“Lou Piniella has the red ass. He doesn’t think he’s been playing enough. He’s a good-looking ballplayer, 6’2, handsome, speaks fluent Spanish and unaccented English. He says he knows they (Seattle Pilots) don’t want him and he’s going to quit baseball rather than go back to AAA. He says once you get labeled AAA, that’s it.”
~ Jim Bouton, Ball Four
Lou Piniella’s people came from the Asturian/Basque region of Spain. I had read that the Piniella family name, properly spelled in Basque is “Pi Niella X”, which loosely translates to “The Jesus”.
Lou Piniella was not the second coming of Jesus, but to many he was the first savior of the Kansas City Royals. Piniella was born and raised in Tampa. He was a high school All-American basketball player and played American Legion and Pony League baseball with Tony LaRussa. He attended the University of Tampa for one season, where he earned Division II All-American honors in baseball.
At the University of Tampa, Lou’s grandfather used to bring him a Cuban sandwich before every game. One game, Grandpa was running late. He handed Lou his sandwich through the fence in the middle of the second inning. Piniella, playing left-field, concealed the sandwich in his glove, praying the ball would not be hit to him. But it was. Lou caught the ball in an explosion of meat and cheeses.
That seems like a perfect analogy of Lou Piniella and his baseball career. An explosion. Few in modern times have played, or managed, with the emotional intensity of Lou Piniella. Piniella was signed by the Indians as a free agent at the age of 18 in June of 1962. That fall he was drafted away from Cleveland by the Washington Senators in what was then called the first-year draft. In August of 1964, Washington traded Piniella to the Baltimore Orioles and on September 4th of 1964, Lou made his Major League debut as a pinch-hitter, grounding out to second base. That game, against the Los Angeles Angels, featured several past and present Kansas City A’s and Royals such as Norm Siebern, Paul Schaal, Charlie Lau, Jerry Adair, Rick Reichardt and Bobby Knoop.
Lou appeared in four games in 1964 but did not collect a hit. Prior to the 1966 season, the Orioles traded him back to the Indians. Piniella continued to excel in AAA but didn’t get another cup of coffee until late in the 1968 season, where he picked up five more at-bats for the Indians, but again without any hits. The Seattle Pilots selected Lou with the 28th selection in the 1968 expansion draft, one of the few misses by Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis in the draft.
Piniella’s short time in Seattle was turbulent, as he often clashed with manager Joe Schultz. Tallis made up for missing Piniella in the draft by acquiring him from Seattle one week before the Royals broke camp, in exchange for pitcher John Gelnar and outfielder Steve Whitaker, in the first of many one-sided trades orchestrated by Tallis. When Schultz called Piniella into his office to inform him of the trade, he did so with the immortal words, “Lou, you’re going to have to pound Buds somewhere else.” In a strange twist of fate, after Schultz was fired by Seattle at the end of the 1969 season, Kansas City hired him as their third base coach.
Royals’ manager Joe Gordon immediately inserted Piniella as his starting left-fielder and on opening day, April 8th, 1969, Sweet Lou, batting lead off, stroked a double down the left-field line, the first hit of his career and the first hit in the history of the Kansas City Royals. And Lou Piniella kept right on hitting, collecting four hits that day and 139 on the season, slashing .282/.325/.416, which earned him the American League Rookie of the Year. At the age of 25, Lou Piniella had finally arrived.
He was even better in 1970, playing in 144 games and slashing .301/.342/.424 with 11 home runs and 88 RBI. With the .301 average, Piniella became the first Royal to hit better than .300.
Lou got off to a fast start in 1971, but on May 4th was hit by a pitch, fracturing the thumb on his right hand. He didn’t play again regularly until June 14th, but the thumb was still bothering him. In July, he put together an 18-game hitting streak, and though limited to 126 games, he still put together a respectable .279/.311/.368 season.
It all came together for Piniella in 1972. “I’m more confident of my hitting this year than ever. For one thing, I know the pitchers better. I’m still too anxious, but I have a better idea of what to expect.” Long known as a free-swinging, bad ball hitter, Piniella took few walks, but had a remarkable ability to put balls into play. He appeared in 151 games in 1972, slashing .312/.356.441 with a team leading 179 hits, including a league leading 33 doubles. His .312 batting average was second in the American League behind Rod Carew. He also picked up his first and only, All-Star berth and collected some MVP votes.
Royals owner Ewing Kauffman wanted a younger manager, so he fired the easy-going Bob Lemon after the 1972 season and replaced him with the more intense Jack McKeon. McKeon’s avant garde style didn’t fit well with Piniella, who slumped to a .250/.291/.361 season in 1973. The drop in production precipitated what would arguably be the worst trade of Cedric Tallis’ storied career. On December 7, 1973, the Royals traded Piniella to the New York Yankees for 38-year-old relief pitcher Lindy McDaniel.
Always strong with the bat, it was perceived that fielding was Piniella’s weakness, though the numbers don’t bear that out. Piniella said, “Kansas City has the hardest left-field in the league to play, with the exception of Yankee Stadium.” Prophetic words, as those were the two outfield’s Piniella spent his entire career in.
Piniella, 29 at the time of the trade, played for 11 more seasons in the Bronx, while McDaniel pitched in 78 games in a Royals uniform over two seasons, going 6-5 with two saves. The Royals, desperate to rectify their mistake, threw a gaggle of bodies into left field. Just in the five seasons between 1974 and 1978, the Royals used 14 different left-fielders. A buffet of old stars (Vada Pinson), future stars (Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Al Cowens), spare parts (Jaime Quirk, Jim Wohlford, Tom Poquette, Clint Hurdle, Ruppert Jones), has-beens (Joe Lahoud, Steve Braun, Joe Zdeb) and never-weres (Gary Martz, Luis Silerio).
All Piniella did was help the Yankees beat the Royals in three consecutive American League Championship Series from 1976 to 1978 and help the Bronx Bombers win two World Series titles. Piniella hit .278 against Kansas City in four ALCS series and even as a teenager, I often wondered if seeing Piniella playing for the Yankees stuck in Mr. Kauffman’s craw.
Piniella could always hit, but his glove work was underrated. He made three huge plays in the 1977 and 1978 post-season. The first came in Game Five of the 1977 ALCS, when he made a terrific sliding catch of a drive off the bat of Cookie Rojas. In game four of the 1977 World Series, he robbed Ron Cey of the Dodgers, of a home run and in the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox, he made a terrific catch in right field in the sixth inning, with two on and two out and the Red Sox holding a 2-0 lead, Fred Lynn slashed a sinking liner to right. Piniella battled the sun and made a terrific basket catch to end the inning. Had that ball gotten by Piniella, the Bucky Dent home run may have just been a footnote and the Royals might have played the Red Sox in the ALCS.
Piniella retired after the 1984 season, after 18 years in the big leagues, 1,705 hits, one Rookie of the Year Award, an American League All-Star pick, MVP votes in four seasons and two World Championships.
As you well know, he then went on to a very successful managerial career, taking three losing teams (Cincinnati, Seattle and Chicago Cubs) and turning them into winners. He won another World Series title with the Reds in 1990 and led the Mariners to 116 wins and to the playoffs four times. They haven’t been back since.
As a manager, he won more games than Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog. I’ve always wondered why Kansas City never tried to hire Piniella. He would have been immensely popular with the fans and it’s not like the Royals were being managed by Hall of Fame managers during Piniella’s managerial prime.
As a player, Piniella only spent five years in Kansas City, probably not long enough to be considered for the Royals Hall of Fame. On his departure from the team, he was the club’s all-time leader in hits, doubles, triples and RBI and one can’t help bur wonder how the Royals may have fared in those 1976-1978 ALCS series with Lou in left. The rest of the lineup was solid: Otis and Cowens in center and right. An infield of Brett, Patek, White and Mayberry with Darrel Porter behind the plate. Sometimes you are just missing one player.
Sweet Lou just missed getting the call from Cooperstown in 2018, falling one vote short of the required 12 (From Today’s Game committee). It’s just a matter of time before he gets the call and it is well deserved, a testament to a 41-year career as a player and a manager.