KC Royals: This player started club’s hitting history

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

When reviewing the history of all the hitters who have played for the KC Royals, everything begins with their first game, their first at-bat, and their first hitter.

Pitcher Wally Bunker threw the Royals’ first pitch when they opened play April 8, 1969, and right fielder Bob Oliver caught a fly ball in right field to record the first out of a 1-2-3 top of the first inning for Bunker. Then, when the Royals came to the plate for the first time ever in the bottom of the inning, the team had its first plate appearance, first hit, first extra base hit and first run, all produced by the same player.

That player was a man with no major league hits before 1969 and who joined the squad just a week before Opening Day. That same player eventually broke the hearts of Royals fans in the playoffs with another team.

That player was Lou Piniella.

The KC Royals’ Lou Piniella traveled an extensive route to the majors.

By the time Piniella led off the bottom of the first inning that April day, he was with his fifth organization and eighth year of professional baseball. Piniella signed with Cleveland in 1962 as a free agent (the first amateur draft wasn’t until 1965) after his career at the University of Tampa.

In that year’s expansion draft, Piniella was picked by the Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers). The Senators sent Piniella to Baltimore two years later as the player to be named later from a previous trade and he made his big league debut as a pinch hitter, grounding out in his only at-bat of the season.

After an undistinguished season in the minor leagues in 1965, Piniella was shipped back to Cleveland in March 1966. Three more minor league seasons and a six-game, 0-for-5 stint in the majors in 1968 later, Piniella was picked in another expansion draft, this time by the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers).

Lou Piniella began leaving his mark from his first game with the KC Royals.

Piniella never played for the Pilots—the Royals acquired him in exchange for John Gelnar and Steve Whitaker shortly before Opening Day. Unintimidated by his role in team history, Piniella led off Kansas City’s inaugural inning with a double against future Royal Tom Hall of the Twins. Jerry Adair followed with a single to score Piniella, and the new team was on its way to a 4-3 debut win. Piniella finished the 12-inning victory with four hits, a walk and an RBI.

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By season’s end, Piniella ranked third on the team in home runs (11), second in RBIs (68), and led the club with 21 doubles, 139 hits and a .282 average. He also took home the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Over five seasons, Piniella posted a .286/.333/.409 slash line for the Royals, placing his name among the leaders in most offensive categories early in the team’s history.

A lopsided trade put Lou Piniella on the other side of the KC Royals.

Following the 1973 season in which Piniella dropped off to a .250 average, the Royals shipped him to the Yankees with pitcher Ken Wright for pitcher Lindy McDaniel.

Wright pitched only three games with the Yankees before they traded him to Philadelphia. McDaniel, already 38 prior to the 1974 season, spent two years in Kansas City, going 6-5 with a 3.75 ERA in 78 games.

Piniella, meanwhile, went on to play 11 seasons with New York and became a fan favorite and key cog for a squad that beat the Royals in three of four chances in the American League Championship Series on its way to four World Series appearances and two titles.

Piniella hit .295 in 1,037 games as a Yankee and, per Baseball Reference, hit .280 with four home runs and 35 RBIs in 89 regular season games against Kansas City. Perhaps more importantly, he posted 14 hits in the three ALCS when the Yankees knocked out the Royals, including seven hits in 1977.

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Many younger fans remember Lou Piniella as a volatile but good manager with the Yankees, Reds,  Mariners, Rays and Cubs who won a World Series title with Cincinnati. But for the first five seasons of Royals baseball, he was a main contributor and the first hitter in club history.