The Nomadic A's

Jed Jacobsohn

Why has one of the most successful teams in American League history had such a hard time finding a permanent home?

Sunday night, after throttling the visiting Seattle Mariners 10-2 at O.co Coliseum, the Oakland A's and their opponents were forced out of their clubhouses due to a sewage overflow. In a bit of wordplay reminiscent of a colorful predecessor, Oakland owner Lew Wolff described the situation as "a bunch of crap."

Longtime Bay Area fans will recognize that Wolff's language is about more than just the backed-up pipes in his 46-year-old stadium. For five years now, Oakland's ownership has been trying to escape their tired East Bay home, away from the aging stadium and far from the ever-widening San Francisco Giants empire. Wolff and his partners would like to move to San Jose, but the Giants, who control the San Jose market thanks to an act of generosity twenty years ago, have blocked their path.

If, by some miracle, an agreement is eventually reached to move the A's out of Oakland, they'll be continuing a long and dubious tradition for A's baseball. Founded in 1901 alongside the American League, the Athletics franchise has been one of the most successful in league history. With nine World Championships, the A's rank third among big- league franchises. The club's 14 postseason appearances are tops among American League clubs not named Yankees. Despite all of this success, the A's can't seem to keep a home. If Wolff does end up getting his way, it will be a record fourth big-league city for the franchise.

The question, then, must be asked: What is it about the Athletics franchise that makes it so vulnerable to relocation? Let's explore some possibilities.

Hypothesis: The A's really don't move all that often. It's all in your head.

Here's the thing: franchise relocation isn't all that common for Major League Baseball. It feels like it is, and sportswriters like to bring it up as if it's as easy as moving a pin on a map, but relocation is just not a thing any more. History shows us that, save for the Expos/Nationals, MLB ended relocation in 1972 when the expansion Senators donned cowboy hats and moved to Texas. That was so long ago that the Rangers began their existence before the designated hitter was born.

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The circumstances were ripe. America was in its post-war world and the nation was growing. The interstate system was being built. Airlines were sprouting up everywhere. Population was booming. There was no reason for Major League franchises to confine themselves to the eastern half of the United States anymore.

Between 1953 and 1972, baseball saw franchises move ten different times in nine different years. It's no wonder relocation seems so natural to so many. To anyone who grew up with Willie, Mickey and the Duke, franchise relocation was as common as Hank Aaron hitting a homer.

Still, even with so much movement in such a short time frame, the A's were one of only two teams to move more than once. The Braves fled from their second-run status in Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, then moved again in 1966 to the biggest city in the south. The A's, meanwhile, moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955, then again to Oakland in 1968. A third move for the franchise, even if it's only 45 minutes down the freeway, would be unprecedented.

Hypothesis: The A's have really bad timing.

There may be a little bit of truth to this one.

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Early in its existence, behind a slew of Hall of Famers, the Athletics won five World Series titles and eight pennants to in 25 years. Following that success, however, things soured quickly. As the Depression and war years lingered on, money became tight and attendance lean. With little wealth beyond the club itself, the downturn in attendance affected the Macks more than other owners. It all came to a head in 1950, when the Phillies' Whiz Kids clinched the pennant. Now, not only was owner-manager Connie Mack 86 years old, out of touch, and struggling to keep the Athletics going, the cross-town rivals were suddenly hotter than ever. The second-division Athletics were forgotten in Philadelphia.

The Mack family held out as long as possible before finally selling the team to midwestern magnate Arnold Johnson, who settled the Athletics in Kansas City. A decade of shenanigans and shady dealings followed, from both Johnson and new owner Charlie Finley, who bought the A's in 1960 following Johnson's death. Despite his promises to Kansas City fans, Finley was constantly looking for a better home for his club, even striking deals with Dallas and Louisville before he was finally given permission to move the A's to Oakland. Why Oakland? The city had completed construction on the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum the summer before. If not for the brand new stadium waiting for him, who knows where Finley and the A's would have landed.

Things haven't changed much in Oakland. Ever since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, clubs have been replacing their aging stadiums with glistening new ballparks, usually with the help of the local government. The A's, much to ownership's chagrin, are one of the only teams that have been unable to take advantage of this trend.

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photo via fastballchangeup.files.wordpress.com

Some of the blame for that can land on the relatively youth of the stadium. At the height of the construction boom, the Coliseum was only 30-35 years old -- not so old that it obviously needed to be replaced, but not so young that it had a long life ahead of it. More than that, a devastating decision in 1995 to bring the Raiders back to Oakland made it all but impossible for the club to get a new stadium built. In order to lure the NFL team back to the Bay, the county ruined the Coliseum by building the soul-draining "Mount Davis" in center field. With so much money recently poured into the existing stadium, any request for funds to build a new stadium would fall on deaf ears.

It's all timing. Pushing any of those events back even one or two years, from the Phillies' emergence in 1950 to Oakland's decision to build the Coliseum in 1964 and on, might have altered when, where, or if the Athletics ever moved.

Hypothesis: The A's have bad luck.

This isn't the same thing as bad timing, I promise.

When Charlie Finley moved the A's to Oakland in 1968, he and Major League Baseball were making a bet on the city. Though Oakland wasn't as big as its neighbor across the bay (or some of the other cities Finley had courted), the potential for growth was there. Finley saw it, Major League Baseball saw it, and the city itself saw it.

They were all wrong. The bet didn't pay off as well as anybody thought it would. All Oakland has managed to grow into since 1968 is one of the smallest markets in baseball. Talk about bad luck.

Hypothesis: Maybe it's karma.

Why not, right?

The Athletics made the right move when they left Philadelphia in 1955. The Mack family was low on money, two decades of second-division finishes had killed interest in the team, and the whole of the country was open to them. It was a smart decision.

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Leaving Kansas City, though? Or moving to Kansas City to begin with? Arnold Johnson never wanted the club there from the get-go. He was a Chicago man who settled the club in Missouri only because he owned the Blues, the Yankees' triple-A club (he also owned Yankee Stadium). Thanks to this "special relationship" Johnson had with the big city club, the A's acted very much like a farm club for the Yankees, with the likes of Roger Maris and Clete Boyer heading to New York in lopsided deals. It's hard to build a fanbase when everyone knows any quality players will be immediately sent away.

Things didn't get much better once Charlie Finley took over. While known to make big, public productions of how committed he was to Kansas City, Finley was actually doing everything he could to move the club away. Finally, after convincing the Kansas City government to build a new stadium for the ball club, Finley promptly moved his club to Oakland. Local politicians -- and particularly the powerful Senator Stuart Symington -- were so upset that they threatened to challenge baseball's antitrust exemption if Kansas City didn't get an expansion team. This led directly to the Royals beginning play in 1969.

If one were generous, one could say that all of the shenanigans the Athletics pulled on Kansas City during the club's short tenure there were worth it, because they resulted in the birth of the Royals. George Brett, the 1985 World Series, Bo Jackson, Jeff Francoeur -- all thanks to Charlie Finley's unscrupulous decisions. One could say that if one were generous. A different perspective might suggest that Oakland's struggles in recent years are a bit of karmic payback for how poorly the club's owners treated Kansas City all those years ago. You mess with a town's goodwill for so long, you shouldn't be surprised when the universe gets back at you ten-fold, this perspective might say.

I don't really believe in any of that, of course. But I know which one feels more right.

Hypothesis: The A's of 2013 have little or nothing to do with the A's of 1931 or even 1981 and are dealing with their unique circumstances as best they can.

Regardless of how or why Lew Wolff's A's find themselves where they do, they still have to play the hand they're dealt and hope for the best. Oakland is a very tough market for baseball these days, and that's before you couple it with an aging stadium that is no longer well-suited for baseball. If the club does repeat history and move to a new city, it's not the fault of Connie Mack, the Whiz Kids, Arnold Johnson or even Charlie Finley; it's just reality. No one should feel bad that such a successful franchise is facing those realities with an honest face. Instead, Major League Baseball and its fans should root for Wolff to land the best possible deal for his team. If that means San Jose or Oakland or some other mystery town, great! After all, it's the next 50 or 100 years we should be worrying about, and not what's come before.

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