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In memoriam: Royals we lost in 2019

May they rest in peace.

MLB Archive Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we reflect upon the year that was, it is important to remember those we lost this year. Unfortunately that includes a few former Royals players. Let’s look back on their careers and celebrate their remarkable lives.

Norm Angelini

Angelini was a kid from San Francisco who got the attention from scouts as a high schooler with a terrific curveball. He attended a nearby two-year school, College of San Mateo ,and turned down three Major League clubs that drafted him to attend Washington State University. He signed as an amateur free agent with the Royals in 1969.

The lefty began as a starter, and excelled in the low minors, with very high strikeout rates for that era. He moved to the bullpen in 1971, and his numbers improved to the tune of a 1.67 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 70 innings for Double-A Elmira. He began the 1972 season in Triple-A Omaha and after dominating with a league-leading 1.41 ERA in 51 innings, he was up with the Royals by late July.

Angelini made his MLB debut against the mighty Orioles, and gave up a home run to the very first hitter he faced, All-Star first baseman Boog Powell. But he settled in after that and picked up the win in his first outing. Despite some high walk numbers, he held his own in 16 innings with a 2.25 ERA with 16 strikeouts and two saves.

Denver Post Archives Norm Angelini, center, as a minor leaguer with the Denver Bears (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Angelini was part of the Royals’ plans in 1973, with pitching coach Galen Cisco hinting he could be useful as a starter or reliever.

“He needs to work on his control, but he’s shown good control on trips lately.”

Angelini was one of the last cuts in spring training and other than a brief callup in May in which he got into seven games, he spent nearly the entire season in Omaha where he struggled with a 4.75 ERA and high walk numbers.

He spent a few more seasons with the Royals, but never in the big leagues. He bounced around to the Braves and Expos organizations as a Triple-A reliever, and retired after the 1981 season at the age of 33. Despite a brief career in the big leagues, Angelini wouldn’t change a thing about his career, saying “I gave it everything I had every time I got the chance to play.”

Angelini died in Aurora, Colorado on December 21, 2019 at the age of 72 of leukemia. He is survived by his wife Sue and his son Michael.

Bill Buckner

Buckner was a gifted athlete and gritty player who was a borderline Hall of Fame candidate only to have his reputation overshadowed by his error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Buckner was a real throwback, a player who relied on a high average, who didn’t have a lot of power for a first baseman, but hardly ever struck out or walked. He had eleven full seasons in which he had more doubles than strikeouts, and his 4.5% career strikeout rate is the seventh-lowest by any player in the expansion era.

Buckner was born and raised in northern California and he attracted the attention of football coaches from USC as well as baseball scouts from teams like the Yankees. He was selected in the second round of the 1968 draft by the Dodgers and hit .344 in rookie ball under skipper Tommy Lasorda, who would later manage the big league club. He continued to hit the next season in Double-A and Triple-A and the Dodgers brought him up in September to make his MLB debut at the age of 19.

By 1971, he was a regular in the Dodgers starting lineup at age 21, hitting .319/.348/.410 and splitting time between first base and the outfield. He finished fourth in batting average in 1974 as the starting left fielder for the pennant-winning Dodgers. Playing in LA had other perks, such as being near Hollywood. Buckner, Lasorda, and outfielder Tom Paciorek were cast as extras in the film The Godfather, Part II. Although their faces aren’t visible, the group is in the scene where Michael Corleone discovers Fredo has betrayed him.

Buckner suffered an severe ankle injury in 1975 that limited him to first base duties the rest of his career. In 1977, he was dealt to he Cubs in a five-player trade for outfielder Rick Monday and won a batting title in 1980. In 1981 and 1982 he would finish in the top ten in MVP voting each season, earning his only All-Star appearance in 1981.

Bill Buckner sprints Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

With promising young first baseman Leon Durham coming up, the Cubbies dealt Buckner to the Red Sox in 1984 for pitcher Dennis Eckersley. In 1985, he hit .299 with a career-high 110 RBI at the age of 34. He hit 102 RBI in 1986 despite playing the season with painful bone spurs in his ankle that required off-season surgery. The Red Sox won a close ALCS over the Angels that year and were just an out away from winning their first championship in nearly 70 years before an epic meltdown cost them the lead in Game 6. The game was already tied by the time Buckner’s infamous error won the game for the Mets, but blame was unfairly laid at his feet.

“I’ll be seeing clips of this thing until the day I die. I accept that. On the other hand, I’ll never understand why.”

The Red Sox released him in July of the next season, and he signed with the Angels, hitting .306 down the stretch. The Angels released him the following May, but the Royals needed a designated hitter, and signed the 38-year old veteran. Buckner was overjoyed to be in Kansas City.

“It’s like I died and went to heaven,” Buckner said, grinning from beneath his blue Royal cap. “That’s the only way I can describe it. How many times do you get released by one team and sign with another that’s higher in the standings-- and end up playing more?”

Buckner hit mostly against right-handers and batted .256/.290/.351 in 89 games with the Royals in 1988. He enjoyed himself so much, he put off a planned retirement and returned for the 1989 season, although he slumped to .216/.240/.267 in 79 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He spent 22 games with the Red Sox in 1990 before finally retiring with a career .289 batting average and 2,715 hits.

Buckner spent some time in coaching in the minors, and was hired as the White Sox hitting coach in 1996. He always seemed to take his famous gaffe in stride, lampooning it in in a Nike commercial, a cameo in the film The Comebacks, and an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. He returned to Boston in 2008 to throw out a ceremonial first pitch and was greeted with a standing ovation.

Buckner and his wife Jody had two daughters, Brittany and Christen, and a son, Bobby. Bill died on May 27, 2019 in Boise, Idaho at the age of 69 from Lewy body dementia.

Jackie Hernández

Hernández was a gifted defensive shortstop who started for the inaugural Royals club in 1969. Born Jacinto Hernández Zulueta in Cuba, he was the second-youngest of nine children and served as the batboy for his father’s workplace team. His older brother Urbano was signed by the Reds, but injured his leg before ever getting into a game.

Jacinto signed at the age of 19 with the Almendares Alacranes, a Cuban professional team. But he found it difficult to get playing time, and Fidel Castro shut down the professional league the next year. He left Cuba to pursue a baseball career in the States, signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1961.

Hernández began his professional career as a catcher, and in the States, his name was Anglicized to “Jackie.” He had a solid first season, but the language barrier and racism caused him to second-guess leaving Cuba until his mother warned him that things were getting worse in his homeland and he may never get a chance to leave to pursue baseball again.

Hernández floundered with the bat in the minors, but an Indians scout noticed his arm and suggested a move to shortstop. Despite the move, the Indians reneged on a promised raise and assignment to Triple-A and released him in 1965. Luckily, the Angels scooped him up, and by the end of the season they had called him up for a cup of coffee in the big leagues.

The 25-year old spent the entire 1966 season in the big leagues with the Angels, but got into just 58 games, collecting just one hit in 23 at-bats for an .043 average. That off-season, the Angels sent him to the Twins as the player to be named later in a deal that sent star pitcher Dean Chance to Minnesota. Hernández was stuck behind former MVP Zoilo Versailles and spent most of the 1967 season in Triple-A. He played 83 games for the Twins in 1968, hitting just .176/.218/.221.

The Twins left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and the upstart Royals took him with the 43rd pick. He became the starting shortstop for Kansas City, going 1-for-5 with a run scored in the first game in club history. He started 139 games that year, a career high, hitting .222/.278/.282 with 17 steals.

Hernández would start just 65 games in 1970 as the team benched him in favor of more offense-minded shortstops, and in 1971 he was traded to the Pirates in a six-player deal that netted Fred Patek. Starting Pirates shortstop Gene Alley suffered a broken hand in spring training, causing Orioles manager Earl Weaver to remark “the Pirates can’t win the pennant with Hernández at shortstop.” The Pirates would win 97 games, besting Weaver’s Orioles with Hernández playing in all seven games of the World Series and fielding the final out to clinch a championship.

One of Jacinto’s biggest supporters was future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente.

“If you know Hernández, you have to be happy for him. He is a sentimental guy. He loves this game so much.”

Hernández spent the next two seasons with the Pirates in a reserve role before they traded him to the Phillies, who cut him before he ever got in a game with them. He rejoined the Pirates and spent the entire 1974 season in the minors. He spent the next two seasons in the Mexican League before finally retiring. He worked as a driver for two decades before getting into coaching in the independent leagues and working with Pirates minor leaguers. He was known as a jovial, goofy guy, popular with players.

Hernández was married to his wife Ida for 47 years until she died in 2013. He died on October 12, 2019 of lung cancer at the age of 79.

Joe Keough

Keough came from a baseball family. His older brother Marty was a long-time outfielder for the Red Sox and Reds. Another brother Tom, briefly played minor league ball as an outfielder. His nephew Matt was a talented pitcher for the A’s. Even Matt’s son Shane was a minor league outfielder in the Athletics organization (you may remember Matt and Shane from the reality show Real Housewives of Orange County). But Joe Keough made a name for himself by getting the first game-winning hit in Royals history, a walk-off RBI single in their inaugural game.

Joe Keough grew up in the Los Angels area and attended Mt. San Antonio College. He was selected by the then-Kansas City Athletics in the second round of the second-ever draft in 1965. The first baseman/outfielder showed some good pop and by his third season he was in Double-A. By August of that year he was up with the A’s, who had moved to Oakland by that time. In his very first at-bat, the left-handed hitter entered the game as a pinch-hitter in Yankee Stadium and homered off pitcher Lindy McDaniel, at the time just the 37th time in history a player had homered in his first at-bat.

Left unprotected for the expansion draft, the Royals grabbed him with the fourth pick. Despite putting up the best numbers on the club in spring training, he was benched for that first Royals game against the Twins. But as the game creeped on still deadlocked in the 12th inning, manager Joe Gordon called on him to pinch hit for light-hitting catcher Ellie Rodriguez with the bases loaded. He ripped a single to right for the first win in franchise history.

“I was a little irritated that I didn’t start that day. [By the time I got up,] it was so cold, I just hit the first pitch as as hard as I could.”

Keough went through a tough 0-for-44 slump and got demoted to Omaha in late May. He would return in July with much more production, but overall hit just .187/.254/.199 in 70 games.

He began the 1970 season again on the bench, but a torrid May in which he hit .357 got him in the starting lineup on a more regular basis. In late June, he slid awkwardly into home plate, dislocating his ankle and a breaking his leg, ending his season. The injury ended what was looking like a fantastic season. Keough was hitting .322/.396/.443 with four home runs in 57 games when his season ended prematurely. His on-base percentage that year is still the 15th-best in club history for anyone with at least 200 plate appearances.

“Those are things you don’t want to remember,” he began, allowing himself a chuckle of regret, “but yes I do remember breaking my leg. It was a lot of pain. It changed my life, but it changed in a lot of different ways that’s good.”

Unfortunately, Keough never hit the same after his injury. He hit .248/.316/.325 in 110 games in 1971. He served mostly as a defensive replacement in 1972, getting in 56 games and batting just 75 times. The Royals traded him to the White Sox for the 1973 season, and he batted just once for them.

Keough would retire after 1974 and enjoyed a career in Texas in marketing and real estate, raising four children, Tracy, Graig, Jessica, and Melissa, with his wife Beth. Joe died on September 9, 2019 after a brief illness.

Bob Tufts

Bob was an extremely intelligent and funny man with a remarkable post-playing career who later became known as a patient advocate after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. As a lefty reliever, he is perhaps best known in Royals history for being traded for Charlie Leibrandt. He is also known for converting to Judaism during his career, initially choosing “Sandy Koufax” as his Hebrew name (instead settling on “Reuven” after his rabbi objected). I have been fortunate enough to have had a few personal exchanges with Tufts and found him to be extremely sharp, funny, and gracious with his time.

Tufts was born and raised in Massachusetts, the youngest of three kids. His older brother Bill pitched briefly in the Cubs organization. Bob stood 6’5’’ and was a hard-thrower in high school, but despite that, he attended Princeton University, hardly a baseball powerhouse. The economics major did well enough in the Ivy League to attract the attention of professional scouts, and he was selected in the twelfth round of the 1977 draft by the San Francisco Giants.

Tufts struggled in his first pro season, but in year two he won 16 games with a 3.44 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. Despite the strong showing, the Giants kept him in the minors for the next two seasons, even moving him to the bullpen, much to his dismay. After struggling in Triple-A in 1980, he returned in ‘81 to dominate the Pacific Coast League with a 1.70 ERA in 69 innings, causing the Giants to call him up in August.

The Giants couldn’t find a place for him on their pitching staff, so at the end of spring training he was included in a deal with star pitcher Vida Blue to be sent to Kansas City for infielder Brad Wellman, and pitchers Atlee Hammaker, Renie Martin, and Craig Chamberlain. Right away, Tufts noticed a difference in how the Royals operated.

“There was an expectation of winning in the Royals organization. Frank Robinson had just begun to try to put that stamp on the Giants team. And as demonstrated by the Royals Academy and an early acceptance of computers, the Royals were more open to new ideas and techniques.”

Tufts spent most of that 1982 season in Triple-A Omaha where he excelled coming out of the bullpen earning All-Star honors and “Fireman of the Year” in the American Association. He did get in 10 games with the Royals, posting a 4.50 ERA in 20 innings, and earning two saves. Dick Howser was impressed with the lefty who only walked three hitters in his time in KC.

“He gets you the groundball and doesn’t walk many. And I like his makeup, he’s not afraid.”

Tufts made the Royals’ 1983 Opening Day roster, but appeared in just six games before he was demoted for good. His velocity was down, due to a torn rotator cuff and calcium deposits in his shoulder. In June, the Royals shipped him to the Reds organization for another Triple-A lefty, Charlie Leibrandt. Leibrandt would go on to win 76 games for the Royals, and start some huge post-season games in 1985. Tufts found it difficult to get any teams to give him a chance and suspected that being in the same clubhouse as Royals players implicated in drug scandals caused him to be blacklisted. That 1983 season would be his last season of professional baseball.

After his playing days were over, Tufts earned an MBA from Columbia University and worked on Wall Street. He taught at several New York area schools, eventually becoming a business professor at Yeshiva University and winning honors as an instructor.

In 2009, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer in white blood cells. He became a vocal patient advocate for choice in medical treatments and patient access, co-founding the non-profit organization “My Life Is Worth It.” He and his wife Suzanne lived in New York City, where they raised their daughter Abigail.

His cancer was in remission for nearly a decade before returning in 2019. Unfortunately, Bob died on October 4, 2019 at the age of 63.

Kansas City Athletics we lost in 2019:

Jim Archer, Weldon Bowlin, Jack Crimian, Bobby del Greco, Joe Grzenda, Bob Johnson, Don Mossi, Irv Noren, Jerry Schypinski, Gene Stephens.

Other notable MLB players we lost in 2019:

Jim Bouton, Ernie Broglio, Chris Duncan, Ron Fairly, Bob Friend, Pumpsie Green, Al Jackson, Randy Jackson, Don Newcombe, Frank Robinson, Scott Sanderson, Tyler Skaggs, Leroy Stanton, Mel Stottlemyre.