KC Royals Rewind: Before Billy Butler, there was Bill

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Former KC Royals first baseman and designated hitter Billy Butler is beloved by the team’s fans. But ‘Country Breakfast’ isn’t the only Bill Butler to play for the club.

Billy Butler rightfully endeared himself to KC Royals fans in the eight seasons he spent with the club as a first baseman and designated hitter. Sometimes lost in the memory of his home runs is his ability to otherwise handle the bat well, a skill proven by his .295 KC average; “Country Breakfast” was a better player than some gave him credit for. He left for Oakland after the 2014 season.

But he wasn’t the first Butler to play for the Royals, or even the first you could call Bill Butler. That distinction belongs to a pitcher who made his Royals and major league debuts some 38 years before Billy Butler made his in 2007.

Bill Butler became a Royal because the Detroit Tigers didn’t protect him in the two-stage October 1968 expansion draft that stocked the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres on Day One and the Royals and Seattle Pilots on Day Two. The Expos and Padres picked from a pool created by existing National League teams; KC and Seattle drew players from the American.

The Royals had the first AL pick and chose Roger Nelson, a pitcher Baltimore deemed expendable and, several picks later, selected the Tigers’ Butler, who’d made him their 37th round choice in the 1965 amateur draft.

Butler had four minor league seasons under his belt at the time of the draft . He’d made it as high as Double A and accumulated a 34-29 record pitching exclusively as a reliever.

The KC Royals, though, had other plans for Butler and used him primarily as a starter in their, and his, inaugural major league season. The left-hander joined Dick Drago as the only rookie in a rotation that included Wally Bunker, Jim Rooker, Roger Nelson, and, occasionally, Mike Hedlund.

Kansas City manager Joe Gordon wasted little time introducing Butler to high-leverage big league baseball–to keep the club close in a 3-2 game against Minnesota, he replaced Steve Jones with Butler to start the eighth inning of the club’s second game. (The Royals were 1-0 at that moment after beating the Twins 4-3 in a 13-inning contest the day before).

Butler drew as his first two major league assignments feared Minnesota slugger and future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew and Graig Nettles, a then little known third-year player who went on to greater fame with the Yankees. He got Killebrew to fly out but Nettles singled before giving way to pinch-runner Cesar Tovar, who KC catcher Jim Campanis gunned down when he tried stealing second.

The Royal rookie then walked Frank Quilici before fanning Leo Cardenas on a called third strike to end the inning. KC tied the game in its half of the frame to increase the pressure on Butler.

He responded perfectly by retiring the side in the ninth; after the Royals didn’t score, Butler gave up a single to lead off the 10th but faced the minimum after a double play and popup. He then mowed down the Twins in order in the 11th and 12th before giving way to Moe Drabowsky for the 13th.

KC won the game in the 17th when Lou Piniella walked off Minnesota with a two-out single. For his part, Butler was masterful in his big league debut–he struck out six of the 16 batters he faced, gave up only one hit and walked just one in five scoreless innings.

Butler’s finest moment of his rookie campaign came August 9 when he spun the KC Royals’ first one-hitter to beat the Indians. He struck out eight to even his record at 6-6.

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Butler finished that first season 9-10, just three wins shy of Bunker’s team-leading 12 victories. His 10 losses were the fewest among KC’s regular starters, although Hedlund lost six as a part-time member of the rotation. Butler led the team with four shutouts, paced it in strikeouts and finished with a 3.90 ERA.

He pitched two more seasons for the Royals, going 4-12 in 1970 and 1-2 in ’71. Cleveland acquired Butler in a cash transaction in ’72 and he finished his career in 1977 after three campaigns with Minnesota. Butler was 23-35 in seven seasons.

Butler worked in the offseason for the crews that built Royals Stadium and met Billy Butler in a trip to the ballpark in 2011 well after it had been renamed Kauffman Stadium.

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Bill Butler was a member of the KC Royals well before Billy Butler was born. Like Billy, Bill gave KC some good moments and memories before he left to play elsewhere.