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A history of Royals managers: Joe Gordon

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The first skipper in club history was a Hall of Famer.

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Now that the season is over and most of us have moved onto the NFL, I wanted to take a deep dive into the managerial history of the Royals. At first glance, two things jumped out at me: the first was the Royals have had more managers than I thought and second, it’s amazing how long they held onto some of their bad managers in the ‘90’s and ‘00’s compared to the earlier days of the franchise. From 1995 to 2019, the Royals employed six different managers who compiled at combined .445 win percentage. Out of that sordid 25 year history, they only produced four winning seasons. I understand also that during that time period, the entire Royals organization was a dumpster fire marked by uncertain ownership, bad General Managers and overall poor player development. But it still blows my mind that ownership appeared comfortable with the status quo, which was some incredibly bad baseball over a very long period of time.

Joe Gordon

Baseball, more than any other sport, has always had it’s share of great nicknames. To older baseball fans, when you say Bambino, Iron Horse, Rapid Robert, The Splendid Splinter, Joltin’ Joe, Say Hey or the Commerce Comet, you knew immediately who you were talking about. Joe Gordon had one of those nicknames. His could only be one, and that was of course Flash.

When the Royals were first conceived, owner Ewing Kauffman thought the young team needed a high-profile manager, so he convinced former Yankees and Indians great Joe Gordon to become the first manager of the Kansas City Royals.

As a player, Gordon was a slick fielding second baseman who enjoyed a fine 11-year career between 1938 and 1950. Like many others of his generation, he missed two years of his prime due to military service with the Army Air Force during World War II. He was selected to nine All-Star teams and picked up MVP votes in eight seasons, winning the award in 1942.

Gordon was solid in 1942 – he had a 7.7 WAR season, but Ted Williams was better and should have won the award. Williams produced a line of .356/.499/.648 with an OPS of 1.147. Williams won the Triple Crown while leading the league in runs, home runs, RBI, walks, total bases and batting average. Williams was basically a one-man wrecking crew. Gordon led the league in striking out and grounding into double plays. Gordon’s slash was a respectable .322/.409/.491, but he was in no way, shape or form up to the standard set by the Splendid Splinter. But as we well know, baseball writers tend to hold a grudge and that undoubtedly cost Williams several MVP awards over his career but his omission in 1942 is a stain on the voters of the MVP award.

Gordon played on five World Series champions between the Yankees and Indians. He was named to the Indians Hall of Fame and in 2009 was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

He came to the Royals with previous managerial experience. He was a player-manager of the Sacramento Solons from 1951 to 1952 and the San Francisco Seals from 1956 to 1957. Both teams were part of the Pacific Coast League.

Gordon signed on to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1958 and made it halfway through the 1960 season before being traded to the Detroit Tigers for their manager, Jimmy Dykes. This remains the only time in baseball history that two managers had been swapped for each other. The trade was orchestrated by Cleveland General Manager Frank “Trader” Lane, who would later have a part in dismantling the Kansas City Athletics.

Speaking of the Athletics, Gordon left the Tigers after the 1960 season and was hired by Charlie O. Finley to manage the downtrodden Kansas City club. In a cruel twist of fate, Finley fired the general manager that had hired Gordon, Parke Carroll, and hired a GM that so often clashed with Gordon…Frank Lane. After a 26-33 start, the trigger-happy Finley fired Gordon and replaced him with Hank Bauer.

Gordon got a second chance in Kansas City with the expansion Royals. He signed a one-year contract and managed the team to a 69-93 record and a 4th place finish in the American League West.

Prior to the start of the season, Gordon was quoted as saying, “Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I think this team can come real fast this year if we are able to eliminate mistakes. If our players develop as I think they will, and if we get some help in a few key positions, we could be in contention next year.” That quote came from an interview with legendary Kansas City Star sports maven Joe McGuff, but if you close your eyes, you can almost see Lou Brown in the movie Major League saying that.

One thing Gordon did stress in spring training was being aggressive at the plate. “I don’t like to see hitters dragging up to the plate. Go up there aggressively, like you expect to hit the ball. When you pitchers get the ball, act like you want to get someone out.”

The young Royals started well and by May 28 their record stood at 21-22. They only won 6 of their next 26 games, which took its toll on the competitive Gordon. Another slump, this one from July 13 until August 11, in which the Royals won 6 of 25 games, sent Gordon over the edge. “If the guys think they are on a joy ride because they were drafted for $175,000 each, they’re mistaken,” fumed Gordon. “too many of them feel they have their job clinched and don’t have anybody to replace them. They are wrong. Nobody is safe. One thing we can’t tolerate is lack of hustle. If they don’t hustle for me, they’re going (to Omaha). I don’t care who they are, Omaha is very close. We’ve got some guys down there who would love to play up here.”

The Royals must have taken Gordon seriously, they closed the year by winning 23 of their final 48 games, but Gordon couldn’t take it any longer. Gordon, who was working on a one-year contract, surprised the Royals when he resigned as manager at season end. Ewing Kauffman replaced him with Charlie Metro for the 1970 season. Gordon stayed with the club as a scout, retiring for good after the 1971 season. Gordon was the only man to manage both Kansas City franchises.

After baseball, Gordon dabbled in the California real estate market. He suffered a fatal heart attack on April 14, 1978 and was gone at the young age of 63.