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Remembering Royals founder Ewing Kauffman

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He would be 100 years old today.

One hundred years ago today, on a farm near Garden City, Missouri, Ewing Marion Kauffman was born. It was not long after that that he moved to Kansas City, becoming intertwined with the city itself, and leaving a legacy that leaves him as one of the most important people in city history.

Ewing Kauffman was a calm, thoughtful person, who once spent nearly a year of childhood bedridden with a heart condition, so he spent the time reading over 40 books. After attending Kansas City Junior College and serving in the Navy, Kauffman began his career as a pharmaceutical salesman, and was quickly out-earning management on his commissions alone. It wasn’t long before he realized he could cut out the middleman and form his own company. He created Marion Laboratories in the basement of his home, using his middle name for the company so customers would not know he was a one-man operation. He made $1,000 that first year. By the time he sold the company to pharmaceutical giant Merrell Dow in 1989, the company had over $1 billion in sales with 3,400 employees.

The 44-year old had his life changed when he met a woman in a hotel pool in Miami in 1960. Although she rebuffed his offer for a drink, her grandmother insisted the trio meet up at the hotel bar where Ewing became smitten with the Canadian-native, Muriel McBrien. Two years later, they were married.

In 1967, following the relocation of the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland, it was immediately announced that Kansas City would receive a new expansion franchise to begin play in 1969. Ewing Kauffman was not much of a baseball fan. But his wife Muriel Kauffman, a bon vivant who loved people, and had been a fan of the minor league baseball team in Toronto as a youth, urged him to take on a hobby to keep his mind off the pharmaceutical business and suggested putting in a bid. At her bequest, Ewing eventually won the team with a bid of $7 million over three other potential owners. The team was named the “Royals”, in part because of the famed agricultural show in town, “The American Royal”, but also because royal blue was Muriel’s favorite color.

"Kansas City has been good to me, and I want to show I can return the favor."

Ewing Kauffman set out to make the Royals a model franchise, using the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise as a template for success, even copying their simple blue and white uniforms, a design that still lasts to this day. He was determined to build a winner from the ground up, beginning with the expansion draft, where the Royals bypassed several older, more established veterans to go for young players with upside. The Royals found several talented players such as Pat Kelly, Bob Oliver, Dick Drago, and Al Fitzmorris, but they were also able to take some of their expansion picks to swap them for other young players, acquiring Lou Piniella, John Mayberry, and Amos Otis in trades.

Kauffman was instrumental in the design of the new stadium, “Royals Stadium” which opened in 1973. He spent $2 million of his own money on a 12-story high scoreboard, and an additional $750,000 on a water spectacular that has become the signature feature. He was also keen on using innovation to try new ideas and gain a competitive advantage. He spent $1.5 million in creating the Royals Academy as a way to take raw athletes and teach them to become baseball players, producing big leaguers like Frank White and UL Washington. He created the “Royals Lancers”, a group of season ticket sales boosters. He even created perhaps the first real computer-driven analytics team, using technology as a way to evaluate ballplayers.

By their fourth season, the Royals had a winning team. By their seventh season, they were in the playoffs. By their eleventh season, they were American League champs. Kauffman was always cognizant of the fan experience however, so even after winning the pennant in 1980, he cut season ticket sales at 15,000 so that all fans would have a chance to attend games the next season. He also reserved the left and right field seats for general admission seating so fans could walk-up on game day and get a seat.

Kauffman was also very wary of the financial state of the game. As the owner of a small market club, he was concerned about the rising salaries in the game, fueled in particular by the owner of the rival Yankees, George Steinbrenner. Kauffman was a hardliner against the players union in work stoppages in 1972 and 1981. He also battled with his own star players regarding raises, with George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae, and Amos Otis very publicly complaining about their frugality of management.

Still, Kauffman was not above pursuing big time free agents. He failed to land big free agent stars like Pete Rose, Jim Palmer, Carlton Fisk, and Joe Carter, but not by a lack of trying. He claimed to subsidize the team through his own personal fortune, claiming annual losses in the millions. While his 1980 pennant-winning team won with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, his 1985 championship team had the ninth-highest payroll in baseball, higher than even the free-spending California Angels. Kauffman would also reward his long-time stars George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, and Dan Quisenberry with “lifetime contracts”, although those deals eventually had to be bought out.

Knowing that Kansas City had already lost a Major League franchise once, Kauffman was committed to keeping baseball in town long after he was gone. He brought in Memphis real estate developer Avron Fogelman in 1983 as a minority owner with plans for him to succeed Kauffman one day. It was Fogelman who locked up the lifetime contracts, tying them to real estate ventures that would go eventually belly up. The addition of Fogelman also created factions in the Royals front office that would eventually lead to the departure of General Manager John Schuerholz. By 1991, the relationship between Kauffman and Fogelman had soured and the club bought Fogelman out in a complicated transaction that led to Fogelman defaulting on a $34 million loan from Kauffman.

Flush with the cash from the sale of his pharmaceutical company to Merrell Dow, Kauffman became a free-spending owner in early 90s in an attempt to win one more championship. He spent big on free agents such as Mark Davis, Storm Davis, Mike Boddicker, Kirk Gibson, Greg Gagne, and Kansas City native David Cone, who would win a Cy Young Award in Kansas City. By this time, Kauffman was battling bone cancer and was well into his 70s. The team would fail to win more than 85 games from 1990 until his death in 1993.

Less than two years later, Muriel Kauffman died. There was a succession plan devised by the Kauffmans to keep the team in Kansas City. The team was placed in a charitable trust, headed by David Glass, the CEO of Wal-Mart. The trust had six years to find an owner willing to keep the team in Kansas City and pay the minimum price of $75 million. Although there were a few interested bidders, including New York attorney Miles Prentice, in 2000 the club was sold to Glass for $96 million.

In 1993, the stadium that housed the Royals, where Ewing Kauffman could frequently be seen in his loud suits, cheering from the owners box as the Royals thrilled their fans with another victory, was re-named “Kauffman Stadium.” That same year, he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was on the Veteran’s Committee ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but was not elected.

Ewing Kauffman is synonymous with Royals baseball, but he almost certainly had a bigger impact away from the game. His Marion Laboratories employed thousands of people in the area and made many of them millionaires with his profit-sharing plans. The Kauffman Foundation was founded in 1966 as a non-profit dedicated to engaging citizens to improve their communities through entrepreneurship and is now recognized nationally as a foundation for innovation. His wife’s commitment to the arts resulted in the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, a nationally renowned performing arts facility. Kauffman also famously gave free scholarships to students at his alma mater at Westport High School, if they graduated and stayed out of trouble. The program was expanded to other schools and lasted eight years after his death, giving out $22 million to over 700 students, and continues on today as the Kauffman Scholars program, which has $140 million invested in students.

For some, a lifelong dream would be to start a successful business. Or win a World Series. Or help enrich the lives of thousands of people. Such a lofty ambition could take a lifetime to achieve. Ewing Kauffman did all of these things. He is held in almost saintly terms in Kansas City, but deservedly so. A Kansas City without Ewing Kauffman is almost certainly a less pleasant place, and for the lives he directly touched, the impact cannot even begin to be quantified.

Happy birthday, Mr. K. You have been good to Kansas City and returned the favor a thousand times over. This city will be forever in your debt.