In writing these pieces about the top five players at every position, it’s become very clear to me that the team I love and have rooted for since their inception has been woefully short of outstanding players. Sure, there’s always one or two who were terrific, but not always five. The catcher position was like that. And so is first base.
There have been guys who’ve had a solid season or two, such as Todd Benzinger, Hal Morris and Doug Mientkiewicz, but when it comes to longer tenured careers of excellence, it’s slim. Even though the Royals were skinny on the talent with first basement, the first basemen did field the best nicknames in the history the team: Hammer, Big John, Brohearn, Papo, Wally World, Bye Bye and my personal favorite, Moose. Moose was the moniker for a highly touted rookie first sacker back in 1973 named Frank Ortenzio. Ortenzio had been drafted in the 47th round of the 1969 draft by Kansas City. To give you some idea of what a long shot Ortenzio was, the current major league draft is only 40 rounds.
Ortenzio was a big man at 6’2 and 215 and had some power, which explains his nickname. In 1971 he torched A-ball pitching for 32 home runs and 103 RBI which earned him a promotion to AA Jacksonville in 1972. He played 70 games in Jacksonville and finished 1972 with 69 more games in Omaha, posting a .288/.374/.533 slash with 26 home runs and 92 RBI over the two leagues. Royals brass thought they had a star on their hands, never mind that they already had one of the majors best young first basemen in John Mayberry and another young slugging backup, Tony Solaita.
Ortenzio got a nine-game cup of coffee with the Royals late in the 1973 season and performed adequately, slashing .280/.333/.480 with one home run and six RBI, but Mayberry was a star who could not be replaced. Ortenzio continued to mash for Omaha through the end of the 1976 season, cranking a total of 50 home runs in parts of the next five seasons before the Royals sent him to Montreal for a player named Rudy Kinard. In 1977, Montreal assigned Ortenzio to the Denver Bears, their AAA team and the Moose had a monster season going off for .311/.403/.641 with 40 home runs and 126 RBI. The Expos first baseman in 1977 was future Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who had a decent year with 19 home runs and 91 RBI which once again left the Moose with no place to go. He played another season in AAA before getting frustrated and going to Japan for the final two years of his career.
The Moose was a bit of a real-life Crash Davis, slashing .271/.361/.486 with 212 home runs and 764 RBI in 12 minor league and Japanese league seasons and was done at the age of 29. It makes one wonder had he played for a team that really needed a first baseman in those years, such as Seattle or the Chicago White Sox, could his career have turned out differently? As it was, those nine games with the Royals in 1973 were all the games he got in “The Show”.
And on to the list:
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order):
Steve Balboni, Mike Fiore, Bob Hamelin, Jeff King, Pete LaCock, Bob Oliver, Tony Solaita
5. Willie Aikens
Aikens was drafted in the first round of the 1975 draft by the California Angels. Aikens was destined to play professional baseball. His full name is: Willie Mays Aikens. You don’t name your kid that unless you expect the boy to be a ballplayer. Aikens had a 42-game stint with the Angels in 1977 before taking over their first baseman’s job for good in 1979. Aikens always had good power, slugging 110 home runs in 774 career games. He was a decent contact hitter also, with a career slash of .271/.354/.455.
Kansas City acquired Aikens in the offseason after the 1979 season in exchange for outfielder Al Cowens. The Royals were searching for a power hitter to take up the slack when John Mayberry was banished to Toronto. Aikens played 492 games at first for the Royals between 1980 and 1983 before a drug problem derailed his career. He famously hit four home runs for Kansas City in the 1980 World Series and slammed 77 dongs in his Royal career, which ended at 7 WAR. His best season as a Royal was his first, that 1980 year where he slashed .278/.356/.433 with 20 home runs and 98 RBI. The Royals shipped him to Toronto, which apparently was the prime destination for first basemen with drug problems, in December of 1983 for Jorge Orta.
4. Wally Joyner
Joyner was drafted by the California Angels in the third round of the 1983 draft out of Brigham Young University. The sweet swinging Joyner made his debut for the Angels in 1986 and put up terrific numbers for a rookie: .290/.348/.457 with 22 home runs and 100 RBI, good for second place in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Jose Canseco, who had a monster year. Joyner showed good power early in his career, with 114 home runs in his first six seasons. Joyner became a free agent after the 1991 season and a contract dispute with the Angels brought him to Kansas City, beginning the Wally World era in Kansas City. Joyner played 501 games at first for the Royals over the next four seasons, which saw him slash .293/.371/.434 with 44 home runs and 271 RBI while displaying an excellent glove. In December of 1995, the Royals traded Joyner to San Diego for Bip Roberts.
3. Eric Hosmer
Hosmer was selected in the first round, third overall, of the 2008 draft by the Royals. He made his Major League debut on May 6, 2011 age the age of 21. Hos played 1,032 games at first for the Royals over his seven-year career, slashing .284/.342/.439 with 127 home runs and 556 RBI. Along the way he made one All-Star team, won four Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and helped the Royals win the 2015 World Series. Hosmer’s mad dash home with the tying run in the ninth inning of game five of the 2015 Series remains one of the most iconic plays in Royals history. Hosmer was good for 14 WAR over his Kansas City career with his last year in Kansas City (2017) being his best: .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs and 94 RBI. Hosmer parlayed that career year into an eight-year, $144 million dollar deal with the San Diego Padres.
2. John Mayberry
Mayberry was drafted sixth overall by the Houston Astros in the 1967 draft. After tearing up A ball in 1968, Big John made the jump all the way to AAA Oklahoma City before getting a four-game cup of coffee with the Astros at the end of the 1968 season as a 19-year-old. Mayberry played in 101 more games over the next three seasons in Houston but struggled at the plate. The fact is Mayberry wasn’t quite ready to play in the majors and Houston had a plethora of decent first basemen blocking Mayberry’s development with Rusty Staub, Curt Blefary, Bob Watson and in 1972, Lee May. The acquisition of May made Mayberry expendable and Houston traded him to the Royals for pitchers Jim York and Lance Clemons in what remains one of the most lopsided trades in major league history.
Manager Bob Lemon installed the 23-year-old Mayberry as his starting first baseman in 1972 and John was ready. He responded with a .298/.394/.507 season with 25 home runs and the Royals first 100 RBI season. He finished 12th in the leagues in the MVP vote. Over the next six seasons, Mayberry slashed .261/.374/.448 with 143 home runs, 552 RBI, 459 runs and an astounding 561 walks. Mayberry only struck out 457 times in 3,131 at bats in his Royal career. He garnered two All-Star game berths and helped the Royals win the 1976 and 1977 American League West titles. He had a monster year in 1975, slashing .291/.416/.547 with a then club record 34 home runs, 106 RBI and a league leading 119 walks, all good for another league leading 168 OPS+. He finished second in the 1975 MVP vote to Red Sox rookie sensation Fred Lynn.
Mayberry was good for over 21 WAR in his Kansas City career. He had a fallout with manager Whitey Herzog when he arrived late for Game Four of the 1977 American League Championship Series. Mayberry started the game, but after striking out twice and committing two errors, a furious Herzog yanked Big John after the fourth inning. Mayberry never played another inning in Kansas City. In April of 1978 the Royals sold him to Toronto for cash. No players to be named later, just cash. A pitiful return for a player who helped the Royals become a winner. Mayberry played parts of five more seasons in Toronto, hitting another 92 home runs and driving home 272 more, while the Royals struggled to find a first baseman. Mayberry was elected to the Royals Hall of Fame in 1996.
1. Mike Sweeney
Sweeney was drafted by the Royals in the 19th round of the 1991 draft. He made his Major League debut on September 4, 1995 as a 22-year-old catcher. He began his career behind hte plate and didn’t make the move to first base until the 1999 season. From 1999 to 2007, Sweeney played in 553 games at first.
Sweeney was one of the better hitters to ever wear a Royals uniform, slashing .299/.369/.492 with 197 home runs and 837 RBI over a 13-year Kansas City career. Only injuries prevented him from putting up bigger numbers. Sweeney also played for the Royals during some of their darkest years. Instead of demanding a trade (here’s looking at you Zack) or signing a large contract elsewhere (you know who), Sweeney elected to extend with the Royals, earning him the undying respect from the tortured fan base of the 2000s.
Sweeney’s move to first base was actually an accident. General Manager Herk Robinson had tried to trade Sweeney during spring training in 1999, but fortunately found no takers. When Jeff King qualified for his Major League pension and abruptly retired in the middle of the 1999 season, the Royals were left without a regular first baseman. They gave the job to Sweeney and he responded with a .322/.387/.520 slash with 22 home runs and 102 RBI in just 150 games. He made the first of his five All-Star teams the next season.
When he was healthy, he could rake with the best of them. During the seven-year stretch from 1999 to 2005, Sweeney went off for .313/.383/.521 with 163 home runs, 676 RBI, 1,095 hits and an OPS of .905. During the 2001 season, Sweeney earned the respect of Kansas City fans and teammates when he ran down a retreating loudmouth pitcher, Jeff Weaver, and gave him the pounding he deserved. The beatdown cost Sweeney fifteen games (five due to a bruised hand and another ten for the suspension) but it was worth it.
The end finally came after the 2007 season, when injuries had sapped his effectiveness. Kansas City allowed Sweeney to walk in free agency. He played 172 more games over the next three seasons with Oakland, Seattle and Philadelphia before calling it a career. Sweeney returned to the Royals in 2014 as the Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. No one has worn his number 29 jersey since, and Sweeney was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2015.