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Exhibition games of years past

Let’s play a friendly.

Tokyo Giants Sadaharu Oh SetNumber: X21529 TK1 F3

The game of baseball has always been somewhat predictable. Spring training games in March and April, the bulk of the season in the leisurely days of summer followed by the pennant races, or the collapse of your favorite team, in the late summer and early fall. Nine innings. Twenty-seven outs. Three strikes, four balls. The only thing off-kilter would be the dimensions of each teams’ ballparks. Whereas football and basketball have strict field and court size dimensions, baseball is gleefully all over the map. That’s one thing I love about baseball parks. Each one is different.

In years past, the American League always played other American League teams in the regular season. Same with the Senior circuit. That’s one thing that made the All-Star game and the World Series so special, that chance to see how the very best of the two leagues compared. That changed, of course, with the advent of inter-league play. I’m not being critical of inter-league play as I personally enjoy seeing players from the National League. And historically, it seems like the Royals have done better against the National League than they do against the American. Go figure that one out.

The other factor that changed this age-old dynamic was player movement in free agency. It used to be a rarity for a player to cross leagues. Some did so reluctantly, after being traded or discarded by their original team. Many older National League players looked down their nose at the American League, regarding it as a second-rate league. That’s all changed, and for the better. The power dynamic changes every few years as one league boasts more star power over the other. Which league is better today? That’s a tough one to call. In the American, you have the two headed constellation of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim along with Aaron Judge, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Yordan Alvarez and Wander Franco. Over in the National, they counter with Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. I’d say right now the two leagues are fairly evenly matched.

The other unusual thing that used to happen in the old days was the occasional interleague exhibition game. While these games were not highly publicized, they did happen. Before the 1969 Royals kicked off their regular season schedule, they played their cross-state rival St. Louis in two exhibition games.

During spring training in 1971, the Royals hosted the Yomiuri (Toyko) Giants for an exhibition game. This was played in Ft. Myers, Florida, with the big draw being Sadaharu Oh of the Giants. Oh was not a large man by slugger standards, going just 5’10’’ and 175. But the man could hit. Oh, a lefty, had a distinct swing, looking much like a flamingo as he lifted his right foot before the pitcher threw the ball. Many players use a similar approach today, but in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it wasn’t as common. But man, could he rake.

Over his 22-year career, all with the Giants, Oh collected almost 2,800 hits while compiling a .301 career batting average. He walked almost 2,400 times, while striking out only 1,319. And he hit 858 career home runs, more than Babe Ruth. More than Henry Aaron. More than a ‘roided up Barry Bonds. Almost 3,500 fans jammed into Terry Park in Ft. Myers to witness this game, which the Giants won by a score of 7-4.

One of the most unusual exhibition games the Royals have ever played took place Thursday evening, June 22, 1972, when Henry Aaron and the Atlanta Braves came to town for a rare mid-season exhibition. Aaron, one of baseball’s all-time greats, was already 38 when he came to KC that summer. He’d blown past 3,000 hits in the 1970 season and had 639 career home runs before the 1972 season started. For Kansas Citians, it was a rare chance to see greatness up close. It’s impossible to discuss the greatest ballplayers of all-time without including Aaron. I’ll just leave this nugget out there for you to chew on: From 1955 to 1973, 19 seasons of Henry Aaron’s 23-year career, he AVERAGED 37 home runs, 109 RBI’s, 105 runs scored and 178 hits. Per season. For 19 consecutive years. Just mind blowing. For stars of any generation, that production is a fantastic year, let alone a year after year event. How much money would he make in today’s game?

I was fortunate to see Aaron play. He was so consistently great that he was actually overlooked and underappreciated most of his career. Even though he made 21 consecutive All-Star games, he only won the MVP award once and that was in 1957 when he put up an 8 WAR season. His best year might have been 1961 when he somehow finished eighth in the MVP vote. Or his best year might have been in 1959. Or 1963. Or 1967. He had a lot of great years. Granted, there was no shortage of competition for the MVP award what with the likes of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Eddie Matthews and later day contemporaries like Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and Dick Allen, just to name a few.

When the Braves came to Kansas City, they had some hitters. Besides Aaron, they fielded Orlando Cepeda, Darrell Evans, Rico Carty, Dusty Baker, Ralph Garr and 1971 Rookie of the Year, Earl Williams. That’s seven outstanding hitters. The game was played at Municipal, and the Royals came out on top by a score of 3-1 in front of 8,111 fans. Aaron had a single and a walk, before departing early. Richie Scheinblum delivered the big hit for the Royals with a first inning, two-run double that struck near the top of the right field wall, missing a home run by inches. Mike Hedlund picked up the win with three innings of work, but the real story of the game was the debut of 19-year-old Gideon, Missouri native, Mark Littell. Littell had been called up from Class A Waterloo (IA) specifically for this game. Littell, getting his first exposure to big league hitters, took over at the start of the fourth inning. He walked three in the fourth including Aaron, before settling in. Final line for Country: 4 innings, three hits and only one run allowed and four walks.

Litell spoke about the experience in an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World. Pure Country.

“No, I wasn’t nervous, not really. When the bases were loaded in the fourth, I knew I had to keep my cool. I knew what I had to do. I thought, if you blow it, you won’t be worth a darn. You get mad and the batter takes advantage of this. I got a little tense when Aaron came up. I know all about him.”

Hard to believe only 8,100 fans came out for this.

Aaron made it back to Kansas City a few times after. His next appearance in town was at the 1973 All-Star game, where he was the starting first baseman for the National League. He finished 1-for-2 with a run scoring single off Bert Blyleven in the third in a game won by the National League, 7-1.

When his career with Atlanta ended after the 1974 season, Aaron decided to come home. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, then in the American League, thus giving American League fans a chance to see the home run champ. He played in five games in Kansas City in 1975, going a combined 8-for-19 with solo home run off Al Fitzmorris in the first game. The final game between the two teams that summer was notable for former Royal Kurt Bevacqua playing shortstop for the Brewers.

Aaron, now 42, was back in Kansas City for four more games in 1976. Father time was finally starting to win the battle with Aaron. He only collected one hit in eleven at-bats, that was an RBI single off Paul Splittorff on June 5. Despite being 42, Aaron was still a dangerous hitter. On July 11th, he became the oldest player in MLB history to hit a walk-off home run when he connected off Steve Foucault of the Rangers, to give the Brew Crew a 5-4 win. Aaron hit the last home run of his career, number 755, on July 20th, a solo shot off former Royal Dick Drago in a win over the Angels.

Aaron is still baseball’s all-time RBI leader with 2,297. The closest active player to his RBI record is Miggy Cabrera in 13th place with 1,861. I don’t think anyone is breaking that record in my lifetime. Henry was one special player.