In the past few years I have operated under the theory that I am just a so-so fan of Major League Baseball as it exists in the 21st Century. But now almost three months into the COVID-19 related shutdown of most major sporting events I find myself experiencing a big VOID. And it has a lot to do with the American and National Leagues not playing any baseball games.
I have been a huge baseball fan for most of my life, dating back to my first remembrances of the 1950 World Series. And while my fandom isn’t as intense as it once was, I do miss being able to check the standings daily to see the status of a few of my favorite teams.
Speaking of my favorite teams, inclusion in that category may depend on the year. I am not usually a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but in 1960 I was a huge supporter of the Pirates. I could remember the early 1950s when Pittsburgh teams were awful. It was a thrill to see them in contention for a pennant, and eventually win the World Series over the New York Yankees. In 1961, it was Cincinnati that made a run at the pennant and I rooted for the Reds because it had been years since they had been in the World Series. Nevertheless, for 65 years my primary loyalties have been with the team playing in Kansas City--the Athletics from 1955 to 1967 and the Royals from 1969 to the present.
So what I have chosen to do in the present void of Major League activity is to remember, a task in which I engage most of the time anyway.
Looking back over the 65 years there have been quite a few players that evoke special memories for me. Often those players weren’t All-Stars or among the league leaders in any category, but were special in my way of looking at things.
One of those was a pitcher named Arnold Portocarrero. Portocarrero had a special spot in my heart because he pitched in the first Major League game I ever saw-- May, 1954 in Philadelphia. There were a lot of things that impressed my 10-year-old mind that day. How green the infield and outfield grass seemed to be, the sound of the stadium organ playing throughout the day, the noisy peanut and hot dog vendors who were hawking their wares were just a few of the impressive sights and sounds of that first big league game experience. And there was Portocarrero. Looking at his statistics today I see that he wasn’t a huge man--6-foot-3 the book says. But on that day he seemed larger than life standing very tall on the pitchers’ mound. I don’t recall how he did that day, which leads me to believe that his performance wasn’t particularly outstanding. I continued to follow his pursuits that year by daily checking the box scores printed in the Wichita Beacon that came to our house. I was delighted when he was a member of the A’s that moved to Kansas City in 1955. Portocarrero was called “Big Arnie” by the KC play-by-play announcers and it was a little disappointing that he didn’t have a very good year in 1955. He was shipped down to the Minor Leagues for a spell in 1956 and when he did pitch for the A’s wasn’t very effective. Before the 1958 season, Big Arnie was traded to Baltimore and I continued to follow his career while he performed in that city. It turned out that Portocarrero had his best year that first year in Baltimore. He made me proud as I could tell my friends that I had seen him pitch way back in 1954.
Portocarrero was traded to Baltimore for a left handed knuckleball pitcher named Bud Daley. Daley quickly became a favorite of mine because he had two attributes that I admired -- being left handed and throwing a knuckleball. He had been a so-so hurler with Cleveland and Baltimore in the early part of his career, but he became the A’s ace in 1959. It made big news in the KC area when Manager Casey Stengel picked him to be on the All-Star team roster that year. He finished the season with a 16-13 record, which was very respectable considering the A’s finished in seventh place. Besides throwing a knuckler, Daley had two offspeed curve balls, which the announcers described as being slow and very slow. Daley went the way of most half-way decent A’s players back then, traded to the New York Yankees.
Another A’s player that eventually went to New York was Hector Lopez. Lopez broke in in 1955 as the Athletics’ third baseman. He was from Panama, and was one of the few players who had come from that nation. He could hit the baseball, and I liked listening when he was at bat. I remembered him as a home run hitter and was astonished when I read that he hit only 16 homers in that 1955 season. The fact that he hit only 67 home runs in his 11-year major league career was even more astonishing. He played mostly at third base for the A’s, but when he was traded to New York, he was an outfielder, usually playing left field while Mickey Mantle was in center and Roger Maris was in right field. Several sports commentators have called Lopez one of the worst fielding players in Major League history. I do remember that he led the league in errors for a third baseman several times while in Kansas City.
Another player I saw during my first exposure to Major League Baseball was Jim Finigan. Finigan was in his rookie season as an Athletic in 1954 and made the move with the team to Kansas City in 1955. Finigan’s rookie year was special, as he batted .302 and was runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting that year. Bob Grim of the Yankees was the winner of the award. He wasn’t as good in his first year in KC, batting .255 but he was a member of the All-Star team for the second consecutive season. He played both third base and second base, but with Lopez spending a lot of time at third base, Finigan was used mostly at second in Kansas City. He was traded to Detroit in 1957. What I have learned since being in Ponca City is that Finigan started his career as a member of the Yankees’ organization and he was a teammate of Mickey Mantle on the 1949 Independence Yankees. That means he would have played in Ponca City three or four times when Independence played the Ponca City Dodgers at Conoco Park.
One of my favorite members of the A’s was Harry “Suitcase” Simpson who joined the team during its first year in KC. Simpson was a player who moved from team to team on a regular basis and it was said that his frequent moves were responsible for his nickname. “He always has his suitcase packed ready to go,” was the way A’s announcer Merle Harmon explained it. But later in the season Harmon was interviewing “Suitcase” when the player gave a different story about the name.
“I wear a size 13 shoe,” Simpson said. “People started saying my shoes were as big as suitcases.”
Simpson played a couple of years in Kansas City, but as usual, the Yankees came calling on KC’s better players. At the tail end of the 1957 season, New York needed a solid outfielder in their pennant drive and they traded for Simpson. He helped them win the pennant and had a good World Series. In 1958 he was back in Kansas City and in 1959 he retired.
Some may not remember that Hall-of-Famer Enos Slaughter played for the Athletics. He had had a great career as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1938 to 1953 and in 1954 was traded to the Yankees. He moved to Kansas City in 1955 and then was traded back to the Yankees in 1956. I was never a huge Enos Slaughter fan, but because he played for the A’s for a time he has a special place in my thoughts.
Big Bob Cerv was another special Kansas City A. Cerv broke in with the New York Yankees, but never impressed Manager Casey Stengel and didn’t play much. Towards the end of the 1956 season Stengel sat down near Cerv in the Yankees’ dugout and commented “There’s not too many people that know this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City.: Cerv became a starter with the A’s and in 1958 had a break out year in which he batted .308 with 38 home runs and 104 RBIs. Fans voted him to be a member of the American League All Star team beating out Ted Williams for the honor. Cerv was especially popular in Nebraska as he was a former baseball and basketball player at the University of Nebraska. Where I lived in North Central Kansas, the only television stations available (three) were from Nebraska. So there was a lot of coverage of Cerv’s exploits on local sports programs. Surprise, surprise. After two or three good seasons in Kansas City, the Yankees wanted him back again in 1960.
Alex Kellner was a seasoned veteran when he moved with the A’s from Philadelphia to Kansas City.
I hadn’t seen Kellner pitch, as I had with Portocarrero, but I was a fan before he made the move because I had his baseball card. I remember the card told all about his 1949 rookie year with Philadelphia when he won 20 games. It was the first time an A’s pitcher had won so many games since 1933 when Lefty Grove won 20. Kellner was a good hitting pitcher and I was listening when he hit a blast over the wall in a game against the Cleveland Indians. He was described as the ace of the staff in that first year in KC.
Bobby Shantz was another pitcher who had a 20-win season in Philadelphia, winning 24 games in 1952. At the end of the season his wrist was shattered when he was hit by a pitch while batting. He never quite got back his 1952 form, but stuck around the big leagues for a number of years.
He was another player who became a favorite of mine through the medium of baseball cards. A couple of things I remember--Merle Harmon liked to introduce him as “The Mighty Mite” because he was very small in stature. His brother, Wilmer, was a catcher on the 1955 A’s. Both Shantz’s were traded to the New York Yankees
I was always a fan of Bert Campaneris. “Campy” was an important part of the Oakland A’s championship teams in the 1970s. But he broke in in Kansas City in 1964. He was a versatile player and as a promotional event thought up by owner Charles O. Finley he played all nine positions during a game in 1964. I was in college at the time and was listening to the event. Finley had him ride onto the field on the team mascot, a mule appropriately known as “Charlie O.” When he pitched, he did so ambidextrously, throwing as a left-hander against left-handed batters and right-handed against right-handed batters. Actor Will Ferrell has played in spring training games at all nine positions in honor of Campaneris. Campy had the distinction of hitting two home runs in his first game. The first coming on the first pitch he had ever seen in the big leagues.
Trivia question--Who are the four other players who hit two home runs in their first MLB game? Answer--Bob Nieman (1951), Mark Quinn (1999), J. P. Arencibia (2010) and Trevor Story (2016).
It has been fun remembering just a few of the special players who wore a Kansas City uniform back in the day.