The Royals have sometimes been one of the more forgettable teams in the league, but other times they have risen to become a national pop culture sensation. Here are the top ten times the Royals infiltrated mainstream pop culture.
Jimmy Fallon and the Saberhagen Shuffle
During the Royals’ run in 2015, the writers on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon discovered an amusing Royals artifact - a local car ad for Midwestern Ford Dealers from 1986 starring a rapping and dancing Bret Saberhagen. They turned “1986 Bret Saberhagen” into a regular character, so when the Royals won it all and the show invited Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer as guests, they had to bring him out.
Fortunately, the real Bret Saberhagen came out and punched the character out.
Royals Stadium hosts The Avengers
Having never really gotten into comic books or superheroes, I had no idea about this, but fortunately we have an aficionado in reader cmkeller. He writes that there came to be an East Coast branch of The Avengers, and a West Coast branch, and the two came to meet midway between the two for a baseball game in Kansas City in an issue of The Avengers in 1986. And that’s how Captain America took the mound at Royals Stadium.
Kansas City was just the first Midwestern city that came to the writer’s mind, because the Midwest is naturally where an East Coast team and a West Coast team would meet. Perhaps some other artists might have considered actually trying to make Royals Stadium look like its special self, but instead of a caring artist, this issue was thrown to Steve Ditko, respected for his past work as the man behind the visuals of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but since then a cranky old hack drawing in his outdated style for anyone who would take some pity on him. So the action takes place in a generic-looking baseball stadium, but hey, the captions say it’s Royals Stadium.
The game ends in a tie, interrupted of course, by the bad guys, but not before Hercules leaves a large fissure in the stadium, which is why the stadium eventually had to be renovated.
George Brett on Fantasy Island
In the 1970s, ABC had a show called Fantasy Island, about a mysterious vacation spot where rich guests could magically carry out their wildest fantasies, usually learning some life lesson in the process. In a 1978 episode, Gary Burghoff (better known as “Radar” on M*A*S*H) played a man who wanted to pitch against big league All-Stars. So the fantasy-maker, Mr. Roarke is able to stage a game with some of baseball’s biggest stars at the time - Ellis Valentine, Fred Lynn, Steve Garvey, and at third base, George Brett.
George boots a pretty easy grounder there, perhaps because he’s nervous playing with his older brother Ken, then a pitcher for the Angels. Also notice Brett is wearing #25. He did wear that number early in his career, but had switched to #5 by 1978. The story I had heard was that his luggage got lost on the way to the filming, and they had to buy a replica Royals jersey (notice the bottoms don’t match his tops). Or maybe it was always George’s fantasy to wear #25 and boot a ground ball.
Everyone here knows that I will not miss an opportunity to make a Simpsons reference, and this is no exception. The Royals have been referenced on the long-time animated show a few times (I won’t count the time Milhouse proclaimed he was pitcher Esteban Yan, since Yan was signed by the Royals but never appeared in a big league game for them).
In the Season 18 episode Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em, Marge and Homer are perusing a bookstore with obscure titles no one wants, like “Drink Your Own Blood and Save”. Included on the rack is “The Kansas City Royals: Forever Champions”. We should note, this episode aired in 2006, when the Royals were on their way to the worst record in baseball and had not had not even made the playoffs in two decades.
In the Season 19 episode All About Lisa we discover that Radioactive Man, the fictional comic book superhero, has visited the Kansas City Royals. But apparently that issue was less valuable than the one where Radioactive Man takes on Muhammad Ali.
The comic book can be seen in the background of the comic book shop again in the Season 22 episode Mom’s I’d Like to Forget. Worst. Episode. Ever!
Mike Sweeney on Saturday Night Live
I have long been a Saturday Night Live junkie, but even diehard fans can be forgiven for tuning out in the mid-90s. By 1997, Will Ferrell and a talented cast were starting to bring the show back a bit, and in a December sketch hosted by Helen Hunt, the show set the record for most active MLB players in on sketch.
The premise is a little boy - played by Chris Kattan - loves baseball and is visited at night by MLB player Todd Hundley of the Mets in a dream sequence in which he tells the boy to chase his dreams in the usual movie trope. But Hundley is quickly joined by a parade of seemingly random players, including one-time Royals like Mark Grudzielanek and David Howard. The players begin to party, culminating in Royals slugger Mike Sweeney bringing a pony keg into the room.
What’s crazy is that (a) Mike Sweeney had a reputation as being the last guy to bring a pony keg to a party; and (b) at the time of this sketch, Mike Sweeney was still pretty much a nobody, a catcher who had hit .242 with just seven home runs and had spent a few months in Triple-A that season.
I’m not sure how this came to be - most likely the players were in New York for some reason, maybe they shared an agent who knew Helen Hunt’s agent, and TV history was born? I really don’t know, but this bizarre sketch has always tickled me just for its absurdity and the fact they got real players (well, aside from Will Ferrell’s fictional Ted Brogan). You can see a list and ranking of some of the baseball player in the sketch here as well as the full sketch here.
Wally Joyner in Little Big League
The 1994 film Little Big League, which has held up well, was about a 12-year old boy who inherits the Minnesota Twins from his grandfather and makes himself manager (in violation of MLB rules!) After some initial struggles, the team learns to win by having fun! There are a number of cameos from real big leaguers in the film, including Randy Johnson , Ivan Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro. They’re not all big stars either - Eric Anthony and Dave Magadan appear as themselves, while Kevin Elster and Leon Durham appear, but as characters, which leaves my head spinning in this alternate universe. If Kevin Elster is “Pat Corning” of the Minnesota Twins, then does Kevin Elster of the New York Yankees even exist?
Anyway, Wally Joyner, who was then with the Kansas City Royals, also makes an appearance, and even gets a speaking line. When aging Twins star Lou Collins (played by Timothy Busfield) singles, Joyner remarks “Do we ever get you out?” which is an accurate depiction of what the Royals pitching staff was like at that time.
This wasn’t even Joyner’s last silver screen appearance! He has appeared as an actor in a few low-budget Mormon-themed films, such as The Singles Ward, where he played Brother Angel, The RM, where he played Brother Colin Jensen, and The Home Teachers, where he played Donald Terry.
George Brett on Modern Family
Perhaps impressed by the his role on Fantasy Island, ABC had George Brett make another cameo four decades later on the hit show Modern Family. The show features comedian Eric Stonestreet, a Kansas City native and now a member of the Royals ownership team, so it’s not hard to see how George Brett got involved. In the 2018 episode Royal Visit, Cam and his husband Mitch go on a yoga retreat. But like Stonestreet, Cam is a Kansas City native and discovers his favorite baseball team, the Royals, are having spring training nearby, including his boyhood hero, George Brett.
There are good days and then there are...text a childhood hero and baseball icon to ask him to be on the same TV show you’re on and he says yes and then flys from KC to LA to shoot a scene with you...days. @kcroyals #georgebrett pic.twitter.com/vusvC9280N— Eric Stonestreet (@ericstonestreet) January 23, 2018
Brett has also made cameos on Arli$$ and The United States of Tara, but it is always nice to see him back in that Royals uniform.
The New Zealand-born singer Lorde didn’t grow up a Royals fan and probably had little idea of the team, but her smash hit from 2012 owes a lot to the team. The story goes that Lorde wanted to write a song about the decadence and luxury displayed by some artists, but was looking for the right word to capture that idea. She saw a National Geographic cover from 1976 that featured George Brett with his Royals logo emblazoned on his front, and in half an hour she had written the lyrics to a song that would sell ten million units, one of the best-selling songs of all-time.
Buddy Biancalana on Late Night with David Letterman
In 1985, Pete Rose was chasing Ty Cobb for the all-time hit record and the nation was enthralled. Late night talk show host David Letterman, known for his absurdist, irreverent humor, decided to have some fun with the chase by choosing to focus on another player’s quest to set the all-time record for most hits. But instead of choosing a Hall of Fame-caliber player, he chose the light-hitting semi-regular shortstop for the Kansas City Royals who had a fun name to say - Buddy Biancalana.
Thus, the Buddy Biancalana Hit Counter was born. “You can chart the Royals’ veteran utility infielder’s march to immortality!” proclaimed Letterman in what became a running gag. And it turned out Biancalana had a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing. Just after the World Series - a series where Biancalana unexpected had a fantastic series - Letterman finally booked his favorite baseball player onto the show to talk about his hit chase, and found Buddy had a quick wit.
“This is the bat I used probably half the season,” Biancalana said.
“Is that right?” Letterman answered.
“As you can tell,” Biancalana said, “there’s no ball marks on it.”
He may not have been the best baseball player in Royals history, but there is little doubt Bo Jackson was the most famous. The man literally had his own Saturday morning cartoon. In the show Prostars, the intro shows clips of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, and Bo Jackson in real life sports clips - including Bo in Royals uniform running up a wall - before we see the animated versions chasing bad guys through contrived ways that feature sporting equipment.
But Bo was just a national sensation, starring in perhaps the most successful celebrity endorsement ad campaign ever, the “Bo Knows” ads for Nike. His biography “Bo Knows Bo” was a best-seller, and he was voted one of the most popular athletes in America.
Although Bo Jackson may have to explain who he is to some younger kids, he still remains one of the most popular and recognizable Royals of all-time that transcended sports to an entire generation.
Did I forget any? What are some of your favorite Royals references in pop culture?