Forty years later, Royals Academy lives on in memories

08/02/2014 7:00 AM

08/02/2014 10:58 PM

Just behind the big desk in Ewing Kauffman’s huge office was this browning baseball in a gorgeous display case. The light shone perfectly on that ball.

Mr. K did everything right, you know. Well, not everything. That’s part of why we’re telling this story today.

He did have one major regret in the time he spent turning the Royals into the most successful expansion team baseball had ever seen, a mistake he made 40 years ago this summer.

But that ball, it was displayed perfectly. Like a museum might. A guy who ran a chain of hamburger joints gave it to him as thanks for bringing Major League Baseball back to Kansas City.

The ball was a gem worthy of Cooperstown. Babe Ruth had signed it. Lou Gehrig, too. Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons. Six Hall of Famers. Art Stewart, one of the Royals’ top scouts, always loved that ball.

The year before he passed away, Kauffman walked into Art’s office. They talked about old memories and wins and losses and funny stories. At the end, Mr. K gave the ball to Art. Art tried to protest. That ball should be in a vault, he said.

“Art,” Mr. K said, “you’re either going to take that ball or you’ll be relieved of your duties.”

They both laughed. Mr. K had Art’s attention. Then he got serious. There was one thing in baseball that made him happier than everything but the 1985 World Series. And it wasn’t that ball.

This thing was his baby and it represented so much about him — it was innovative, productive, original and daring. He grew to love this little baseball project so much he told friends he considered selling the Royals and focusing on it full-time.

“You know,” Mr. K said that day, the day he gave Art the ball, “the biggest mistake I made in baseball was letting them talk me into closing the Academy.”

Mr. K didn’t make many mistakes.

He turned a start-up in his basement into a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical powerhouse. In the beginning, that company — Marion Laboratories — was just Ewing (nobody called him Mr. K until after he bought the Royals), but he used his middle name (Marion) to fool folks into thinking he ran a bigger operation. Eventually it was, turning some 300 people — most of them Kansas Citians — into millionaires.

He bought the Royals without knowing much about baseball. Kauffman knew pharmaceuticals, selling, golf and horse racing. The only thing he knew about baseball is that Kansas City deserved a team, and the A’s had left town.

The truth is, if he knew more about baseball he may not have bought the Royals. This was back in the days before free agency. The Royals could add players through trades, but new teams never have much to trade. By definition, the expansion draft is full of players not good enough to be on other teams. Kauffman wanted to build a strong farm system, but he knew that would take years.

“What I didn’t realize when I bought this team,” he told a man named Bill Harrison, an eye doctor who would come to work for him, “is that I’d have 40 has-beens on the team. Guys nobody else wants. I have to find a better way.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, so Kauffman challenged his baseball people to come up with something else. Another way, aside from the draft, to build his team into a winner. They brainstormed, and while it’s probably not right to give any one man complete credit for the idea, many involved at the time go back to Syd Thrift, who was then in the scouting department.

The idea was simple but radical for a baseball establishment that liked its norms and customs. The Royals would go searching for young men who were long on athleticism but overlooked by baseball because of their raw skills. If you could gather together the country’s best athletes who weren’t playing professional basketball or football, surely there’d be a potential baseball star in there if given the right coaching.

The Royals built a new complex to train these kids in Florida, starting in 1970. Players got the best coaching possible, and their first two years of college classes were paid for. Not just any classes, either. They learned skills they could use. Nutrition. How to balance a checkbook. How to talk in front of large groups. Baseball would not be a long-term profession for most of these kids, but at least they’d get something out of their time in the game.

That first class at the Royals Academy gathered in August 1970 and graduated in December of 1971. In between, they played 241 games against other big-league affiliates, college teams, and took a 10-day tour through Latin America. They won 162 games in all — a .672 winning percentage — and the Gulf Coast League championship.

Still, most of the men working inside baseball viewed the Academy in one of three ways: they ignored it (thinking it was a waste of time), resented it (seeing it as an insult to tradition), or feared it (what if it actually worked?).

For those playing in the Academy, those young men on the fringes of the game, it represented a chance.

“Without the Academy, I’d be back home in Louisiana working in the fields,” Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington has told friends.

“I wouldn’t have played baseball at all, I know that,” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White says now. “I think I’d be working at Hallmark or something. I know I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

The players in the Academy grew accustomed to hearing the insults.

What did these kids know about baseball? What were the Royals doing, thinking they could turn undrafted baseball neophytes into big leaguers? Didn’t they know how hard this game is?

White remembers letters posted on the walls. They were written by baseball lifers who’d put pen to paper to tell everyone involved with the Academy just what a waste of time it was.

Every game they played represented a larger battle. The lineups they opposed cost mounds of cash in signing bonuses. Theirs was filled with undrafted dreamers playing for $50 a month. This was class warfare. When the Academy lost a game early in its first season, the guys on the other team did a victory lap around the field.

“Oh, they’d laugh at us,” says Buzzy Keller, the Academy team’s manager. “They laughed right in my face. They said, ‘Buzzy, that’s not baseball. That’s Mickey Mouse.’ ”

Word was getting back to Kauffman. He’d made friends around baseball, and many were telling him the Academy was pointless. Kauffman didn’t like wasting money, or energy. And he sure as hell didn’t like the idea that his pet project was seen by some as a joke.

So he sent Stewart down to Florida. Enough with the hearsay. Kauffman wanted to know what was what.

Stewart saw real talent right away. Orestes Minoso was in center field. Everyone called him “Minnie” after his father, a star player in the Negro Leagues and the majors. White was playing shortstop, and had that natural grace about him that would later win him eight Gold Gloves in the big leagues. Washington was showing all the leadership qualities that would eventually help him in an eight-years-and-counting run as the Rangers’ manager.

There were others on the team, too. Talent all over the field, and the only ones not seeing it were the ones who didn’t want to. Stewart sent word back to Kansas City, and Kauffman was pleased. This was one of those times where the truth and what the boss wanted to hear matched.

Kauffman kept a special eye on the Academy. When you saw that big blue Cadillac pull up to the field, you knew the owner was in town. One day, Mr. K and his wife, Muriel, sat behind home plate, next to Stewart. Mr. K was smiling for most of the afternoon, smoking that pipe, and listening to stories about each kid.

The Royals won that day, and by a lot. After the game, you could hear the other coaches yelling at their team. Mr. K turned back to Art before he got back in that Cadillac.

“Pretty good day, Art,” he said.

From then on, there would be no doubting the Academy. Kauffman let his people know they could either get behind the program or get out. That took care of most of the lingering resentment from within the Royals organization, and the Academy kids themselves took care of the doubts everywhere else.

Today, the Academy’s legacy is far greater than the games those kids won.

Nobody tested the eyesight of baseball prospects before the Academy. That sounds nuts now, doesn’t it?

This was such a different time. On a standard scouting report, there was a spot to mark whether or not the prospect wore glasses. In terms of gauging eyesight, that was about it.

When Kauffman found out about that, he was incredulous. How could you not test eyesight? So he hired a doctor to develop a test designed specifically to measure depth perception. They found that this was the key to hitting, particularly at night. One highly regarded prospect who failed the Royals’ eye test went 13th overall to the Mets in 1972 and never made it past Class AA.

Harrison, the eye doctor, played college baseball before suffering an injury. When he read in Sports Illustrated about some of what the Academy was doing, he wrote a letter to Kauffman complimenting the owner on his innovation and offering his help. The Royals already knew that depth perception was as important as speed or strength in a player, but Harrison told Kauffman that it could be trained and improved.

Kauffman hired Harrison to work with Academy kids like White, but also others in the system like Amos Otis, Fred Patek and George Brett. Brett, as it turned out, had great eyesight but also had a quirk where he got momentary double-vision after blinking. He worked at it and ended up with very good depth perception.

Charley Lau, the hitting coach to whom Brett gives so much credit, made some important discoveries with the Academy. Lau implemented video work at the Academy. His first video machine was orange, weighed about 200 pounds, and had to be pushed onto the field with a dolly. Among other things, Lau shifted his philosophies on how to hit to the opposite field with power through that early video work at the Academy.

The Royals brought in the best guest instructors they could find, too. Wes Santee, an old Olympic track star, helped the players with their running. Ted Williams came in to talk about hitting. At first, he said he’d only speak for 10 or 15 minutes. Two hours later, he’d sweated through his sport coat and was still going.

This was all done in a culture Harrison describes as “experimentation without expectation.” They did basic things, like taking leadoffs measured with math instead of guesses. They came up with a bunting technique that virtually eliminated pop-ups. They turned the pitching machines around to give their infielders more specific practice.

Once, to drive home the point that it’s not about the amount of practice but the quality of practice, they brought in a professional gymnast. The baseball players were split into two groups. The guys who could either already do a flip on a trampoline or thought they could with a little practice were put in one group. The ones who’d never been on a trampoline or attempted a flip were in the other group.

The more experienced group was encouraged to practice on their own whenever they wanted. The other group couldn’t practice, but were able to watch the gymnast do perfect flips, over and over and over again. After a few days of this, both groups were tested. The ones who watched the gymnast did much better.

That’s a good example on a few levels, because the Academy was among the first places in sports to use visualization. The players were given exercises and routines to make themselves comfortable before each at-bat and taught to expect success before the games even started.

“I still use so much of what I learned there in my life today,” says Tom Linnert, a pitcher who never made it to the big leagues.

The Academy even helped NASA. Weightlifting was not a part of baseball in those days, but workouts at the Academy included resistance training. They cut out the insides of old tires, turning the rubber into elastic bands, and used the resistance they created to strengthen their arms and upper bodies.

As it happened, NASA was looking for ways their astronauts could exercise in space without traditional, bulky gym equipment. They sent some people to the Academy to check it out. Problem solved.

“That’s just how it was around there,” says Keller, the former Academy manager. “We’d try anything, and some of it worked.”

By virtually any measure, the Academy was a resounding success. In five years, 14 eventual big-leaguers came out of the Academy — a success rate similar to or better than actual draft classes.

Besides White and Ron Washington, the Academy produced U.L. Washington (no relation to Ron), a skinny kid who hitchhiked from Oklahoma to a tryout camp and played shortstop for 11 years in the big leagues. His best years were with the Royals, and from 1979-83 — some of the best teams in franchise history — he teamed with second baseman White on an all-Academy double-play combination.

But there were other forces at work. The economy was dipping, and Kauffman was trying to balance his baseball books. The Academy cost about $500,000 a year to operate. Nobody knows for sure, but some believe he saw closing the Academy as a way to offset the money he’d spent the year before to open a new stadium that today bears his name.

The Academy was an easy casualty on the accounting ledgers. There was no immediate payoff in its operation, no way to know which or how many prospects it produced would eventually become big leaguers. So Kauffman made a decision that he would regret more than anything else he did in baseball.

The Academy was shuttered in 1974.

Today, it lives on only spiritually.

“One of the greatest joys I’ve ever had in baseball,” Stewart says.

“It gave me a chance that changed my life,” White says.

“Those of us who were involved, it’s part of our fabric,” Harrison says. “We’ve been brokenhearted that it didn’t fulfill its potential. But in some ways, maybe it did because it sparked so much in baseball and so much in so many people.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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