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A look back at the 1973 Season

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What a year!

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Looking back, 1973 was some kind of year. The Vietnam War was starting to wind down, finally. The World Trade Center opened its doors for the first time. And the music. Wow. If you were stranded on a desert Island and could only pick one year of music to sustain you, you could do a lot worse than 1973 - Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, Ridin’ the Storm oOt, Tres Hombres, Greetings from Asbury Park, Brothers & Sisters, The Captain and Me, Goats Head Soup and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were just a few of the many great albums released in 1973.

It was also an interesting year in sports.George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII to complete a perfect season. UCLA won its seventh-consecutive men’s NCAA basketball championship. O.J. Simpson became the first NFL running back to gain more than 2,000 yards. It was also the year that Secretariat, the greatest racing horse ever, won the Triple Crown and set records that still stand today. And no summary of 1973 can be written without mentioning that Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives, children, dogs and houses, in one of the strangest baseball deals ever. The swap spawned the great line in movie Major League, when Clu Hayward asked catcher Jake Taylor, “How’s your wife and my kids?”.

It can also be argued that 1973 was one of the most important years in Kansas City baseball history. Here’s a look back at that memorable year.

Royals Stadium opens – April 10, 1973

From 1969 to 1972, the Royals played in Municipal Stadium, at the corner of 22nd and Brooklyn. With a capacity of 35,561, Municipal was a little on the small side, having previously served as the home of the Kansas City Athletics, the minor league Kansas City Blues, and the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, as well as the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Municipal had been around since 1923 and had gone through several renovations to expand the stadium to become Major League.

I remember first time I walked into the Stadium. We were passing through town, so dad stopped. The gates were open, and we made our way to the second deck. I remember coming through the tunnel and being hit by an explosion of green. The grass was the greenest I had ever seen in my life. There was a lone figure on the third base line working on the turf, probably George Toma. I thought the stadium was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life up to that point.

At that point, most Major League teams played in either antiquated stadiums that were shared with an NFL team (Tiger Stadium, Wrigley, Metropolitan, Memorial, Cleveland Stadium, Candlestick and County Stadium come to mind) or they played in a mind-numbing, multi-purpose, cookie cutter oval (Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veterans, Fulton County, Busch, RFK and Oakland-Alameda Coliseum). These facilities were used for football, baseball, concerts, tractor pulls and anything else the city could make a buck on. From the inside, nearly all these facilities looked the same. The only stadium from this era that is still in use is the Oakland Coliseum and its reputation as a dump is legendary.

In 1967, voters in Jackson County approved bonds for the Truman Sports Complex, which included a football stadium (Arrowhead) for the Chiefs and a baseball stadium for the Kansas City Athletics. As you well know, A’s owner Charlie O. Finley stiffed the city and the fans and moved the Athletics to Oakland to play in the then brand-new Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. With Kansas City left without Major League Baseball, U.S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri used his political power to threaten revocation of baseball’s anti-trust exemption unless MLB gave Kansas City another team. It worked, with MLB awarding an expansion franchises to Kansas City, as well as Seattle, Montreal, and San Diego for the 1969 season. So, the Royals toiled in Municipal while out to the east, their new home was starting to take shape. Ground was broken on July 11, 1968.

Driving through Kansas City, you could see it coming. The ground being moved, the infrastructure starting to take shape, the scoreboard and stands rising out of the dirt at I-70 and Blue Ridge Cutoff. The 1972 game programs gave a detailed tour of the new facility, which almost looked space age compared to what other teams were playing in. There was some talk of opening the stadium during the 1972 season, but Royals owner Ewing Kauffman wisely made the decision to wait until everything was ready, which meant 1973.

Finally, the day arrived, and it was worth the wait. All the 40,589 seats pointed toward second base with an unobstructed view of the field. It was the first American League diamond completely covered in synthetic tartan turf. There was plenty of parking close to the stadium. Oh, and they had a scoreboard and water fountains. The scoreboard rose 12 stories above center field. The scoreboard was unlike anything seen in a sports venue before. The “water spectacular”, as it was called, ran 322 feet. It had a ten-foot-high waterfall and jets that shot up to 50,000 gallons of water 70 feet into the air. It was, quite simply, the most spectacular sports stadium in the world.

The stadium opened on Tuesday April 10 with a game against the Texas Rangers. The stadium filled with 39,464 fans in 39-degree weather. The Royals entered the game with a record of 2-1. Paul Splittorff got the start for Kansas City. Pete Broberg got the nod for Texas. At 7:39 pm, CST, home plate umpire Nestor Chylak said “play ball”.

Splitt put the Rangers down in order in the top of the first. The Royals wasted little time in their half of the first. Freddie Patek led of with a walk and promptly stole second. Cookie Rojas drew another walk. Amos Otis laid down a perfect bunt that went as the first hit in the new stadium. John Mayberry laced a ball to deep right for a single that scored Patek and Rojas. Lou Piniella got hit by a pitch. Ed Kirkpatrick hit a pop into short right that was deep enough to score Otis. Paul Schaal walked before Jerry May smoked a grounder that third baseman Joe Lovitto muffed, which allowed Mayberry to score. Broberg finally got Patek on a fly to right to end the inning. Ten batters made their way to the plate and forged a 4-0 Kansas City lead to the delight of the roaring crowd.

Splitt kept throwing outs and the Royals kept scoring runs. By the end of the fourth, it was 8-0 Kansas City. John Mayberry put the exclamation point on the evening in the bottom of the fifth with a long home run off Ranger reliever Bill Gogolewski, the first home run in Royals stadium history. It was fitting as Big John was the last Royal to homer in Municipal, a three-run shot off Vida Blue on September 29, 1972. The Royals tacked on a few more runs before Splitt gave up a solo home run to Jeff Burroughs in the ninth. Splitt was masterful, spreading five hits and one run in a complete game win that took 2:25 to complete. The new stadium played well with the Royals, as they went 48-33 at home in 1973 compared to 40-41 on the road.

Steve Busby’s first no-hitter – April 27, 1973

A little over two weeks later, the Royals celebrated 23-year-old rookie right-hander, took the mound in Detroit and fashioned the first no-hitter in Kansas City Royals history. Busby had been drafted by the Royals in the second round of the June 1971 draft out of the University of Southern California. “Buzz” had been a star at USC, helping the Trojans win the 1970 and 1971 College World Series titles. Busby blew through the Royals minor league system and had a five-game cup of coffee with Kansas City at the end of the 1972 season. He impressed, going 3-1 with a 1.58 ERA, striking out 31 batters in 40 innings.

The start in Detroit was only the tenth of his young career. On that cool night in Motown, Busby didn’t have his best stuff, but it was good enough. He walked six Tigers and only struck out four. Busby induced 9 ground outs and 12 fly balls, and his defense backed him up with two double plays, including one in the ninth inning, a sweet unassisted double play off a line drive hit to first baseman John Mayberry, to preserve the 3-0 Kansas City win. Busby was an inaugural member of the Royals Hall of Fame in 1986.

Nolan Ryan Pitching; Behind-Batter View

Nolan Ryan no-hits the Royals – May 15, 1973

In only the twentieth game ever played at the new stadium, Nolan Ryan completely dominated the Royals in throwing the first no-hitter of his celebrated career and the first in Royals Stadium history. In a game that only took 2:20, Ryan never let the Royals off the mat, only facing 30 batters. Regularly sporting a fastball that broke 100 mph, Ryan walked three and struck out 12. Former Royal Bob Oliver provided most of the offense for the California Angels, going 2-for-4 with two RBI. This game was the first in one of the most dominant pitching runs in major league history. Over the next 25 months, Ryan would throw three more no-hitters, three one-hit games and three two-hit games. He was especially tough on the Royals, going 10-2 against them over the 1973-75 seasons.

Frank White makes his debut – June 12, 1973

In the bottom of the sixth inning, a 22-year-old Frank White entered the game, replacing shortstop Bobby Floyd. With the game tied at four, in the top of the eighth, White got his first at-bat and grounded out to the second baseman. He made his first put-out in the bottom of the inning, throwing out Al Bumbry at first. Baltimore ended up winning this game, 6-4 on a two-run walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth. White would collect his first hit two nights later, a single against Doyle Alexander. He played shortstop that game as well, and batted leadoff.

White had been signed at a tryout camp in July of 1970 and assigned to the Royals Baseball Academy. He was the first graduate of the Academy to make it to the Major Leagues. His debut was the start of a marvelous 18-year career with the Royals that saw White slash .255/.293/.383 with 2,006 hits. He won eight Gold gloves, six of them coming in succession between 1977 and 1982. He was named to five All-Star games, won a Silver Slugger in 1986 and a World Series title in 1985. As a second baseman, he redefined the way to play on turf. White was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1995. Not bad for a Kansas City kid who grew up attending games at Municipal and even worked on the construction crew that helped build Royals Stadium.

The Baseball All-Star Game – July 24, 1973

The nation turned its attention to Kansas City for the 44th mid-season classic. The last All-Star game in Kansas City had been played at Municipal in 1960. The 1973 game marked the 40th anniversary of the inaugural game played in 1933. The two starting pitchers from that game, Lefty Gomez and Bill Hallahan, threw out the ceremonial first pitches. Amos Otis, John Mayberry and Cookie Rojas made the American League squad, with Otis and Mayberry getting the start.

The American League had a promising start, with Otis driving home Reggie Jackson in the second inning to give the AL a short lived 1-0 lead. In the top of the fourth, Johnny Bench hit one of the longest home runs in stadium history, a shot deep into the seats in left field, giving the National League a 3-1 lead in a game they would win by the score of 7-1. A capacity crowd of 40,849 witnessed the game in what was one of the finest hours of Kansas City baseball history.

The game featured 19 future Hall of Famers and was the 24th and final All-Star game for Willie Mays. Mays appeared in every mid-summer classic between 1954 and 1973. Amazingly, he was not a unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a fact that continues to gnaw at me. Somehow, someway, Mays was only named on 409 of 432 ballots. There are a lot of things in life that blow my mind - the universe, the miracle of childbirth, beautiful sunsets, the Grand Canyon, hearing Angela Cervantes singing Great Gig in the Sky. And the fact that 23 people who were rumored to be baseball writers leaving Willie Mays off their Hall of Fame ballot.

George Brett makes his debut – August 2, 1973

The hits just keep rolling, don’t they? The Royals drafted Brett in the second round of the 1971 draft, hoping that the wild-haired kid would be half as talented as his older brother, Ken. Ken had pitched in the 1967 World Series for the Red Sox, as an 18-year-old. He was the complete package. He could pitch and he could hit. The baseball consensus was that Ken would be the Brett to make the Baseball Hall of Fame. George? Who knows?

George reported to Billings in 1971 and hit a respectable .291. The Royals bumped him to A-league San Jose where he hit .274. That earned him a promotion to AAA Omaha for the 1973 season, where he acquitted himself well, hitting .284 in 117 games. Third baseman Paul Schaal got hurt late in the 1973 season and the Royals needed some depth, so they called the kid up. He got his first start on August 2 against the Chicago White Sox and collected his first hit, a fourth inning single off Stan Bahnsen.

I recently met Bahnsen and asked him if he recalled the hit, though I had my doubts. Bahnsen had a very solid 16-year career, bur he gave up over 2,400 hits. Could he really recall this one? Bahnsen is as pleasant and likable as any guy you’ll ever meet. He said he did recall the at-bat. We chatted about the game and his career, then I had him sign a ball for me commemorating the hit. I didn’t notice until later that he misspelled Brett. Bret. Oh well. Brett started the 1974 season in Omaha, but after 12 games the Royals traded Schaal to the California Angels, recalled Brett, and the rest as they say, is history.

Brett luckily fell under the tutelage of hitting coach Charlie Lau, who refined the young hitter’s approach and batting stroke. What resulted was 3,154 hits and a career batting average of .305. Thirteen consecutive All-Star appearances. One MVP award. He became the only player in history to win batting titles in three different decades. A post-season resume that rivals Reggie or The Babe. Goose Gossage still has nightmares about George Brett. Brett was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 with his contemporaries Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1994.

The author attends his first game at Royals Stadium – August 9, 1973

I have written about this game before in Royals Review, a game that is known in my family as the Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski game. I’ll always remember emerging from the tunnel and seeing the field the first time. It was akin to when the Wizard of Oz turns from a black and white movie to a color movie. \

Let me sum up the game this way: The Royals are in first place. They spend 42 glorious days that summer in first, the last coming on August 16. Steve Busby throws another great game. Kurt Bevacqua plays third base. Hal McRae mashes a long home run. Carl Yastrzemski stiffs a 12-year-old me for an autograph. The Royals win 3-2. My father and my uncle get smashing drunk on Hamms and I hear my mom drop an F-bomb for the first and only time in her life. Good times.

Paul Splittorff wins his 20th game – September 26, 1973

In their fifth year of existence, the Royals had never had a 20-game winner. The previous high was 17 by Dick Drago in 1971. There’s some legitimacy that comes with certain numbers: 100 RBI. Hitting 40 home runs. Batting .300. Winning 20 games. So, it was important, at least to the fans, for Splitt to win this game. He had just won his nineteenth game three days earlier with a six-inning effort against Texas. Why was manager Jack McKeon bringing him back so soon? There was no pennant race – the Royals would finish six games back of eventual World Series champion Oakland. The only thing I can think of is that it was important to McKeon as well, to have a 20-game winner. If Splitt should falter on the 26th, he could have another shot in the Royals final game on September 30.

Splitt, as he almost always did, came through. He scattered seven hits over six innings of work, departing with the Royals leading 4-2. Doug Bird pitched shut out ball over the final three innings and John Mayberry hit a long home run off my man, Stan Bahnsen, to help propel the Royals to a 6-2 victory. The win gave Splittorff a 20-11 mark for the season. The twenty wins was a career high as were the 262 innings he threw that summer. I remember laying in my bed that evening, in my parents’ home in Lincoln, Kansas, listening to the game on a transistor radio, with a small, single earphone stuck in my right ear. Bud Blattner and Denny Matthews gave the play by play and color on KSKG out of Salina. I was happy when the game was over and knowing that the Royals finally had a 20-game winner.

Splittorff was a high kicking lefty who was usually overshadowed by other pitchers in his Royals career, Busby in the early years, Dennis Leonard in the middle years and perhaps never got the appreciation that was due to him. He was the first draft choice of the Royals to make the big-league club and spent his entire 15-year career with Kansas City. He ended his career with a splendid 166-143 record, having thrown 2,554 innings over 429 games. Splittorff retired during the 1984 season and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1987. In retirement, Splittorff did color commentary for Royals television broadcasts until cancer claimed him on May 25, 2011 at the age of 64.