While watching a TV sports show early one morning last week during a dialysis treatment, it was mentioned that the Kansas City Royals (my favorite baseball team) were getting ready to begin their 50th season as an American League franchise. I have been right along on that half century every step of the way, being one of those in the original group of Royals’ fans. Certainly, the highlights have been the two World Series championships (1985, 2015). During my own 50-year career as a journalist, one of my favorite columns centered on a KC player who in the maiden season for the franchise was selected for the American League’s rookie-of-the year award. That particular writing is among my multi-compilation collection titled A Half Century of Writings. The column, written 31 years ago, follows:
(October 17, 1987)
THIS WORK ETHIC BELONGS IN WORLD SERIES
By Bernie Gilmer, Editor, The Belvidere Daily Republican
The field generals on the diamond battlefields today are Whitey Herzog and someone called Tom Kelly. It’s hard to say, but I would be willing to bet a World Series ticket that neither has been down the road a piece from St. Robert, Missouri.
Many generals and their troops have journeyed down the chute from St. Robert to the entrance of Fort Leonard Wood, a sprawling military reservation where Army recruits and “weekend warriors” have had occasions to pitch their footlockers over the years. I pitched mine on that miserable post – somehow Army bases never are listed in travel brochures – twice back in the late 1960s, although the brief, two-week summer camps on behalf of the United States Army Reserves hardly qualified the footlockers as dust collectors.
The summer outing of 1969 did prove to be something special for someone like myself, who found helping to run a mess (dining) hall and serving Army chow less than a career opportunity at that time. It offered a study in human nature as the Army tends to provide a melting pot of the nation’s populace. And each individual element of this olive-drab society does pass through the mess hall for his daily allotment of sustenance, as it were.
Some soldiers pass through mess halls in other than voluntary fashion. Some are placed on kitchen police – a glorified term for duties that include busboys, floor moppers, potato peelers, pots and pans scrubbers and the like. It’s one of the Army’s punishments – do something wrong and you end up on K.P.
That brings us to the summer of 1969. Our unit reported one Saturday morning through the gate at Fort Leonard Wood, settled into some clapboard-sided barracks and promptly got assigned work quarters. For a handful of us, that meant buying (signing for) a mess hall and breaking open some rations for upcoming feasts.
Now that same weekend the Kansas City Royals, playing their first season as an expansion entry in the American League (Charlie O. Finley had vacated his Athletics to Oakland), were involved in a homestand at Municipal Stadium and playing for the most part like the expansion team they were.
The lone bright spot for the Royals was left fielder Lou Piniella, a surprising development as a rookie since he had graced and disgraced several minor league teams since being signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1962 at age 18. Piniella was the first Royal ever to get a base hit, going four for four on Kansas City’s opening day in 1969. He became an instant hero in the Heartland of America, an area where many fans still consider the St. Louis Cardinals the local team and any Kansas City organization merely a farm club of the New York Yankees.
Piniella also became the first Royals’ player to ever scrub pots and pans at Fort Leonard Wood. A member of a reserve component in Kansas City, Piniella elected to play those weekend games and consequently, along with Royals’ pitcher Roger Nelson (a Cincinnati castoff), reported to summer camp a couple moons late. And the two – Piniella and Nelson – promptly were slapped on K.P., which places them under the command of the mess hall cooks. It was only for a day, but what a thrill for someone like me, who is a charter member of the original Royals fandom. Stop by my office and I’ll show you my Royals pennant.
It was also a study in human nature.
Nelson was assigned to peeling potatoes, which he took to with little enthusiasm. He whiled away most of the time tossing potatoes in the air with one hand and attempting to slice them with a knife in the other hand.
Piniella’s approach was quite different. Scrubbing pots and pans is considered the dirtiest, filthiest job in the mess hall – soiling his Army fatigues way before daybreak (K.P. begins about 4 o’clock in the morning) – and when he left that evening (15 hours later) every pot and pan was washed and left hanging in its proper place.
It’s little wonder that few people can relate whatever happened to Nelson and his baseball career. As for Piniella, he went on to become the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1969. Not too bad for a guy who had lumbered through the minors for seven years with a temper as hot as his West Tampa, Florida, upbringing.
After being signed by Cleveland, Piniella began in Class D with the Selma (Alabama) Cloverleafs. Then – in November of 1962 – he was selected in the Minor League draft by the Washington Senators and the next July traded to the Baltimore Orioles … and then swapped back to Cleveland. During these years, it is possible most players would have found a nice nail for retiring the spikes. Oh, Piniella got cups of coffee with Baltimore (four games in 1964) and Cleveland in 1968 (six games), but never collected a hit.
But Piniella didn’t quit. He kept right on scrubbing. In the expansion draft ahead of the 1969 season – when the Kansas City and Seattle franchises were added to the American League – Piniella had wanted to be picked by the Royals because he had once played for their manager, Joe Gordon. Seattle had the first pick and selected Chico Salmon. Kansas City then plucked Roger Nelson, the pitcher. Piniella then went to the Pilots. But not for long because Piniella then was traded to Kansas City for outfielder Steve Whitaker.
Piniella got off fast with Kansas City. In his first spring training game, he homered off Steve Carlton. And he opened the 1969 season as the Royals lead-off batter and responded with four straight hits. The rest is history. He quickly went from a $12,500 a year rookie ballplayer to become an American League star. Then ahead of the 1974 campaign, the pipeline from Kansas City to New York (the Yankees) vacuumed up Piniella and he became one of the top hitters in baseball for the next 10 years.
And one of his mess hall cooks at Fort Leonard Wood continued to be one of his biggest fans. I always rooted for Piniella to go four for four as long as the Yankees lost. A true Royals’ fan also is a true Yankee hater.
Of course, Piniella two seasons back replaced Billy Martin as manager of the Yankees. And since the Royals aren’t in the 1987 World Series beginning today, I wish the Yankees and their manager were (nothing against Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals or Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins).
But it is only Piniella who has made that trek from St. Robert to Fort Leonard Wood. I only hope Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner knows how well Piniella scrubs pots and pans.