I have decades of vivid Kansas City Royals memories, as countless Kansas Citians do. The Royals are a part of our great city’s DNA, something that makes many of us proud to call Kansas City home. For this, we have one man to thank: Ewing Marion Kauffman, or as he is affectionately known, Mr. K.
Mr. K loved baseball almost as much as he loved Kansas City. He was immensely loyal to his community, and he knew Kansas City deserved to be a major league city. In 1969, he gave us an amazing gift, a new team to erase the loss of the Athletics to Oakland.
Just as his entrepreneurial spirit led him to build Marion Laboratories, Mr. Kauffman built a model franchise in our heartland with a fan base that spanned six states. He almost immediately turned the Royals into a winning team, and his energy, foresight and ability to attract competent people around him made the team the jewel of Kansas City.
Mr. K gave us a beautiful stadium adorned with lively fountains and a massive gold crown. He also brought us our own sports heroes, names we all recognize, whether we had a chance to see them play or not: Brett, Splittorff, White, Wilson, Quisenberry, Jackson. And he gave us the opportunity to witness legends from other baseball clubs around the country play on our home turf.
But for me, the greatest baseball hero will always be Mr. K himself.
In the early ’90s, as his health was declining, Mr. K knew he needed to find a buyer for the team. After a long search, there was no potential buyer on the horizon who would commit to purchasing and keeping the club in Kansas City. So he planned an unprecedented move.
Mr. K would again give Kansas City the gift of the Royals, but this time he literally gave the Royals to the community. He did this by donating the team to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation with two important requirements. First, the Community Foundation had to find a buyer who would agree to keep the team in Kansas City, and second, the proceeds from the sale would go to local charities.
This gift would mark the first and only time a major league sports team was donated to charity, and at first, many questioned whether it was even possible. It was not an easy road, but thanks to some brilliant legal and charitable minds, a host of supportive local businesses and philanthropists passionate about making our city a better place, the IRS issued a private letter ruling concerning the transaction, and it became a reality.
To this day, Mr. K’s bold and complex gift remains one of the most unusual charitable donations in history, and as a result of his innovative generosity, charities in Kansas City benefited for many, many years.
From his namesake foundation and memorial gardens, to Kauffman Stadium and the breathtaking Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Kauffman charitable legacy will live on through generations of baseball fans, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and students.
And, of course, because of his generous heart and thoughtful planning, we still have a baseball team in Kansas City today. Thanks to Mr. K, for the first time in 29 years, we had the opportunity to cheer our boys in blue as they won the American League pennant and advanced to the World Series. Mr. K knew his team would play October baseball in Kansas City again, and I think we can all agree that it was worth the wait.
Debbie Wilkerson is president & CEO of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which manages more than $2 billion in charitable assets.