Franchises at Birth: The Royals and the Pilots/Brewers (Part One)by Steve Treder
December 13, 2005
In our previous looks at hatchling franchises, we examined the first round, at the beginning of the 1960s. This time we’ll turn our attention to the American League’s 1969 additions: the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots.
The Royals: Expansion Draft
It is possible that the Kansas City Royals weren’t the least promising expansion franchise of all time. Perhaps the new Washington Senators, hastily thrown together in the autumn of 1960 to replace the sadsack old Senators, after owner Calvin Griffith had deemed the nation’s capital no longer a viable market, were less auspicious at the outset. That’s possible.
But you can sure make a case that it was the Royals. Like the Senators, they were a replacement, plugged into a recently abandoned market. And in the Royals’ case, the relocated franchise being replaced was even sorrier than the old Senators: the pitiful Kansas City Athletics. The A’s had spent 13 miserable seasons in K.C., never approaching .500 and finishing last or close to last in the standings every year and in attendance every year after the first few. Given the lackluster performance record of the initial four expansion teams through 1968, there was very little reason to expect that a different nickname and uniform on the Kansas City entry would produce any improvement in its fortunes.
Nor did many observers take heart from the Royals’ picks in the expansion draft of October 15, 1968. As we discussed here, the draft strategy pursued by rookie executive vice president (as the new franchise titled its GM role) Cedric Tallis was heavily focused on young, inexperienced players. The Royals’ 29 selections had accumulated a total of 583 career Win Shares, a mean average of just 20 apiece. And a large portion of those 583 belonged to three veterans: Hoyt Wilhelm (229 Win Shares through 1968), Jerry Adair (90) and Moe Drabowsky (80). The median career Win Shares among Kansas City’s initial 29 players was—get this—one. That’s right, a single solitary Win Share. Thirteen of the 29 had achieved zero Win Shares; seven more had just one, two or three.
Not only was the roster the Royals assembled through the draft distinctly the youngest of any of the eight 1960s expansion franchises, but the first thing the Royals did following the draft was make it younger still. In December of ’68, they traded their only big-name player—the legendary 45-year-old knuckleballing relief ace Wilhelm—to the Angels for two youngsters: 23-year-old catcher Dennis Paepke, who had never played in the majors, and 24-year-old catcher-outfielder Ed Kirkpatrick, who had been given several opportunities by the Angels but failed to establish himself, accumulating just 21 Win Shares in 340 major league games.
Most prognosticators anticipated grave struggles for this callow crew. Yet the Royals’ expansion draft picks, including the Paepke and Kirkpatrick and subtracting Wilhelm, would produce 1,091 Win Shares from 1969 onward, the highest total of any expansion team except the Colorado Rockies—and the Rockies’ total of 1,220 post-draft Win Shares would be produced by 36 picks; on an average basis, the Royals’ yield of 37.6 per player exceeded the Rockies’ yield of 33.9. Seven original Royals who had minimal major league experience, or none at all (Tom Burgmeier, Dick Drago, Al Fitzmorris, Pat Kelly, Bob Oliver, Ellie Rodriguez and Jim Rooker) went on to substantial major league career production of between 71 and 135 Win Shares, a bounty of young talent identification matched by no other expansion franchise before or since. No one could have known it at the time, but from his very first transactions, Tallis was demonstrating extraordinary ability to foresee future performance.
The Pilots: Expansion Draft
Seattle had long been among the better-attended entries in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and by 1969 it was widely agreed that the Emerald City was ready to support a major league franchise. To fill the GM role, the expansion Pilots hired Marvin Milkes, who had worked in the California Angels’ organization, including a stint as GM of the Seattle Angels.
Milkes’ draft strategy was distinctly different from that of Tallis. The available veterans that Tallis eschewed were avidly snapped up by Milkes. His 27 picks represented 813 career Win Shares: a mean of 30 (compared with K.C.’s 20) and a median of 8 (compared with K.C.’s 1). Long-timers selected by the Pilots included Tommy Davis, Gary Bell, Steve Barber, Don Mincher, Rich Rollins, Tommy Harper and Diego Segui.
But along with the veteran core, Milkes chose quite a few inexperienced young talents, and several went on to significant major league success: Lou Piniella, Mike Marshall, Marty Pattin and Skip Lockwood. All told, the Seattle draft picks would go on to aggregate achievement nearly exactly equal to that of the Royals: they would accumulate 1,008 post-draft Win Shares, a mean average of 37.3. However, a significant portion of that value would be created on behalf of franchises other than this one, due primarily to one very unfortunate trade.
That deal was made on the eve of the Pilots’ inaugural Opening Day in 1969 and involved their expansion fellows, the Royals. In an exchange of young players—all 25 years old—Seattle sent to Kansas City:
- The aforementioned Piniella, a line-drive-hitting outfielder without much power or speed, who would be joining his sixth organization, while having accumulated just seven hitless major league plate appearances.
- Steve Whitaker, a power-hitting outfielder who’d shown promise in the majors with the Yankees, but then fizzled.
- John Gelnar, a soft-tossing right hander who’d worked 28 major league innings on top of four years at the Triple-A level in the Pirates’ organization.
It didn’t appear to be a major transaction, and if anything it looked to be one that would favor the Pilots. Yet neither Whitaker nor Gelnar would achieve much, nor last long in the majors, while Piniella would hit .291 in over 1,700 big-league games: the 164 Win Shares Piniella accumulated from 1969 onward were far and away the most of any 1968 expansion draftee, in either league. (And adding Piniella’s Win Shares onto the Royals’ draft pick total, while subtracting Whitaker’s, gives the Royals a total of 1,251, completely blowing everyone else away.) It turned out to be a remarkable exchange and a harbinger of the divergent fortunes destined for the Royals and Pilots.
The Royals: Years One and Two
The new Kansas City franchise surprised the pundits, finishing fourth in the six-team American League West at 69-93. Their no-name roster was a platform for positive development of quite a few young players: not just Piniella, but also outfielders Pat Kelly, Bob Oliver and Ed Kirkpatrick, first baseman Mike Fiore and pitchers Roger Nelson, Dick Drago, Bill Butler and Jim Rooker. A pair of young veterans who had shown promise in previous seasons before falling back—third baseman Joe Foy and pitcher Wally Bunker—both had fine years. And one of the team’s few veterans, reliever Moe Drabowsky, contributed a terrific season as bullpen ace.
However, while 69-93 is a very good record for a first-year expansion team, it isn’t a good record. The ’69 Royals had weaknesses aplenty, fewer than most first-year expansion teams, but weaknesses nonetheless. And despite the fact that in the 1969-70 off-season, Tallis pulled off one of the all-time great trades (Foy to the Mets for two young, unproven prospects—center fielder Amos Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson - both of whom did very well in 1970), the second-year Royals regressed a bit, to 65-97. Fiore flopped miserably, as did Nelson and Bunker, both sore-armed. Drabowsky, despite still doing fine, was pointlessly traded in June for an obscure utility infielder. Moreover, Kansas City attendance plummeted by nearly 25%, from solidly seventh in the 12-team American League in ’69 to 11th in 1970.
But while the Royals’ major league team was finding mixed results in its first two seasons, the organization had one astounding accomplishment: the Triple-A affiliate, the Omaha Royals, won the American Association pennant in both 1969 and 1970. These Royals outplayed the Triple-A ball clubs of the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics, among others.
Still, at the end of their initial two years, while the Royals could be rightly said to have not performed badly, this was a team that hadn’t yet established success either on the major league field or the balance sheet. They had pulled off some excellent transactions and accumulated some fine young talent, but this was still a struggling team, no better off than any of the other three expansion franchises that had joined them in 1968-69 birth.
The Pilots/Brewers: Years One and Two
The Pilots, with the far more familiar and experienced talent on their roster, were generally expected to outperform the Royals in 1969. Over the first half, they did; as of July 1, 1969, the Pilots were 35-39, in third place in the American League West, 4 ½ games ahead of Kansas City. But things then spun out of control. The Pilots’ pitching largely folded, and they slumped to 29-59 the rest of the way, falling to last place—and that wasn’t the worst thing that was happening to the franchise.
Indeed, the on-field performance of the Pilots was overshadowed by a miserable swirl of off-field sourness. Team ownership publicly bickered with the city about the condition of their ballpark (venerable Sicks’ Stadium) and the plans for construction of a new facility, and then feuded with the press as well. Attendance declined dramatically amid the mounting acrimony (and dwindling second-half winning percentage). That autumn, a major bank loan was called, and the Pilots couldn’t raise sufficient capital to meet their obligations: the fledgling franchise was bankrupt.
The American League keenly endeavored to find new investors, or a complete new ownership group, that would keep the ball club in Seattle. Months of legal wrangling ensued, through the winter and on into the spring, as the Pilots trained in the Cactus League. The situation wasn’t resolved until April 1, 1970—literally one week before Opening Day—when the announcement came that the franchise had been sold to a group from Milwaukee, was being relocated and had been dubbed the Brewers. The principal new owner was, of course, none other than a Milwaukee car dealer named Allen “Bud” Selig.
Through the crazy uncertainty of the offseason, Milkes was still employed as GM (essentially by the league, as new ownership was sought), and he made a couple of significant trades, both with the Oakland A’s. Diego Segui, who had been the team’s best pitcher in ’69, was dealt for a so-so middle infielder, Ted Kubiak. And then first baseman Don Mincher, the team’s only serious power hitter, went for a package of journeymen—but one of them, pitcher Ken Sanders, suddenly blossomed for the Brewers in 1970 as an outstanding reliever.
The Segui and Mincher deals might be seen as a microcosm of the on-field fortunes of this franchise in its first two seasons. The trades didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense; they weren't indicative of a particular plan or direction. Yet they didn't work out badly—nor did they, as did so many of the Royals' trades, work out especially well. The Pilots/Brewers made transactions in a seemingly ad hoc manner, but the team kind of hung in there and, if they didn't do well exactly, didn't do nearly as poorly as they might have.
Indeed, in 1970, the desperately scrambled-together Brewers—literally, playing in blue-and-gold Pilots uniforms, with "Brewers" hastily stitched on—finished in a flat-footed tie with the Royals, fourth place in the American League West at 65-97. Moreover, their all-of-a-sudden hometown fans, despite the complete impossibility of off-season advance sales, supported the new team remarkably well: the 1970 Brewers finished seventh in the league in attendance, drawing more than the Royals had in 1969, and almost a quarter million more than the Royals did in 1970. Despite the exceedingly tumultuous ride they had taken, at the end of 1970, one might well have seen the Brewers as better situated than the Royals.
We'll examine how each of these teams did in years three through six, and seven through 12.
References and Resources
Jim Bouton's Ball Four is a truly great book, an enduring classic. If you've never read it, make immediate and serious plans to do so, very soon. It presents not only a rich and colorful view of the 1969 Seattle Pilots (and as a bonus, the 1969 Houston Astros too), but indeed as rich and colorful a view of any ball club ever rendered. It's fun, salty and poignant, valuable today as an historical resource and simply as a jaunty read.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.