Published September 20th, 2021 at 11:00 AM
When you consider Kansas City as a professional sports town, does a certain team come to mind?
The Chiefs and Royals spring to mind, of course. There’s a still-growing professional soccer presence in Sporting Kansas City and the newest kids on the block, KC WOSO of the National Women’s Soccer League. And some might toss in the minor-league baseball Monarchs and hockey Mavericks.
Looking further back, old-timers may recall the NBA’s now-Sacramento Kings, who played here throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, and the brief tenure of the NHL’s Scouts. And few forget the original Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.
Add it all up and the city has a remarkably rich tradition of professional sports.
But well before Cowtown welcomed the Royals and Chiefs in the 1960s, and way before any NFL or MLB championship banners were hung, the hottest ticket in town was a minor-league baseball club, the Kansas City Blues.
Between the turn of the 20th century and the Blues’ departure in 1954, the team basked in the brilliance of baseball’s greatest era, right here in Kansas City. The franchise set attendance records, fielded future Major League Baseball Hall of Famers and won a few championships of its own.
It’s the Blues’ decorated, but nearly forgotten, legacy that has one curiousKC reader wondering: ”Why have the Blues essentially been wiped from Kansas City sports history?”
Early records of Blues competition indicate the club first played in 1888, bouncing around a few of the region’s formative baseball leagues until the 20th century. The Blues then reorganized and in 1902 the team took the field as one of eight founding members of the reconstituted American Association minor league.
Over the next 20 years, the Blues’ winning percentage hovered somewhere around .500, with a few up and down years sprinkled in as the team found its footing, shuffling through 11 different managers at the helm at old Association Park at 19th and Olive St.
Newspapers reported inconsistent results until the summer of 1918, when the Blues played their best season to date, holding first place with a record of 73-40. The dream season was cut short, though, as baseball halted operations and the country joined the allies overseas in World War I.
Despite the shortened season, the Blues grabbed a fifth league title. But the team was shut out of the chance to notch a coveted Class Championship.
In 1920, not a mile from Association Park, former Chicago American Giants player, owner and manager Andrew “Rube” Foster, along with other Midwestern team owners, met at the Paseo YMCA to form the Negro Leagues.
A founding member, the Kansas City Monarchs were born and the Blues were no longer the only show in town.
In fact, the local clubs quickly matched up for a pair of postseason series in 1921 and 1922.
Right around the time the club hit its stride, the heavily favored Blues won the series against the Monarchs in 1921.
In 1922, the Monarchs, which finished atop the Negro Leagues, got revenge.
With the Blues down four games to one in the best-of-nine series against the Monarchs, the Oct. 18, 1922, issue of the Kansas City Star suggests just how shocked Blues fans were about losing to a newly formed, all-Black team.
“Whether the Blues win or lose the series, the team has lost considerable popularity and prestige,” the final paragraph of the “Sporting Comment” declared that day.
Following the Negro League club’s victory over the squad full of future major leaguers, the American Association banned contests of the sort.
Despite the loss to the Monarchs, the Blues’ popularity continued to grow.
As play improved on the field, a railroad developed plans to build tracks through the Association Park outfield in 1922. Blues owner George Muehlebach, who also owned a local brewery and the recently built the Muehlebach Hotel on 12th Street, sold the property to the railroad and erected Muehlebach Stadium, which would eventually become Municipal Stadium at 2123 Brooklyn Ave.
The building was fit for champions and the Blues followed suit.
During the 1920s, the Blues finished atop the American Association in 1923 and 1929, recording 112 and 111 wins, respectively. Both squads are considered among the Top 100 Minor League Baseball Teams of all time by milb.com.
The 1923 season was particularly memorable.
Ironically, the same summer that jazz legend Sidney Bechet cut the heartbroken melody of “Kansas City Blues,” the baseball club by the same name won its first Junior World Series in a nine-game series. According to milb.com historians, the neck-and-neck series was plagued by cold and rain and went to the deciding game against a proven Baltimore Orioles team.
Led by 31-year-old slugger Bunny Brief, the ‘23 Blues hit the cover off of the ball. Every player on the team posted a batting average of .300 or better, which contributed to the highest minor league team batting average of all time.
Excitement surrounding the stadium and success on field shattered league attendance records. The Blues drew more than 425,000 fans to Municipal in 1923, nearly doubling St. Paul’s second-place annual attendance mark of 220,000.
The Blues reached the mountaintop once again in 1929, powered by a speedy roster and stand-out first baseman Joe Kuhel.
By 1936, Kansas City’s on-field prowess and the game’s popularity drew the attention of the major league New York Yankees. After one season as a farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Blues were realigned to develop talent for the Yankees.
The Blues served as a Triple-A franchise for the “Bronx Bombers” the next 18 years. During the Blues’ affiliation with the powerful club, New York won an impressive 13 world titles.
In 1938, a bit of the pinstripe magic must have rubbed off on the Triple-A club. An improved roster of future major leaguers took the Blues to the top of minor league ball once again.
Following the Yankee farm club affiliation, attendance at Municipal Stadium grew as the country emerged from the Great Depression. As the on-field product recaptured the form of the ‘20s, Kansas City baseball fans once again filled the seats.
Under first-year manager Bill Meyer, the Blues won the 1938 Junior World Series title against fellow Yankees farm team, the Newark Bears.
The Blues reached their peak the following season in 1939, behind stars like shortstop Phil Rizutto, pitcher Johnny Lindell and outfielder Vince DiMaggio — Joe’s little brother. The club that posted one of baseball’s highest winning percentages ever (.695) is remembered as Minor League Baseball’s No. 12 team of all time.
The cartoon mouse wasn’t the only Mickey developed in Kansas City.
Without a doubt the most well-known Kansas City Blues alumni, Yankee legend and professional baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle honed his craft in the middle of the country.
Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, in 1931. By age 18, he was playing minor league ball in Independence, Kansas, and then Joplin, Missouri.
Mantle’s rapid ascent to the New York Yankees took him through Kansas City, where he played in 40 games with the Blues in 1951. During that time, Mantle bagged 60 hits, 11 home runs, 50 RBIs, 32 runs scored and 24 walks in just 166 at bats.
He was a pretty big deal, even as a very young prospect.
“If there were a fan attending tomorrow night’s game at Blues Stadium for every word which has been written about Mickey Mantle, the place would be jammed with the first rush.”“Sporting Comment” by Ernest Mehl, Kansas City Star July 17, 1951.
Despite the strong support, superstars and status as Kansas City’s preeminent sports franchise for the first half of the century, by 1953 there was talk of the beloved Blues moving on.
On Oct. 13, 1954, baseball fans opened the Kansas City Star and read the following.
“The closing of the deal which brings the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City marks the end of a Kansas City institution — the Blues,” wrote sports reporter Joe McGuff.
McGuff went on, penning a column that deemed the corresponding relocation of teams and city’s promotion to “the big leagues” as progress in Kansas City.
It was another link between the Yankees and Blues that was the driving force behind the move.
The incoming first-year A’s owner was a 47-year-old businessman named Arnold Johnson. In addition to his 1954 purchase of the A’s, Johnson had very recently made business deals with other pro sports clubs around the country.
A multi-millionaire, Johnson purchased old Yankee Stadium in 1953, where fans packed the grandstands to watch products of the Triple-A farm club Blues, like Mantle.
Familiar at some level with Kansas City’s affinity for baseball, Johnson brought his A’s to the heartland, to another stadium he purchased in 1953 — Blues Stadium (formerly Muehlebach Stadium) in Kansas City.
“But just the same I believe wise management, spending money where it can do some good, can in time give Kansas City the type of team it can support through the years,” Johnson told the Star in 1954.
Unfortunately for Kansas City baseball fans, any excitement surrounding the city’s big-league ascension was put on ice over the next 13 seasons. With a revolving door of managers and no seasons above .500, the A’s were perennial cellar-dwellers until new owner Charlie O. Finley moved the club to Oakland, California, in 1968.
The 1954 shuffle that brought the A’s to Kansas City sent the Blues west, 600 miles to Denver, Colorado.
There were, however, a few former members of the Blues who would take the field in Kansas City as Athletics. The seven members of the 1955 A’s who were familiar to local fans included first baseman Vic Power. The seven-time Gold Glove winner was the second Puerto Rican of African descent to play in the major leagues.
It’s safe to say the Blues’ mid-century relocation was the major contributing factor to the club fading from Kansas City sporting memory. That, plus excitement surrounding Major League Baseball in Kansas City.
But relocation wasn’t all she wrote for the Blues.
It’s the Triple-A team’s post-1954 odyssey that has made its legacy a bit difficult to follow and challenging to celebrate.
A few months ago, Nathaniel Sunshine of fansided.com did his best to trace the team’s seemingly endless search for a city to call home, up until very recently — sort of.
The post-Kansas City journey of the original Blues franchise goes like this:
The Blues relocated to Denver, becoming the “new” Denver Bears. Quite popular for decades, the Bears eventually rebrand as the Zephyrs in 1984. The change was intended to show Major League Baseball that Denver would eventually support a big league team. The Bears/Zephyrs won seven championships in Denver.
Major League Baseball expands to add the Colorado Rockies. After 39 years, the Zephyrs relocated to New Orleans. The team remained the Milwaukee Brewers’ Triple-A farm club.
The New Orleans Zephyrs are rebranded, becoming the New Orleans Baby Cakes.
The Baby Cakes struggled to draw a crowd and faced mounting financial difficulties, all while the team’s stadium deteriorated. The club announced a move to Wichita, Kansas, to become the Wichita Wind Surge, a Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the minor league season was canceled and the newly founded Wind Surge was nixed by Minor League Baseball as Wichita’s Triple-A club.
The Wichita Wind Surge now is relegated to Double-A, as an expansion team affiliated with the Minnesota Twins.
Locally, baseball fans should remember the Blues as one of Kansas City’s first favorite teams. Digging through century-old record books and giggling at old baseball nicknames offers a pretty clear picture of what played out on the diamond any given afternoon.
On the field in the heyday, the Blues celebrated championships and fed talent to the greatest franchise in baseball history, during its finest era.
In Kansas City and Denver, the Blues and Bears also proved to the baseball world that mid-sized American cities could support major league teams. Even today, the Blues’ legacy indirectly lives on when the Royals and Rockies run out of the dugout.
Also, regardless of how one may feel about the Yankees, a bit of the Kansas City Blues legacy lives on in the pennants that flutter above Yankee Stadium. Just a bit of Blues baseball history is sewn into pinstripe passion of Yankees fans far and wide.
So, the next time you bristle at that iconic logo, or are seated next to an obnoxious Yankee supporter, just recall that baseball’s legendary franchise was partially built by Kansas City’s first favorite team, the Blues.