Cookie and Freddie. To a little kid just learning about baseball, they seemed more like cartoon characters or puppets than ballplayers.
Cookie Rojas was small, wore horn-rimmed glasses and seemed to bounce around the field. Since I didn’t even know what Cuba was, he just seemed strangely “foreign” to me.
And if Cookie seemed small, Freddie Patek was downright tiny. Nicknamed “The Flea,” Patek was probably shorter than the 5’5” that he was listed as, and he couldn’t have weighed 150 pounds.
I first started watching baseball in the late 1970s, just in time to catch the end of Rojas’ career, so by then Frank White was the man at second base – winning gold gloves and going to the All-Star Game every season. But this name continued to pop up as I watched or listened to the Royals’ broadcasts – Cookie Rojas.
The way they talked about him, he must have been something I remember thinking to myself.
Patek was in the starting lineup when I started paying attention, but I was already a fan of UL Washington. I didn’t like it that they kept playing Patek and treating him like he was something special.
But last week I did a lot of digging to compile a look back at the shortstop position throughout Royals history for I70baseball.com. What I realized is that I had come along a little too late to fully appreciate what Rojas and Patek had meant to the franchise. So I decided to take a look back at the beloved middle-infield tandem of the Royals’ early days.
As a fledgling expansion team, KC acquired Cookie Rojas in a trade with St. Louis in the middle of 1970. Rojas, 31 at the time, was already a respected veteran, having spent several seasons with the Phillies.
After the 1970 season, the Royals made another trade to acquire yet another National League infielder. Patek came in a six-player deal with the Pirates. Patek was 26 and had played three partial seasons for the Pirates.
Whether it was the exuberance of the expansion environment, the ballpark, or the chemistry between the two, something clicked. The team suddenly became a contender in 1971, due in no small part to the teaming of Rojas and Patek in the middle infield. The team, which had not previously cracked the 70-win barrier, bolted to an 85-76 mark and second place in the AL West.
In the season, Rojas batted .300, hit 6 home runs and drove in 59 in just 115 games and was named an All-Star. Patek, meanwhile, never known as a hitter, had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .267 with 6 home runs and 36 RBIs. The pesky Patek sparked the offense with 49 stolen bases and led the AL with 11 triples.
In the days when small, agile infielders were counted on for defense and offense was just a bonus, the two Royals infielders were so appreciated that they both received votes for MVP that season. And best of all, the two helped give KC a degree of credibility. No longer would this be a sad-sack collection of talent-less cast-offs.
Rojas continued to hit well the next several seasons. Patek was more of a light-hitter, but still the admiration for the two continued.
Although he hit just .212 in 1972, Patek was named an All-Star, as was Rojas, who batted .261 with 3 homers and 53 RBIs. Imagine the pride the franchise must have felt in seeing its middle-infield tandem take their place amongst the All-Stars of that season. In that celebrity exhibition, Rojas became the first non-American born player to homer for the American League.
In 1973, Rojas had the best offensive season of his career, batting .276 with 6 homers and 69 RBIs and being named an All-Star for the third consecutive time. Patek had what for him was a pretty good seasons at the plate – .234, 5 HR, 45 RBI. But a youngster made an appearance in the KC infield that year – 22-year-old Frank White. White actually played three times as many games at short as at second that season.
Rojas was named an All-Star for the fourth straight season in 1974. He batted .271 with 6 homers and 60 RBIs that year, but the team took a dip to below .500 and White began to see action at second, short and third base.
1975 was a year of transition for the middle infield. White played 68 games at second, 42 at short. The team went 91-71, but the 36 year-old Rojas’ numbers began to dip.
White took over second base full time in 1976, beginning a new era of great infield play in KC. Patek would make the All-Star game in 1976 and 1978. White meanwhile would win the Gold Glove from 1977 to 1982 and make four All-Star appearances during that span. Rojas played out the 1977 season before retiring.
By that time I was watching every game, spoiled by the play of White at second and entertained by the athletic Washington, toothpick hanging out of his mouth, at short. But the names of Patek and Rojas continued to resonate in Royals’ lore. The championship-caliber teams of the late 1970s to mid 1980s would owe a debt of gratitude to the scappy little infielders that helped build the franchise.
Cookie and Freddie. They were better than any cartoon or puppet show. They were All-Stars. And they were the foundation for the great Royals teams to be built upon.