Kauffman fostered a unique mystique
Innovative fountains marked AL's first all-artificial turf stadium
In the winter of 1972, Frank White was 22 years old and between baseball seasons. His employer, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, apparently felt it was unseemly to have one of his Double-A players drawing unemployment again in Kansas City.
"I guess Mr. K didn't like that aspect of it, so he sent a chauffeur by the house, picked me up and took me down to the union," White recalled.
It wasn't difficult to find a job for White. Going up just off Interstate 70 and Blue Ridge Cutoff was the Truman Sports Complex that included Royals Stadium.
"They gave me a union card, and I worked at the stadium that winter. I made more money that winter than I made in Double-A baseball," White said. "I did labor stuff, carried things here and there. When they poured the columns for the main level, I had this little machine, and I'd drive around and smooth out the concrete that ran over. On the third floor, I learned how to seal some bathroom floors."
By the next summer, White emerged from the Minors and was playing in the marvelous new Royals Stadium, which replaced Municipal Stadium, the American League expansion franchise's home for its first four seasons.
So Royals Stadium, now Kauffman Stadium, might be called "The House That Frank White Built."
White laughed at the frivolous suggestion.
"No, not like the Babe," he said.
Royals Stadium, like Babe Ruth's Yankee Stadium, developed its own special aura. It had the innovative fountains beyond the right-field wall, it had the AL's first all-artificial turf field, it had a wide-open feel and a down-home ambiance. And, mostly, it was built strictly for baseball.
Arrowhead Stadium, for the football Chiefs, was built across the lot, and the two teams shared a massive parking domain. This broke the trend of the '60s and early '70s when cookie-cutter, multipurpose stadiums were springing up in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and elsewhere.
It was a fresh view for the game.
"The fountains were great in the summertime, and Mrs. K loved to turn the fountains on," former Royals outfielder Willie Wilson said. "She loved to turn them on in April, and it was really cold out there when they hit you, but it was part of the mystique of Royals Stadium. Every time they went up, it was fun to see. The fans enjoyed it. It was just a sight in the '70s that nobody else had. It was really unique."
Big John Mayberry, the Royals' first baseman when the move was made from Municipal Stadium, was struck by the size and amenities of the new stadium's home clubhouse. There was even a whirlpool!
Even before the move, Mayberry was intrigued by those fountains in right field. He decided that he wanted to be the first player to hit a home run into Mrs. K's "water spectacular."
"I thought about that from January all the way through Spring Training, all the way till we got to Kansas City on Opening Day," Mayberry said. "I didn't want a Texas Ranger to hit one out there, I didn't want Freddy [Patek] to hit one out there before I did. It was cold that night, too, and I got the first one. It was off of Bill Gogolewski, I believe. It went in the fountain, but the fountain wasn't working at the time. They hadn't turned 'em yet. But I said, 'You know, I can get used to this.'"
Hitting one into the water was always an event. When the water display was extended into left field in 1990, it reached 322 feet and was said to be the largest privately funded fountain in the world.
Until 1995, when real grass was unveiled at the stadium, the surface was AstroTurf. On Opening Day 1973, it became the AL's only field fully covered by artificial turf. It didn't take long for the Royals to find they could use those 81 home games to their advantage by concentrating on speed, defense and pitching on the bouncy turf surrounded by distant walls.
"We were tailored to play in that ballpark," said Dennis Leonard, the only three-time 20-game winner in club history. "You look up and down our lineup, and we had a lot of guys with a lot of speed. We had guys who could hit it in the gaps and took advantage of the field. The Royals did a good job of putting that team together."
On the field, the Royals liked rangy infielders and outfielders who could cover acres.
"It was definitely a home-field advantage for us, because a lot of teams hated it and didn't understand it," White said. "They didn't understand that when the weather's cool the ball didn't bounce as high, and the hotter the weather is, the higher it's going to bounce. So we were able to exploit a lot of teams on the basepaths. We always felt we were at least 90 feet better than anything else coming in there."
Leonard noted that the springy turf also caused the Royals' pitchers to give up more hits, but their fielders knew better how to handle it.
"The thing I remember most is that visiting teams didn't know how to play it, especially when it got wet," Leonard said. "If we gave up a ball in the gap, our outfielders would just run back to the wall, wouldn't try to cut it off and at least hold 'em to a double.
"But it was pretty hilarious to watch some of the teams come in, and that ball skipped pretty quick off that wet turf, and in those days, we had a lot of inside-the-park home runs. It became an advantage."
Of course, the ersatz turf made for some drawbacks. White remembered that on dives, the turf tended to grab your jersey, and you'd bang your chin so hard you'd be dazed. Until special shoes came along, players would file down their spikes to avoid turning an ankle. And, oh, was it ever hot on those midsummer afternoon games.
"Al Zych, the clubhouse guy for eight million years, had a bucket of ice sitting there for us," Mayberry recalled. "We wore spikes and we came in about the sixth inning and we were sweatin' like hogs -- A.O. [Amos Otis], me, Frank, Cookie [Rojas]. And we'd put our feet in -- ssssssssssss -- I mean, it was so hot. And if you didn't put your feet in there and you'd touch your spikes, it'd burn your finger. It was something."
The hard turf took its toll on some Royals' knees. George Brett, in particular, thought his many knee problems could be traced to pounding on the turf. A year after he retired in 1993, the turf was replaced by natural grass.
For a time, from 1995 through 2003, the fences from bullpen-to-bullpen were moved 10 feet closer to home plate. That made it easier for home run hitters and tougher on pitchers. But the latest renovations retain the old distances that gave the original park one of its trademarks -- vastness.
Ex-Royals catcher and manager John Wathan recalled that, when the team returned home from a trip, you could always hear Mayberry.
"I still remember Big John coming off a road trip and he'd hit a few home runs," Wathan said. "He'd always be in the back of the bus and, as we're going down that hill to Gate No. 1, he'd say, 'Here we are again, boys! Back to the Grand Canyon.'"
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.