U.L.’s Toothpick: The Royals and the 1968 Expansion Draft

For an expansion team, there are so many important steps. Assembling a front office, building and staffing a scouting department, and determining which farm teams to affiliate with are all vital processes. That leads up to the team’s first amateur draft, the first real chance to stock that farm system. But the step that gets the most attention is likely the expansion draft, when a new franchise gets to build the team that will take the field in the first season of major-league play.

Fifty years ago this week, the Royals participated in the 1968 expansion draft with their fellow new franchises, the Seattle Pilots (you now know them as the Milwaukee Brewers), San Diego Padres, and Montreal Expos (and you now know them as the Washington Nationals). While many players on expansion teams are quickly forgotten, Kansas City managed to snag a few names I think most Royals fans would recognize even now. One of them was even a future Hall of Famer, although he never played for the Royals. Several other players were later traded for some of the really big names in team history, although for the most part the Royals got the best of both worlds from those guys: good performance in Kansas City, then dealt for even better talent. All in all, the 1968 expansion draft was the springboard for the Royals’ excellent showing in the 1970s.

The American League portion of the draft proceeded on October 15 in Boston (the two National League teams picked their players the day before). Seattle won the coin toss for the first pick, but elected to give the Royals first choice so they would have the second and third overall picks. The Royals used that first selection on pitcher Roger Nelson of the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore had made a calculated risk, feeling that the Royals and Pilots would look for catchers early on and therefore Nelson, who had been injured for some of the 1968 season but was definitely pencilled into the 1969 rotation, could be left unprotected and then added to the protected list after the first round of the draft. But the Royals instead had drafted a pitcher who would post a 3.31 ERA in 193 1/3 innings in 1969, and a 2.08 ERA in 173 1/3 innings in 1972.

“I couldn’t believe Baltimore would let me go in the draft. I was told when the season ended that I would be the number four starter. I was working when I was drafted. A friend told me about it. Although I was surprised, I’m very happy to be with the Royals.”—Nelson, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, February 15, 1969

As a footnote, that first pick could have involved a much bigger name than Nelson: Mickey Mantle. The great Yankee was at the end of his career following the 1968 season, although he hadn’t officially retired when the existing teams had to submit their lists of protected players a mere 48 hours after the World Series ended. Mantle had hit just .237 in 1968, but he still smacked 18 home runs and walked 106 times. His slugging percentage of .398 doesn’t sound that great to modern ears, but keep in mind the league average was .339. And of course, he was probably the most famous baseball player in America at the time.

The Yankees didn’t want to protect Mantle without knowing if he would play in 1969. They even went to American League president Joe Cronin for help, and Cronin persuaded Seattle and Kansas City that it would be just terrible for the game of baseball if Mantle ever played in anything but pinstripes. The two new teams were willing to go along with it until other teams heard about the Yankees basically getting an extra protected player spot. On top of that, the league changed the draft rules, saying players serving in the military were also protected. This really helped the Yankees, who had left a prospect named Bobby Murcer unprotected while he was in the service. Kansas City had been very interested in selecting Murcer, who was eventually Mantle’s replacement in center field and had a very nice career. When the rules changed, the Royals started making noise about drafting Mantle, with manager Joe Gordon saying they would be “foolish” not to take him if they could. Mantle had played in Kansas City when the Yankees’ top farm team was located there, and now the Royals were possibly interested in bringing him back to KC as the face of the franchise. Charlie Metro, then the Royals’ director of player procurement, would later say that owner Ewing Kauffman wanted to pick Mantle with the team’s first pick and offer him a two-year, $200,000 deal. But Mantle, or someone claiming to be Mantle, sent the Royals and Pilots a telegram saying, “If you draft me I will not report and in all probability will retire.” Eventually Kauffman decided not to risk it, despite Metro’s pleading even on the day of the draft, and neither team selected Mantle. It may not have mattered, as Mantle retired during spring training 1969 anyway, but for a while it looked like one of the all-time greats would be an original Royal.

Anyway, Kansas City’s second pick (and fourth overall) was third baseman Joe Foy from the Boston Red Sox. Foy had an interesting reaction, blasting Boston manager Dick Williams:

“(He’s) a two-faced sneak. He takes pleasure in hurting people. He thinks that will make them better ballplayers. Well, I’ve got news for him. I expect to be a much better player with a new club.”—Foy, quoted by Larry Claflin, The Sporting News, October 26, 1968

Foy was true to his word, hitting .262/.354/.370 for the 1969 Royals after hitting .225/.336/.326 for Boston. But his place in Royals history is really as the main piece in a trade with the Mets following the 1969 season. In return, the Royals received Amos Otis. Foy struggled with alcoholism (in fact, a drunk driving arrest in 1968 helped convince the Red Sox they could live without him) and was out of baseball by 1972, while Otis would become one of the best players in Royals history.

The Royals’ draft strategy was obviously to concentrate on pitching, as five of their first eight picks were hurlers. But they went away from that to select first baseman Mike Fiore from Baltimore with their ninth pick and outfielder/first baseman Bob Oliver with their 10th. Fiore had one really good season in the majors—the 1969 one, when he hit .274/.420/.428 in 426 plate appearances. He was traded early in the 1970 season but not before giving the Royals 3.1 WARP in 132 games. Meanwhile, Oliver would be the team’s first slugger, hitting 13 home runs in 1969 and then 27 in 1970, which was the franchise record until John Mayberry broke it in 1975. Oliver was traded early in the 1972 season, but he was worth 2.9 WARP in 422 games for Kansas City.

The next two picks were used on players who maybe aren’t as well-known, but they did have an impact. Pitcher Bill Butler (not to be confused with ol’ Country Breakfast Billy Butler) led the 1969 staff in strikeouts. And outfielder Steve Whitaker never played a game for the Royals—he would be traded to Seattle the following spring for Lou Piniella. Whitaker was done as a major-leaguer in 1970, while Piniella would be the 1969 Rookie of the Year and Kansas City’s first star.

With the lucky 13th pick, the Royals selected Wally Bunker, another Baltimore pitcher. Bunker would throw the first pitch in Royals history as the starter on Opening Day 1969, and was the team’s best pitcher that year (12-11, 3.23 ERA). Unfortunately, he got hurt the next year and was never the same. They followed that pick with the selection of Paul Schaal, who is mostly famous among Royals fans for being the guy George Brett replaced at third base. But Schaal was no slouch himself, hitting .263/.360/.368 for the Royals before being traded early in the 1974 season. The pick after Schaal was pitcher Dick Drago, who pitched five seasons for Kansas City, never failing to reach 200 innings in any of those seasons. He won 17 games in 1971, and 61 in his Royals career. And then he was dealt to Boston for Marty Pattin (who had been selected by Seattle in this expansion draft), a trade that helped both teams as each player became a fine reliever. With their 16th pick, Kansas City took outfielder Pat Kelly from Minnesota. Kelly led the 1969 Royals with 40 stolen bases and hit .264/.348/.388 that year. He gave the Royals 3.6 WARP in two seasons before being traded and having a nice run with the Orioles.

After a couple of picks who didn’t amount to much of anything (one was Topeka native and Kansas City Northeast High School graduate Don O’Riley), the Royals shored up their bullpen by choosing Al Fitzmorris from the White Sox and Moe Drabowsky from the Orioles (the Royals wisely mined Baltimore’s roster for pitching; the Orioles had so much pitching depth they could lose four pitchers to expansion and still lead the league in ERA in 1969). After years in the bullpen, Fitzmorris joined the Royals’ rotation in 1974, winning 13 games. He followed that with 16 wins in 1975 and helped the Royals capture their first division title with 15 wins in 1976. Drabowsky was a bit of a departure from the Royals’ strategy of selecting young pitchers; at age 33, he led the 1969 team with 11 saves and also picked up 11 wins in relief before being dealt back to Baltimore in 1970.

The quest to build a bullpen continued after the Royals chose shortstop Jackie Hernandez with their 21st pick, as the next three picks were all relievers: Mike Hedlund, Tom Burgmeier, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Hedlund and Burgmeier were young, but Wilhelm was 45 years old when the Royals picked him and had broken Cy Young’s record for career pitching appearances during the 1968 season.

“I consider it an honor that Kansas City would draft me. I also was a little bit surprised that anybody would take a chance on me at my age.”—Wilhelm, quoted by Paul Cox, The Sporting News, November 9, 1968

But the knuckleball specialist, who would make the Hall of Fame and retire as the only man to pitch in 1,000 games in the majors (although that mark has fallen, he is still sixth on the all-time list), would never pitch for the Royals. Two months after the expansion draft, he was traded to California for Ed Kirkpatrick and Dennis Paepke. It was a good trade for the Royals, as Kirkpatrick hit 56 home runs over the next five years while playing every position except pitcher and shortstop.

The Royals had five more picks, but only one of them was a major contributor to the team. That was catcher Fran Healy, who would be traded away after the 1970 season, then traded back to Kansas City after the 1972 season. From 1973-1975, he hit .260/.338/.377 in 290 games before being traded to the Yankees for Larry Gura, who of course was a big part of the Royals’ run of division titles in the late 1970s.

So, how did the Royals do? After the draft, general manager Cedric Tallis was optimistic, to say the least.

“The scouts told me that we had the better selections.”—Tallis, quoted by Larry Claflin, The Sporting News, October 26, 1968.

“I can’t think of anything we’d do differently if we had to do it all over again,”—Tallis, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, November 9, 1968

“I still believe we’re going to surprise a lot of people. I think we have a chance to finish as high as third in our division. I feel we did as well as we could possibly hope to do in the expansion draft. I realize Seattle probably feels the same way, but when I look at the arms we have and see what our kids are doing in the Florida Instructional League, I can’t help but feel enthusiastic.”— Tallis—quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, November 9, 1968

Tallis was not far off on that prediction. The 1969 Royals finished fourth in the six-team AL West, but only two games behind California. They had a better record than their expansion brothers in Seattle, as well as the established White Sox and Indians. The 25 players the Royals drafted who appeared in a Royals uniform in 1969 totalled 16.9 WARP, and if you include Kirkpatrick, Paepke, and Piniella, you can add another 6.4 to that total. Since, in the WARP formula, a team full of replacement players would win just over 50 games, the Royals should have won around 74 games. But they only won 69.

The main problem was depth; the other 11 players the Royals used totalled -2.0 WARP. It makes sense—the Royals were able to select major leaguers in the expansion draft, but had to scrape up most of the other players through the Rule 5 draft, minor trades, or outright purchasing them from other teams. The worst player on the roster was infielder Juan Rios, who had a -1.2 WARP in just 208 plate appearances. He was purchased from the Expos late in spring training; Montreal had chosen him in the Rule 5 draft from the Mets. Rios hit .224/.262/.276. Even by the low offensive standards for middle infielders at the time, that was terrible, and Rios never played in the majors again. Really, the whole middle infield was a problem: second baseman Jerry Adair had -0.9 WARP, and shortstop Jackie Hernandez had -0.3.

The Royals concentrated on pitching, and got a solid rotation out of it. Nelson, Bunker, Butler, Drago, and Jim Rooker combined for 7.5 WARP. Drabowsky (1.6) and Hedlund (0.7) were a good bullpen tandem, but not surprisingly the middle relief was also an issue, as no one else made much of a contribution.

The front office Ewing Kauffman put together, from Tallis on down to the small army of scouts, did a tremendous job in the expansion draft. To this day, the 1969 Royals had the second-best record of any expansion team in their first season. When that was followed up with shrewd trades and good draft picks, the Royals quickly became competitive and then began winning division titles soon after. Although nearly every 1969 Royal was elsewhere by the time that first title was won in 1976, the seeds of that championship were planted in a hotel ballroom in Boston eight years earlier.

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2 comments on “U.L.’s Toothpick: The Royals and the 1968 Expansion Draft”

Roger Erickson

Darrin do you think you could do a presentation from this article at our SABR meeting next Saturday at the Trailside Center which is at 9901 Holmes. The meeting starts at 1

Darin Watson

Hi Roger, thanks for the invitation. That would be pretty cool but I actually live in Arkansas now. If I planned to be in KC anyway I’d do it but I wasn’t planning that. Sorry!

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