As a young pitcher with the rising Kansas City Royals in the mid-1970s, Al Fitzmorris lived in what he considered a fantasyland of major professional sports.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
Fitzmorris found himself shooting hoops with Scott Wedman and Sam Lacey of the NBAs Kings, or joining teammates George Brett and Paul Splittorff and broadcaster Denny Matthews and ice skating with members of the NHLs Scouts. Sometimes hed run into Len Dawson or Ed Podolak of the Super Bowl Chiefs out on the town or at civic events.
It was a special time in Kansas City, said Fitzmorris, who spent 1969-76 with the Royals. We would go out after games, and wed see stars from four different sports.
Indeed, in 1973, the last time Kansas City played host to Major League Baseballs All-Star Game, this was a sports town like few others.
• The Chiefs were three years removed from winning Super Bowl IV.
• The Royals, in just their fifth season under the ownership of Ewing Kauffman, who restored baseball here after the Athletics departure to Oakland in 1968, were on their way to becoming the most successful expansion club in baseball history.
• The then-Kansas City-Omaha Kings were in their second season in town.
• And the Scouts, created as an expansion franchise in 1972, would begin play in 1974.
That made Kansas City, which ranked No. 26 in population according to the 1970 Census, one of just nine metropolitan areas in the country with franchises in all four major professional sports leagues.
It was just Kansas Citys time, said Lee Derrough, former chief executive officer of Hunt Midwest and general manager of Worlds of Fun, the theme park that opened in 1973. You had a lot of separate efforts that all of a sudden came to fruition. You had a pretty decent economy and a city government leadership that was very aggressive.
You throw that into the pot, and you get a nice stew.
The recipe that produced Kansas Citys ascension into one of the elite sports towns in America was an emphasis on new construction initiated by Mayor Ilus Davis.
The futuristic, $250 million Kansas City International Airport was dedicated in 1972; Hallmark Cards, Inc., developed Crown Center, a $200 million office-retail-hotel complex that opened in 1973; and work began on the $26.6 million Bartle Hall convention center that would open in 1976.
But the crown jewels that identified Kansas City as a sports mecca were the state-of-the-art Arrowhead and Royals stadiums and Kemper Arena that opened during 1972-74.
When the (Truman) sports complex was completed, it was the number one football stadium and baseball stadium in the United States, said former Chiefs president Jack Steadman, who along with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt spearheaded the unprecedented two-stadium development.
There were no other stadiums that could compete with them. It really put Kansas City on the map, and it still does.
In 1967, Jackson County voters approved bonds to build the $53 million Truman Sports Complex, a novel dual-stadium setup that included 78,000-seat Arrowhead and 40,000-seat Royals Stadium.
The sleek football- and baseball-only stadiums bucked the trend of the multi-use stadiums of the 1960s and provided fans with better amenities and sightlines than the cookie-cutter stadiums of the day. Arrowhead had 80 luxury suites and Royals Stadium had 20, plus the Stadium Club, which had four tiers of in-game dining all innovative touches for that period.
Royals Stadium, with its distinctive, 322-foot-wide water spectacular and 12-story crown scoreboard, opened in 1973. The NFL brought the Pro Bowl to Arrowhead in 1974, giving Kansas City two big-league all-star games in less than a years time.
All of that boom in Kansas City came from the sports complex, Steadman said. From the point the funding was approved, everything started going crazy around here the airport underwent construction, Kemper Arena, Crown Center and its hotels the Alameda Plaza hotel all of a sudden, everything started moving in Kansas city in a big way.
People were starting to take pride in the city.
I had a good city council, and they supported the idea that it was time to put projects before the public, said Charles Wheeler, mayor during 1971-79. The public had just come up with a new football team and baseball team, and they were in a spending mood.
It was time to build. We took off.
One of those proud citizens was R. Crosby Kemper, who donated the land and $3.2 million toward construction of Kemper Arena, a city-owned $23.5 million facility on the site of the old stockyards.
The 17,000-seat building won several architectural awards and served as the site of the American Royal livestock show and rodeo as well as home for the Kings, Scouts and Big Eight basketball. Kemper was later showcased for the nation as site of the 1976 Republican National Convention that nominated incumbent President Gerald Ford and Kansas native Bob Dole for vice-president.
Ultimately, Kansas Citys run of four major-league teams was short-lived.
The Kings, whose high-water mark was reaching the Western Conference finals in 1981, never gained a foothold in Kansas City, largely because the club was poorly managed and hardly promoted. Just before the NBAs popularity skyrocketed with the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the franchise was sold to Sacramento interests and moved to California after the 1984-85 season.
The Scouts were a bigger failure, lasting only two seasons. Terribly underfinanced and handed a woeful selection of players in the expansion draft, the team went 15-54-11 in 1974-75 and 12-56-12 the following year, including a hideous 1-35-8 to close out its chapter in Kansas City. The Scouts relocated to Colorado in 1976 and are now the New Jersey Devils.
Frankly, four teams were more than our population could support, said Richard Berkley, mayor during 1979-91. The NBA team was not a popular franchise, partly because we had such great college basketball with the Big Eight, the NAIA people enjoyed the college teams so much, the professional team never caught on.
Attempts at bringing another NBA or NHL team to the $276 million Sprint Center, which opened in downtown Kansas City in 2007 with the hope of landing an anchor sports tenant, have been unsuccessful. No one in or outside of Kansas City has surfaced as a candidate to bring an NBA or NHL franchise to the new arena.
We lost the willingness of people to own the teams, said Steve Glorioso, a local political adviser who was on the staff of Mayor Kay Barnes when Sprint Center was approved. I dont know what would have happened had Ewing Kauffman not stepped up to buy the Royals.
Unfortunately, the on-field fortunes of both the Royals and Chiefs have plummeted during the past two decades.
The Royals, who were a dominant team during the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s winning six division championships, two American League pennants and the 1985 World Series lost their direction after the death of Kauffman in 1993. The club was without an owner until the David Glass family purchased it in 2000 from the charitable foundation Kauffman had established as a means of keeping the club in Kansas City.
Without Kauffmans leadership, the Royals have enjoyed just one winning season since 1994 and have not returned to the postseason since beating St. Louis in the I-70 Series 27 years ago. No other current baseball team has gone that long without reaching the playoffs.
The Chiefs have not only failed to return to the Super Bowl during the last 42 years, they went 18 seasons during 1972-1989 with just one playoff appearance. Though the Chiefs have reached the postseason 10 times since 1990, they have not won a playoff game since the 1993 season, the second-longest drought in the NFL.
But success or failure of a franchises role in the community cannot be measured purely in wins and losses.
From an economic standpoint and an impact on a community, said Derrough, whose Worlds of Fun attracts more than 1.6 million visitors a year, these sports teams keep on chugging along and create a lot of economic activity.
Just as the building boom of the 1970s served as the catalyst to Kansas Citys golden age of sports, another round of public referendums and private projects triggered a second explosion of pristine facilities that define sports in the area today.
Both Arrowhead and the re-named Kauffman Stadium underwent massive renovations before the 2009 baseball and 2010 football seasons, thanks to Jackson County taxpayers approval of a three-eighths of a cent sales tax that raised the bulk of $575 million for the improvements. In addition to Chiefs games, the new Arrowhead has played host to five Big 12 championship football games, five Missouri-Kansas football games and an annual Division II game between Northwest Missouri State and Pittsburg State.
Once the community decided Kemper had become outdated, the 19,000-seat Sprint Center and neighboring College Basketball Experience, funded largely by taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars plus $54 million from developer AEG, was built as a centerpiece to the downtown Power & Light entertainment district.
The sparkling arena, designed by a consortium of Kansas Citys world-renowned sports architectural firms, has been the site of four Big 12 basketball tournaments (and is contracted to continue playing host to the mens tournament through 2016); multiple NCAA mens and womens regionals; the annual CBE college basketball tournament; 2010 NCAA Volleyball Championship; annual visits by the Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State mens basketball teams; and arena football. Its also one of the busiest concert venues in North America.
The suburbs have gotten into the act as well. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City Kansas in 2001 brought NASCAR to town with the construction of the $250 million Kansas Speedway, one of motorsports most spectacular facilities. With two Sprint Cup races annually drawing around 100,000 fans, its the equivalent of having two All-Star Games in Kansas City every year.
The race track stimulated growth in western Wyandotte County and led to two more new facilities in the Village West area: CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a cozy 5,000-seat stadium, was built for the minor-league Kansas City T-Bones in 2003, and the citys Major League Soccer franchise, Sporting Kansas City, in 2011 opened the $200 million Livestrong Sporting Park, an 18,500-seat facility considered the finest soccer-specific stadium in North America.
Were more of a sports city now than we were in the 70s, Berkley said. Whats happening with Sporting KC and that whole development has been terrific. Kansas City, Kansas deserves a great deal of credit. That has drawn a different dimension to sports, but sports that are drawing a lot more people.
To the east of the Truman Sports Complex, the city of Independence built the $60 million Independence Events Center, a 5,800-seat miniature Sprint Center that is home to minor-league hockey and indoor soccer.
Our sports offerings have changed, but they have changed with the times, said Bill Hall, assistant to the chairman and corporate officer at Hallmark, as well as a former president of the Kansas City Sports Commission. I went to my first Sporting Kansas City game I couldnt believe it. That is an event. NASCAR is an event.
Were not sitting still. Im not one of those people who looks back and says, Oh, those were the golden days. Certainly they were golden years, but we have a new arena, relatively new, redone stadiums, we have a phenomenal soccer setup, we have NASCAR
Somebody 30 or 40 years from now will be saying, What about the Golden Age back in 2012?
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/randycovitz.