Home Field in the Heart of America
What have pro sports teams meant for Kansas City? More than just community pride, they’ve helped change the region’s quality of life.
It’s sad, really, that so many people think of history as a time period that began the day they were born. For those folks, especially the ones old enough to remember Jorge Ortega’s lunge toward first base, Don Denkinger, the Blown Call, the Game 6 Miracle and the 1985 World Series title for the Kansas City Royals, it’s easy to think of that meeting as the birth of this city’s rivalry with St. Louis.
Anyone who believes that, however, is off the mark by just a tad—101 years, actually. If you dust off the record books, you’ll find that the first professional baseball team here, the Kansas City Unions, offered a tiny taste of baseball agony to come over most of the next 130 seasons. They finished a sterling 16-63 in 1884, the only year of play for the Union Association league, and just 61 games out of first place—which went to the St. Louis Maroons.
A natural rivalry, it seems, was born.
Names from that distinguished 50(!)-man roster for the ’84 Unions, like Peek-a-Boo Veach, Jersey Bakely, Kid Baldwin and Nin Alexander, have long since been supplanted by Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and George Brett, still the Royals’ only Hall-of-Famer. But the point is this: Kansas City’s history with professional sports is far deeper than many of us may realize. And it has a meaning that many of us may not fully appreciate.
“I think Kansas City, in the minds of a lot of KC area residents, is defined as a great professional sports town; it’s important to our self-image,” says Crosby Kemper III, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library and former CEO of UMB Bank. “The town seems a little depressed when the Chiefs or Royals are not doing well, and they were not doing well, simultaneously, for about a decade. Thankfully, that’s no longer true and the atmosphere is a lot brighter right now, especially with the Royals almost guaranteed to be in the playoffs at this point.”
To appreciate the evolution of professional sports in Kansas City, one must consider the national context. And in that context, baseball has been the foundation. By 1884, the game had been entrenched in America and evolving for nearly 40 years. By comparison, James Naismith wouldn’t invent basketball for another seven years. Football, though a fixture on college campuses, but was still more akin to rugby, with the forward pass not legalized until 1906.
Even then, you had to be at the games to closely follow your favorite teams—the first commercial radio station in the U.S. didn’t appear until 1920, two years before KMBZ launched locally. Radio helped build fan bases for baseball and college football until the broadcast game changed completely with the advent of television after World War II.
The NFL we know today as glitz, flash and tailgating masses had humble beginnings in the 1920s—even then, more than two decades after the first attempts at organized pro ball had come and gone, people were still not buying into the notion of watching paid performers on the field. But TV breathed new life into professional athletics, bolstering not just baseball and college football, but creating a demand for professional football, pro and college basketball and Olympic sports telecasts over the next three decades.
Then came ESPN, followed quickly by the advent of 24/7 sports channels starved for programming, which is how we got to high school football games being broadcast on television these days.
For sports fans in Kansas City, one word ties together those varied lines of competition, says Andy Jacobs, a sports psychologist who has worked with the Royals, UMKC’s basketball team, and hosts a weekly radio show on the subject.
“The word that pops to mind is ‘passion,’” Jacobs says, “Fans here are extremely passionate. What I mean is that it’s good and bad; people live and die with these teams. The Royals had a long history of not being in the playoffs since ’85, and I worked with them for six years, so I know the passion the fans here are seeing now with the way they’re playing.”
Let’s start, then, with baseball. Think for a moment about what it took to be a professional baseball player in the late 19th century. Theirs surely was a true love for the game, because compensation was thin for anyone but star players, and the best means of travel was by rail, so even a cross-state game with the St. Louis Maroons would have been a difficult undertaking.
The efforts, though, paid off at the turnstile: “By the 1890s, some teams were drawing 30,000 people a game,” says Lloyd Johnson, a local baseball historian and author who used to work at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “Once the bishop in Boston gave the OK for games on Sundays, it really took off.”
In Kansas City, that started with the Unions, and for the next 40 years, professional baseball was, literally, the only game in town, and often played at the minor-league level. For one brief season, 1886, we had a pro baseball team—the Kansas City Cowboys—playing in what today is major-league baseball’s National League.
But until the middle of the 20th century, baseball in town was owned by the Kansas City Monarchs, a fixture in the Negro Leagues from 1920 until 1955. Until it began seeing its best players break baseball’s color barrier in the late ’40s, the Negro League produced some stellar play, and the Monarchs had talents like Paige and O’Neill. The team won World Series championships in 1924 and 1942 and played in eight other title series.
The original Negro League itself was formed in Kansas City, after owners from a few Midwestern clubs gathered at the Paseo YMCA in 1920 to hammer out a structure. Eastern and southern states soon joined in, cementing the place of baseball in African-American culture. And the man credited with breaking the color barrier, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had Kansas City ties, as well—he was recruited from the Monarchs in 1945.
In 1955, Kansas City joined the ranks of pro towns, when a stockbroker and industrialist named Arnold Johnson moved his newly acquired Philadelphia A’s here. For the next 13 years, we had pro baseball, and supported it. Johnson died in 1960, and his widow sold the team to Charles O. Finley—we dare you to find an on-line bio of Finley that doesn’t include some form of the word “quirk” in it—and he spent years looking for other sites before the American League allowed him to pull out of Kansas City after the 1968 season.
“I can still remember the old stadium, when the A’s moved to Oakland, and I still see clear as day, a dummy hung in effigy of Charlie O., and a sign that said ‘Lamar’s our man; down with Finley,’” Jacobs remembers.
After enduring 13 seasons, fans here were even more frustrated to see the A’s become a dominant force in the league, winning three World Series from 1972 to 1974.
“It’s the only major-league franchise that lasted more than one season that never had a winning season,” Kemper notes, “and yet they had very good turnouts. I was one of them. We’ve done a number of programs at the library on the A’s, and they always have had a good turnout. They weren’t quite the level of St. Louis fans, who are the best sports fans in the country, but they were close—very good fans.”
For those fans, the timing of Finley’s move couldn’t have been worse: Jackson County voters had already approved financing for a new stadium, and would now be left with no team to put in it. “On Oct. 18, 1967, American League owners approved Finley’s request to move,” says Curt Nelson, team historian for the Royals. “But at that same meeting was a Kansas City delegation, and the owners agreed that they would provide expansion team, but gave no set timetable. The closest they would come to that was saying, as soon as practical, but no later than 1971.”
Clearly, Nelson said, that promise on its own wasn’t good enough. Enlisting the aid of Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, the Kansas City faction got what it wanted. “Symington was able to meet with the AL owners and press them,” Nelson said. “It goes back to baseball’s anti-trust exemption—Congress always used that when it wanted something from baseball. The owners went back, and on Oct. 19 announced that they would move the time table for a new team to 1969, specifically. They quickly, within 72 hours, when from ‘Yes, but we don’t know when’ to ‘Yes, at the start of ’69,’ because of that.”
Only one niggling little problem remained: There was no formal ownership for the new team. Ewing Kauffman of Marion Labs had given the Kansas City delegation permission to use his name as potential owner for a new franchise, but that was more as a lever, Nelson said.
Kauffman, he said, had once met the general manager of the Cleveland Indians at a business gathering, and they discussed what major league membership meant to a city in business terms. “He believed a team was important, though he was not necessarily a fan himself at that time,” Nelson said.
With the promise of an expansion team secured, various groups stepped forward to submit their ownership credentials. “Ewing Kauffman figured ‘That should be my team now; I gave that backing so they could go to the meeting and say that. It’s my team now.”
That, sad Nelson, was the last time Kauffman referred to the team in those terms. “After that, he said, ‘It’s Kansas City’s team,’ and that he was just there to help give birth to it.”
A fan contest to generate names for the new team yielded such non-starters as the Mules, the Mo-Kans and the Capsules, as well as the Stars or—in tribute to the minor-league club that operated from the late 1880s to 1954—the Blues. But St. Louis had just secured an NHL franchise that year, and called it the Blues. Two Blues from a single state in the same year might have been too much. The new team would be named as part of a tribute to the longstanding influence of the American Royal.
As an expansion team, the organization would bloom quickly under the leadership of Cedric Tallis, the Royals’ first general manager. But scouting director Lou Gorman, a pair of young executives, John Scheurholz and Herk Robinson, along with Rosey Gilhousen, who scouted Southern California, all had a hand in drafting, signing and developing a kid by the name of George Brett, who would become the on-field face of the organization over his 20-year Hall of Fame career.
They also signed an undrafted free agent, Dan Quisenberry, giving the young team one of the game’s most consistent closers to go along with one of its most consistent hitters. And it put them under the tutelage of Whitey Herzog, who would go on to earn World Series fame with the Cardinals.
“Whitey’s first success as a manager was in Kansas City,” said Nelson, reflecting on the pennant showdowns of 1976-78, which all went to the Yankees. “He has a lot of association with the Cardinals, because that’s where he finally won a world title.”
The Royals made it to the 1980 World Series, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in six games, but returned in 1985, beating the Cardinals in seven games after falling behind in the series, three games to none.
Until last year’s flirtation with a wild-card spot, which eventually fell a few games short, and this year’s division-leading performance into September, there have been only a handful of winning seasons since that ’85 pinnacle, and no playoff appearances.
Not long after Kansas City became a pro baseball town—and before Charlie O. acquired the A’s and started giving baseball fans reasons to look elsewhere for their loyalties—a young executive from Dallas was building support for expansion of the National Football League. Lamar Hunt’s frustration with barriers to entry there led to his collaboration with others to form the rival American Football League, and after a couple of successful seasons, Hunt decided to move the Dallas Texans to Kansas City.
Hunt had already secured the talents of a boisterous Hank Stram as coach, and a relative unknown at quarterback who had just 204 passing yards in five NFL seasons, Len Dawson. But Dawson was an instant success in the new league, leading the Texans to the AFL title in 1962. Despite being the more successful pro football team in that two-team market, Hunt went shopping for a new home.
Enter H. Roe Bartle, Kansas City’s mayor. Nickname: The Chief. Bartle invited Hunt to Kansas City, but “getting the team to come here was no small feat,” says Bob Moore, the Chiefs’ historian. The city gave the team office space at a dollar-a-year rent, but had to overcome obstacles like the A’s rights to Municipal Stadium, which meant the home football season couldn’t begin until October.
“The team had a seven-year lease at Municipal for $1 a year; the Texans were paying $10,000 a game to rent the Cotton Bowl,” Moore said. “The city would get 5 percent of gross after the $1.1 million point, but if the team didn’t reach that, the $1 rate remained in place.”
The team and city split revenues from concessions, the city installed 3,000 more permanent seats at the stadium and built an office building and practice field for the team. Bartle had made a deal promising to sell 25,000 seasons tickets, and local businessman Ray Evans chaired a 90-day campaign to hit that mark. “They didn’t make that,” Moore said. “They got to about 13,500. By today’s standards, that sounds tiny, but at that time, even in the NFL, it would have been a lot of season tickets. Minnesota by comparison, in the NFL, needed two years to sell 26,000.”
Here, too, the fans were invited to submit names for the new team, prompting entries like the Steers, Royals and, yes, the MoKans. In the end, the Chiefs won out, in part as a tribute to “Chief” Bartle and his efforts to bring them here.
Interest soared after the Chiefs made it to the first Super Bowl, despite losing to the Green Bay Packers in 1967. Three years later, they were back, defeating the Minnesota Vikings, 16-7, in a game that, like world wars, had started to acquire Roman numerals—Super Bowl IV.
After a decline that led to the firing of Stram in 1975, the Chiefs entered a long period of on-field flops and declining attendance. They would stay there for more than a decade, until Carl Peterson was hired as general manager in 1989, bringing in Marty Schottenheimer as coach. Over the course of Peterson’s 20-year tenure, Arrowhead Stadium became one of the toughest venues for visiting teams, tailgating became a cultural experience, and fans began a long streak of sellouts that belied the team’s on-field success.
After falling short of the Super Bowl by a game in 1993, the Chiefs have made the playoffs seven times. And they’ve been bounce in the first round each time—four of those by the Indianapolis Colts. Yet the team retains a fan base rated as one of the NFL’s best and most loyal.
Other Pro Sports
Quick: Who was Joe Axelson? Bep Guidolin? How about David Schoenstadt? If you know all three, congratulations: You’re a bona fide Kansas City sports nut. Axelson was for years the general manager of the Kansas City Kings, who for 13 seasons (three as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings) made us a pro basketball town.
Despite legendary names like Bob Cousy and Cotton Fitzsimmons in the head coach’s chair, the Kings made it to the playoffs only five times in that stretch, advancing past the first round only three times. But for pro roundball fans, the team gave us names that will always resonate—Nate Archibald, the lightning-quick guard, center Sam Lacey, forwards Scottie Wedman and Jimmy Walker.
Attendance, though, was a constant battle—for those 13 seasons, the Kings averaged only 7,750 tickets per game, most of which were played in Kemper Arena. Seating nearly 20,000, it was more a mausoleum than a pro sporting venue, and the Kings drew more than 10,000 fans a game in only one season, 1978–79, before moving on to Sacramento in 1985.
Guidolin was the first head coach of the Kansas City Scouts, who for two seasons established Kansas City among only about a dozen metro areas nationally with all four major pro sports. Regrettably, it was not a high-performance tenure: The first season, with a 15–54–11 record, only got worse, a 12-win campaign with 56 losses and 12 ties. With average attendance of 8,218 over those two years, the team’s ownership group cried uncle and sold to
a Denver businessman in 1976.
The Kansas City Comets, who debuted in 1979, changed the major-sports dynamic in the city. Owner David Schoenstadt put the team in the hands of two brothers, Tracey and Tim Lieweke, who infused the indoor soccer fan experience with laser light shows and fireworks. It worked: Even though the team would fold within a decade, average attendance hit 11,502 during the Comets’ peak in 1982.
Sharing Kemper Arena at that time with the NBA’s Kings, the difference was stark—and, for some, chafing. Fitzsimmons, the Kings’ coach, once lamented to
a reporter about being outdrawn by the Comets. “Here’s something that’s not even a game,” he said. “They make up the rules as they go along. But they’ve marketed aggressively and they’ve taken Kansas City by storm.”
In some ways, though, the Comets set the stage for the success by the Kansas City Wizards, founded by Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt in 1996. After his death in 2006, the team was sold to a five-member group led by Cerner co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig. In 2011, it rebranded, as Sporting Kansas City. Under the direction of partner and CEO Robb Heineman, the team has masterfully applied marketing skill, collaborations with other organizations and schools and on-field successes to turn the pro sports scene on its ear in this city.
In 2011, the team opened a glittering $200 million stadium in western Wyandotte County, praised as the most up-to-date and innovative fan experience in the country. And last December, Sporting defeated Real Salt Lake to win the MLS Cup, the championship of U.S. pro soccer.
“There seems to be a constant attempt to get another pro sports team, hockey, basketball, et cetera, into this city,” said Kemper. “But the one successful version of a relatively new sport, though we’ve had versions of it before, is Sporting Kansas City, one of the great marketing successes of our time. They have been brilliant.”
You could go to the place where the Kansas City Unions perfected the art of on-field failure 130 years ago, but you’d be taking a big chance: What was once Association Park is now the access ramp to I-29 and I-35 from The Paseo. That ballfield, like the nearby Exposition Park (a commercial and industrial area today), Blues Stadium/Municipal Stadium (a community garden and public park today), has long faded into the history books.
Exposition Park was home to what you might call the Kansas City Blues 1.0, an American Association team, starting with the 1889 season, then Blues 2.0, from 1902 to 1919. Blues Stadium was the name by which a 17,500-seat structure initially known as Muehlebach Stadium upon its completion in 1923. Expansion of the site to meet major-league baseball requirement of the time and allow the Kansas City A’s to set up shop eventually more than doubled the seating to 35,000 and change, and earned a rebranding as Municipal Stadium.
It was home to the Blues (1923–1954), the Monarchs of the Negro Leagues (1923–50), the Kansas City Athletics, (1955–1967), and finally, the Royals for their first four seasons, before their half of the Truman Sports Complex opened in 1973, and for the Chiefs, from 1963 through 1971—the Christmas Day loss to Miami that year was the last NFL game played there... and it happened to be the longest game in history.
Arrowhead and Royals Stadium—rechristened Kauffman Stadium after the death of Mr. K—still stand as premier sports venues today. Designed by architect Charles Deaton, the twin-stadium concept was the first facility in the nation to offer venues specific to each tenant. Voters in 2006 approved a measure to raise sales taxes for major renovations at the stadiums, and Kauffman underwent a $250 upgrade; Arrowhead’s improvements came to $375 million.
In 2007, Kansas City opened Sprint Center, effectively ending Kemper Arena’s primacy as the city’s indoor sporting venue. Although no permanent tenant has been found, as with a pro basketball or hockey team, the arena consistently ranks among the busiest venues of its kind not only in the nation, but globally, and college basketball games featuring all three local Division I programs—MU, K-State and KU—have been part of that equation.
The fate of Kemper Arena, which last hosted an NCAA Tournament title game in 1988, when KU defeated Oklahoma, remains a civic question mark to this day. Even now, proposals to both renovate the arena for other uses and to tear it down altogether are being assessed at City Hall.
The granddaddy of sports venues here, in duration if not seating capacity: Municipal Auditorium. The historic arena Downtown hosted three of the first four NCAA title games, and has witnessed enough Final Fours to have Kansas City, for now, atop the list of U.S. cities to host college basketball’s premier event. With less than 11,000 seats at its maximum, though, its days as a major-event venue have passed.
The Overall Impact
Driven by its interests in pro sports, KC remains a hotbed of minor league sports activities, as well. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics has its main offices near the Sprint Center and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association is headquartered here. Now nearly 50 years old, the Kansas City Sports Commission uses athletic events to bolster the overall quality of life in this region, and proudly claims more than $750 million in economic impact for the area since 1990.
Kathy Nelson, the commission’s CEO, says that success wouldn’t be possible without the interest in athletics generated by the professional teams—or the contributions those teams make financially and with collaborative efforts.
“We deal a lot with the pro teams, but when it comes to what we’re doing on the field, we work more with the venues in place and attracting amateur sports,” Nelson said. “But our pro teams have aligned nicely with everything they’ve put back into the community.”
With assets like Sporting Park, Sprint Center, Independence Events Center and more, she said, Kansas City is well-positioned to recruit on a national stage. September alone, she said, would entail meetings with the governing bodies of national sports associations, the Big XII conference, and NCAA committees for various sports. “And they all want to know the buzz in Kansas City and how they can get to come here.”
And the contributions that various teams make has other, often-overlooked benefits. Consider the case of Deron Cherry, the former All-Pro safety for the Chiefs whose football career ended in 1991. But he stayed in Kansas City to parlay his on-field performance into business success; he’s now president of United Beverage, an Anheuser Busch distributor.
“The real decision was made when I settled here after my third year in the league,” Cherry said. “I realized that this was the place I wanted to live and stay here, regardless of what happened in football. It just suited me perfectly: It was centrally located, and I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that were here.”
It also made sense, he said, because giving back to the community was a big priority. “The way the fans embraced me when I took over the position at free safety, I felt more comfortable that this was where I wanted to live and raise my family.”
And he’s not alone. Cherry is part of the Chiefs Ambassadors brotherhood, perhaps the NFL’s most sophisticated effort to keep former players aligned with the organization and, by extension, building new connections between the team and its fan base.
The presence of a pro sports team, he said, means a great deal for a city
“It’s kind of like a second heartbeat for the city,” he said. “The city rallies around the team. I think you see the importance of having the Chiefs here, the long history they’ve had, the impact they’ve made in the community, and the fact that so many players eventually end up living here, being productive citizens and making huge investments here. It’s immeasurable the impact that’s had on the community over the years here.”