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Al Fitzmorris - The last original Royal

Rock and rolling on the mound

Who was the first Royals player to hit safely from both sides of the plate in the same game? That would be pitcher, Al Fitzmorris who accomplished the feat on July 19th, 1970 in a game against the Detroit Tigers in the second game of a twinbill. Dave Morehead started the game but was pulled after 2 1/3 innings. Fitzmorris pitched 4 13 in relief and batting from the right side, stroked a double off Mike Kilkenny in the third and hitting from the let side in the fifth, he looped a single to center off Bob Reed.

It was fitting that Fitzmorris, as he was signed by the White Sox as a free agent in 1966, originally came up as an outfielder. He made the switch to pitcher in 1967, thinking it would be a faster path to the majors. The Royals selected him with their 40th selection in the expansion draft. He started the 1969 season in Omaha, but was recalled for a cup of coffee, making his major league debut on September 8, 1969.

Once he made the switch to pitcher, Fitzmorris moved through the minors quickly. He played A ball for the White Sox in 1968, jumped to AAA Omaha to start the 1969 season before earning his call up. He was a good hitting pitcher, as would be expected, collecting 24 hits in 99 career at bats, good for a .242 average.

For some strange quirk of timing, I don’t recall ever seeing Fitz pitch. My recollection of him was that he was an average pitcher, but the numbers tell a much different story. Fitzmorris was primarily a sinkerball-slider pitcher, and never put up big strikeout numbers. In fact, the lowest strikeouts per nine innings for Kansas City pitchers go like this:

Quisenberry 3.14

Fitzmorris 3.20

Gura 3.35

Splittorff 3.72

That’s a “who’s who” of very good Kansas City pitchers. For all the hoopla today about strikeouts, maybe pitchers and pitching coaches should reevaluate their approach?

Fitzmorris played for Kansas City from 1969 to 1976. He was the last original Royal on that 1976 playoff team. From 1973 to 1976, he was outstanding, going 52-32 and accumulating 14 WAR.

His success started earlier. On August 4, 1971, he held the powerful Minnesota Twins hitless for six innings before Harmon Killebrew broke up the no-no with a seventh inning single. Fitz ended up with a 2-hit, 3-0 shutout win. He didn’t make the club out of spring training in 1973 but was recalled from Omaha midway through the season and he didn’t waste it, going 8-3 with a 2.83 ERA.

Check out this photo of Fitz and his wife Jan from the 1973 program. Two things really stand out: the carpet in the stadium club and Al’s white shoes.

And how about this Schlitz ad from the same program? You can almost imagine some cigarette smoking, Don Draper type guy writing this up. When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer. Some people might disagree with that sentiment, but remember, back in the early ‘70’s beer selection was more limited than it is today.

Fitzmorris strong finish to the 1973 season paved the way for an excellent 1974 campaign, which saw him pitch in 34 game, go 13-6 with a 2.79 ERA. In a June 4th game against Baltimore, Fitzmorris pitched a complete game shutout which was unusual in that he didn’t walk or strike out a batter. It was his second consecutive shutout. Between 1973 and 1974, he had a stretch where he won 20 of 29 decisions. During the 1974 campaign, he had a streak of 33 consecutive innings without giving up a walk.

1975 brought more of the same. Fitzmorris pitched a career high 242 innings and complied a 16-12 record. He continued his strong run with a 15-11 mark in 1976 while throwing 8 complete games and leading the Royals staff with a 3.06 ERA. As the 1976 season came to a close, Manager Whitey Herzog informed Fitzmorris that he would not be pitching against the Yankees in the upcoming ALCS. The Yankees were loaded with left-handed hitters and Herzog thought Larry Gura gave the Royals a better chance at a series win. The demotions sparked a heated argument between the two and marked the beginning of the end for Al Fitzmorris in Royals uniform.

After the loss to the Yankees, the Royals left Fitzmorris unprotected in the expansion draft and Toronto grabbed him. The Jays traded Fitz to the Indians the very same day, but it was never the same. Fitzmorris was unhappy to be leaving Kansas City and at the age of 31, Father Time made his first appearance. Fitzmorris went 6-10 for the 1977 Indians and finished his career with a nine-game stint with the Angels in 1978. As with so many athletes, he was done at the age of 32.

But shed no tears for Al Fitzmorris. He had a terrific career, finishing with a 77-59 record, 3.65 ERA and a 1.34 Whip, while accumulating 16.5 WAR. He kept the ball in the ballpark too, only giving up 83 home runs in 1,277 innings. Fitzmorris was also a terrific fielding pitcher, once going 108 consecutive games without making an error.

On the mound, he was often a slow worker. The casual pace caused one of the great faux pas of Denny Matthews radio career. Matthews recalled, “The marketing staff would give us drop-in ads, little snips to insert between an at-bat or between pitches. Since Fitz was a slow worker, I had time to drop in a piece on Guys foods between pitches. I started with, “For those of you planning a holiday picnic, be sure to bring along plenty of those good Guys potato chips.” Al was still acting like a one-man rain delay, so Matthews quickly added, “And when you’re in the store, be sure to grab Guy’s nuts.” Bud Blattner nearly fell out of his chair and Matthews thought his career might be over, but the people at Guy’s thought it was a riot.

Fitzmorris also had one of the all-time great mullets and was always good for a quote.

On Amos Otis: “I think Amos was the best player the Royals ever had, as far as tools. He could run, catch anything hit, he could hit for power, steal bases. He was probably the most complete ballplayer I ever saw. Not many balls dropped in front of him. He got to everything.”

On Bob Lemon: “Bob was my favorite manager. He was a really competitive guy, but he didn’t have a personal agenda; he was all about the Kansas City Royals. I remember a game I pitched in Boston. I had pitched 8 really good innings, and as I was taking the mound for the ninth inning, he said to me, “If you get into a jam, I’m going to take you out. Don’t feel bad, you’ve pitched too good of a game for me to allow you to lose it.” How can you not love a man like that? I finished that game.

On Cedric Tallis: “Cedric Tallis ought to be in the Royals Hall of Fame.”

After his career ended, Fitzmorris could be found doing the pre-and post-game reports for Metro Sports. Those post-game reports had a little bit of a community television feel to them, which only added to the suspense. Fitz could be giving the wrap-up and a Royals staffer would amble into the room with a vacuum cleaner going full tilt. Fitzmorris has also made documentary films and is an accomplished songwriter and musician, being the front man for his band, “39 the band”.

And that haircut? Awesome or terrible? You make the call. So Al Fitzmorris, star pitcher and renaissance man, on February 21st, we wish you a Happy 73rd birthday.