What If…The Royals Had Acquired Reggie Jackson?

Through 51 seasons of baseball, the Royals’ constant search for power hitters has been well-chronicled, here and elsewhere. As you all know, Jorge Soler just this season became the first Royal to win a league home run title, but even more amazing, he became the first Royal to crack the 40-homer mark in a season. The team has certainly had some guys who could hit with power, but very few players who had game-changing power.

But Royals history was very nearly changed before the team ever took the field. Many times when I write about Royals history, I feel like I’m telling stories that many fans already know. Maybe that’s because I’ve read or heard them before, so I’m familiar, but that’s how it feels. This one, however…I had never heard this one before. I happened across it as I researched the day-by-day happenings of the 1969 team. There in The Sporting News was the story of how the Royals very nearly acquired Reggie Jackson.

The story was written by Joe McGuff, legendary sports (and later editor-in-chief) of the Kansas City Star, so it’s about as solid a report as you can get. McGuff sets the stage as a meeting after the owners had elected Bowie Kuhn as commissioner of baseball, which would put this in February of 1969. Royals owner Ewing Kauffman and general manager Cedric Tallis were there, with Oakland owner Charlie Finley, among others. McGuff doesn’t say, but given that he characterizes it as “relaxing after their meeting,” I will assume there were a few adult beverages involved. Anyway, Kauffman is quoted:

“Finley was asked how much he would sell his franchise for and he said $15 million. Then I asked him how much he would sell one player for. He thought about it a minute and said he would sell any player on his club for $1 million.”–Kauffman, quoted by McGuff, The Sporting News, August 2, 1969

Kauffman and Tallis conferred and decided to call Finley’s bluff. First, the Oakland owner said they’d waited too long and the deal was off the table. Then Finley, who was certainly fond of a dollar, got to thinking about how much he would like a million of them (Kauffman relayed that Finley had always promised his wife a million dollars). Finley wanted to know if Kauffman would pay cash. Kauffman retorted that Finley could have it in $10 bills if he wanted.

Then things got interesting. Kauffman and Tallis apparently huddled up, presumably with other Royals officials, and discussed which player they would want. According to Kauffman, the debate was between Jackson and Rick Monday. However, the Royals’ brass could not come to an agreement, and eventually the idea was shelved.

Relaying this story to McGuff sometime in mid-July, Kauffman declared “I’ll tell you this, if we had Jackson we’d be in first place in our division right now. All we need is a big bat like that in the middle of our order and we’d be competing for the title.”

Given that the Royals ranged from 11 games out of first at the start of July 1969 to 21.5 games out at the end, let’s just give Kauffman’s comment a pass. No one player, even one who entered the All-Star break with 37 home runs and wound up in the top five of the MVP vote as Jackson did in 1969, was going to make that much of a difference. But for fun, let’s assume the Royals had decided that, while Monday was a fine player, Jackson was a future superstar. In February of 1969, this was certainly a debatable point; Monday had hit .256/.343/.399 in 289 major league games by then, while Jackson had hit .237/.308/.426 in 189 games and led the league in strikeouts in 1968. Throw in Monday’s advantage as a decent center fielder as opposed to Jackson’s below-average defense in right field and the fact that Monday was only six months older, and it is believable that a team then might have wanted Monday more.

Anyway, had the Royals made the correct decision and selected Jackson, and convinced Finley to let him go (why do I not have much problem imagining him going back on his word?), how would Royals history be different?

My two stipulations for this hypothetical are that Jackson puts up roughly the same numbers in Kansas City that he did in Oakland (the Oakland Coliseum and KC’s Municipal Stadium and Royals Stadium were all tough home run parks) and that, just as it happened in real life, he would be granted free agency after the 1976 season and the Royals wouldn’t have been able to pay as much as the Yankees did (yes, Jackson actually went from Baltimore to New York, after the A’s traded him to the Orioles just before that 1976 season). 

As mentioned, Jackson had a sensational 1969 season, although that wouldn’t have closed the 28-game gap between the Royals and first-place Minnesota. Jackson had a solid 1970, although at the time it felt like a letdown, with a .237/.359/.458 line and 23 homers paling in comparison to his .275/.410/.608 and 47 home runs the previous year. But the Royals finished 33 games behind Minnesota in 1970, much too large a gap to be closed by one player.

Now, in 1971, the argument gets interesting. Kansas City finished in second, 16 games behind the A’s. That’s a lot. But Jackson had a bWAR of 6.4, while the main two right fielders the Royals used (Joe Keough and Bob Oliver) combined for a -0.9 bWAR. By that measure, having Jackson in Royal blue would give KC an additional seven wins, plus take away several from Oakland (presumably the A’s would have come up with someone decent to put out there, although their bench wasn’t deep that year). Maybe it’s not quite enough to make up the difference, but a swing of 12 or 13 games would have made things interesting.

In 1972, the Royals fixed their right field problem by bringing in Richie Scheinblum, who had a career year with a .300/.383/.418 season. But the team dropped to 76-78, 16.5 games behind the A’s. With KC’s improvement in right field, it’s hard to argue putting Jackson on the team would have entirely closed the gap.

And here is where the hypothetical really gets interesting. After the 1972 season, the Royals wisely sold high on Scheinblum, trading him to Cincinnati for Hal McRae. With Jackson in the fold, the Royals would not have needed Scheinblum, not to mention McRae (by this time, Amos Otis and Lou Piniella were holding down the other outfield spots, so right field was definitely the weak link there). Royals history would be quite different without McRae, the man often credited with teaching the younger players (such as George Brett) how to win. Maybe they would have learned anyway. Maybe a lineup with Brett and Jackson would have been too unstoppable. But the fiery McRae was a Royal much longer than Jackson probably would have been, so this would have effects far beyond the 1976 season.

However, as good as McRae was, in 1973 he struggled, hitting .234/.312/.385 and splitting right field duties with Ed Kirkpatrick (.263/.333/.375). The two combined for -0.7 bWAR while Jackson won his only MVP award with a .293/.383/.531 line and 7.8 bWAR. Oakland won the division by six games over the Royals, and it’s pretty obvious that in this scenario, Kansas City would have won a division title in its fifth year of play.

The 1974 Royals, with 35-year-old Vada Pinson in right field as a stopgap, tumbled to 77-85, 13 games behind the A’s in the standings. Pinson managed 0.8 bWAR, while Jackson led Oakland to a fourth straight division title with 5.7 bWAR. Once again, having Jackson in Kansas City might not have been enough to swing things in the Royals’ favor, although it would have been close. An oddity about the 1974 season is that Oakland had a Pythagorean record seven games better than their actual record, so the division standings were closer than they really should have been (second-place Texas finished five games back). With Jackson on the Royals, the AL West standings could have been very tight.

In 1975, Jackson very well could have swung the division title Kansas City’s way. The Royals used a combination of Pinson, Jim Wohlford, and Al Cowens in right field. Pinson fell off a cliff, hitting just .223/.248/.335. Wohlford and Cowens were young and unproven; Wohlford hit .255/.317/.312 and Cowens hit .277/.340/.402. (If you’re wondering about McRae, he spent most of the season in left field.) The three combined for eight home runs and 0.8 bWAR (Cowens had 1.9) while Jackson hit a league-leading 36 home runs and finished with 6.7 bWAR. Oakland bested the Royals by seven games before falling short of their fourth straight World Series appearance. 

Finally, in 1976, the Royals conquered the A’s and captured their first AL West crown. As mentioned, Jackson was a member of the Orioles for the 1976 season. Cowens took over the right field job in KC and hit .265/.298/.341; his defense helped him earn 1.8 bWAR. But Cowens hit just .190/.227/.286 in the ALCS. Jackson could have his share of bad playoff series (the next season, the Royals would hold him to a .125/.222/.125 line in the ALCS before he earned World Series MVP honors) but I think it’s fair to say he would have fared better. In a series that was decided on the last pitch, perhaps that would have swung things Kansas City’s way.

It may be that I’m looking at this in the rosiest way possible, but I think it’s likely that had Kauffman and Tallis convinced Finley to sell Jackson on that February day, the Royals would have won the division in 1973 and 1975 and reached the World Series in 1976. Perhaps not having McRae would have cost them down the road, however. Also, at least by the rules of this hypothetical, the Royals would have lost Jackson to free agency without so much as a draft pick in compensation. Still, it’s hard to say the Royals would have been worse off without a future Hall of Famer in their lineup for eight seasons. On balance, this would have been a great alternate reality for the Royals.

(Photo credit: Neil Leifer, Sports Illustrated)

 

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