There is something surreal about Amos Otis’ 1973 Topps card. Perhaps it is the way the photograph gives off a strange mix of light and darkness, with Otis’ face and parts of his body draped in shadow, juxtaposed against the fans in the immediate background.
Or maybe it’s the angle of the photograph, which gives us the false impression that Otis and the unidentified catcher for the Brewers are occupying the same space near home plate. How could Otis swing the bat without the catcher interfering with him? Of course, this is really an optical illusion, as the photograph fails to give us the proper sense of space and three-dimensionality.
Before we could arrive at this 1973 card, which shows the young outfielder playing for the Kansas City Royals, Otis first endured a strange journey. Did you know that Otis was drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round of the 1965 draft? I didn’t. I would have sworn that he was originally drafted by the Mets. Furthermore, I had no idea that he was drafted as a shortstop.
After being drafted out of Mobile, Alabama, that June, Otis was assigned to a team in Harlan, Kentucky, in the longstanding Appalachian League. The 18-year-old third baseman tore up the rookie league, hitting .329 and slugging .520 in 67 games. His performance looks even better considering the racist treatment he received. A news reporter in Harlan approached Otis one day and asked him, “How does it feel to be a light-skinned Negro?“ The question did not please Otis. And then one day a man called Otis at his apartment, greeting him with racially charged language and telling him to leave town immediately, or face dangerous consequences.
Otis told his manager that he wanted out and made his way for the bus station. But his manager, Rac Slider, talked him out of his plan and convinced him to remain in Harlan. The next summer, Otis earned a promotion to the NY-Penn League. He played for the Oneonta Red Sox, putting him within 22 miles of Cooperstown. Otis didn’t tear up the NY-Penn League like he did the Appalachian, but he did hit a respectable .270 in a tough pitcher’s park and made the league’s All-Star team.
The Red Sox liked Otis, but they failed to protect him in the 1966 minor league draft. The Mets gladly snapped him up and jumped him all the way up to the Triple-A International League in 1967, where they began to try him at other positions, like the outfield and third base. Assigned to Jacksonville, Otis struggled against the advanced level of competition, as he put up an OPS of only .679. The Mets decided to give him a cup of coffee in New York that September, but he was clearly overmatched.
As it turned out, all Otis needed was some experience. Given a second go-round in the International League in 1968, he batted .286, hit 15 home runs and slugged .450. Mets farm director Whitey Herzog termed Otis the Mets’ No. 1 prospect. He was so highly regarded that the Mets turned down a trade that would have sent him to the Cardinals for All-Star infielder Joe Torre.
Given his stature within the organization, it was not a surprise that the Mets included him on their Opening Day roster in 1969. But they did not play him regularly, instead using him in a sporadic utility role. Switching him between left field, third base, and center field, the Mets watched him flail away at National League pitching.
Otis was not ready. So when the Mets acquired Donn Clendenon in a June trade, they made room on the roster by demoting Otis to Triple-A. Otis tore up the International League while playing for Tidewater, the Mets’ new Triple-A affiliate. When Tidewater’s season ended in early September, the Mets brought him back to New York for the stretch run. Otis played virtually no role in the Mets winning the National League East, and was ineligible for the postseason, but he did receive a small share of World Series money while earning the right to say that he was part of the 1969 world champions. All in all, not bad for a rookie who was still trying to find his way in the major leagues.
The Mets faced a dilemma with Otis. They needed a third baseman, but Otis did not play the position with much skill or grace. He looked timid on hard-hit ground balls. He did not like the position, never feeling comfortable with the challenges presented by the hot corner. His athletic talents, particularly his speed, were far better suited for center field, where the Mets already had the dynamic Tommie Agee. The Mets also had little need for a left fielder, since Cleon Jones was more than capable. So what to do?
Rather than continue the charade of trying to make Otis a third baseman, the Mets felt they needed to trade for an established player at the position. And they decided to use Otis, whom some in the organization considered “lackadaisical,” as the bait. So they packaged Otis with hard-throwing right-hander Bob Johnson, sending them to the Royals for veteran Joe Foy, the onetime contributor to the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream of 1967.
Foy had played well for the expansion Royals in 1969, but he had problems with drugs and alcohol and would prove to be a terrible fit for big city New York. Foy would be out of baseball within two years. In the meantime, the Royals had a huge need for a center fielder, where they had been forced to play Bob Oliver out of position. Oliver was a good player and a legitimate power hitter, but he resembled a center fielder the way that I resemble a nuclear physicist.
In swinging the trade for Otis, Royals general manager Cedric Tallis made perhaps his best acquisition, as he set the stage for the outstanding Royals teams of the 1970s.
Otis fit neatly as a center fielder at Municipal Stadium, which featured an expansive outfield. Otis started in center field on Opening Day and never relinquished the job. He hit .284, drew more walks than he struck out, hit 11 home runs, stole 33 bases, and roamed center field with smoothness and ease. He also led the league with 36 doubles and qualified for the American League All-Star team. At 23 years of age, Otis had found a home—and the Royals had found a building block for future success.
In his second season with the Royals, Otis stepped up his game further. Lifting his average to .301, he also upped his power output (with 15 home runs). He became a terror on the bases, stealing five bases in a game on September 7. Using his patented walking lead, which allowed him a fast break against opposing pitchers, he finished with a league-leading 52 steals for the season. With his defensive reputation also firmly implanted, he took home his first Gold Glove and even placed eighth in the MVP race. Not surprisingly, Otis became a fan favorite in Kansas City, where fans appreciated his All-Star talent on an expansion team bereft of many other quality players.
If there was one roadblock in 1971, it was an occurrence of back trouble. Just before the All-Star Game, he tried to check his swing, hurting his back in the process. The bad back would bother him from time to time, accounting for a downturn in his offensive production in 1972.
To make matters worse, Otis also ran afoul of his manager in 1972. At one point, Bob Lemon benched Otis for “not hustling.” Otis tried to defend himself by pointing to his style of play, which was so smooth and graceful that it created the impression that he lacking in effort.
Otis then bounced back with his best season to date in 1973. Even as the team moved into cavernous Royals Stadium, Otis showed a newfound level of power, as he clubbed 26 home runs and slugged .484. He also batted an even .300 while drawing 63 walks against only 47 strikeouts. Otis’ game lagged in only one area; he stole 13 bases in 22 attempts, but the Royals had little reason to find fault with an otherwise terrific all-around season.
Otis’ breakout campaign coincided with the Royals’ improvement team. A slightly sub-.500 team in 1972, they won 88 games in 1973 and established themselves as a contender, finishing only six games behind the world champion Oakland A’s.
Over the next two seasons, Otis’ performance dipped, as he hit only 21 home runs during that span. Injuries bothered him in particular in 1975, when he appeared in only 132 games and batted .247, a low-water mark for his years in Kansas City.
As his performance lagged, Otis began to draw criticism for the way that he played the game. Stylish in the outfield and on the bases, Otis appeared to play the game too casually for some sportswriters. Some critics called him lackadaisical, echoing the sentiments he had heard with the Mets. Others harped on his insistence on making catches with one hand, as opposed to the traditional two-handed approach. And when Otis refused to talk to the press, which he did from time to time, the critics used it as ammunition against him.
The criticism didn’t seem to faze Otis, particularly in 1976. He posted a major comeback that summer, just in time to help the Royals reach the postseason for the first time in the franchise’s brief history. Playing almost every day, he hit 18 home runs and led the league with 40 doubles, taking full advantage of the large outfield gaps and the lightning-fast artificial turf at Royals Stadium. Royals fans appreciated his play, as they often serenaded him with chants of “A.O.” the nickname that consisted of his initials.
But the 1976 season came with a cruel twist. A late-season injury limited him to one game in the Championship Series against the Yankees. Otis had to watch from the sidelines as the Royals lost an excruciating series on Chris Chambliss’ dramatic ninth inning home run in Game Five.
Fully healthy in 1977, Otis hit 17 home runs and drew a career-high 77 walks to help the Royals repeat as American League West champions. This time Otis stayed healthy for the playoffs, but he hit only .125 as the Royals failed to hold a ninth inning lead in Game Five and again lost to the Yankees.
Even though Otis was now 31 and theoretically past his prime, he put together his finest season in 1978. Reaching career highs in RBIs (with 96) and OPS (a lusty .905), all done while stealing 32 bases, Otis carried the Royals with his combination of power, speed, and defense. Placing fourth in the league MVP race, Otis led Kansas City to its third consecutive Western Division title.
Otis carried his regular season success into the Championship Series against the Yankees. He batted .429 and stole four bases, but even those numbers couldn’t prevent another shortfall in the postseason; the Royals again lost to the Yankees, this time in four games.
Having reached his peak, Otis put up another good season in 1979, but that season also brought him into conflict with manager Whitey Herzog, who began to sit him more frequently against tough right-handed pitchers. Shortly after the Royals fired Herzog at season’s end, Otis made some stunning comments to Kansas City writer Sid Bordman, corresponding for The Sporting News. “I think he was trying to ruin my career,” Otis said of his former manager. “Eventually, he was going to try to get me traded.”
Otis’ remarks might not have been fair, but the Royals did respond to their new manager, Jim Frey, as they reached the World Series for the first time. Otis played at his peak against the National League Phillies. Showing few nerves on the Series stage, he pounded out 11 hits, including three home runs, in the Royals’ six-game loss to the Phillies. If the Royals had won, Otis’ .478 batting average likely would have made him the Series MVP.
In 1981, injuries started to limit Otis’ playing time, as he appeared in only 99 games that summer. He also started the season in left field, the result of the Royals’ decision to move the fleet Willie Wilson into center.
After injuries limited him to 125 games in 1982, Otis’ game fell apart in 1983. Limited to just 98 games, his power output dropped off badly (with only four home runs). A .669 OPS signaled that his time as a regular had come to an end.
Becoming a free agent at season’s end, Otis signed with the Pirates, marking his return to the National League after a 15-year absence. The Bucs (and Otis) hoped a change of scenery would help, but he ran into an outfield wall and spent two months on the disabled list. When he did play, he batted an embarrasing.165 in 40 games and drew his release in early August. At the age of 37, Otis had hit the end of the line.
With 17 seasons completed, Otis left the game with five All-Star Game nods, three Gold Gloves, and four postseason appearances.
After his retirement, Otis briefly worked for the Padres as a roving minor league instructor and even played in the ill-fated Senior Baseball League, but he has remained outside of the game for most of the last 30 years. He has also remained something of an enigmatic figure. Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Bob Page, who used to anchor the Sports Desk for the MSG Network, at the time the flagship station for the Yankees. During the course of our talk, I asked Page about players he had found difficult in covering. He proceeded to tell me a story of how he once approached Otis at the ballpark and asked him for an interview. Otis refused, unless Page would pay him. Emphasizing that Otis was not kidding and was dead serious in making the request, Page told me that it was the only time in his career that an athlete had asked him to be paid for an interview.
This view of Otis stands in contrast to the player who has, since his retirement, been the subject of a fair share of retrospective features, where he has clearly been interviewed by the writer in question. In those cases, Otis comes across as pleasant and thoughtful.
Even 40 years later, there is still something a little surreal about the mysterious Amos Otis.