Some players are just likeable. Ed Kirkpatrick, who lost a long battle with throat cancer on Monday at the age of 66, was one of those guys. How could you not love a ballplayer nicknamed “Spanky?”
Kirkpatrick settled for a journeyman career in the 1960s and ’70s, but at one time he appeared headed for stardom. As a teenaged catcher in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system, Kirkpatrick put up astounding offensive numbers. Playing for Triple-A Hawaii in 1963, he hit .352 with an OPS of 1.030. Not surprisingly, the Angels rewarded him with a promotion to Los Angeles, but they tugged and pulled at his playing time, while switching him from catcher to the outfield. Kirkpatrick could not gain traction at the major league level until 1966, when he hit nine home runs with 51 walks in 377 plate appearances. Unfortunately, his .192 batting average became a sore thumb number, influencing his return to the minor leagues the following year.
Ultimately, the Angels lost patience with their young outfielder-catcher. Though he was still only 23, Kirkpatrick became trade bait. The Angels did not exactly sell him at a high price, sending him to the expansion Kansas City Royals for 40-something reliever Hoyt Wilhelm. It’s bewildering that the Angels could have unloaded a young left-handed hitting catcher for a pitcher who was staring at the finish of his Hall of Fame career. Like many of the Angels’ moves in the 1960s, it baffled the senses.
Kirkpatrick did not leave California empty-handed. He had been given the nickname of “Spanky” because of his remarkable facial resemblance to Spanky McFarland, one of the featured players in the “Little Rascals” television series. Kirkpatrick played the part well, with his flannel jersey often becoming untucked during games, in much the same way that Spanky wore his clothes while cavorting with Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and the rest of Our Gang.
In joining the Royals for their inaugural season in 1969, he became the first left fielder in franchise history. He also put in time in right field, behind the plate, and rather amazingly, also made 24 appearances in center field, becoming one of the slowest-footed center fielders of the expansion era. More importantly, Kirkpatrick benefited from expanded playing time, along with a friendlier offensive ballpark in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. Kirkpatrick hit 32 home runs over his first two seasons with the Royals, while slugging .451 in 1969.
His home run totals dipped over his next three years, but he remained a valuable player because of his ability to draw walks, his occasional power (especially against right-handed pitching), and his versatility. He played all three outfield positions, did some platooning as a catcher, filled in at first base, and also became the first designated hitter in the history of the Royals.
The Royals liked the hustling Kirkpatrick, but they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to trade him and minor league third baseman Fernando Gonzalez to the Pirates for right-handed starter Nelson Briles. While with the Pirates, Kirkpatrick enhanced a reputation as one of the game’s strongest and toughest players.
Always willing to take on base runners in collisions at home plate, Kirkpatrick also showed an eagerness to back up his teammates. During a 1974 game with the Reds, Bruce Kison (never shy about pitching up and in) brushed back Davey Concepcion with a fastball. Reds right-hander Jack Billingham retaliated by planting a fastball in Kison’s ribs, prompting both benches to clear the dugouts and bullpens. Kirkpatrick immediately joined his Pirates teammates on the field. As the Reds and Pirates players sized each other up, Reds manager Sparky Anderson accidentally stepped on Kirkpatrick’s foot. Not realizing that Anderson had meant no harm, Kirkpatrick decked the usually amiable Reds skipper, triggering a full-scale brawl. (In an eerie coincidence, Anderson passed away last week at the age of 76.)
Much like the Royals, the Pirates used Kirkpatrick as a supersub, benefiting from his live, left-handed bat and his handyman willingness to play anywhere. But the Pirates also had more talent than the Royals, with frontline players ahead of Kirkpatrick at catcher (Manny Sanguillen), first base (Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson), and in the outfield (Richie Zisk, Al Oliver and Dave Parker).
Kirkpatrick’s playing time and effectiveness dwindled so much that the Pirates traded him at the June 15, 1977 deadline, sending him to the Rangers for an over-the-hill Jim Fregosi. It looked like Kirkpatrick would settle into a useful role as a super-utility player in Texas, but he struggled to regain the swing he had lost in Pittsburgh. That same summer, the Rangers traded him to the Brewers for a young Gorman Thomas. Kirkpatrick continued to struggle, drawing his release in the spring of 1978. Not satisfied to call it a career, Kirkpatrick played one season at Triple-A before opting to retire.
Three years later, Kirkpatrick made headlines, but for the wrong reasons. The victim of a car accident, Kirkpatrick suffered a blood clot in his brain and fell into a coma. His life hanging in the balance, he remained in a coma for five and a half months, before eventually regaining consciousness.
Though restricted to a wheelchair, Kirkpatrick fought hard to regain his strength and lead a life similar to the one that he enjoyed before the accident. He retained his humor and upbeat nature, which had always been hallmarks of his personality. His hometown of Glendora, Calif., took note of his spirited courage, presenting the annual “Ed Kirkpatrick Award” to community members who had provided extraordinary service to youth sports.
I remember well when Kirkpatrick became involved in that accident. For awhile, it didn’t appear that he would make it. Ever the fighter, Kirkpatrick managed to live nearly 30 more years, making the most of his life after baseball.
Good job, Spanky.