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A Royals geographical lesson

Who produces the best regional talent

Darrell Porter at the Plate Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

While snowed in recently, I got to thinking about states that seem to produce more professional athletes. Pennsylvania comes to mind immediately. Looking at the top football players who came out of Pennsylvania is like looking at a Hall of Fame roster. Same with baseball, as some of the biggest names came out of Pennsylvania. It still amazes me that Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Sr. and Junior were all from Donora.

This led to another rabbit hole: who are the best baseball players who were born in Missouri and each state that shares a border with Missouri? And who was the best Royal player to be born in those eight states? Missouri is an unusual state in that it’s one of only two states in the union that share a border with seven other states, Tennessee being the other.

Missouri also holds another distinction as being the smallest population state to have two professional baseball teams, with the Royals and Cardinals shared between just 6.1 million residents. The next smallest is Ohio, with 11.7 million people cheering on their two franchises. So, a tip of the cap to the fans of the Royals and Cardinals for doing such a great job supporting their teams.

Let’s start with Missouri. The Show Me state has produced some great talent over the years, especially from the St. Louis area. Some of the best who were born in Missouri were Carl Hubbell (Carthage), Max Scherzer (St. Louis) and Pud Galvin (St. Louis). Galvin, a pitcher who played from 1875 to 1892, makes a solid case for the best with a career record of 365-310 and a 2.85 ERA. He threw 646 complete games and over 6,000 innings, both of which are astounding numbers. Of course, that was a very different era and hard to compare to modern ballplayers.

For that reason only, I’m going with Yogi Berra of St. Louis. Berra was an 18-time All-Star and was part of ten World Series championships as a player. He won three MVPs and finished in the top five four other seasons which culminated in his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. I know some of you may be asking, where is Albert Pujols? While he was raised in Missouri, he was born in the Dominican which disqualifies him from this exercise.

As for the best Royal player to come out of Missouri, I’m going with Darrell Porter, over one of my all-time favorite guys Mark Littell (Cape Girardeau). Porter, who was born in Joplin, spent four years as a Royal (1977 to 1980) in which he played in three All-Star games and picked up MVP votes in two. His 1979 season: .291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs, 10 triples, 112 RBI, 101 runs scored and 121 walks with only 65 strikeouts was one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a catcher. Not a Royals catcher, any catcher from any team in baseball history.

David Cone, who was a hometown boy, born and raised in KC, came in a close second. Cone only spent two full seasons playing for the Royals, but they were both excellent years, especially 1994, when he went 16-5 and won the American League Cy Young.

To the west, Kansas has a sparse history. The state has produced many ballplayers but only one all-timer. There have been several notable players born in the state, such as Eldon Auker (Norcatur), Bob Horner (Ft. Riley), Mike Torrez (Topeka), Claude Hendrix (Olathe) and Larry Cheney from Belleville. Darren Daulton from Arkansas City had a solid 14-year career, primarily with the Phillies. Joe Tinker, born in Muscotah, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946. Tinker to Evers to Chance.

There is little doubt about the best of all time. That would be The Big Train, Walter Johnson, who hailed from Humboldt. Over his 21-year career, the fire-balling Johnson won 416 games while posting a 2.17 ERA. His 3,508 strikeouts stood as a record for 56 years. He won two MVP awards and threw 531 complete games while leading the league in wins six times.

The best Royal who came from Kansas is also an easy one: Johnny Damon, who was born in Ft. Riley. Over his 18-year career, Damon made two All-Star teams while leading the league in runs and stolen bases for the Royals in 2000. He was part of two World Series championship teams.

Moving clockwise takes us to Nebraska. Nebraska has been the birthplace of some of my favorite players, guys like Bob Gibson and Wade Boggs from Omaha and Sam Crawford from Wahoo. You might recognize the Wahoo name as being the home office of David Letterman’s famous Top Ten lists. Nebraska also produced Bob Cerv (Weston), a Nebraska legend who was one of the best players to ever play for the Kansas City Athletics and Richie Ashburn, from the village of Tilden. Ashburn was a Hall of Fame outfielder who spent 15 years in the majors, primarily with the Phillies. Tilden was also the home of Ron Hubbard, who founded the Church of Scientology. What are the odds of two guys like that coming out of a town of 1,000 people?

Despite these notables, I’m giving my vote to Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, who was born in Elba. Elba is a little village about 40 miles north of Grand Island. Alexander was one of the all-time greats, winning 373 games over a 20-year career while posting a 2.56 ERA. Alexander pitched complete game victories in Games 2 and 6 of the 1926 World Series. He came on in relief in the seventh inning of Game 7, reportedly with a massive hangover, striking out Yankee slugger Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded. He pitched the final two scoreless innings to give the Cardinals the title.

I’ve always felt that Alexander was a misunderstood player. You must remember that he was drafted into the army and served as a field artillery sergeant in World War I. He missed most of the 1918 season while serving in France. He was exposed to mustard gas and returned to the States with a bad case of shell shock, which we now call PTSD. This traumatic experience led him to the bottle, as it did for many war vets. The fact that he was able to pitch for 14 more seasons is a testament to his toughness and talent.

The best Royal born in Nebraska? Unless I’m missing someone, it’s Alex Gordon of Lincoln. Someday soon, Gordo will be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. During his 14-year career in blue, he won eight Gold Gloves and appeared in three All-Star games. He hit one of the biggest home runs in Royals history during Game One of the 2015 World Series.

On top of Missouri is the great state of Iowa. It gets tough for these colder weather states to produce top-flight baseball talent, but Iowa has had a few. Hall of Famer Cap Anson was born in Marshalltown. Another Hall of Famer, pitcher Dazzy Vance, was born in Orient, Iowa. Cedar Rapids has produced several outstanding players such as Earl Whitehill and Mike Boddiker. Hall of Fame pitcher Red Faber was born in Cascade. One of the great what-ifs in baseball history was the career of Hal Trosky of Norway. Trosky was a tremendous power hitter with the Indians before near-constant migraine headaches derailed his promising career. Trosky had an almost unbelievable 162 RBI and 405 total bases during the 1936 season before the headaches wore him down.

Despite these Hall of Fame notables, there is only one choice for Iowa and that is Bob Feller. Rapid Robert hailed from Van Meter, or as he liked to say, “Van Meter, 14 miles west of Des Moines”. Feller was legendary. He made his debut as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1936. The Indians tried to bring him along slowly, giving him six relief appearances. They gave him his first start in his seventh game, and he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns. Three starts later, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics. He pitched four complete games as a 17-year-old and when the season ended, went back to Van Meter for his senior year of high school. He missed three years of his prime while serving in the military aboard the USS Alabama. He won 266 games with a career 3.25 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts seven times, including an astounding 348 in 1946. He was an 8-time All-Star and is still the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter on opening day.

The best for the Royals out of Iowa? This is a tough one as KC has not employed a lot of guys from the Hawkeye state. I’m going to have to go with Council Bluffs product Jon Lieber. The emotional choice would be Paul Splittorff, who played college ball at Morningside in Iowa, but Splitt was born in Indiana. The Royals selected Lieber in the second round of the 1992 draft and unfortunately in a desperate move, traded him to the Pirates (along with another promising young pitcher, Dan Miceli) for two uneventful years of Stan Belinda. Lieber meanwhile, went on to a 14-year career where he won 131 games and from 1996 to 2006, averaging 190 innings a year.

Next, we move to The Prairie State, Illinois. Illinois has produced a plethora of Hall of Famers including Lou Boudreau (Harvey), Robin Roberts (Springfield), Robin Yount (Danville), and noted Royal killer Jim Thome (Peoria). The state has also produced many other big names such as The Big Klu, Ted Kluszewski (Argo), Denny McLain (Chicago), Rick Reuschel (Quincy), and Jason Kipnis (Northbrook) just to name a few. You ever notice how with the very best players; they can be identified by just one name? Same with the best from Illinois: Rickey. Rickey Henderson was born in Chicago and over his 25-year Hall of Fame career at various times led the league in runs scored (five times), hits (once), walks (four times), and of course stolen bases (an amazing 12 times). He was a ten-time All-Star and won the league MVP in 1990. Plus, he was entertaining. There was nothing quite like listening to Rickey talk about Rickey in the third person.

Illinois was also very good for the Royals. Berry, berry good. At various times, the team employed Kevin Seitzer, Gary Gaetti, Larry Gura, Jim Sundberg, and Ben Zobrist, all of whom had their moments with the team. The best, however, came to the Royals at a young age from Chicago Heights: Bret Saberhagen. As a member of the Royals, Sabes went 110-78 with a 3.21 ERA while winning two Cy Young awards and helping the Royals win the 1985 World Series.

Next, we moved toward the bootheel, where Missouri shares a border with Kentucky and Tennessee.

Louisville is home to the Louisville Slugger Bat Factory and Museum, a must-see for any baseball fan. Louisville has also birthed some baseball talent: Dan Uggla, Sam Hughes, Gus Bell, Mike Greenwell, Travis Fryman, Pete Browning, and Jay Buhner to name a few. Hall of Famers Earle Combs (Pebworth) and Pee Wee Reese (Ekron) were both Kentucky natives. The nod for the best goes to Jim Bunning. Over his 17-year HOF career, Bunning made seven All-Star teams, stuck out over 200 batters in six different seasons, and threw a perfect game.

The Royals have had a few Kentuckians: Joe Blanton, Todd Benzinger, Brandon Berger, and Terry Schumpert among them. The best though goes to Paul Byrd, who enjoyed a career resurrection in his season and a half in KC. In 2002, Byrd went 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA while making 33 starts and throwing 7 complete games for a Royal team that lost 100 games. In other words, that team won 62 games. Byrd won 27% of their total games. You can slice it and dice it any way you want, but the fact is, that was a hell of a year.

Tennessee shares the extreme southeast border with Missouri. The Volunteer State has produced a swath of big leaguers including notables such as Jim Gilliam (Nashville), Steve Finley (Union City), Bob Caruthers (Memphis), Claude Osteen (Caney Springs), Bill Madlock (Memphis), Marvelous Marv Throneberry (Collierville) and Negro League star Turkey Stearnes (Nashville). Two of the best from the state are current star Mookie Betts (Nashville) and the retired Vada Pinson (Memphis) who looked like a Hall of Fame lock until he tailed off late in his career. Pinson spent the final two years of his career playing right field for the Royals.

Betts will eventually claim the top spot but for now, it goes to Todd Helton, in a close race. Helton, who was selected to the Hall of Fame this year, was born in Knoxville and was a star baseball and football player for the University of Tennessee. In his 17-year career, all with the Colorado Rockies, Helton rapped over 2,500 hits and 369 home runs while compiling a lifetime batting average of .316. He made five All-Star teams, won four Silver Sluggers, three Golden Gloves and one batting title. Plus, he sports a great nickname - “The Toddfather.”

Tennessee is the birthplace of current Royal Jonathan Bowlan (Arlington) and past Royals Jimmy Gobble (Bristol), Alec Mills (Clarksville), Brent Rooker (Germantown), Collin Snyder (Nashville) and Chris Zachary (Knoxville). The best Royal career is slim picking. Pinson was certainly the best Tennessee player the Royals ever had, but his two-year end-of-career production was only 0.1 WAR. The best then falls to Mike Minor, who was born in Chapel Hill, and over two seasons appeared in 93 games, posting a 14-18 record with a 4.23 ERA. Tennessee has produced a ton of ballplayers, and it looks like the Royals need to do a better job of scouting the state.

Arkansas covers the entire southern border of Missouri. If you’re a Civil War buff, there are some outstanding battlefield parks in southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. Have you ever wondered why Arkansas is pronounced Ar-Kan-Saw while the river, which flows through Kansas, is pronounced Ar-Kansas? On the baseball front, Arkansas has produced many all-time greats, players such as Dizzy Dean (Lucas), Willie Davis (Mineral Springs), Travis Jackson (Waldo), Lou Brock (El Dorado), Torii Hunter (Pine Bluff), George Kell (Swifton), Sherm Lollar (Durham) and Rick Monday (Batesville).

I’ve always had a soft spot for Lollar, who was a terrific player. When the Kansas City Athletics signed local product, 16-year-old Alex George, during the 1955 season, Lollar was the catcher when George came to the plate for the first time. There were almost 30,000 fans at Municipal that day in late September when George stepped to the plate. I can’t imagine how nervous he must have been. Lollar told George what was coming: “Okay kid, this will be a fastball on the inside half”. How great is that? Lollar was 30 at the time and had already been in the league for ten seasons. I just love that kind of sportsmanship.

I can’t decide on the best, so I’m going to split it between two all-time greats: Arky Vaughn of Clifty and Brooks Robinson of Little Rock. Both men played on the left side of the infield, and both ended their careers with approximately 78 WAR. Robinson played for 23 seasons, while Vaughn toiled for 14. Vaughn was selected to nine All-Star teams, while Robinson was selected 15 times. Brooks had a little more power while Vaughn’s overall offensive numbers were better. Vaughn’s career slash was: .318/.406/.453 and he led the league in various offensive categories on ten different occasions. Robinson finished with a slash of .267/.322/.401 and his only league-leading category was RBIs during the 1964 season. They’re both in the Hall of Fame, though Vaughn is a player who has an underrated reputation.

As for the Royals from Arkansas, it’s slim pickings. I’m probably missing someone, but I can only find four current or past Royals from Arkansas. Those are Tyler Zuber from White Hall, Travis Wood and Kevin McReynolds, both from Little Rock, and our winner, Jakob Junis, who was born in Jacksonville. From 2017 to 2021, Junis went 29-25 with a 4.82 ERA. You can go with McReynolds if you like. He hit 24 home runs and collected 91 RBI over two uneventful years in Kansas City.

Oklahoma, where the wind runs free and baseball players grow on trees. Or so it seems. The Sooner state has produced 303 native-born players with seven of those making it to the Hall of Fame. There is no shortage of stars coming from Oklahoma: Paul and Lloyd Waner (Harrah), Johnny Bench (Oklahoma City), Willie Stargell (Earlsboro), Bullet Joe Rogan (OKC), Willie Wells (Shawnee), and the vastly underrated Bob Johnson, who was born in Pryor. Johnson, an eight-time All-Star, was an outstanding third baseman, primarily for the Philadelphia Athletics. Unfortunately, he didn’t make his debut until he was 27, which greatly hampered his Hall of Fame chances.

Oklahoma was also the birthplace of other notables like Alvin Dark, Paul Blair, Matt Holliday, Bobby Mercer, and J.T. Realmuto. They can play ball there. The best Sooner, without much doubt, was The Mick. Mickey Mantle was born in Spavinaw and raised in Commerce. When I drove through Commerce many years ago, I was disappointed that I didn’t see any signs proclaiming it the home of Mantle. Maybe they’ve rectified that by now? Mick’s numbers were unbelievable: .298/.421/.557 with 536 home runs and 1,509 RBI over 18 injury-plagued seasons. He was a three-time MVP, 20-time All-Star and 7-time World Series champ who captured the Triple Crown in his seminal 1956 season. His name would be on the short list of all-timers for the Mount Rushmore of baseball and millions of fans still clamor for all things Mantle today, 53 years after he played his last game and 28 years since his death.

The Royals have also fared quite well in Oklahoma. I count no fewer than 13 former Royals from the state including guys like Steve Crawford (Pryor), Lindy McDaniel (Hollis), Ted Power (Guthrie), Jeff Suppan (OKC), UL Washington (Stringtown), and World Series hero Daryl Motley (the Okie from Muskogee). The best without question goes to Freddie Patek, who was born in Oklahoma City. A member of the Royals Hall of Fame, Patek anchored the infield for 9 seasons. He led the league in triples and stolen bases once while garnering three All-Star appearances. He teamed with Cookie Rojas to give the Royals one of the best double-play combos of all time.

That concludes this exercise. The numbers were enlightening. Illinois has birthed 1,129 players and 17 Hall of Famers, tops in both categories. Missouri came in second with 681 players and 8 in the Hall. Nebraska has produced the fewest big leaguers, with only 121, though 6 of those made the Hall. Tennessee produced 411 players but only one Hall of Famer, which was a surprise.