war with the City Council, the mayor, or somebody.”[3] The new team gave Kansas City a chance to build a new image.

Even before Finely moved the Athletics from Kansas City to Oakland, city leaders hoped to improve relations with the team. On the heels of their appearance in Super Bowl I, the Kansas City Chiefs worked with the Jackson County Sports Authority to secure funds for the construction of two new stadiums – one for football and one for baseball. Voters approved a bond issue that included $43 million to construct the stadiums in June 1967. Dutton Brookfield, the Sports Authority’s chairman, hoped the vote would convince Finley to stay. “Kansas City is working on a new image and can make offers which Finley has not had in the past,” he explained.[4] Along with improved facilities, Brookfield was confident that he could also secure “stronger television and radio commitments” for the team.[5]

The stadium projects were a part of larger plan to modernize and promote Kansas City. Between 1966 and 1976, the city embarked on a campaign to raise its profile and attract new businesses, tourists, and residents by building new facilities. The stadiums joined other projects, including a new airport, convention center, and arena.

The construction boom centered on the year 1972. The airport and football stadium opened that year, and the city ran a major publicity campaign “K.C. Prime Time” that highlighted its progress and livable communities. The new baseball stadium along with Hallmak’s Crown Center opened the following year as the Royals hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star game. Kansas City remained ambitious, building a new arena to host an expansion NHL team and a relocated NBA team in 1974. The convention center was completed in 1976; the same year that city welcomed the Republication National Convention.

All of these projects and events remained distant dreams as ambitious leaders proposed bond issues to votes in 1966 and 1967. They envisioned Kansas City as a destination with modern amenities. Losing their baseball team threatened their plans and called into question the city’s “Major League” status.

During the 1960s, baseball remained America’s most popular sport. Having a major league team attracted visitors, generated headlines, and symbolized a city’s size and importance. Symington along with civic leaders and local businessmen believed Kansas City should have a team.

Finley showed little interest in the rest of the city or the stadium proposal. He also ignored the fact that his own players preferred to remain in Kansas City by a ratio of 3 to 1. Little could be done to stop Finley. He was hell-bent on moving the team.

When Finley asked the American League to approve his request to move the team to Oakland, Missouri’s U.S. Senator Stuart Symington was incensed. He called the Athletics’ owner “one of the most disreputable characters to ever enter the American sports scene” and an “all-American disgrace to sports.”[6] A powerful Senator known for his work in national defense and diplomacy and leading the fight against Joseph McCarthy, he held tremendous sway. He also took sports seriously and promised to fight on behalf of Kansas City.

Symington knew better than to quarrel with Finley. His experience feuding with St. Louis Cardinals owners William and Charles Bidwill taught him the difficulties of taking on team ownership. Though he was successful in intimidating the Bidwills out of moving the team to Atlanta, he had learned that appealing to the league created better results. Earlier in 1967, he helped his friend Sidney Salomon acquire the St. Louis Blues as an NHL expansion team and served on its board. This shaped his strategy for preserving baseball in Kansas City.[7]

He played in active role in Kansas City’s courting of a new team, personally joining the delegation and holding private meetings with American League President Joe Cronin. Like with the Bidwills, Symington used his power as Senator to intimidate the American League. He threatened to hold congressional hearings and strip Major League Baseball of its anti-trust exemption if they did not promise Kansas City a new baseball team. The league capitulated, approving the Athletics’ move and expansion at the same meeting. Still, Symington pressed on, hoping to ensure “uninterrupted baseball” in Kansas City.[8]

The league initially promised a new team “no later than 1971.”[9] Symington and Kansas City Mayor Ilus Davis found this unacceptable, so they maneuvered to press the issue. The Senator implied Congressional action in the matter by calling a press conference in Washington. Similarly, Davis sought an injunction against the league. Once again, Cronin and the American League owners caved under pressure and guaranteed a team for the 1969 season. Satisfied with the decision, Symington mused that waiting a year for the team was “more than recompensed by the pleasure resulting from our getting rid of Mr. Finley.”[10]

With their team secure, Kansas City leaders now had to search for an owner capable of paying the $5.3 million expansion fee and committed to running the team. The league received four applications for the team, which were reviewed by a four-person committee, before unanimously selecting 51-year old Ewing Kauffman.

Kauffman immediately stood out. He had accumulated his fortune through his business acumen. His Marion Laboratories pharmaceutical company was valued at over $130 million. He also bid to buy the team as an individual rather than with a group of investors. “Mr. Kauffman was chose because of his fine business background, his connections in the public relations field and his unending desire to own a major league franchise,” Cronin announced.[11] Perhaps most important, he lived in Kansas City.

Kauffman became the first hometown owner since the New York Yankees bought the minor league Kansas City Blues in 1937. His wife described their purchase of the team as “a little hobby to live longer” and as a means to give back to the community.[12] They understood the responsibility of owning a professional baseball team, promising, “This city will never again lose major league baseball.”[13] Committed to the city and to winning baseball, they planned to invest another $25 million to build a first-class organization and made arrangements to ensure the team remained in Kansas City long after their deaths.

The Kansas City community quickly embraced the Kauffmans and the Royals. Relying on a group of local businessman, known as “The Royal Lancers,” to help them sell tickets, the team set an American League record with 7,000 season ticket holders before they played their first game. They joined Kansas City leaders’ vision for a brighter future.

Unfortunately, that future relied on questionable urban planning likely informed by racial animus. Kansas City embraced its highways, and placed many of its major construction projects on the periphery of the city without public transit. The airport diverted travelers 17-miles north of downtown, and the new football and baseball stadiums sat at the intersection of two highways eight miles east of the city’s center. The layout made traveling difficult and expensive for those without a car.

The fateful sprawl that wrought havoc on the city’s urban core was not yet complete when the Royals took the field in 1969. They played their first game at Municipal Stadium. Nestled on the eastern edge of downtown, the old ballpark was once home to the Kansas City Monarchs and only a few blocks from the Paseo YMCA where the Negro National League was founded. Down the street sat Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, and a few blocks over was the historic Blue Room jazz club.

In the wake of the racial strife experienced throughout the country in 1968, the Kauffmans were cognizant of these local landmarks and the demographic composition of the surrounding neighborhood. The Royals first game took place exactly one year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. According to the New York Times, they embarked on what they hoped would be a “long-range program to link the baseball team and the city, and restore the confidence shaken by the antics and tumult of the Finley era.”[14] This meant tearing down the large 40-foot tall screen that blocked the neighborhood from seeing over the outfield wall. It also meant building trust between the team, fans, and the local community. “Outside the stadium, in the Negro neighborhoods that were filled with policemen, dogs and violence last year, signs saying ‘Your Royal Host’ will invite spectators into homes for coffee or telephone calls,” the Times reported.[15] It is unclear what else the program entailed or the extent of its success, but at least some in Kansas City thought baseball could, at least temporarily, help soothe the wounds of 1968.

Kauffman was the owner that Kansas City needed. After years of abuse from Charlie Finley, he provided stability. He also seemed to instinctually know that sports teams belong to their communities more than their owners.

Symington did too. He fought for baseball because Kansas City needed it. The sport provided the city with cultural cachet that aligned with its ambitions. It instilled pride, provided entertainment, and brought neighbors together.

Three years after Symington threw out the franchise’s first pitch, the team did something Charlie O. Finley’s Athletics never could: they finished the season with a winning record. By 1976, the Royals had become one of the American League’s best teams, playing in four of the next five American League Championship Series. Now that they were no longer a second-division team, Kansas City had caught baseball fever.

As the Royals celebrate their 50th season this year, it is easy to disregard the team’s political birth as an inconsequential footnote rather than a part of a transformational moment in the city’s history. While Kansas City’s leaders made their share of mistakes as they planned the city’s future during the late 1960s, Brookfield, Davis, and Symington knew what they were doing with baseball. They, along with Ewing Kauffman, built a team that helped push the city forward.

Andrew McGregor is a Limited-Term Lecturer in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. He was born and raised in Kansas City and remains a die-hard Royals fan. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

Notes:


[1] Neil Amdur, “Royal Welcome for Kansas City,“ New York Times, 7 April 1969.
[2] “Kansas City Fans Have Mixed Emotions,” The Oklahoman, 20 October 1967.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “KC to Keep A’s? Finley Optimistic,” The Oklahoman, 19 July 1967.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Symington Castigates Finley in the Senate,” New York Times, 20 October 1967.
[7] James C. Olson, Stuart Symington: A Life, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 410-411.
[8] Leonard Koppett, “American League Approves Shift of Athletics to Oakland,” New York Times, 19 October 1967.
[9] Leonard Koppett, “Giles Calls American Expansion Plan Hasty, Urges Reconsideration,” New York Times, 20 October 1967.
[10] “Symington Castigates Finley in the Senate,” New York Times, 20 October 1967.
[11] “Kauffman Heads Kansas City Club,” New York Times, 12 January 1968.
[12] Neil Amdur, “Royal Welcome for Kansas City,“ New York Times, 7 April 1969.
[13] “Kauffman Heads Kansas City Club,” New York Times, 12 January 1968.
[14] Neil Amdur, “Royal Welcome for Kansas City,“ New York Times, 7 April 1969.
[15] Ibid.

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