A breed of player you don’t see much anymore is the catcher who also plays some corner infield and corner outfield spots. With today’s emphasis on having plenty of relief pitchers, I wonder if teams will try to find some catchers athletic enough to handle playing elsewhere. Such versatility could be useful, especially for a team that might use its regular catcher at DH—that team, with a backup catcher who could handle first base and left or right field, could actually carry a third catcher on the bench. Pair that with a utility infielder who can also play center field and a team is more or less covered.
Anyway, I bring this up because Ed Kirkpatrick, nicknamed “Spanky” for his resemblance to the Our Gang character, was one of the most versatile players in Royals history. In five years in Kansas City, he appeared at every position except shortstop and pitcher. Throw in a solid bat and the Royals had themselves a very useful player, one who amassed 8.9 WARP in five years. Although Kansas City did have to trade a future Hall of Famer to acquire Kirkpatrick, they came out ahead on the deal.
Edgar Leon Kirkpatrick was born on October 8, 1944, in Spokane, Washington. But his family moved to southern California, and Kirkpatrick became a star at Glendora High School. He was such a coveted prospect that, in those pre-draft days, over half the 20 major-league teams had a representative at his high school graduation, ready to sign him. The hometown Angels won, and Kirkpatrick was off to professional baseball.
Amazingly, he would make his major-league debut that same 1962 season, before he even turned 18. Sure, it was just six at-bats, but that’s unusual. Kirkpatrick had a 1.103 OPS in 243 minor-league plate appearances that year, then hit .303/.354/.497 in Class AA Nashville and .352/.450/.585 in Class AAA Hawaii in 1963. That got him a little more time in the majors, but he hit just .195/.259/.338 in 85 plate appearances.
This pattern continued for a few years. Kirkpatrick would tear up the minors, then struggle in limited playing time in the majors. It might not have helped that the Angels tried him at catcher and outfield and then some first base. But he was still young, so the Angels kept giving him chances. But when he finally got to play a lot, in 1966, he hit .192/.313/.327, and some of the luster was off. He barely played in the majors in 1967, then hit .230/.332/.273 in 1968. The Angels were ready to move on.
Enter the Royals. Two months after the expansion draft, Kansas City made its first trade, dealing pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm to California for Kirkpatrick and catcher Dennis Paepke. Wilhelm was at the end of a Hall of Fame career, and would be out of baseball by the end of the 1972 season (fun fact: he was released by the Dodgers just days short of his 50th birthday. Yep, 50.), and Paepke appeared in only 80 major league games. But Kirkpatrick would be a valuable player for the Royals. As a hustling player with a pugnacious streak, he was also a popular one in the early days of the franchise.
He was in the lineup for the very first game in Royals history, batting third and playing left field on Opening Day 1969. The Royals used him as a super-sub that year; Kirkpatrick played catcher, all three outfield spots, first base, third base, and even five innings at second base over 120 games. He also hit .257/.348/.451 and led the team in home runs (14) and slugging percentage.
Kirkpatrick settled in as the primary catcher for the 1970 Royals, although he still played some outfield and first base. His batting average and on-base percentage tumbled, but he still belted 18 home runs, second on the team. However, he suffered through a poor 1971 season, batting just .219/.308/.332 with nine homers in 423 plate appearances.
Happily, Spanky rebounded well in the 1972 season. Although he played sparingly the first few weeks of the season, serving as the backup catcher, an injury to Jerry May gave him his chance in early May. Kirkpatrick took advantage, smacking home runs in three straight games and later enjoying an 11-for-23 stretch over seven games. He ended May with a .319/.425/.486 line.
Kirkpatrick began June with a seven-game hit streak, and hit .297/.400/.500 for the month. The Royals enjoyed the best month in their short history to that point, going 18-9. Unfortunately, a slow start had buried them in the AL West and they were still 11 games behind Oakland.
But Kirkpatrick kept hitting. An unsuccessful pinch-hitting appearance on July 8 was the only reason he did not have an eight-game hitting streak. And after that stretch was snapped with an 0-4 outing on July 18, he started another seven-game hitting streak. In all, he picked up hits in 18 of his 26 games for the month, for a .277/.370/.351 line. Perhaps more impressive was his 14:10 BB:K ratio—Kirkpatrick would end the season with 51 walks and 50 strikeouts, and in his Royals career, he walked 243 times against 265 strikeouts.
Perhaps worn down from catching nearly every game for three months, including seven times (through July) where he caught both games of a doubleheader, Kirkpatrick slumped in August, hitting just .222/.288/.319 for the month. He did enjoy his longest hitting streak of the season, a nine-game stretch, but he picked up just 10 hits (nine singles and one home run) in those games.
Kirkpatrick rebounded to post an acceptable September line of .258/.333/.339. And the man who was involved in the first trade in team history added another bit of trivia to his story: in the last game of the season, he collected the last-ever hit at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, a single in the eighth inning. That hit gave him a season line of .275/.365/.396, a good stat line for a catcher in an offensively-challenged era.
The funny thing about all the time Kirkpatrick spent in the outfield is that nothing in his stat line showed speed. He had 18 triples in 16 seasons, and was caught stealing more often than he was successful by a 39-34 margin. By 1972, with Amos Otis on the team, the Royals didn’t need him to play center field anymore. And 1972 was the first year he didn’t see time in the outfield.
Despite the team’s move to spacious, Astroturfed Royals Stadium for 1973, Kirkpatrick would again see plenty of time in the outfield (although he would be part of another “first” in team history, serving as the first designated hitter as the rule went into effect that year). The Royals acquired Fran Healy just before the season started, and decided to let him catch while Kirkpatrick played outfield; he would start 68 games in right field and 21 in left field, compared to nine behind the plate. His .263/.333/.375 line was decent but not really good enough for a corner outfielder. The Royals, looking for more pitching, dealt Kirkpatrick to Pittsburgh after the season for Nelson Briles.
Kirkpatrick resumed his role of utility man for some very good Pirates teams in 1974-1976, helping them to two division titles, although he went 0-9 in the 1974 NLCS and 0-2 in the 1975 NLCS. His career ended with appearances for three different teams in 1977 and a season in the minors in 1978.
Sadly, post-baseball life for Kirkpatrick wasn’t the greatest. In November 1981, on his way home from a charity golf tournament, just a couple miles from home, he was involved in a seemingly-minor accident. But he developed a blood clot that night, and eventually had to undergo surgery to reduce swelling of his brain. A reaction to the anesthetic for that led to a heart attack, and Kirkpatrick was in a coma for six months. When he came out of it, he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, with his left side paralyzed and limited ability to speak. But he had his family (a wife and three sons), and he was still alive. Kirkpatrick courageously fought to live as normal a life as he could after the accident. His example led his hometown of Glendora to establish the Ed Kirkpatrick Award, given yearly to a citizen who provides exceptional service to the youth sports community there.
Kirkpatrick lived nearly three decades after his accident, losing a long battle with throat cancer in 2010. He was 66 years old.
Ed Kirkpatrick’s best games of 1972
8/23 vs. BOS: His three-run home run accounted for all the scoring in 3-0 win.
9/26 @ CHI: Doubled, homered, and scored both KC runs in 2-1 win.
6/29 @ MIN: Went 3-6 with a homer, walked three times, scored three times and drove in three in doubleheader sweep.
7/23 vs. BAL: Had two doubles and a single, scored one run and drove in one in 8-4 loss.
About the card
The 1972 Topps design was so far out and unlike anything the company had done to that point. I love it, but I can also imagine a very traditional preacher somewhere that year proclaiming it as another sign of the impending apocalypse. Anyway, the picture seems to belie Kirkpatrick’s reputation as a guy with a good sense of humor. He appears rather grumpy. I like to imagine the photographer had just spent 20 or 30 minutes waiting for the perfect lighting, telling Ed to swing the bat over and over, and he’d pretty much had it. I do love those old Royals road unis, though.