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Original Issue


The manager of the Athletics took over a last-place club a year ago and moved it up to seventh. Now, looking at his fine kid pitchers, he plans to go higher

The sixth day of spring training for the Kansas City Athletics had ended, and Manager Alvin Dark stood alone atop one of the red-clay pitching mounds on the sidelines at Bill McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. His eyes appeared to focus on the gray and gloomy outfield fence while he tossed a shiny new baseball from one hand to the other and rocked back and forth on his heels and toes. Dark had been asked to summarize his impressions of the first few days of workouts and to tell the hopes he had for his team in the coming season. He finally pushed the baseball into his hip pocket and came off the mound. "I'm just tickled to death," he said, "just plain tickled to death. I've got the greatest bunch of boys I've ever had. I didn't realize there were this many good kids left in the whole world."

Kids playing for Kansas City? Yep. Good kids playing for Kansas City who will not be sent to the New York Yankees on the underground railroad? Yep. Good kids who were signed for real money and not picked up in another of those traditional Kansas City scavenger hunts? Yep. Kids good enough to put the Athletics into the first division for the first time in Kansas City's history? Yep, that's possible. In fact, it looks very, very possible.

Although it is again that time of the year when huge amounts of flapdoodle and false promises come pouring out of spring training camps in Florida, Arizona and California, a team to keep an eye on this spring is indeed at Bradenton where Dark is fitting together a young ball club that is going to be heard from for a long time to come. Even in Bradenton, which is not the liveliest of spring training towns, a slogan is beginning to catch hold. It goes, "Get aboard the A's train."

During the five months since the Baltimore Orioles rolled over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series (or the Los Angeles Dodgers rolled over for the Baltimore Orioles), American Leaguers have spent most of their time discussing and debating three major subjects. The first is whether Frank Robinson can possibly have as good a year in 1967 as he had in 1966. The second is which of the three prime contenders—Baltimore, Minnesota or Detroit—will win the pennant. The third is Kansas City, and for the first time the A's are not a subject of ridicule. Last year opposing players, managers and general managers suddenly began respecting the Athletics, and some people have even been so bold as to predict that a K.C. pennant may be only two years away.

One of the prime reasons for this enthusiasm, of course, is 22-year-old Jim Nash (see cover) who came up to the A's last year in the first week of July and in the last three months of the season won 12 games while losing only one. But Nash is not the only reason why insiders are predicting big things in the future for the Athletics. Kansas City will begin this season with five starting pitchers whose average age is 21.8. Currently, Dark is also looking over another flight of 10 young pitchers—all of them rookies—and one or more of them might win a place on the team before the season opens a month from now. By happy coincidence, this second flight also averages 21.8 years; not one member of this group pitched under .500 ball in the minor leagues, and their combined won-lost total in 1966 was an impressive 108-53.

The change in the Kansas City outlook from what it was only two years ago is remarkable. Back in April of 1965 the A's opened the season with a creaking starting staff that had an average age of 27.6, and the Athletics lost 11 of their first 13 games. Last season—Dark's first as manager—the Athletics got off to an even poorer start and lost 14 of their first 17. But Dark turned to his young pitchers and began using them at every opportunity in the hope that they would gain valuable experience. At times the process of gaining that experience was painful. One day in Detroit, for example, Dark watched bitterly as Al Kali e stole a base in the eighth inning against the A's, even though the Tigers were ahead at the time by nine runs.

"Just wait," Dark, more irritated than humiliated, said then. "Just wait. Our day is coming, and it's going to be a lot sooner than most people think."

Kansas City broke out of that original slump and was only one game under .500 for the rest of the season despite a second slump (6-12) immediately after the All-Star break. The team finished a rising seventh, only six games out of the first division.

The oddest thing about Kansas City's newly won respectability was the accompanying silence on the part of the team's owner, Charles O. Finley. Finley was inordinately quiet when everyone thought he would be at his very loudest. Not once did he burn a bus in public or hire a female announcer or ride a mule into the ball park. Charlie didn't even promise the people of Louisville that the A's were theirs.

Since the end of last season Charlie has made just three little moves. He has made the hues of the A's gaudy uniforms a little gaudier. "The wedding-gown-white uniform," he said recently, "is a notch brighter. So is the Fort Knox gold and so is the sea-foam green" {left to right on cover). He has decreed that this year the Athletics will also wear gold batting helmets. And he insists that this season his players are going to be the first major league baseball team ever to wear white shoes. "Made," says Charlie," from the rare albino kangaroo. These shoes will have kelly-green laces going around the tops to give them an even more colorful look. If the opposition claims that they cannot see the ball because of our white shoes it might cause a controversy. I hate controversy. I might just have green shoes with white laces ready in case that comes up. If the field is muddy we will wear black shoes with white laces." And they were wearing black shoes in spring training.

Of course, there are many people in Kansas City who maintain that Finley has reacted mildly to his team's success because he is waiting for his lease with the city (for rental of Municipal Stadium) to expire at the end of the 1967 season. At that time, some suggest, he will make quite a bit of noise by moving the club to Oakland, Calif.

The Athletics have not drawn over a million people at home since their first two years in Kansas City back in 1955 and 1956. Last year their attendance, stimulated by the emergence of youth, jumped 250,000, but even that substantial increase left K.C. 17th in attendance in the majors with 773,929. Should the Athletics get off to a good start this year, attendance may bounce back over a million and that may squash any immediate hopes Finley might have for skipping town with his ball club. The early portion of this year's Kansas City schedule is difficult, because in its first 14 games the team plays Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland—two contenders and a team with a history of fast starts. Dark seems unworried by the prospect. "I know this team will not get off bad," he says confidently. "It is too good a team for that."

Even before spring training officially began many of the A's showed up at Mc-Kechnie Field on their own and worked out. As Jim Nash ran wind sprints in the outfield, Cot Deal, the pitching coach, watched him with admiration. "It is very rare," he said, "that a pitcher comes along with both the natural gifts and the attitude that Nash has. He has an instinct for pitching. So do most of these kids." Dark's explanation for his young talent's rapid development is deceptively simple: "They go out on the mound and look in at the hitter and they say, 'Hey, boy, who you? I never read anything about you.'"

While Nash has gotten the most publicity of the five young starting pitchers, he also received the smallest amount of Finley's bonus money. Kansas City signed him for only $2,000, whereas Lew (Kid) Krausse Jr., Chuck Dobson, Jim (Catfish) Hunter and John (Blue Moon) Odom represent $300,000 in bonuses. Krausse, the son of a pitcher who had a brief tour with the Philadelphia A's in the early '30s, broke into the majors in 1961 after signing with the A's for $125,000. Barely 18 at the time, he pitched spectacularly in his early starts but did not seem capable of handling the sudden rush of fame that struck him. He was down in the minors for most of the next four seasons but finally returned to the parent club as a polished pitcher last year. He won 14 games and lost nine, and was in the top 10 in the league in earned run averages.

Catfish Hunter will not turn 21 until a few days before the season begins. All he needs to do is sharpen his control just a little to be worth the $75,000 that Finley paid him to sign in 1964. (He was given the nickname Catfish at the age of 10 when he ran away from home and returned carrying two catfish as a peace offering to his family.) Hunter has never pitched an inning in the minor leagues, and his won-lost record of 17-19 for his two seasons in the majors is very good for a pitcher with a second-division team.

Like Hunter, Blue Moon Odom was signed in 1964, and he, too, got $75,000. Eighteen of the 20 clubs in the majors were after him, but he settled on Kansas City because he felt he would have his best chance there. "All my life," Odom says, at 21, "I have worn uniform No. 13 just because I like it and because most people say it is unlucky. In my first start against the Yankees, there I was with my No. 13 on and nervous as I could be. I walked some, and they just pounded out the rest, and I was gone after two innings. The Yankees won the game 9-7, but I was not the losing pitcher. Not long after that I pitched my controversial no-hitter, which some say was not a no-hitter and others say was a no-hitter. I don't say very much about it, but I think what I think, and I don't think I quite agree that it was not a no-hitter. It was against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore and there were two things that the scorer called hits. My teammates wanted to beat up the official scorer. Anyway, I was 1-2 that year and needed some work in the minors and I was sent out." In 1966 Odom was sent to the minors again to work on his control and his curve, but he returned to Kansas City in midseason. His record of 5-5 does not look outstanding unless it is put to closer scrutiny. In his last five starts, Odom won by scores of 4-1, 3-0 and 2-0 and lost by 0-3 and 0-1.

When the 1966 season began hitters around the league were talking about Chuck Dobson and the difficulties he was causing with his blazing fastball. But Dobson, at 23 the elder statesman of the five young starters, came down with arm trouble in May and was used sparingly thereafter. "There are some things you can hope for," Dark says, "and one of them is that a pitcher who has had a sore arm can come back. I know that Dobson's arm is all right now." Dobson was signed by the A's for $25,000 and is that rare thing in the majors—a boy who pitches for his home-town team.

One day last week, just a few miles down the road from where Kansas City trains, Manager Ed Stanky and General Manager Ed Short of the Chicago White Sox were asked to evaluate the Athletics. The White Sox are a team not unlike the A's—each must struggle for runs—and last season the Sox had the best luck of any team against Kansas City (13-5). "It was no freak thing that the Athletics moved up three positions in the standings," said Stanky. "Those young pitchers of theirs have been well educated, and they could very well be knocking on the door to the first division—though, like us, they need some hitting to go with that pitching. Still, Finley has been aggressive in signing ballplayers, and they might have some young hitters on the way up."

Looking at the A's from a general manager's point of view, Short summed up the situation this way: "They were able to get excellent prospects in the free-agent draft, which was put into effect to help the clubs down at the bottom of the standings. All the bottom clubs in the American League are tougher now, and they will continue to get tougher because of that draft. But if you are looking for one person who had a lot to do with their development last year, it has to be their catcher, Phil Roof."

A professional ballplayer since 1959, Phil Roof had played only 54 games in the major leagues prior to 1966 because it was his misfortune to be the second best young catcher in the farm system of the Milwaukee Braves when Joe Torre was the first. Roof, at 26 still young for a catcher, got to Kansas City after three somewhat complicated trades. He likes it there.

Our park," he says, "is huge, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette would have loved to have pitched in it in their heyday. Our theory is to make the other guys hit the ball. If we don't walk anybody, we can win there." The left-field foul line at Municipal Stadium is 370 feet away and has a 22-foot-high fence. Center field is 421 feet and has the same 22-foot fence. Right field is 338 feet away, and its fence, stretching over to right center, is 40 feet high.

"There is no doubt," Roof says, "that many of us went into last season with mixed feelings about Dark. We didn't know what he was, and he didn't know what we were. That's all changed now. The entire team has great respect for him, because he lets you do your job without looking over your shoulder every minute." Third Baseman Ed Charles, the oldest regular on the Kansas City roster at 33 and last year the team's batting leader at .286, is another late-blooming major leaguer. He had 10 years in the minors before he made it with K.C. in 1962. After five years with the A's Charles appreciates the difference in the team. "In my first four springs here," he says, "we really had nothing to build on. Now we do. These kids want to win and make money. They've come off winning minor league teams. They know how to win. And Alvin Dark does a heck of a job handling guys, young and old."

Building a team on young pitchers is often a very risky business unless you have some hitting potential and good relievers. The Athletics have an excellent relief pitcher in Jack Aker, only 26 himself. Last year Aker worked in 66 games for Kansas City and tied a major league record for saves with 26. But hitting is going to come hard for Dark and his A's, though again they have the young boys that every team covets. Rick Monday, the first player ever drafted in the free-agent draft, got $104,000 from Kansas City, and Reggie Jackson got $85,000. Jackson is currently in the service, but Monday has a chance to stick with the team when the season starts. One morning last week Dark put Monday in the batting cage and stood behind hollering out situation plays. "Shortstop's covering second, Rick," he yelled. Monday promptly hit the ball through short. "Second baseman's covering," Dark said. The ball whistled through the hole between first and second. "Middle," Dark said, and Monday hit a scorching line drive through the pitcher's box and into center field. "Goodness gracious," said Dark.

Kansas City has Bert Campaneris at shortstop, and Campaneris has stolen 103 bases over the last two years. Danny Cater is at first base and last year Cater, at .278, was the fifth best hitter in the American League. The Kansas City outfield is in excellent shape defensively, but if one of the new players can break into that outfield and hit, a lot of people are going to be on that A's train as it moves out of Bradenton and up in the American League.



ALVIN'S BOY WONDERS include (from left) Starting Pitcher Chuck Dobson, 23, Starter Lew Krausse, 23, Starter Jim (Catfish) Hunter, 20, Relief Pitcher Jack Aker, who, at 26, is an old man in this crowd, Starter Jim Nash, 22, Starter Johnny (Blue Moon) Odom, 21