The 1956 Kansas City Athletics lost 102 games. That was a terrible team. But that team did have a left-handed pitcher who went 0-4 with a 6.15 ERA and had an amazing 28 to 45 strikeout to walk ratio. That is in the right order, yes, 28 strikeouts, 45 walks That left-handed pitcher was known mostly as Tom in those days. Later he would become Tommy Lasorda. He would manage his teams to four pennants and two World Series championships.
The 1957 Kansas City Athletics lost 94 games. That was still a terrible team. They finished dead last in the league in runs scored and next-to-last in runs allowed, and that will often prove to be a nasty cocktail for a baseball team. But that team did have a 29-year-old bantamweight of a second baseman who had been a World Series hero. That was Billy Martin, who would manage his players to two pennants, a World Series championship and many, many hours of therapy.
The 1958 Kansas City Athletics lost 81 games. That was, perhaps, the best of all the Athletics teams to play in Kansas City, though this seems a bit like saying that Cocoa Krispies is the healthiest of all the cereals that begin with the word "Cocoa." Bob Cerv hit 38 home runs that year. Also that year, the Athletics traded for a utility infielder who hit .240, slugged .292 and, somehow foreshadowing his future, was unsuccessful on three stolen base attempts. The infielder was named Dorrel Norman Elvert, but everybody called him Whitey, and Whitey Herzog went on to win two pennants and a World Series as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 1959 Athletics lost 88 games, which was more their speed. A young Roger Maris was on that team. So was Harry Chiti, who would gain a brief burst of fame later as a player traded for himself (technically, he was purchased and then returned -- leased, if you will). That Athletics team also had an infielder named Joe Morgan, who -- unfortunately for them -- was not the right infielder named Joe Morgan. He would go on to manage the Boston Red Sox to the ALCS twice, where they were twice swept by the Athletics (by then, of course, in Oakland).
The 1960 Athletics lost Athletics lost 96 games. That Athletics team also had a starting third baseman from St. Louis who hit .266 and banged a career-high 16 home runs. That was Dick Williams. More on him in a minute.
The 1961 Athletics lost exactly 100. They were terrible, but did have the only pitcher to ever throw a perfect game in the World Series. They also featured an aging and proud former marine named Hank Bauer. He would manage the 1966 Orioles to the World Series championship.
The 1962 Athletics lost 90 games. Their shortstop had finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting the year before and probably should have won it -- he hit .280, walked 92 times, stole 37 bases, scored 108 runs. But in 1962, he was injured and he would never again be the same player. That was Dick Howser. He would return to Kansas City 24 years later and guide the Royals to the only baseball championship the city has ever won.
The 1963 Athletics lost 89 games. The future managing star on that team was only 18 years old and had only just signed. Tony La Russa would manage his teams to five pennants and two World Series championships.
The 1964 Athletics lost 105 games. That might have been the worst of all the Athletics teams. The pitching staff gave up 220 home runs, which was a record. But on that team were two catchers, one who was fascinated by hitting, the other by pitching. The older of the two catchers, Charlie Lau, would go on to mold the swing of Hall of Famer George Brett and become, perhaps, the most famous hitting instructor of his era. The younger of the two, Dave Duncan, would work magic with pitchers for Tony La Russa's many winning teams and become, perhaps, the most famous pitching coach of his era.
The 1965 Athletics lost 103 games. But things were beginning to change. Sure, on the surface, that team was still a classic Athletics team. They brought Satchel Paige back to throw three innings at age 58. They had 13 different starting pitchers during the season. But that team featured a brilliant looking young shortstop named Bert Campaneris, and a promising 19-year-old pitcher who was being called Catfish Hunter. There was also a mouthy 23-year-old first baseman everyone called Hawk, who would later shout "You gone" from the television booth in Chicago. Rene Lachemann, who managed four different teams, was on that A's team as was Dod Edwards, who would later manage the doomed 1987 Cleveland Indians.
That's quite a run, isn't it? I bring this up now, of course, because Dick Williams died on Thursday. He was 82 years old, He managed more than 3,000 games for six teams. He managed the Impossible Dream Red Sox, the indomitable Oakland A's of the early 1970s, the talented but inevitably disappointing Montreal Expos of the 1970s, and the pennant-winning San Diego Padres of 1984. It was a remarkable career. He was an intense and demanding man who, as Bill James wrote, would alienate half his players. And he was also a principled and intelligent man who would inspire the other half to play their best. He had a spark, a skill for turning teams around. He also never lasted anywhere longer than five seasons. He was unquestionably one of a kind, and you can't tell baseball's story over the last 50 years without him.
Baseball managing seems to me more art than science. There have been brilliant men who have failed miserably. And, there have been men who seemed perpetually baffled by the strategic challenges who won many, many games. Dick Williams did not manage like Tommy Lasorda who did not manage like Whitey Herzog who did not manager like Tony La Russa. But they all will end up in the Hall of Fame. If you asked 10 former players to describe Dick Williams, you undoubtedly would get 10 wildly different answers. And all of them are true, in their own way.
I've often wondered why so many legendary managers and coaches came through those Kansas City A's during that decade. I'm sure it was just coincidence -- hey a LOT of players went through Kansas City in those years. But I remember Tony La Russa once telling me that those Athletics provided a a great training ground, even if you only spent a few weeks for the team. When I asked why, he didn't really want to get into it. May sense was that those teams were SO bad, they encouraged a lot of baseball players to think, "If I was managing this team, I'd do a whole lot better." And then: They did.