KC Royals rewind: The history-making 81st victory

(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

The 1971 KC Royals won 81 games, a mark that usually just guarantees a break-even season. But for the ’71 team and the franchise, the 81st win was much more significant.

To many fans, especially younger ones, the names of the 1971 KC Royals may be unrecognizable, lost in over a half-century of Royals’ rosters and memories. But the ’71 team made history on September 18 of that year, winning a game with no bearing on anything other than the combatants’ records.

Although they’d finish second in the AL West, the Royals at 80-70 were already eliminated from postseason eligibility and would ultimately finish 15 games behind the Oakland Athletics, who would win their first title of any type since Charlie Finley moved them from Kansas City after the 1967 season. KC’s opponents for the day, the Minnesota Twins, were floundering 10 games below .500 and suffered elimination from the West race long before the first pitch.

That the contest was irrelevant to the Division race, however, isn’t the point. Witnessed by 9,811 fans who braved chilly weather to attend it, the game turned out to be perhaps the most significant for the Royals at that point in their history. Because a game at Baltimore had been rained out and wouldn’t be played, the Royals’ 4-2 victory was their 81st of the season and guaranteed the franchise’s first winning season in just their third year.

And with it, the Royals achieved a winning campaign sooner than any previous major league expansion club.

KC took the field that day with a smattering of players still immediately familiar to even the most casual Royals’ fan–Freddie Patek led off at shortstop, Amos Otis hit third and played center field, Lou Piniella was in left and hit cleanup and Al Fitzmorris started on the mound. Royals perhaps less recognizable now included Paul Schaal at third, Bob Oliver in right, Dennis Paepke behind the plate, Chuck Harrison at second and Bobby Floyd at shortstop.

Minnesota’s lineup included Hall of Famers Rod Carew at second and Harmon Killebrew, a future Royal, at first. Jim Kaat, whose 283 career wins curiously haven’t warranted Hall induction, started on the mound (Steve Luebber, the current pitching coach for the Royals’ Wilmington affiliate, relieved him later); Jim Nettles, another Royal-to-be, started in center.

The Royals struck first. Patek, in his first season with the Royals after an offseason six-player trade landed him in KC, tripled to lead off against Kaat; Schaal, perhaps best known as the Royal who eventually gave way to George Brett but a fine third baseman in his own right, followed with a walk. Otis’ double scored Patek to give KC a 1-0 lead.

The Twins got a triple of their own from Carew with one out in the bottom half of the first and tied the game when Carew scored on Killebrew’s grounder to Patek. Minnesota took its only lead the next inning when Leo Cardenas scored on former KC Athletic Phil Roof‘s grounder to Floyd.

Kansas City got all it would need for the win off Kaat in the fourth. Piniella led off with a walk, Oliver doubled, and Paepke poked a single to left to score them both, giving the Royals a 3-2 lead. He went to second on left fielder Steve Brye‘s error, then scored when Fitzmorris, batting in the pre-designated hitter era, singled to right. (For a pitcher, Fitzmorris was fair at the plate–he hit .242 in his Royals’ career, including .250 in 1971 and .290 in ’70).

Fitzmorris held the Twins scoreless the rest of the way to notch his seventh–and last–win of the season (he finished 7-5 with a 4.17 ERA) and his second complete game of the campaign.

Paepke’s two RBIs led KC; seven players had one hit apiece with Otis, Oliver and Harrison all collecting doubles.

For good measure, the KC Royals won four more games in 1971 to finish 85-76. But the victory over the Twins gave them their first winning season and made them the first expansion team to achieve a winning campaign so soon. (The feat stood until the Arizona Diamondbacks won 100 games in their second season).

And for the record, the Royals finished second in the AL West, won 43 games in the first half of the season and 42 in the second, and had only one losing month. Otis, who still ranks in the Top 10 in several team offensive categories, led the team with 15 home runs, 79 RBIs, 52 stolen bases and a .301 average; Patek became the first Royal to hit for the cycle; Dick Drago‘s 17 wins, Ted Abernathy‘s 23 saves and Tom Burgmeier‘s 1.73 ERA paced the pitchers. Schaal became the first Royal to play in all of the club’s games in a season.

Their first winning campaign in club history was also the first of seven the Royals would achieve in the ’70s and helped set the stage for the three straight Division titles they won from 1976-78.

Next. Momentum shifts could hurt 3 Royals. dark

That’s it for this installment of “KC Royals Rewind.” We’ll have another one for you soon.