Vahe Gregorian

Fifty years ago, through ups and downs since, Royals became essential to Kansas City

Royals played first game 50 years ago Monday

The Royals played the first game in franchise history 50 years ago April 8. Team historian Curt Nelson talks about the significance of the date.
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The Royals played the first game in franchise history 50 years ago April 8. Team historian Curt Nelson talks about the significance of the date.

Before the void between Oct. 1, 1967 and April 8, 1969, professional baseball here could be traced continuously back to the 1880s.

In fact …

“This place had baseball before it even had its name,” said Curt Nelson, director of the Royals Hall of Fame, reminding that Kansas City wasn’t called that until 1889.

So when Charlie Finley moved the Athletics to Oakland in 1967 after 13 chaotic and dismal years here, the move represented more than just a carpetbagger finally finagling his way out.

It was the end of an era that had included the likes of two different incarnations of the Blues (the second a New York Yankees farm club) and the Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and way more than we can get into here.

“To not have it was a big deal,” Nelson said.

As it was to get it back 50 years ago Monday, when the Royals won the first game they ever played 4-3 in 12 innings over the Minnesota Twins (a distant descendant, as it happens, of the first Kansas City Blues team.)

The anniversary highlights the fact that it’s almost impossible to picture Kansas City now without the Royals, isn’t it? They are an essential part of the landscape, entwined with our daily shared story, even a certain part of our identity.

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — a notion to perhaps appreciate right about now: At least they’re ours to commiserate over and wish back to well-being amid this rotten start.

And when Nelson tries to ponder the unfathomable idea of life without them, he thinks of the words of legendary former Star editor and sports columnist Joe McGuff as he presented owner Ewing Kauffman the Kansas City “Mr. Baseball” award in 1976.

The Kansas City Royals were born 50 years ago Monday, and soon became an essential part of Kansas City’s identity.

It was about a lot more than baseball, McGuff said in his own inimitable way that night.

“By the mid-60s, it was evident that the inheritance from our more courageous and dynamic predecessors was nearly exhausted,” McGuff said at the banquet where Kauffman was honored, according to The Star’s Sid Bordman. “We were dearly in need of leaders to come forward and restore the soul of our city …

“Admittedly, life would have gone on in Kansas City without baseball. It would also go on without the Nelson Gallery, the Philharmonic, the fountains, the boulevards, the Country Club Plaza, our colleges and universities. But who would want to live in a city without a soul?”

Starting anew with the pageantry at Municipal Stadium that day.

It featured the ceremonial first pitch being thrown out by Sen. Stuart Symington, the Missouri Democrat who was instrumental in moving up the timeline for Kansas City to get a new franchise with his threats to revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption among other political maneuverings.

As a nationally known power-broker, Nelson said, smiling, Symington knew how to “play the game as it’s played and used that power for what we would consider good.”

The field had been lovingly manicured by the sultan of sod, George Toma, who also had a little fun with Twins manager Billy Martin. Toma said he had won a steak dinner from Martin over whether Toma had correctly lowered the mound height to 10 inches (regulation was 15 before that season).

“He’s a little guy,” Martin said. “So a small steak ought to take care of him.”

Before the game started, fans gave Kauffman an extended ovation as he stood among other dignitaries on the infield. Kaufmann spread his arms and said, “That’s enough,” but the crowd continued.

“If you all do not believe that I have been repaid in full for buying the Kansas City Royals baseball team by your wonderful applause, you are sadly mistaken,” he said to more applause. “As long as I live this will be your team forever and ever.”

And by virtue of putting the team into a trust, evermore even after his death in 1993.

As game time approached, 26-year-old broadcaster Denny Matthews wrote down every word of his intro for Buddy Blattner. Including, “Hi, everybody, this is Denny Matthews,” he said Monday, laughing and adding, “Yeah, I guess you could say I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to forget.”

All part of what became an unforgettable day for Matthews, who still treasures that he will always be the only person to get to call “Royals win” in the first game they ever played.

Never mind that attendance was a disappointing 17,688. Matthews was surprised at the time but in hindsight, he says, “I think I know why: The people still resented the fact that Finley just uprooted the team and took off.”

Trust needed to be earned, and it would help to get to know who the players were and that Kauffman represented local ownership.

“The Royals were going to be Kansas City’s team,” Nelson said, “And they really were from that very first day.”

Starting from the start: After Wally Bunker set down the Twins 1-2-3 in the first inning, Lou Piniella stepped to the plate for the Royals and manager Joe Gordon.

The budding 1969 American League rookie of the year had been acquired from Seattle just a week before by general manager Cedric Tallis, who was crucial to the formation of the franchise.

And Piniella, who a day before had barreled into St. Louis catcher Tim McCarver in the final preseason game, set a tone instantly by doubling down the leftfield line near umpire Don Denkinger, also making his major-league debut.

“Maybe it set something in motion that Lou Piniella is our leadoff hitter and does not even let one pitch pass,” said Nelson, calling that aggressiveness “a sort of DNA of the Royals” when they’re successful and adding, “That seems to be the perfect start for a lot of what’s happened (since).”

Moe Drabowsky got the victory for the Royals when Joe Keough singled home Joe Foy for the walk-off win in the 12th, and they won by the same score in the 17th a night later … when Keough came into the clubhouse and jokingly yelled, “Break up the Royals!”

A new day was at hand, not just in Kansas City and the three other 1969 expansion sites but in baseball itself, which for the first time had a divisional format in a sport that until then had had no playoff beyond the World Series itself.

The model expansion franchise would finish 69-93 that first season, enjoy a winning record (85-76) just two years later and win the first of three straight division titles starting in its seventh year.

A mere 11 years after their inception, the Royals would break through to their first World Series. Five years after that, they’d win it for the first time — a full 11 years before they ever finished in last place.

That 1996 finish was part of dreadful dip that kept them out of the postseason from 1986-2013. But you could live a long, long, long, long time and not ever again enjoy the sort of all-consuming exhilaration that came with 2014 and 2015.

Now, we’re back to this: Who’s to say when the Royals will be contenders again at this stage?

But it sure beats the alternative.

“For 559 days, there was no home (pro baseball) team in Kansas City,” Nelson said. “And I can’t imagine what that must have felt like. Because having baseball in Kansas City is such a part of the fabric of who we are and how we gather and how we share and how we go all-in together on baseball.”

Indeed, part of the soul of this city.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.