The 1971 day the KC Royals became first-time winners

(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Expansion teams aren’t supposed to be good, or even much more than curious novelties, during their first few seasons. Fortunately for Kansas City fans still smarting from the Athletics’ departure after the 1967 season, the KC Royals were interesting from the start.

The club won its first-ever game, a riveting 12-inning affair at old Municipal Stadium in 1969, then finished a surprising fourth in the six team American League West with a 69-93 record. They cooled a bit the next year (65-97) but still tied for fourth in the West.

Then came 1971. The Royals, eagerly awaiting the completion of their new ballpark a few miles to the east, still played at Municipal. Original Royal Lou Piniella remained with the team, Amos Otis, Cookie Rojas and Paul Splittorff were in their second campaigns with KC, Fred Patek came over from Pittsburgh, Dick Drago was the ace of the rotation, and Ted Abernathy, one of the first pitchers to make closing his specialty, was playing the next-to-last season of a big league career he started in 1955.

And it was the season the Royals, still in their baseball infancy, broke through. Playing one game short of a full 162-contest slate, the club won 85 times to earn its first winning season.

How did they get Win No. 81?

A good start helped put the KC Royals in position for a winning record.

That the club was headed for its first winning season seemed plausible no later than the end of June. The Royals split 22 April games, went 12-11 in May, and then 15-12 in June to head into July 38-34. Things tightened in July, though, as the club suffered its first losing month (14-16), but it remained two games over .500 with two months left.

A good August—18-12—meant Kansas City needed 11 wins to clinch a winning campaign.

It took a victory on the road to give the 1971 KC Royals a winning season.

The magic victory could have come at home—Kansas City beat Oakland Sept. 14 for its 79th win and had two games left at home before a six-game road trip to Minnesota and California. But the Angels swept the final pair of homestand games, leaving the Royals two wins short of 81.

The club arrived in Minnesota for three games at Metropolitan Stadium and wasted no time putting itself in position for Win 81, sneaking past the Twins 2-1 in the opener behind Mike Hedlund’s stellar complete game effort and RBI singles by Patek and Paul Schaal.

The stage was set.

With the Royals needing just one more victory, Manager Bob Lemon sent Al Fitzmorris, 6-4, against future Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, 12-12, on a chilly Saturday afternoon at The Met. Kaat, typically hard on Kansas City, gave up a first-inning run on an Amos Otis double, then retired the Royals in order in the second and third.

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The Royals struck again in the fourth. Kaat walked leadoff man Piniella, who Bob Oliver doubled to third. Catcher Dennis Paepke slapped a single to score Piniella, then Oliver and, after first baseman Chuck Harrison and second sacker Bobby Floyd grounded out, pitcher Fitzmorris—the DH wasn’t implemented until 1973—singled home Paepke to give the Royals, and himself, a 4-2 lead.

And that’s the way it ended. After giving the Twins single runs in the first two frames, Fitzmorris shut them down the rest of the way. He allowed only four more base runners and finished with a complete game victory in improving his record to 7-4. (He’d end the season 7-5, and pitched five more seasons for Kansas City).

Floyd and Schaal were the only Royals held hitless by Kaat and relievers Steve Luebber (now pitching coach at Quad Cities, Kansas City’s High-A farm club) and Bob Gebhard. Patek tripled and Oliver and Otis doubled; Paepke, Fitzmorris, Piniella and Harrison all singled.

So it was the Royals assured themselves of their first winning season. They slid a bit after that, losing six of their last 10 to finish 85-76, but still took second place in the West, 16 games behind Oakland and 6.5 games ahead of Chicago.

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The Royals enjoyed their first winning season in 1971. Many more have followed.