Baseball expansion Class of 1969: Royals pushed when others weren’t quite ready

If baseball had its way in the mid-1960s, the birthdays and anniversaries of the biggest expansion class in the game’s history wouldn’t happen for another couple of years.

The Kansas City Royals are to thank (or blame) for the half-century occasions that were recognized last year and are being marked this season, including Saturday’s Royals-Nationals game in Washington, where the teams dressed in 1969 uniforms.

The Royals sported road greys with the script “Kansas City.”

The Nationals, for the first time, brought back the uniform of their original team, the Montreal Expos.

The Royals, Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots arrived together in 1969, an expansion class that was rushed into business because of Kansas City.

Who knows? Had expansion occurred when baseball originally planned, in 1971, the teams would have had more time to organize and ready their stadiums.

The original timetable could have altered the path of, say, the Pilots, who spent one year in Seattle before moving to Milwaukee. And that might have had an impact on future expansion.

But Kansas City, just burned by the relocation of the Athletics to Oakland, didn’t want to wait.

“Kansas City had its ducks in a row,” Royals historian Curt Nelson said.

The Royals spent 2018 celebrating their 50 years, but let’s use Saturday’s throwback jerseys game to recall how Kansas City pushed expansion forward to create the Royals and take the lead on this chapter of baseball history, which gave the sport division play, playoffs, and the first team outside the United States.

Roots of expansion

The origin for baseball expansion in 1969 began a decade earlier, even before the first expansion brought about the New York Mets, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels and new Washington Senators.

In 1960, Charley Finley bought controlling interest in the Kansas City A’s, beginning an era of instability. Finley almost immediately started looking for cities to relocate the team, considering such sites as Louisville, Dallas, New Orleans and Milwaukee.

Finally, after the 1967 season, American League owners at an October meeting approved the relocation of the A’s to Oakland. Baseball all but promised Kansas City would be awarded a franchise in the next expansion round in 1971. But the date wasn’t good enough for Kansas City.

Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington was from St. Louis, but he became Kansas City’s advocate by threatening through legislative means to revoke baseball’s anti-trust exemption. The sport was put on alert.

Baseball gave in. Kansas City and Seattle were awarded American League franchises. Now Kansas City needed an owner, and not another erratic figure like Finley. Ernie Mehl and columnist Joe McGuff, the former and current sports editors of The Kansas City Star, were among those who had met with Ewing Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories, and identified him as the ideal local candidate to own a baseball team. Kauffman liked the notion of giving back.

“Mr. K had recently been to a Chamber of Commerce meeting, where the general manager of the Cleveland Indians had given a talk about the importance of baseball to a community,” said Nelson, Director of the Royals Hall of Fame.. “Mr. K believed that. He understood how important major league baseball was to the city.”

Four potential ownership groups made presentations to AL owners at a December meeting. On Jan. 8, 1968, the team was awarded to Kauffman.

“What’s important to remember about those meetings is Kansas City was ready to go,” Nelson said. “The city had years to determine that the A’s life here was probably going to end badly and it needed to be ready.”

That’s the advantage, plus a major league-ready ballpark in Municipal Stadium, Kansas City had over some other expansion cities. Seattle rushed to get its 11,000-seat stadium up to 30,000 by 1969.

Montreal played its first six games on the road, or else Jarry Park, expanded from 3,000 to 28,000 seats, wouldn’t have been ready.

Activity in Milwaukee, too

Like Kansas City, Milwaukee lost a team in the 1960s, when the Braves left for Atlanta. Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig was working in his father’s automobile business when he became the leader of the group to restore baseball in his city.

Kansas City’s quick return got his attention. He started lobbying National League owners and at the NL meeting in May 28, 1968, the two teams were to be announced. He was crushed when they were Montreal and San Diego.

“I had gotten to know Ewing Kauffman,” Selig told The Star. “And Kansas City and Milwaukee were so much alike.

“When we didn’t get the (expansion) franchise, we were so disappointed.”

But Selig, whose autobiography “For the Good of the Game,” was just released, remained interested in a team and believed there was a chance to buy the Chicago White Sox for the 1970 season. That opportunity didn’t materialize but one soon would.

The Pilots were in financial trouble, and on a visit to Seattle, Selig agreed to buy the club. The sale process was underway when Seattle arrived in Arizona for spring training. The transaction became final just before Opening Day, and the truck with the team’s equipment reached Salt Lake City to await word on a direction. Seattle or Milwaukee? The truck went East, and Selig remained in constant contact with Kauffman.

“Within weeks of getting the team, I was on the phone with Ewing ... a lot,” Selig said. “I wanted to know what they did and how they did it.”

The Royals finished with the best record, 69-93, of the Class of 1969, and would take the quickest path to success among the eight expansion teams of the 1960s. They surpassed .500 in their third season and were part of a division race in their fifth year, the first in a new stadium, with the help of a pair of rookies, George Brett and Frank White.

A sterling start indeed

When the Royals completed 25 years, they owned a franchise winning percentage of .517 and had 16 winning seasons.

Kauffman’s death in 1993 changed the direction and fortune of the franchise. There had been no 100-loss seasons until 2002. The Royals have had five in their second quarter century and the winning percentage over that time (1994-2018) was .448.

The game’s economics had also shifted. Smaller market teams were at a financial disadvantage and it took the Royals longer to build a second World Series champion in 2015, than the first in 1985.

But the Royals remain the only team from the Class of 1969 to wear baseball’s crown. The Padres have played in two World Series, the Brewers one. The Nationals/Expos seek their first pennant.

Kansas City endured one year without baseball between the A’s and Royals, and it was long enough to inspire leaders to get moving on the next chapter.

In a letter to American League president Joe Cronin, dated Oct. 20, 1967, Symington captured Kansas City’s mood.

“As the play says, “ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL,” although it will be rough to see the “year of no baseball” to the people of the Kansas City area,” Symington wrote. “Thank you very much for all your courtesy tome and the rest of us. We will repay you by doing one of the finest jobs in all of baseball.”

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