Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images
Birth of the cool in KC.
The careers of Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan, two of the great baseball players of the 1970’s, overlapped from the very beginning. Otis was drafted in the fifth round by Boston in 1965. The New York Mets took Ryan in the twelfth round of the same draft. The Mets selected Otis away from the Red Sox in the 1966 Minor League Draft. Both players rose quickly through the Mets minor league system. Ryan making his debut on September 11, 1966 as a 19-year-old while Otis made his debut with New York about a year later, September 6, 1967 at the age of 20. The two had been teammates in 1967 at the Mets AAA affiliate in Jacksonville and again in 1968 with the big-league squad.
The scouting reports for the crop of 1966 rookies was brief:
Amos Otis – A versatile player. Can play infield or outfield. Good all-around ability. Bat is steady.
Nolan Ryan – Features fastball but needs to control it. Strong and big and must be broken in slowly.
Also, in that class of rookies were some other familiar names:
Hal McRae – Can hit with some power. Strong arm and knows business. Can make it.
Lou Piniella – Needs at least a year of experience but his power at bat is worth looking into.
Freddie Patek – Great speed, good power and fine potential. Can burn up the bases.
The Mets, after years of being a doormat, were suddenly flush with young talent, except at third base. They tried Otis at third, a position he could play, but did not like. Mets manager Gil Hodges clashed with Otis. Hodges was the epitome of an old-time player and thought Otis was lackadaisical. The truth is, Amos was smooth, and he made everything look easy. The great ones almost always do.
The Mets had declared Otis untouchable, turning down a trade with Atlanta for Joe Torre in early 1969. Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis spent months working on Mets General Manager Johnny Murphy and finally convinced Murphy that he had the third baseman that the Mets needed in Joe Foy. On December 3, 1969, the Mets agreed to send Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson to Kansas City in exchange for the Royals third baseman Joe Foy.
Foy, who had been selected by the Royals with the fourth pick of the expansion draft, had performed well in his only season in Kansas City, slashing .262/.354/.370 with 11 home runs and 71 RBI.
Foy was not the answer at third for the Mets, even though he had a respectable season. He appeared in 99 games for New York in 1970 before the Washington Senators selected him in the Rule 5 draft. He played 41 games for Washington in 1971 before being released, his baseball career over.
Johnson, who played for seven seasons, had a career year with the Royals in 1970. He only went 8-13, but he started 26 games and threw 214 innings for the Royals, striking out a then club record 206 batters. It was good for 4.5 WAR.
During the winter meetings of 1970, Tallis sent Johnson, catcher Jim Campanis and shortstop Jackie Hernandez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Bruce Dal Canton, catcher Jerry May and shortstop Freddie Patek. Patek was a little miffed about going from a contender to an expansion team. Johnson and Hernandez did win a World Series title with the Bucs in 1971.
The amazing thing about this is what Cedric Tallis was able to do. He took a 1.5 WAR season by Joe Foy and turned that into almost 74 WAR on those two trades.
The June 1979 issue of Baseball Digest (remember that great little mag?) ranked the 20 worst trades of the 1970s. Kansas City was involved in four of the trades, all on the winning side. Number three was the Patek trade. Number nine was Tallis pilfering John Mayberry from Houston. Number fifteen was Tallis swiping Hal McRae from Cincinnati and number sixteen was new GM Joe Burke getting Darrell Porter from Milwaukee. The fourth-worst trade was the Mets sending Nolan Ryan to the Angels. More on that later.
To put those trades in better perspective, the March 1982 edition of Baseball Digest ranked the 15 worst trades of all time. All Time. The Ryan to Angels trade came in at #5. Amos Otis to the Royals garnered the #8 slot. You know how I feel about Tallis. The fact that he is not in the Royals Hall of Fame is borderline criminal. There should not be another inductee until this is rectified. The Royals’ success in the 1970s and 1980s was a result of Tallis’ genius. Joe Burke got most of the credit, but Tallis built those teams.
Back to Otis and Ryan. The Mets won the 1969 World Series, the Amazing Mets. Ryan pitched two innings in the Series. Otis was not on the postseason roster and didn’t get a ring, even though he played in 48 games that summer. His teammates did vote him a World Series share. Granted, Otis didn’t really distinguish himself, only hitting .151. Ryan pitched in 25 games, going 6-3 while giving up 60 hits and 53 walks in 89 innings of work.
Otis was off to a fresh start in Kansas City while Ryan labored for two more uneventful seasons in New York before the Mets, still desperate for a third baseman, sent Ryan and three non-descript teammates to the Angels for third baseman and former All-Star Jim Fregosi. Fregosi played in 146 games as a Met over parts of two seasons, while Ryan became Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
Ryan’s career with California lasted eight seasons. California, of course, was one of the Royals’ main Western division rivals, so they saw plenty of Ryan during his prime. And in his prime, he was something to see. Ryan won 19, 21 and 22 games his first three seasons in Anaheim and he was a workhorse, throwing a total of 942 innings those three summers. He also led the American League in strikeouts those three years, blowing away 329, 383 and 367 batters, respectively. He was also wild as hell, leading the league in walks with 157, 162 and 202 in those years. From 1972 to 1974, Ryan was one of the very few pitchers in the big leagues who could consistently throw 100+ MPH. Today you see a lot of pitchers who can hit triple digits. Ryan could hit triple digits the entire game. Plus, you never knew where the ball was going. For a batter, this had to be terrifying. I saw Ryan pitch in Kansas City in 1975 and was mesmerized by the blur that was his fastball. There were many times I thought, “well that sounded like a strike.”
Of the ten players that Ryan faced most often in his career, five played for Kansas City: George Brett, John Mayberry, Amos, Fred Patek and Darrell Porter.
Dick Allen and Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski hit Ryan well. Everyone else, not so much. Amos struggled against Ryan. In 103 plate appearances and 91 official at-bats, Otis collected only 19 hits, good for a paltry .209 average. Ryan struck Otis out 27 times, while Amos tagged Ryan for three home runs.
One of the biggest battles between these two titans took place on a cool evening, May 15, 1973. Ryan had retired 26 Royals and only Amos Otis stood between him and immortality. Ryan was sharp all night, only walking three Royals. Amos connected on a long drive to deep right-center that right fielder Ken Berry made an excellent running catch to preserve the no-hitter and end the game. Berry had been a defensive replacement in the seventh inning for former Royal star Bob Oliver. Otis remains convinced that had Oliver still been in right, his drive would have dropped for a hit. The no-no was the first ever in new Royals Stadium and the first of seven in Ryan’s career.
Amos Otis was born on April 26, 1947 in Mobile, Alabama. Mobile had a rich baseball history. Hank and Tommy Aaron, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, Ozzie Smith, Billy Williams, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Buddy Bradford Juan Pierre and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe all hailed from Mobile. Like many youngsters who grew up in Mobile, Amos’s idol was Henry Aaron. In fact, the two grew just a few blocks apart and Amos recalls his father introducing him to Henry once, but Amos was so awestruck he could barely get a word out.
When Amos arrived in Kansas City, Royals manager Charlie Metro pulled him aside in spring training and told him that he would be his center fielder. Amos played in 159 games that first season and his performance justified the Royals faith in him: .284/.353/.424 with 176 hits and an OPS+ of 115 as well as gold glove caliber defense in center. He earned the first of his five All-Star berths. He only made six errors in 407 chances and should have won a Gold Glove that season. The awards went to Ken Berry, Paul Blair and Mickey Stanley even though Amos handled 63 more chances than Berry and 76 more than Stanley. Gold Glove voters as we’ve seen, typically get it wrong on players by not giving them the award early in their career and giving it to players later in their career strictly on reputation.
That 1970 season kicked off a ten-year prime run for Otis in which he averaged 146 games a year while slashing .284/.354/.443 with 159 home runs, 753 RBI and 294 stolen bases. It remains one of the best decades of offensive performance in club history by any Kansas City player not named Brett.
During that nine-year run, Otis won three Gold Gloves and picked up MVP votes in five seasons including a third-place finish in 1973. He led the American league in doubles in 1970 and 1976 and stolen bases in 1971. Otis and Freddie Patek combined for 101 steals in 1971, the most by any teammates since Ray Chapman and Braggo Roth stole 103 for the Cleveland Indians back in 1917.
What makes Otis’ statistics even more impressive is that he complied many of them against Hall of Fame pitching. Of the ten pitchers Otis faced most in his career, six are ensconced in Cooperstown: Bert Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins and of course Nolan Ryan. Two other pitchers in that top ten were Vida Blue and Wilbur Wood, who combined for 373 career wins. Wood was a knuckleballer who instilled little fear in batters. Blue on the other hand was something else. In his prime, which overlapped that of Otis, from 1971 to 1978, he averaged 17 wins a year along with 178 strikeouts per season and a 2.78 ERA. Many players have said Blue was the toughest pitcher they faced in that era. Ten percent of Otis’ career plate appearances came against Hall of Fame pitchers. There were very few cheap at bats in those days.
Otis hit well against Jim Kaat, Larry Sorenson, Fritz Peterson and Bill “Spaceman” Lee but he absolutely owned Ross Grimsley (13 for 26) and Jackie Brown (13 for 23).
When selecting highlights for Otis, where do you start?
- He hit his first career home run on April 24, 1970 at Municipal against Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar.
- In May of 1970, Otis announced he was open for business by collecting 8 consecutive hits and getting on base 11 times in succession, both club records.
- His throw from center field to home plate in the 1970 All-Star game provided one of the mid-summer classics signature moments as Pete Rose ran over catcher Ray Fosse, injuring Fosse and giving the National League the win.
- On September 7, 1971 he stole five bases against the Milwaukee Brewers, the first time that had been accomplished in 44 seasons.
- On July 31, 1972, Otis stole home against…Nolan Ryan, which gave the Royals a 1-0 victory.
- On July 22, 1973 with two out in the ninth inning, facing Milwaukee’s Eduardo Rodriguez, Otis connected for his first walk off home run, a three-run jack to deep center.
- On September 11, 1976, Otis helps the Royals overcome a three-run, ninth inning deficit with a decisive three run bomb off Minnesota closer Bill “Soup” Campbell, to give the Royals an 8-6 victory.
- Royals fans got a scare in the off-season when GM Joe Burke proposes a trade that would send Otis and Cookie Rojas to Pittsburgh. Thankfully, and wisely, Rojas rejected the deal and it fell apart.
- September 12, 1977, Otis comes to the aid of eight young boys stranded by the Plaza flood, providing them food and shelter, then taking the boys home the next day. The storm resulted in 25 deaths in the metro area.
- On April 18, 1978, Otis hits the first grand slam of his career off Toronto’s Dave Lemancyzk.
- One of the more exciting moments of Otis’ career came on May 12, 1978 in a home game against the hated Yankees. The Royals entered the ninth trailing 3-2. Darrell Porter drew a two-out walk which prompted Billy Martin to bring in flame throwing Goose Gossage to face Otis. Amos ripped a Gossage fastball off the fence in right-center. Paul Blair and Reggie Jackson collided on the play while Amos steamed around the bases with the winning run on an inside the park jack while 33,061 fans roared their approval.
- Otis played well in his only World Series, going 11 for 23 (.478) against Philadelphia in 1980.
Speaking of the post-season, there are many who believe that Kansas City would have beaten the Yankees in the 1976 Championship Series had Otis not severely sprained his ankle in the first inning of Game One. Kansas City just couldn’t seem to get many breaks in those three series.
During his time in Kansas City, Otis was the epitome of cool. He rarely got flustered and was a fan favorite. I can still hear the crowd chanting A-O, A-O, A-O. One of my favorite pictures of Otis shows him and his family posed next to his Lincoln Continental, complete with an AO-26 vanity plate. There’s a bumper sticker on the car that says, “watch my ass, I’ll watch hers.” Classic Amos.
Eventually the end comes for all ball players and Otis was no different. Have you seen the GoDaddy commercial with the 80-ish year old woman strutting down the runway dressed like she’s 25? Her line is “age is an illusion.” No, its not. Age is a very real thing. It catches up to all of us, even to the lady on the GoDaddy commercial. She might be delusional and not realize it, but athletes do.
Most athletes hit that wall around the age of 32. A few are able to hold out longer. Otis had his last good season in 1982 at the age of 35. He hit .286 with 11 home runs and 88 RBI. He scuffed through 98 games in 1983, but the power in his bat was gone and Willie Wilson was biding his time as the next star in center field.
The Royals released Otis in November of 1983 and he hooked on with Pittsburgh. He played 40 games for the Pirates, hitting .165 before calling it a career. Otis spent 14 of his 17-year career in Kansas City. His final numbers were impressive: .277/.343/.425 with 2,020 hits, 193 home runs, 1,007 RBI and 341 stolen bases. At the time of his retirement, he was Kansas City’s all-time leader in runs, hits, home runs, total bases and RBI. He was second in doubles, extra base hits and stolen bases and third in triples. Otis and Steve Busby were elected to the Royals inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1986.