Matthew C. Ehrlich is a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His books include Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture and Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest. He recently answered some questions about his new book, Kansas City vs. Oakland: The Bitter Sports Rivalry That Defined an Era.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I grew up in Kansas City with the Kansas City-Oakland sports rivalry, first between football’s Raiders and Chiefs in the late 1960s and then between baseball’s A’s and Royals in the early 1970s. As I grew older, I kept thinking that the rivalry between the two cities’ teams would make for an interesting book for several reasons. The teams had fought one another fiercely over the years and on occasion had gotten into full-scale brawls. Oakland had lured away Kansas City’s original major league baseball team, which only added to the bitterness. Some of sports’ most famous and flamboyant personalities were involved—people like Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Hank Stram, Al Davis, Lamar Hunt, and Charles O. Finley. And it all took place during a time of epic and wrenching change in both professional sports and U.S. society. After nobody else wrote the book I wanted to read, I finally decided to write it myself.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
There were lots of them! Ball Four by major league pitcher Jim Bouton is a funny and revealing look at baseball as it existed at about the time I eventually would write about. Winning It All by sportswriter Joe McGuff (whom I grew up reading in the Kansas City Star) tells of the early years of the Kansas City Chiefs. David Maraniss’s books—especially When Pride Still Mattered, a biography of Vince Lombardi—are good examples of how to put sports into historical and cultural context. My late father George Ehrlich was an urban historian; his architectural history of Kansas City showed how you could tell the story of a city by looking at its buildings, just as I’m trying to tell the story of two cities by looking at their sports teams. And there are many fine books about Oakland and its teams written by such people as Beth Bagwell, Robert Self, Jane Rhodes, Peter Richmond, and Jason Turbow, to list just a few.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
Although Oakland and Kansas City are geographically far apart and they differ significantly in a number of ways, their histories have much in common. Both cities had inferiority complexes, with Oakland worrying about being overshadowed by San Francisco and Kansas City worrying about being seen as a “cow town.” Both cities had boosterish newspapers with sports editors who led campaigns to attract major league franchises. Both cities experienced contentious race relations and labor relations. Both cities grappled with suburbanization and white flight, and both undertook ambitious urban renewal efforts. Kansas City and Oakland are prime examples of cities trying to make themselves “big league” through sports and other civic initiatives and meeting with mixed success.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
There’s the idea that sports is of concern only to sports fans, which is just plain wrong. Sports is a hugely lucrative business that’s bound up with a host of vitally important questions. How do we deal with social divisions relating to gender and race? We’ve seen that question arise recently with the controversies over pay equity for the U.S. women’s soccer team and over the national anthem protests in the National Football League. However, similar controversies arose back in the 1960s and 1970s—athletes in Kansas City, Oakland, and elsewhere experienced racial discrimination, and many athletes fought back. There are other thorny questions: How much should a city invest in professional sports and in trying to attract or keep a franchise? Oakland already lost the Raiders once before; now it’s about to lose them again to Las Vegas, which has committed hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to attract the team. What ultimately makes a city great, and how big a role can or should sports play in making it great?
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
Cities and sports fans need to be skeptical about how much prestige and prosperity professional sports can bring them, and they need to recognize when a franchise finally is not worth keeping in town. But they still can take pleasure in the gifted athletes who play for them, and they still can take pride in the sense of unity and belonging that a sports team can give them.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
One of the things I’ve always liked to do is watch football and baseball on TV or in person. The fun I get from football is now tempered by the knowledge that it’s a violent sport that takes a terrible toll on many of the people who play it, although I confess that I still do watch it. As for baseball, there’s nothing better than enjoying a game on a summer night when you don’t particularly care who wins or loses. For me, it beats beta blockers.