We’ve heard a lot about losing streaks this season. In April, the Royals lost 12 straight games, including 10 in a row at home. You’ve heard on the news that this was the third longest streak in club history with a 19 game losing streak in 2005 topping the list of all-time worst Royals performances.
Only one team in major league history has lost as many as 23 consecutive baseball games – the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies. The ’61 Phillies were a historically bad team that finished the season 47-107. But what would you say if I told you the Royals also had an equally appalling streak of futility, unrivalled in the annals of Major League baseball? It’s true, I wish it wasn’t, but it is.
The Royals 1969 inaugural season was a great success in almost every way. Our Boys in Blue opened the year with four wins in their first five games, and finished the season winning five of their last six for a 69-93 record, good for 4th place ahead of both the White Sox and Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers.) Lou Piniella was voted the Rookie of the Year. This rag tag group cobbled together mostly from expansion draft picks or purchased outright from other teams exceeded expectations and put the baseball world on notice that Kansas City’s baseball team was no pushover.
For all the excitement of the new season and the anticipation of future successes to come, there was one blemish that I still clearly remember 43 years later. The story of THE losing streak began with a win on May 9, 1969 – 43 years ago today. The Royals visited the Orioles for the very first time at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Royals rookie pitcher, Dick Drago started and finished the game, surrendering only 4 hits and 2 runs to the talented Orioles who featured future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, as well as Boog Powell, Mark Belanger and company. The Orioles finished the 1969 season at 109-53 in first place in the East, but lost to the Miracle Mets in the 1969 World Series. It was a big deal for an expansion baseball team to trot into Memorial stadium and hand the mighty Orioles a loss in their very first game. Unfortunately, it would be the last loss the Orioles suffered at the hands of the Royals for a very, very long time.
For the remainder of the 1969 season, the Royals and Orioles played 11 more times. Every single one of them was tallied as a win for the Orioles, including two shutouts. The Royals came close a couple of times with two one run losses, but for the most part the contests were lopsided.
Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, occurred in 1970. The Orioles tallied 12 more consecutive wins over the Royals. It almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy – the Royals expected to lose when they played the Orioles, so they did exactly that.
The 1971 Royals finished above .500 for the first time and were becoming a well respected team. Many players from the inaugural season had moved on and made way for a wave of talented athletes that would lead the Royals into their glory years. On April 30, 1971, the first time the Orioles and Royals faced each other in the young season, Baltimore was confronted with a very different team than they had faced the previous two years. Taking the field for the Royals that day were Amos Otis, Freddie Patek, Cookie Rojas, Lou Piniella, and Bob Oliver. No longer were the Royals a rag tag group of castaways seeking respectability. They were now a team on par with the best of Major League baseball.
The game was hard fought with the Royals taking a 4-3 lead into the top of the 9th inning. With Tom Burgmeier on the mound, Brooks Robinson singled and made his way around the diamond to score the tying run. Many thought this game would end the same way the previous 23 meetings of the Royals vs Orioles had ended, with Baltimore finding a way to pull out the victory, as good teams always seem to do.
With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Paul Schaal singled past 3rd base. Gail Hopkins’ pinch hit single pushed Schaal to 3rd. The shortest man in professional baseball, 5’5” Freddie Patek and his .253 batting average came to the plate with the game tied, two outs, and the winning run on 3rd base. And then, just like David bravely facing Goliath, Patek promptly drove a single to the right centerfield gap. And with that, the Royals longest ever streak of frustration and futility was over.
The following morning on May 1, 1971, the sports section of the Kansas City Star described the feelings of relieved Royals fans with the banner headline, “23 Skidoo.” The streak was over and the Royals had pointed themselves in the right direction for a season that would set them on a path toward playoff and World Series success within a few years.
Character is built on the back of challenge and adversity. No doubt these early Royals had become well versed in all aspects of patience and perseverance during their first few years. In the end, Royals fans were rewarded with a team that rooted for each other and knew the meaning of teamwork, the benefits of common goals, and the payoff of hard work.
Fast forward to 2012, and as Yogi Berra would say, I believe it’s déjà vu all over again.
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Topics: AL Central, Amos Otis, Baltimore Orioles, Baseball, Bob Oliver, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Cookie Rojas, Dick Drago, Frank Robinson, Freddie Patek, Gail Hopkins, Kansas City, Kansas City Royals, KC, KC Royals, Lou Piniella, Mark Belanger, MLB, Orioles, Paul Schaal, Royals, Tom Burgmeier, Yogi Berra