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Joe Rudi and the joy of baseball

Another KC debut

Rudi Portrait Photo by Ron Riesterer/MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

The recent deaths of Vida Blue and Sal Bando have me thinking more about the players who were drafted and made their debuts with the Kansas City Athletics. Older fans of the Athletics like Roy, Loyal and Rufus not only remember the Athletics but also the heated rivalry that developed when the now Oakland A’s came back to town to play the Royals.

Talk about bittersweet. Just a few short years earlier, those had been OUR guys. More than a few fans watched the A’s three-peat in the early 1970s and thought that those should have been our titles.

Nothing rips the soul out of a baseball fan like your team moving to another city. There’re still people in Brooklyn who haven’t gotten over it.

One of the only things Charlie Finley got right during his time in Kansas City was the stockpiling of an enormous amount of young talent, unfortunately right before he skipped town. Most of those guys were hardnosed ballplayers. It’s always hard to compare generations. Are today’s players better than players from previous eras? I know that most of the pitchers today throw harder and with more wicked stuff than the older generations of pitchers.

There are exceptions of course. Bob Feller could have pitched in any era. Same with Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax or Warren Spahn or Satchel Paige and many others. Hitters? That’s a hard one to measure. Ted Williams could have hit in any era. Same with Henry Aaron or Stan Musial or Willie Mays.

I do think players of bygone eras were tougher. They had to be. They weren’t making a ton of money playing ball, so they not only had to perform, but they also had to stay on the field. For those of us who watched guys like Pete Rose or Hal McRae or George Brett, it’s tough to appreciate some of today’s jewelry store mannequins masquerading as ballplayers. As a fan, I’d like to see them spend less time frosting their tips and more on how to make a proper throw to the correct base. Show a little fire.

Going back to the Athletics, one player who was consistently overlooked was Joe Rudi. Like many professional athletes, Rudi had been a multi-sport star in high school in Modesto, California. Rudi lost part of his senior baseball season to a broken hand, but that didn’t scare off the Athletics. Scout Don Pries signed Rudi with a $15,000 bonus on June 13, 1964. Pries told Rudi that he had the potential to move up quickly as Kansas City was an aging team. Rudi split the rest of 1964 between Daytona Beach and Wytheville and hit well for a 17-year-old away from home for the first time. Then things got squirrelly. Cleveland selected Rudi in the first-year player waiver draft, and he spent 1965 playing for the Indians Class A Dubuque affiliate. Kansas City got him back in December of 1965 (along with catcher Phil Roof) for a pair of Jims - Landis and Rittwage. 1966 saw him back home in Modesto, the A’s Class A team, where he hit .297.

He made the big-league roster out of spring training in 1967 and made his Kansas City debut on April 11, against Cleveland in a game at Municipal. Sam McDowell got the start for Cleveland and in those days, McDowell went by the nickname Sudden Sam for his explosive fastball. The A’s sent six men to the plate in the first inning against McDowell, and in true Kansas City fashion, didn’t score a single run. Rudi was the fifth batter of the inning and drew a walk in his initial plate appearance. He collected a single in his second at-bat. He collected another single in his next game before slumping. After eight games, the team sent Rudi down to AA Birmingham, where he spent most of the summer. Rudi made the most of it, hitting .288. The Athletics called him back in mid-September for 11 more games. He ended his Kansas City tenure with a .186 batting average.

Then the A’s made their break to Oakland depriving Kansas City fans of the emerging team. Rudi spent 1968 and 1969 bouncing between Oakland and their AAA affiliates in Vancouver and Iowa. He made it back to Oakland for good in the 1970 season, in which he hit .309 in 106 games. Rudi credits his early success to Oakland’s batting coach, a name familiar to Kansas City fans: Charlie Lau. Lau closed Rudi’s stance and cut down his long swing and turned him into a dangerous hitter. The other former player that Rudi credited with helping him in the field was Joe DiMaggio, who coached for Oakland for two seasons. Hard to imagine the regal Yankee Clipper tolerating Finley’s eccentric behavior. As a side note, isn’t it kind of ironic that two of the most controversial sports franchise owners ever were Finley and Al Davis, both based out of Oakland?

Rudi blossomed into stardom in 1972, leading the American League with 181 hits and 9 triples, batting .305 while making his first All-Star team and finishing second in the MVP vote. He had another solid year in 1974, leading the league in doubles and total bases while winning his first Gold Glove and again finishing second in the MVP vote.

Rudi often saved his biggest moments for the biggest stage. He hit .300 in 19 World Series games and in 1972 made a game saving catch on a Dennis Menke drive that many baseball people rank among the best catches in Series history.

All the while he was also a steady influence in the circus that became Oakland baseball. The ringleader of that circus was of course Charlie O. Finley, who after accumulating all that talent and winning three consecutive World Series, decided he didn’t want to pay to keep the talent. Fortunately for the players, free agency was coming, and most were counting down the days to when they could escape Oakland. After Finley cut his salary by 20%, the genial and soft-spoken Rudi was among them. Finley beat him to the punch, selling Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox in June of 1976 for $1 million apiece.

Three days later commissioner Bowie Kuhn vetoed the sale (and one of Vida Blue to the Yankees) as not being in the best interest of baseball. Rudi played out his Oakland contract and in November of 1976 signed with the California Angels. He spent four seasons in California but battled various injuries which helped drop his batting average to .249. Rudi finally made it back to Boston as part of a five-player trade in December of 1981, that sent Fred Lynn to California. He only played 49 injury plagued games for the Red Sox, who let him leave in free agency after the season ended. Rudi signed back on with Oakland, playing 71 games and hitting .212 before retiring at the age of 35.

For a few seasons, Rudi was as good as anyone in baseball. He ended his career with a .264/.311/.427 slash with 1,468 hits including 179 home runs and 25 WAR.

The joy of baseball

In a year like 2023, it’s easy to forget that playing baseball is supposed to be fun. As Royalsfans, we’ve been bludgeoned with a team that might end up with one of the worst records of all time. There’s been labor strife and controversy around leaving Kauffman and moving downtown. All of that has influenced how much we enjoy the game.

Now the 2014 Wild Card game? That was fun!

The 2015 season? That was a blast!

Some of my personal favorites were the 1977 season. That was mega-fun.

Watching Steve Busby throw two no-hitters? Sign me up!

How about George Brett showing Goose Gossage who his daddy was? Yeah, everyone enjoyed that.

Watching one of the current Royals getting thrown out in an ill-advised attempt to get to third base? No, that’s not enjoyable at all.

Seeing Bobby Witt Jr. hit a walk-off grand slam? Yes, we all need more of that!

The Royals recent win streak! Yes! That’s what we’re talking about! Fun!

I too, had forgotten that baseball was meant to be joyful. Years ago, we had a place that had about an acre of grass. Every summer I’d mow the outline of a ballfield into the lot, and we’d play our annual family whiffle ball game. One year I even put up a fence. And we had a joyful time. We still talk about some of the funny plays that happened in those games. We’ve since moved from that place and some of the kids moved away, and our game got shelved.

On a recent Sunday evening, with the sun turning bright orange through the smoky sky, we found ourselves back on a ballfield near our home. Our two boys played Little League on this field almost 25 years ago and the memories came flooding back. This particular weekend, enough of the kids were back in town for us to resuscitate the annual whiffle ball game. I dug out the old equipment and off we went.

We started playing and it was good. Before long, two young boys happened by. We brought them into the game. Then another, and another showed up. Soon, we had five extra players, boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 14. And watching these kids play brought the joy of baseball back to me. There’s something special about the unabashed enthusiasm of watching a child play the game of baseball. And baseball is, at its heart, a game. One little boy didn’t even have shoes on, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to swing the bat and run the bases.

His big sister, as big sisters often do, got everyone organized. She had them in a single file line, awaiting their turn at bat. None of the kids made an out of course. Every ball was a hit followed by peals of laughter as they sprinted down the basepaths while we purposely fumbled the ball or threw it away.

Baseball is supposed to be a fun game. Sometimes it takes a child to remind us of that.