When writing these retro columns, I pull many stories from games I’ve attended. One of my favorite games is still the first one I attended: Royals vs. Red Sox, Thursday August 9th, 1973. I was twelve that summer and had been a fan since the Royals inception in 1969, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking through the tunnel for the first time and seeing the ballpark. Royals Stadium (Not the K yet) had only been open for a little over four months and it was spectacular: the field, the lights, the scoreboard, the water fountains, the curve of the upper deck seats. Royals Stadium was unlike anything else in sports in 1973 and Kansas City had it. Not New York. Not Boston. Not Los Angeles. Kansas City had the best baseball stadium in the world.
We picked this game in advance as my Cookie League baseball season was over and my father had a week of vacation. My uncle Larry was working at the University of Kansas Medical Center and living in a house at 26th and Charlotte, so we had a tour guide and a place to stay. Before the game, we drove to the River Quay (pronounced River Key) and had a bite to eat. The Quay was the hip new place in downtown Kansas City (now known as River Market). The hipness lasted for about a year, until a mob turf war drove away customers and the area fell into disrepair.
My Uncle Larry had lived in Boston, though he was no sports fan. He ended up with a doctorate in Microbiology and led the Biology department at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas for many years. While he lived in Boston in the summer of 1967, he sent me an autographed baseball from Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg. 1967 was the Red Sox Impossible Dream season. The Sox had finished the 1965 season with 100 losses, so the American League pennant and World Series appearance in 1967 was somewhat of a shock. An interesting tidbit: Royal Hall of Famer Amos Otis was originally drafted by the Red Sox in the 5th round of the 1965 amateur draft. The New York Mets acquired Otis from the Red Sox in the 1966 minor league draft. Imagine the early to late 70’s Red Sox had they been able to keep Otis: Carl Yastrzemski in left, Otis in center and Dwight Evans in right. That’s a solid outfield.
We arrived at the game early and watched both teams take batting practice. I still have the ticket stub from the game. Our seats were behind first base in what was called the Field Box seats. Aisle 128, Box W, Seat 1. The price of the seat was $4.00. Today that section is known as 140 and tickets run $51 per seat. The Program also shows General Admission for $1.50, Reserve Grandstand for $3.00, Box Seats for $4.00 and Club Box Seats for $6.00.
The program itself is gold. There is a paragraph explaining to fans the rules and intricacies of the new Designated Hitter rule, being 1973 was the first year of the DH. The program advertising was astounding, with ads from four cigarette companies and three beer companies. The beer ads are classic: Pabst – First of the great Milwaukee beers! Schlitz – Gusto. It’s out there! The best beer ad is from Falstaff which shows two cowboys, sharing what appears to be a Brokeback Mountain type moment with the tagline: Because we’re all in this together. That got me wondering, we’re all in what together?
There was no advertising in the program from Hamms, the official beer of the Kansas City Royals. Land of the Sky Blue Waters. Hamms – the beer refreshing. Whoever ran the marketing for Hamms was a genius. Many of their ads featured an Indian brave in a canoe with tom-toms in the background. They also had the world famous Hamms bear.
The program roster also showed a late addition, #25 Brett, Inf. Brett, only 20 years old, had made his Major League debut a week earlier on August 2nd against the Chicago White Sox. He batted eight and picked up the first of his 3,154 career hits, a single to left off of Stan Bahnsen. I recall being disappointed that he did not play this night, but my favorite Royal at the time was Dirty Kurt Bevacqua, who played a capable third base.
The other great part of the program was seeing the pages entitled "Families visit Royals Stadium." Unbelievable. This being 1973, everything was mod. Catcher Carl Taylor rocking a fashionable one piece overall over the top of a long sleeve flowered shirt. Coach Galen Cisco and his pretty wife Martha, who was wearing a midriff bearing halter top. Utility man Bobby Floyd, looking sharp, wearing an ensemble fit for a disco. Third baseman Paul Schaal and his beautiful wife Sharon, looking very much like Mr. and Mrs. Royal, with Paul sporting white Sansabelt slacks, white shoes and a long sleeved flowered shirt. There’s a picture of the newest Royal, Hal McRae and his wife Johncyna, with son’s Cullen and Brian. That’d be future Royals great Brian McRae.
Before the game, I stood on the first base line rail and snagged an autograph from Kurt Bevacqua. The night was off to a good start. 1973 had been a magical year for the Royals. They opened the new stadium in April, Steve Busby had thrown the first no-hitter in Royals history in April, they hosted the All-Star game in July and on this day in August they held a half game lead over the defending World Series Champion Oakland A’s. Steve Busby was on the mound for the Royals with Bill "Spaceman" Lee taking the hill for the Red Sox.
The first inning was uneventful, but the fireworks started in the second. Carl Yastrzemski and Orlando "baby bull" Cepeda hit consecutive singles to open the inning. Busby then threw a pitch past catcher Fran Healy to score Yastrzemski. Cepeda, relishing his role as a DH, had lacerated the Royals with four doubles in the previous game. In the bottom of the second, Lou Piniella hit a one-out single, which brought Hal McRae to the plate. McRae had some early success with the Cincinnati Reds but in 1969 had suffered multiple fractures in his leg while sliding into second base while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. The injury had caused McRae to miss the entire 1969 season and limited him to only 70 games in 1970. The injury plus the Big Red Machines depth had made McRae, now 27, expendable. Royals General Manger Cedric Tallis had taken a huge risk in acquiring McRae, trading away his best pitcher from 1972, Roger Nelson, and one of the Royals top hitters in Richie Scheinblum. McRae had gotten off to a miserable start and came into the game hitting .199. He had been heating up along with the weather, and Royal fans were still hopeful that the trade would pan out.
As if on cue, McRae smoked a Lee fastball off of the top of the right-center wall, missing a home run by mere feet. Piniella scored easily and McRae beat the throw to third with a head first slide. My man Kurt Bevacqua then hit a two-out single to right field to give the Royals a 2-1 lead.
It was still 2-1 when McRae came to the plate leading off the fourth inning. Mac sent the crowd into hysterics by mashing a mammoth home run to left field. The ball hit about three feet from the top of the back wall of the left field bullpen. Had it cleared the wall, it would have landed on the left field plaza. In those days, the left and right field plaza each had a circular building that housed bathrooms and a concession stand. John Mayberry reportedly hit a ball off the top of the right field plaza building, though to this day McRae’s home run remains the longest shot I have witnessed in Royals Stadium.
The Red Sox made things interesting in the eight. Right fielder Rick Miller led off the eighth with a home run against Busby. After giving up a two-out single to Reggie Smith and a walk to Yastrzemski, Royals manager Jack McKeon brought in his fireman, right-hander Doug Bird. Bird escaped the jam by inducing Cepeda to line out to Piniella in left. Bird shut down the side in the ninth, getting Rico Petrocelli on a pop-foul to first baseman John Mayberry, getting Doug Griffin to groundout to Freddie Patek and catching Bob Montgomery looking at a third strike as the crowd of 17,167 roared their approval. While my parents, sister and uncle waited in the concourse, I made my way to the Red Sox side of the field, hoping to score some more autographs. Bob Veale, who attended nearby Benedictine College, was holding court on the third base rail, showing a group of kids’ different types of pitching grips. Veale was a 6’6, 225 pound power pitcher who in his prime, who set the Pittsburgh Pirates single season strikeout record with 276 in 1965, which placed him second in the big leagues behind Sandy Koufax’s then record 382 strikeouts.
On the other side of the dugout was Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz was a bona fide superstar, the 1967 Triple Crown winner and MVP. I cautiously approached, as Yastrzemski was speaking to another fan, a man in his late 30’s. He signed a couple of items for the fan. When he finished I politely asked him if he would sign my program. A Yastrzemski autograph would have been a feather in the cap of any young collector. To my request, Mr. Yastrzemski brusquely replied, "No kid, I don’t do that" and he made a beeline for the locker room. I was a little stunned and confused as I had just seen him sign items for the older man. Disappointed, I walked the stairs to the concourse, where my family was waiting. My mom could see that something was bothering me, and she asked me what was wrong. I repeated the story to her and I could see storm clouds come across her face. Now understand, my mother is an angel in human form (My wife even believes so). I have never heard her speak badly about another person and only on rarest occasions have heard her swear. I remember hearing her swear once when she ran a sewing machine needle through her thumb nail. It wasn’t much of a cuss word, just a "dammit that hurt." But on this evening, my dear, sweet mother shocked all of us by dropping the F-bomb. As we were walking out of the stadium, she proclaimed for all to hear, "Carl Bleeping Yastrzemski!" My father and my uncle, who had been averaging about one Hamm’s per inning, both stopped dead in their tracks. My Uncle, who had probably never heard his little sister swear, burst out laughing and said, "Karen, what did you just say?" My mom repeated my story, to which my father, never one to tolerate any type of elitist behavior, blurted out, "Why that son of a bitch!" The three of them howled with laughter and on the walk out of the stadium, they each repeated my mom’s mantra, "Carl Bleeping Yastrzemski!" Beck and call, all of the way out of the stadium, drawing stares from all we passed. My sister and I walked timidly behind them, not sure what we were witnessing.
About five years ago, I was home visiting my parents. They live in Salina, Kansas and Salina has a nice little morning paper called the Journal. As we were eating breakfast and reading the paper, I read something in the sports page to my dad, a piece about the Red Sox and Carl Yastrzemski. I had long forgotten the autograph snub, but upon hearing the Yastrzemski name, my mom scowled and said, "Who are you talking about, Carl Bleeping Yastrzemski?" Bless my mom, she never forgets.
Ah the memories. The Lonborg ball and my Uncle Larry are both gone now. The ball lost to a careless youth and many moves, my uncle lost to the ravages of cancer. I’d love to have both of them back, but unfortunately that’s not how life works. But we do have the memories of a great game, a titanic home run and Carl Bleeping Yastrzemski.