One summer evening, when I was 11, my father and I were playing catch in our backyard. This was almost a daily activity for us. He’d get home from a long day at work, and still dressed in his work clothes, play catch for an hour or two with his baseball-crazed son. I remember this evening because I told my father that after I graduated from high school that I wanted to attend the Royals Baseball Academy. That was a bold proclamation for an 11-year-old who had rarely been outside of Kansas. In fact, just thinking about it made me a bit nervous and homesick, but I was determined that was my destiny. Turns out it wasn’t. I blew out my elbow the next summer throwing sliders and my arm was never quite the same. As a hitter, I encountered my first curveballs a year later, which became another obstacle. Hitting curveballs quickly separates the men from the boys in baseball.
When it opened in 1969, the Royals Baseball Academy was unlike anything major league baseball had ever seen. Royals’ owner Ewing Kauffman, who made a pile in the pharmaceutical industry, determined that the four traditional ways of acquiring talent were not going to be sufficient to get the young Royals into the playoffs fast enough. Kauffman had lived in Kansas City during the days of the Athletics and knew that support from the fans would quickly wane if his new team played .400 ball.
In the then-staid world of baseball, teams stocked talent through the free agent draft, the minor league draft, trades with other teams, and purchases from other teams. Kauffman had tried to purchase Reggie Jackson from Charlie O. Finley and the Oakland A’s for $1 million, but Finley turned him down. Kauffman then offered Finley $4 million for three of his players. Once again, Finley said thanks but no thanks. Properly rebuffed, Kauffman decided to try to grow his own at the Academy. Kauffman’s first hire was a man named Cedric Tallis. Tallis, a baseball lifer, was hired away from the California Angels as Executive VP and General Manager of the expansion Royals. Tallis then hired Charlie Metro as his Director of personnel. Metro, another baseball lifer, had always had innovative ideas such as exercise and nutrition. He even invented the modern batting tee by forging used pieces of plastic together. Tallis’ next hire was Lou Gorman as the Director of Player Development. Gorman had been working as the minor league director for the Baltimore Orioles. Tallis’ last hire was Syd Thrift as Scouting Director. All four men played major roles in the development of the Royals Academy.
Kauffman initially sunk $1.5 million dollars into the Academy, which was based on 121 acres of land southeast of Sarasota, Florida. Construction began in early 1970 with Royals outfielder Lou Piniella turning the first spade of dirt. Piniella, the reigning Rookie of the Year, was chosen by Kauffman because he embodied the type of athlete the Royals were looking for. Piniella had been an All-American basketball player in high school before embarking on his baseball career. The Sarasota property consisted of two buildings, which housed meeting rooms, a cafeteria, locker rooms, and a bunkhouse. There were five baseball diamonds on the grounds, each an exact replica of soon-to-be-built Royals Stadium, complete with Astroturf and uniform outfield dimensions.
The brain trust (Tallis, Metro, Thrift, and Gorman) then hired seven instructors who had major league experience: Bill Fischer, Joe Gordon, Tommy Heinrich, Steve Korcheck, Jim Lemon, Johnny Neun, and Chuck Stobbs. Also hired were former University of Kansas track coach Bill Easton, Olympic miler Wes Santee and trainer Mickey Cobb. Cobb would later serve as trainer of the Royals from 1977 through 1990.
Players had to take 12 hours of college classes at nearby Manatee Junior College each semester they were at the Academy. Kauffman was adamant that he wanted his players to know about public relations, business and investing, in the event that they would make the majors. Books, room, and board were paid for by the Royals. The players were also paid a monthly stipend, fed three planned meals each day, were provided health and life insurance and a round trip plane ticket home each Christmas.
The concept of a player development academy had been floating around baseball for decades. Branch Rickey, one of the most innovative baseball executives ever, had tinkered with teaching tools that would later be used at the Royals Academy. Philadelphia Phillies owner Bob Carpenter had hired scientists from DuPont and the University of Delaware between the years of 1963 and 1972 to study such things as bat velocity and acceleration, total force of hitting as well as the impact of a player’s vision on his ability to hit and field. The baseball establishment, loathe to change, scoffed at the idea. Today, every club measures details like this. Only the names have changed. Launch angle. Spin rate. Exit velocity. Carpenter was just several decades ahead of his time.
In the 1960s and ’70s, communist countries routinely identified promising young athletes and pulled them from their families at young ages to attend state-sponsored athletic camps. Who can forget the swim team from East Germany at the 1976 Olympics? Unknowingly fed a steady diet of PED’s, they were a rough-looking bunch. It looked like they had a hard time keeping their testicles inside their swimsuits. And that was just the women’s team.
That first winter, Thrift asked high school coaches across the country to recommend boys who were terrific athletes in any sport. The Royals then held regional tryout camps in 41 different states, which drew 7,682 young men between the ages of 16 and 21. To be eligible, players must have completed their high school eligibility, be younger than 20 years old, be able to run 60 yards in less than 6.9 seconds (in baseball cleats), and not be enrolled in a four-year college or have been drafted by a major league team.
Forty-two players were accepted into the initial class. Among those accepted were a New Mexico state wrestling champion, a pole vaulter from Wichita State, a Missouri high school sprint champion, and a Topeka high school quarterback who was an excellent javelin thrower. Also chosen were Orestes Minoso Arrietta, stepson of major league star Minnie Minoso, Bruce Miller, Hal Baird, Ron Washington, and a young Kansas Citian named Frank White.
Minoso Arietta, who never made the majors, was the early star of the show. Miller eventually appeared in 196 games for the San Francisco Giants between 1973 and 1976. Washington played for five different teams before embarking on a managerial career. Baird never made the show but did become the head baseball coach at Auburn University, where he tutored future major league stars Frank Thomas, Tim Hudson, Gregg Olson, and future Royal Bo Jackson.
For White, the Academy was almost an afterthought. White had grown up just a few blocks from Municipal Stadium. He had played in the local Ban Johnson and Casey Stengel leagues, but his high school, Lincoln, did not have a baseball team. Because of this, White was missed by scouts. A Lincoln coach and White’s wife encouraged him to attend the tryout. He secured a day off from his job at a sheet metal company and his performance earned him a spot in the initial class. By June of 1973, White was in the majors.
The first Academy team played in the 1971 season in the Gulf Coast league against the rookie clubs of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minnesota, and the Chicago White Sox. Those teams fielded players who had been found the “traditional way” through scouting and the draft. Many were early-round draft choices by their teams. The Academy team surprised everyone, finishing with a record of 40 and 13, running away with the League championship. And by running away, I mean that literally. The baby Royals stole 103 bases, which was 43 more than the next closest team. The Academy staff made base stealing an art form. They timed opposing pitchers’ deliveries and catchers' throwing times. They determined that an average runner could take a 12-foot lead off first base and a faster runner a slightly larger lead. They calculated that baserunners could take a 27-foot lead off second base. With this knowledge, the young Royals could determine the likelihood of success on a steal.
By the second year, the Royals started to have trouble finding qualified applicants. The second-year class dropped to 26 players. Those 26, which included Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott, once again won the Gulf Coast League with a 41-22 record. That team stole 161 bases and led the league in batting average.
By 1973, the Academy’s third season, the number of new players had dropped to 14. The Royals also started to send players from their rookie league team to the Academy for more individualized instruction. The 1973 team posted the only losing record of the Academy at 27-28. For the third year in a row, they led the league in steals, with 96. At this point, Kauffman was dumping about $700,000 per year into the annual operating expenses of the Academy. With a heavy heart, Kauffman closed the Academy after the 1973 season. Some in the Royals brass, specifically Tallis and Gorman, thought the Academy was siphoning off resources that should have gone to the rest of the farm system. Thrift and Metro were believers in the Academy and Thrift reportedly resigned in frustration after the 1972 season, in a disagreement over the direction of the Academy. Ultimately, 14 young men from the Academy made it to the majors. White was the lone star to come out, but others like UL Washington and Rodney Scott enjoyed solid careers.
In retrospect, the Academy was ahead of its time. Their use of the technology and training methods available in that age was soon to be copied by every Major League team.
The facility still stands. It is now part of the Twin Lakes Park and in 1995 was renamed the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex.