Opening day jogs memories

Former Athletics say they received a royal welcome in K.C.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:57 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Fifty years ago Tuesday, former president Harry Truman threw out the first pitch when Kansas City entered the major leagues as the new home of the Athletics, the storied American League franchise that won five World Series under Connie Mack.

Arnold Johnson, a Chicago businessman, bought the team from Mack in November 1954 and moved it to Kansas City, which welcomed the newcomers with a parade on April 11.

“I’d never been in a parade in my life like that, certainly not for baseball,” recalled Gus Zernial, now 83. “We had it all to ourselves in Kansas City. I can’t explain it. We were just happy guys.”

The first game in Municipal Stadium, now long gone, drew a packed house of 32,844. Among those on hand besides Truman were Mack, then 92, who received a big round of applause, commissioner Ford Frick and AL president Will Harridge.

Merle Harmon, now 77, was one of the radio play-by-play announcers for the game and said the atmosphere in Kansas City was “like Times Square.”

“People milling and walking up and down Main Street and 12th Street, around the Muehlbach,” Harmon said. “When people saw the carnival atmosphere, when all these people would come in from all over the place, even Kansas Citians were shocked. They didn’t realize the impact Major League Baseball was going to have.”

The Athletics, managed by Lou Boudreau, played the Detroit Tigers in the opener and won 6-2 behind veteran left-hander Alex Kellner. He came out after the game and discovered that his car, which he had parked on the street, was gone. Police had ordered it and other cars parked in the area towed away, leaving the pitcher with a $5 fine and a $5 towing fee.

Zernial drove in one of the Kansas City runs that day, and the big hit was a pinch single in the sixth by Don Bollweg that put the Athletics ahead to stay.

The team ended up the season with a 63-91 record, finishing sixth in what was then an eight-team league.

Joe DeMaestri, a shortstop who had two hits in the opener, said the Kansas City fans were just delighted to have big-league baseball.

“It didn’t make much of a difference what our record was,” said DeMaestri, 76. “They were happy to have us. And most of us appreciated that.”

The Athletics were later sold to Charlie Finley, one of the more flamboyant owners in baseball history, and he soon tired of Kansas City. He finally was able to take the team to Oakland for the 1968 season.

After going without major league baseball for a year, Kansas City obtained a new franchise when the AL expanded in 1969, with pharmaceutical manufacturing entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman founding the Royals.

The Royals started playing in Municipal Stadium before moving in 1973 to the new and much larger park now called Kauffman Stadium.

On Monday, 41,788 people — the largest crowd to see a Royals’ home opener — turned out to watch their team fall to Seattle.

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