We’ve been warned not to judge a book by its cover for as long as books have had covers. Matthew C Ehrlich’s Kansas City vs Oakland is a case in point. The cover picture has Kansas City Chiefs receiver Otis Taylor catching a pass during the AFC Championship game in January 1970, while Oakland Raiders defender Nemiah Wilson stretches to try to tackle him. Alongside that is the subtitle: “The bitter sports rivalry that defined an era”.
So it’s a book about the Chiefs and the Raiders, right? Well, not entirely. Ehrlich, a professor at the University of Illinois, has written a book about the rivalry between the cities of Kansas City and Oakland as it played out in football, baseball, and in the desire of both cities to demonstrate their relevance in a changing America.
The Chiefs and Raiders competed in the AFL in the 1960s, with both cities having to settle for a team in the challenger league, rather than the more high profile NFL. Both teams were strong contenders. The Chiefs won AFL Championships in 1962 and 1966, then lost Super Bowl I before achieving some redemption by winning Super Bowl IV.
The Raiders won the AFL Championship in 1967 and lost Super Bowl II before losing six Championship games in eight years. They finally reached the pinnacle in 1976, winning Super Bowl XI. It was the start of a period of success for the Raiders, while the Chiefs went into decline.
In baseball, the two teams are linked by the Oakland A’s, who played in Kansas City between 1955 and 1968, then moved to California. A year later, following political pressure, Kansas City was awarded an expansion franchise, the Royals. The A’s and the Royals had no significant rivalry but Ehrlich looks at how the two cities’ baseball fortunes changed amid campaigns for new stadiums and the fight for fan attention.
Both sports allow Ehrlich to shed light on other issues for the cities. Race, for example, was a major national issue through the 1960s and 1970s and Ehrlich details the changing racial make-up of Oakland and Kansas City and how racism determined where black Americans were able to live and what work was open to them.
He also looks more broadly at issues like urban regeneration and how smaller cities tried to create jobs and tourism by adding buildings such as conference centres. Kansas City was trying to prove itself a modern city and shake off its image as a “cow town”, while Oakland struggled to escape the shadow of neighbouring San Francisco.
It’s a short book and one that’s quite academic in tone. However, it’s very readable and likely to be of interest to Chiefs and Raiders fans who want a better understanding of the social context surrounding the early years of their teams.
Photo: Kansas City’s Power and Light district, by Paul Sableman