Season In Review: The 1969 Royals Start Franchise History With Solid Season

1969Royals

As you (hopefully) know, this site has chronicled the Royals’ daily march through the 1969 season all year long, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the team’s first season. You can find all of those posts here.

As a capper, let’s review the whole season on a more macro level.

Setting The Stage

Of course, the Royals were birthed as a replacement for the Oakland A’s, who abandoned Kansas City after a decade-plus of futility, but were finally on the verge of becoming a good team. Their first year in Oakland would be the franchise’s first winning season since 1952, when they were still in Philadelphia. Ewing Kauffman, despite not being much of a baseball fan, stepped forward to buy the replacement franchise the American League awarded Kansas City after baseball’s antitrust exemption was threatened by Stuart Symington, a United States Senator from Missouri.

As the franchise built towards Opening Day of the 1969 season, it became apparent the team would no longer be the circus Kansas City baseball had been under Charlie Finley. No animal mascots, no constant threats to move the team, no fights with the league office about the distance of the right field fence from home plate; the Royals would be professional and business-like.

Comings and Goings

The expansion draft in November 1968 yielded most of the players who would make up the 1969 roster. You can read my in-depth look at the expansion draft here if you’d like; the short version is that every game except two was started by a pitcher the Royals took in that draft. On the position player side, 12 of the 23 non-pitchers the Royals used were acquired in the expansion draft. Of those 11 players brought in through other means, though, only five had more than 100 plate appearances. That group was led by outfielder Lou Piniella, acquired via a trade with Seattle at the end of spring training. Outfielder Ed Kirkpatrick was the trade return for Hoyt Wilhelm, whom the Royals had picked in the expansion draft. Catcher Buck Martinez came over in a trade with Houston. Juan Rios and Chuck Harrison were purchased from Montreal and Atlanta, respectively. But the expansion draft was the team’s primary method of building.

Notable major-league debuts: Bill Butler (April 9), Dick Drago (April 11), Al Fitzmorris (September 8), Fran Healy (September 3), Martinez (June 18), Rios (April 9)

How It Played Out

The Royals got off to a pretty good start, at least for an expansion team. Through 27 games they were 15-12 and only 3.5 games out of first. Then reality set in, as they lost nine of the next 11. Still, they were a respectable 21-25 as May ended. Unfortunately, they would go 10-18 in June, then prove that wasn’t a fluke with a 11-18 July and 10-17 August. But the Royals ended the season on somewhat of a high note, going 17-15 in September (including two October games).

That was good for fourth place in the division, better than their expansion brethren in Seattle, and also better than Chicago. Kansas City also had a better record than the two National League expansion teams (Montreal and San Diego) and established franchises in Cleveland and Philadelphia. They didn’t quite meet their goal of best first year by an expansion team (at the time, California had the mark with 70 wins in 1962) but it was still a mostly successful year.

One thing that stands out to me as I review their schedule is that the team wasn’t consistent enough to have any long winning streaks (their best was four, accomplished three times) but they also weren’t bad enough to endure any long losing skids (the worst was six, also done three times). For anyone who watched the 2000s Royals, when double-digit losing streaks seemed to be an annual occurrence, that’s kind of amazing.

What Went Right

As an expansion team, the Royals’ focus was on finding players who could help in the future. And they found quite a few! Piniella hit .282/.325/.416 and was named AL Rookie of the Year. Mike Fiore had the highest OPS on the team, with a .274/.420/.428 line. Joe Foy added a .262/.354/.370 mark and stole 37 bases. Pat Kelly topped that with 40 steals, and hit .264/.348/.388. With Kirkpatrick’s .257/.348/.451 effort, the Royals had a decent offensive core.

On the mound, Kansas City had a surprisingly effective rotation for a first-year club. Wally Bunker and Roger Nelson both had ERA+ numbers over 100, meaning they were better than league average. Drago, Butler, and Jim Rooker rounded out the rotation with ERA+ marks in the mid- to upper-90s, so they were just under league average. Moe Drabowsky, as the relief ace, picked up 11 saves and 11 wins, and Mike Hedlund filled out a swingman role nicely, with a 3.24 ERA in 16 starts and 18 relief appearances.

One more thing that went right was that the Royals, despite the 69-93 record, outdrew the A’s by 124,000 fans or so over the course of the season. Oakland was in the race for most of the year and finished nine games behind Minnesota but couldn’t even draw 10,000 fans per game. That had to feel good for the Royals and the people of Kansas City.

But perhaps the best thing that happened to the Royals in 1969 came after the season when general manager Cedric Tallis sold high on Foy, trading him to the Mets for Amos Otis. Foy would never hit that well again and would be finished as a major-leaguer after 1971, while Otis became a Royals Hall of Fame inductee. To top it off, the Royals acquired Bob Johnson with Otis, then dealt him for Freddie Patek.

What Went Wrong

The rest of the offensive core was pretty miserable. Primary second baseman Jerry Adair hit .250/.285/.310. Shortstop Jackie Hernandez was even worse, with a .222/.278/.282 line, compounded by the fact he batted leadoff in 55 games and second in 16 more. Oh, and also by his 33 errors in 140 games. Not surprisingly, depth was a problem; beyond the hitters mentioned above, only Bob Oliver (.254/.294/.393) and Paul Schaal (.263/.346/.307) had anything remotely resembling a decent year at the plate.

That lack of depth was reflected in the bullpen, as well. Tom Burgmeier, Steve Jones, Dave Morehead, and Dave Wickersham were the next four names behind Drabowsky and Hedlund in number of relief appearances; their ERAs were 4.17, 4.23, 5.73, and 3.96, respectively. Keep in mind this was a low-scoring time in baseball history; the average ERA in the American League was 3.62. So those are some ugly numbers.

Awards Time

Royals MVP: I went back and forth on this. Fiore and Kirkpatrick had the highest OPS numbers on the team, but played in 107 and 120 games, respectively. To me, that eliminates those two. Piniella and Foy really have the best cases, playing in 145 and 135 games with an OPS of 103 and 107 respectively. Their counting numbers were very similar, and Foy’s large advantages in walks and stolen bases are somewhat offset by his 18 errors (not that Piniella was ever considered a great defensive player). Piniella had a little more power, but Foy did a better job of getting on base. I think either one is a good choice. Call it a tie?

Royals Pitcher of the Year: Bunker is the pretty clear choice here, I think. The staff leader in wins, innings pitched, and complete games, Bunker also came in second in ERA (and first among starting pitchers) and strikeouts. He even found time to pick up a couple of saves.

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