Rain drenched the city in sheets.
Roads became deadly rivers.
Twenty-five people lost their lives.
But there was also the moment a famed Kansas City Royals baseball player swung open the doors of his white Lincoln Continental to a group of young boys like it was a lifeboat.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
It’s been nearly 40 years to the day that one of those bedraggled boys, long since grown into a man of influence, has been able to properly thank the unlikely champion who came to their aid when 16 inches of rain swamped Kansas City in 24 hours.
But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and with Hurricane Irma now spreading destruction, it seems fitting to note how a single, unexpected act of kindness ended up changing the life of one individual who, four decades later, now wants to offer public thanks.
The day was Sept. 12, 1977, an event embedded deeply into local memory as the “Plaza flood,” but which metro-wide had swamped thousands of homes and stores and caused cars to flip and float like logs.
The story’s star: Amos Otis, now age 70, but who by 1977 had established himself as the Royals’ 30-year-old American League All-Star and Gold-Glove winning center fielder. Although revered by many fans, impressions of him were mixed.
As Gib Twyman, the then sports columnist for The Kansas City Times, described Otis in a story about the events of Sept. 12:
“Amos is usually characterized as a man of brooding silence, a quicksilver personality who often is a target of criticism from fans.”
But that’s not how Richard Brown saw him.
In 1977, Brown was a Lillis High School teenager who had gone that Monday to Royals Stadium with some friends, hoping to see the Royals play the Oakland A’s, on the way to what would be the Royals’ 102-60 first place finish in the American League West.
Today Brown is a Missouri state representative, a Democrat elected in 2016 from District 27, centered around the Kansas City Zoo. Before that, he had been a Kansas City public school teacher for 24 years.
Brown insists that Otis’ kindness and decency did, in part, set an example for how Brown treated schoolchildren for more than two decades. Now, “Be it further resolved…,” as a state legislator with the power to offer up proclamations, he has prepared one to honor Otis as a Good Samaritan of inspiration.
“It was an act of kindness, something I never forgot,” Brown said this week. “We were all stuck at the stadium after the game (was rained out). We were cold. We were wet. We were hungry. … It just had a lasting impact on me as a schoolteacher, just being good-hearted toward kids.”
As the story goes, the first wave of pounding rain deluged Kansas City early, at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 12. Starting at about 6 p.m., a second wave continued to inundate the city past midnight. Roads turned deadly.
Stuck at the stadium, a sopping wet Brown and seven others boys made their way to the lobby of the nearby Holiday Inn. They didn’t all know each other. A few of the boys had sold concessions at the stadium for Volume Services. Others, like Brown, just went to the game.
Besides Brown, The Kansas City Times (the morning edition of The Star at the time) identified the boys as Jim Bradley from Northeast High School and Gary Leslie and Vernon Holland, both from Van Horn High School. Four students — Joe Harstead, Vincent Shelby, Welton Shelby and Johnny Strickland — attended Southeast High School. The boys called their parents asking to be picked up.
“But we couldn’t get to them,” Harold Harstead, Joe’s father told The Times for a story on Otis that appeared on Sept. 15, three days after the storm. “We sent out two cars that didn’t make it through.”
Stranded already for four hours, the boys were stuck in the lobby. A number of Royals players were also gathered in the hotel.
“The bar was over there. They’re ball players,” Brown recalled.
Seeing the boys, Otis stepped in.
“After the game was called,” the center fielder told Twyman of The Times, “I went over to Holiday Inn for a cocktail because the highways didn’t look so good. When I got there, I saw these kids sittin’ in the lobby. They were on the floor, leanin’ back against the wall.
“I asked the manager if I could get them some rooms, and he said they weren’t old enough,” Otis said. The manager told Otis that the boys were welcome to sleep in the lobby. That didn’t sit well with Otis.
“I said, ‘You want to come home with me?’” Otis said, “Their eyes lit up…”
For Brown, Otis’ act remains undiminished in his heart and memory.
“You take eight, wet — I mean we were soaking wet; we were drenched — and you take these eight kids who are soaked and you put them in a brand new Lincoln Continental that was white,” Brown said. “It was white-on-white. It was all white. I’m not talking about a Town Car. I’m talking about a Continental.”
Otis took all the boys’ numbers and called their parents to say the boys were staying with him. From the hotel, he drove them to find food, first pulling up to a Jack in the Box (Brown recalled Otis not getting any service because the server didn’t understand him through the drive-through intercom), and then to a 7-11. Otis spent $14, which the kids thought was a lot.
Otis’ wife, Melba, and their three kids had already left Kansas City to head back to their family home in Chesapeake, Va., for the start of school. Otis hauled the boys over to his three-bedroom place in the Candlewood Apartments near Interstate 70 and Woods Chapel Road.
“Here is someone,” Brown said, “we looked up to, who actually stepped up in this moment, who took care of us like we were his own kids.”
Perhaps someone more lenient. As Otis told The Times, “I said when I opened the door, ‘Have a good time,’ and I’d have to say they did.’”
The boys didn’t gets into their beds until 3 a.m., but even afterward remained awake and talking until 4. They played records, watched television, played cards, mostly blackjack.
“They didn’t let me play,” Otis said at the time. “Said I was too old. Said no adults allowed.”
Otis dried the kids’ clothes. Time for bed, they separated two twin beds into mattresses and box springs, checked out the couch and drew cards for where to sleep.
“Some of us, if we got a high number, you got a mattress,” Brown said, “If you got a low number, you got a box spring. I got a box spring. I remember my friend, Jimmy, got the couch. Three others slept on the floor.”
Otis got to keep his own room. The next day, he drove as many boys home as he could. Brown’s road was blocked. Otis dropped him off where he could catch a bus. On Sept. 14 and 15, as Kansas City cleaned up from the storm, the Royals played back-to-back doubleheaders against Oakland.
“I just couldn’t let them sit there in that lobby, cold, wet, hungry,” Otis said. “If it was my kids sittin’ there, I would have wanted someone to do something for them, too.
“Really, though, any of the rest of the ballplayers would have done the same thing. I just beat ’em to the punch.”
Brown, 54, who moved on to graduate from Southeast High School and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Central Missouri State University, didn’t know most of the boys well enough to stay in touch over the decades. He lost touch with others.
Gary Leslie, one of the boys, told The Times at the time that Otis’ act “was one of the nicest things anyone every did for me.”
Brown prepared the proclamation for Otis in the off-chance that he might be able to give it to him in person, or at least mail it to him prior to the flood’s 40th anniversary on Tuesday. He contacted the Royals’ front office in the hopes of a contact or address. The Royals say they were unable to reach Otis.
Currently, the proclamation is in Brown’s living room in Kansas City, framed and kept safe in bubble wrap. It calls Otis a “Good Samaritan” whose “genuine care and concern for others … serve as an inspiration.”
Brown recalls that Twyman’s story went nationwide. Broadcasters mentioned it television. Sports Illustrated highlighted the act. It’s become worth a mention on Otis’ Wikipedia page.
The way Brown recalls it, the act somewhat changed Otis’ image in Kansas City. In his own memory, he recalls thunderous applause when Otis came to bat in the days after the storm.
“His act of kindness,” Brown said, “is something that kind of stayed with me for all these years. Amos Otis was able to help some kids in their hour of need.”
Includes reporting by The Star’s Pete Grathoff.