The KC Royals’ first offseason came before free agency. Trades and drafts were the order of the day. One great deal changed the club.
The winter of 1969-70 was something new for the KC Royals. In a limited sense, it was the club’s second offseason, preceded only by the formative fall and winter months of 1968 during which Ewing Kauffman’s front office, with the Royals’ first Opening Day months away, assembled Kauffman’s very first team.
But the club’s second winter was its first after a season played. Like any team coming off its inaugural campaign, the Royals were a work in progress and the time between season’s end and the start of spring training gave them the chance to retool and add new parts.
It was a time bearing little resemblance to this just-beginning 2020-21 offseason. With free agency several years away, baseball’s reserve clause still bound players to their teams even after their contracts expired. Big league ballplayers couldn’t shop themselves on an open market, making trades the primary mechanism of player movement.
The system left fans starving for baseball little to follow or look forward to—other than an occasional blockbuster deal, minor or moderately important deals were the best winter action they could hope for. And unlike today, when free agent frenzy dominates baseball media from November until Opening Day, coverage of offseason deals in 1969 and ’70 was primarily reactive, with trade news typically coming only after deals were made.
So it was that there wasn’t much for fans fodder when Kansas City’s front office began tinkering with the one-year old Royals. The first move came Oct. 21 and hardly slaked anyone’s thirst for baseball action—the club traded away pitcher Dave Wickersham, whose one season made him one of a handful of players to have played for both the Royals and the Kansas City A’s. The deal sent Wickersham, who in 34 relief appearances went 2-3 with five saves and a 3.96 ERA, to Atlanta for Ron Tompkins, another A’s alum who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1965.
The Wickersham trade was only slightly more interesting than the rest of the team’s mostly mundane pre-spring training transactions. In those days, baseball had three winter drafts—the Rule 5 draft, another for minor leaguers, and the other for winter graduates of high school and college. (The main amateur draft came later in the year). The KC Royals picked up Ken Wright in the Rule 5, Aurelio Monteagudo (another ex-Athletic) in the minor league draft, and Greg Minton and Jim Wohlford in the amateur.
The only big deal, the significance of which would soon become clear, came Dec. 3. That’s when Amos Otis became a Royal.
The trade initially seemed remarkable only because Kansas City gave up Joe Foy to get Otis (and Bob Johnson). Foy joined the Royals via the previous year’s expansion draft after establishing himself as a fixture in Boston’s infield. The new Royal immediately contributed: he hit .271 with 11 homers and 71 RBIs. (He was also the team’s first third baseman and stole its first base).
But Foy fit the New York Mets’ need for a third baseman and the Royals liked Otis despite his .151 average in 48 1969 Mets games.
The two clubs did the deal and it changed the Royals for years to come. Manager Charlie Metro gave center field to Otis from the start in 1970 and he staked permanent claim to it immediately. Otis made the All-Star team, hit .301 with 11 homers and 58 RBIs and stole 33 bases. His 36 doubles were best in his new league.
Otis played 13 more seasons for the KC Royals, made four more All-Star squads, won three Gold Gloves, and became the best center fielder in club history. He ranks among the best in several club offensive categories, including second in stolen bases (340), runs scored (1,074) and walks (739), and third in hits (1,977), triples (65), home runs (193), RBIs (992), at-bats (7,050) and games played (1,891). Otis is, of course, in the Royals Hall of Fame.
And it all came about via the club’s first major deal, the transactional highlight of its otherwise ho-hum first offseason.
Kansas City didn’t need free agency to improve its team during the winter of 1969-70. All but one of the club’s moves were minor by today’s standards; the one that really mattered paid dividends for years.
One trade made the KC Royals’ first offseason a success. Time will tell how the club fares this winter.