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Sports & Culture: An essay by Joe McGuff

Perhaps it was a case of postwar exhaustion. Perhaps it was postwar caution. Whatever the reason, Kansas City entered a period of lethargy following World War II. There was virtually no new construction in the downtown area. The population grew at a slow pace.

The remedy to this period of stagnation came from an unexpected source — major league baseball.

The person principally responsible for leading Kansas City into the major leagues was Ernie Mehl, sports editor of The Star.

His push against a wall of indifference reignited the spirit of a city already famous for jazz, soon to be noted for barbecue and sports, and now poised for a cultural renaissance with an upcoming downtown entertainment district, performance arts center and expanded art gallery.

After the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, Ernie set out on a personal campaign to get a major league team in Kansas City. The St. Louis Browns were the obvious target. The Browns had a long history of financial problems. Even Bill Veeck, baseball’s greatest promoter, could not make a profit running the Browns.

Ernie began soliciting the business community to see whether a group could be put together to buy the Browns. The business community regarded Ernie as a dreamer, and it was not in the mood to buy any dreams. One of the city’s most influential bankers offered to help by contributing $10,000.

In 1954 the Browns moved to Baltimore.

Ernie decided that if Kansas Citians could not be persuaded that major league baseball would be a good investment, then he would look for ownership outside of Kansas City. The Yankees owned Kansas City’s American Association team, and Ernie had become friendly with Del Webb, a co-owner of the Yankees, so he turned to Webb for guidance. Webb told him he thought that the Mack family might have to sell the Philadelphia Athletics and that Arnold Johnson, the president of Automatic Canteen in Chicago, might be interested.

Johnson had bought the ground under Yankee Stadium and also the stadiums of the Yankee farm clubs in Kansas City and Newark. Ernie felt encouraged, but when he called Johnson he got bad news. Johnson was not interested.

It seemed as if Ernie had struck out.

A few weeks later Ernie had an assignment that took him through Chicago. He decided to make one last call to Johnson. It was a call that led to Kansas City getting major league baseball. Johnson said he had reconsidered and was interested in buying the A’s

Johnson purchased the franchise for about $3 million, and Kansas City celebrated. The acquisition of major league baseball changed not only the image of Kansas City, but also the way Kansas Citians viewed themselves.

To fully understand what the Athletics meant to Kansas City, it is necessary to go back in time to 1955. Baseball was the only true major league sport. Pro football had yet to discover the golden glow of television. Pro basketball was in its infancy. Major league hockey was played in only six cities.

On April 12, 1955, the A’s played their first game in Kansas City. Former President Harry S. Truman threw out the first ball. The A’s defeated the Tigers, 6-2, and Kansas City celebrated long into the night. A new era had begun in Kansas City.

The A’s finished sixth that season, but Kansas City was totally consumed with major league baseball. Ernie’s dream had become a reality.

Joe McGuff joined The Star as a sports reporter in 1948 after a stint at the Tulsa World. McGuff was named sports editor at The Star in 1966. During 38 years in the sports department, he built a record as one of the most honored journalists in the history of The Star. A former president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, McGuff was named outstanding sportswriter in Missouri six times and is a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. In 1985 he was inducted into the writers wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The next year McGuff was named editor and vice president of the Kansas City Star Co., a position he held until he retired in 1992.