Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
When the Royals came into existence, they had an immediate rival in the Oakland A’s. The Athletics, led by owner Charlie Finley, had not posted a winning record in their 13 seasons in Kansas City before heading west. Finley spent most of his time in KC arguing with city government, openly flirting with other cities, and pulling sideshow stunts. Despite all that, the A’s were starting to amass a pile of young talent. And then they left.
While Minnesota won the first two AL West titles, Royals fans were soon watching those young Oakland players win five straight division crowns and three straight World Series. While the Royals were building a competitive organization, they were still chasing the A’s.
Finally, in 1976, it looked like that would change. Finley, always a cheapskate, started dismantling his team ahead of the onset of free agency. Oakland still had plenty of talent, but the Royals had their best chance, and they took it. Kansas City built a 12-game lead in early August, and it looked like they would cruise to their first division title.
But you have to knock out the champ. The A’s began winning and the Royals began slumping, and that 12-game lead was cut in half in one month. Kansas City headed to Oakland for the penultimate series of the year with a 4.5-game lead, then lost the first two. Little-used Larry Gura saved the Royals from a sweep with an excellent outing in the third game, and the Royals headed back home with a 3.5-game cushion, needing a win or an A’s loss to clinch the title.
But the Royals lost on Friday night, as Minnesota scored a run in the ninth for a 4-3 win. The A’s were locked in a scoreless battle with California. That game dragged on, well past midnight in Kansas City. At last, in the top of the 12th, light-hitting Rusty Torres hit his sixth home run of the season. The Angels tacked on a run, former Royal Dick Drago closed out the game, and Kansas City at long last had a division champion and postseason berth.
Talk about anticlimactic. It was after 2 am and players and coaches were at their homes. But a bunch of them convened at manager Whitey Herzog’s home. Third baseman George Brett went to Paul Splittorff’s house.
“I had some champagne. Went straight from Heineken to that.”–Brett, quoted by the Associated Press, October 3, 1976
First baseman John Mayberry was one of the few who got some sleep that night.
“I just went home and went to sleep. My mom called (from Detroit) to tell me, then I stayed up and watched TV. It’s a good feeling to win, but we’ve got some more winning to do. We can’t celebrate too much.”–Mayberry, quoted by the Associated Press, October 3, 1976
The Royals, unfortunately under these circumstances, had a day game scheduled for Saturday afternoon. In fact, it was the NBC Game of the Week, featured in case it was the clincher. The late events of the previous evening didn’t leave the network time to switch gears, so a national TV audience got to watch Kansas City lose again to the Twins in a meaningless game (with the Royals fielding a lineup of mostly bench players, viewers didn’t even get to see two of the three players–Brett and Hal McRae–vying for the AL batting title, which is going to be a future entry on this list).
But what made this a memorable moment came after the game. Shortstop Freddie Patek and second baseman Cookie Rojas had decided on the perfect celebration before the game, which had a first-pitch temperature of 85 degrees. The two made their way to the water spectacular beyond the center field fence, then jumped in. In full uniform.
“I’m just glad they turned off the electricity out there.”–general manager Joe Burke, quoted by the Associated Press, October 3, 1976
For his part, Rojas had vowed to make that leap when he first saw the stadium.
“It’s beautiful. When we win a pennant here, I’m going to jump in the bubble bath out in right field.”–Rojas, quoted by Steve Cameron, Kansas City Star, April 4, 1993
The Royals did hold a proper locker room champagne celebration. Center fielder Amos Otis made sure to douse owner Ewing Kauffman, who jokingly threatened to trade the star to San Diego. Brett ran around the room in an Angels sweatshirt, perhaps as a nod to California’s role in the Royals’ clinching. Herzog wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m A (Bleeping) Genius.” The players made sure to drag their skipper away from a postgame press gathering and douse him with various beverages.
It was a fitting celebration for a franchise that had waited eight seasons for this moment.
“What a day! This is what we’ve all been waiting for.”–Kauffman, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, October 16, 1976
Here is the UPI photo of the Rojas/Patek celebration:
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