Posted on 09 December 2010.
There hasn’t been much to cheer or chant about around Kauffman over the last decade. The circumstances were much different four decades ago as baseball broke in the funkadelic 1970s with green plastic grass and much bigger hair. During those days, it was hard to make it to a game not featuring a chorus of enraged fans chanting in unison…
A hungry fan base surrounded the 1969 expansion Kansas City Royals. One of the first player’s die hard Royals fans latched onto was “AO,” center fielder Amos Otis. Otis played 14 years for Kansas City and was instrumental transforming an expansion club into a perennial pennant contender less than a decade later.
Otis, a Mobile, Alabama native, was a highly sought after prospect in high school. His graduation fatefully aligned with the inaugural MLB Amateur Draft in 1965. Despite participating with the Mets in scouting camps, the Red Sox drafted Otis as a shortstop in the fifth round.
At 18, Otis played his first year of professional baseball Rookie League, where he shifted to third base. In 1966, the Red Sox left Otis unprotected and the Mets seized the opportunity they had squandered a year earlier and drafted Otis in the 1966 Minor League Draft.
New York immediately promoted him to AAA and moved him into the outfield. The Mets quickly realized the potential Otis possessed. Met’s Farm Director and third base coach, Whitey Herzog, labeled Otis as “the best piece of property we’ve got.”
Otis, now 20, made his MLB debut during a 1967 September call-up. The Mets sent him back to AAA for 1968, but the front office had apparently taken Herzog’s sentiments to heart. In 1969, when the Braves were shopping catcher Joe Torre, GM Johnny Murphy refused to make a deal involving Otis, marking him as ‘untouchable.’
The Gold Glover had already made five All-Star squads, and because of Murphy’s unwillingness to part with Otis, went on to make four more All-Star appearances and win an MVP with St. Louis.
Mets Manager, Gil Hodges, already had his outfield penciled in for 1969. With a hole at third, the Mets felt it was time to debut their versatile prospect at the hot corner.
“I was a shortstop originally and played all positions in high school,” said Otis in an interview with Baseball Almanac’s Harold Friend. “The Mets wanted me to play third base. In 1969 they had Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, and Ron Swoboda in the outfield.
I was supposed to be the Opening Day third baseman that year but Gil Hodges, the Mets manager, thought that I would be too nervous and I didn’t play. I really wanted to play center field, not third because I had been an All-Star center fielder in the minors. I was one of the fastest players on the team so why did they want to put me a third base?”
The Mets quickly sent Otis back to AAA in search of a big league third baseman. Their eyes ultimately turned to New York native Joe Foy, 26, whom the Royals had selected from the Boston Red Sox with their fourth pick of the expansion draft. In 1965, Foy dominated the International League winning the MVP and Rookie of the Year by leading the league in hitting, .302, while adding 14 HR and 73 RBIs.
Foy produced three solid years to start his career in Boston. In his first and only year with Kansas City, Foy his .262, 11 HR, 37 SB, and a career high 71 RBI. Coming off a 1969 World Series Championship, the Mets saw Foy as an upgrade at third on a squad already set, making Otis available.
The Mets sent Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson to Kansas City for Foy. In 1970, Foy hit .236, 6 HR, and 37 RBIs. He was criticized in the clubhouse for his marijuana use and was out of baseball a year later.
“I was watching the Today Show,” recalled Otis, “when Joe Garagiola announced that Amos Otis had been traded to the Kansas City Royals, along with pitcher Bob Johnson, for third baseman Joey Foy. I was caught off guard but it was December 3, 1969, which is my father’s birthday, and he said it was for the best. I went from the team that had won the World Series to an expansion team that had just finished its first season.”
Royals GM Cedric Tallis jumped on the opportunity to bring in Otis, but had his eye on more young talent to shape the infantile franchise. During his tenure Tallis is credited with bringing in the likes of Otis, Lou Piniella, Buck Martinez, Cookie Rojas, John Mayberry, Hal McRae, and would deal Bob Johnson a season later for Freddie Patek.
Tallis chose Charlie Metro to lead the 1970 Royals.
“I was standing in the outfield not far from the right-field foul line when I saw Charlie Metro walking toward me,” said Otis in a 1971 interview with the New York Times. “I didn’t even know what to say to him and so I headed toward center field. I looked again and he was coming my way. Finally he pinned me against the left-field fence. ‘Amos,’ he said, ‘you’re my center fielder for as long as you can hold the job.’”
Although it was Metro who couldn’t hold his job, Otis held on to his for the next 14 seasons. After only 52 games, Bob Lemon was selected to talk over as the Royals skipper.
“AO’s” impact was immediate. In his first full season Otis tied for the most doubles (36) in the league along with 11 HR, 33 SB, and 58 RBI. Otis reached base in 136 of his 159 games and earned his first All-Star appearance. He made the one-hop 12th inning throw from center field that was an instant late to catcher Ray Fosse. By the time the ball got to the plate Pete Rose had already separated Fosse’s shoulder and earned a victory for the NL.
Otis told the Sports Collectors Digest, his nickname, Famous Amos was credited to the play, “because I made that great throw from center field. It was a one-hop throw. That’s the way baseball’s supposed to be played.”
Famous Amos had arrived.
The next season Otis improved on nearly every offensive category, leading the Royals to their first winning season in franchise history. In 1971, Otis led the league with 52 stolen bases; five came in a single game against the Brewers on September 7th.
“It was the first time in forty-four years that someone stole five bases in a game,” said Otis. “I beat out three infield hits and stole second each time. Going to the bottom of the seventh, the score was 3-3. With two outs and no one on, I hit a line drive single to center, stole second, stole third, and scored the eventual winning run when catcher Darrell Porter threw wildly to third trying to throw me out.
Otis went on to hit .301, 15 HR, and 79 RBIs. It was good enough for his second All-Star appearance and first Gold Glove Award. A lurking defender in center field, Otis had become the complete player everyone expected in the Mets system.
By 1973, Otis had made an impact throughout the league. Known for his speed and defense, Otis showed off his power potential in ’73, crushing 26 homers while knocking in 93 RBIs. Otis’ power surge helped the Royals win a record 88 games. He was also selected to his fourth consecutive All-Star game while winning his second of three Gold Gloves.
It was enough to inspire Royals Manager Jack McKeon to describe Otis as, “The best center fielder in baseball. No question about it. Amos is the most complete player in the majors, one of the most complete I’ve ever seen.”
Otis slipped a bit in 1974, hitting .284, 12 HR, 18 SB, and 73 RBIs, but still won his third and final Gold Glove. The Royals fell under .500 again at season’s end. Some grumblings from officials and fans started trickling in about Otis’ casual and nonchalant style of play.
“I can’t help it if I make things look easy,” said Otis in response to his play to Joe McGuff. “Even in 1973, when I had my best year, people said I could do better. Last year I didn’t have the year I wanted to have. I got to pressing. It was just something I couldn’t overcome. Everything I do on this team, I’m first or second. I can’t do much more than that. I know I didn’t have the year I wanted, but you can’t always do it. I got so I hated to come to the park. It was embarrassing.… As soon as you came out of the dugout, they were on you. After a while, you just hated to play.”
Otis had popularized a common practice in MLB outfields today, the one handed catch. Many saw Otis one handed antics as lazy or showy, Otis claimed it helped him get to the ball and release it quicker.
“I had always caught using two hands,” said Otis, “but we had an outfielder with the Royals named Pat Kelly, who was Cleveland Browns’ star running back LeRoy Kelly’s brother. Pat used to get nervous trying to catch a fly ball. His hands started to shake and he dropped too many of them. I told him to wait for the last second and then catch the ball with one hand. He was successful. Using one hand let me get rid of the ball faster. Sometimes, when I had to be sure, I would use two hands. It was actually Rico Carty who started catching with one hand the year before.”
With the talent in place, Tallis made a final move which sparked the Royals. He replaced Jack McKeon with Whitey Herzog at the helm. Herzog was instrumental in Otis’ development as a youngster during their time together with the Mets. Herzog’s aggressive style on the base paths and on defense was a perfect fit for Otis’ game.
Otis played his fewest games of the 70s in 1975, because of a midseason tonsillectomy. He hit a career low .247, but still produced an OBP of .342 while swiping 39 bags. They Royals won a team record 91 games, but finished seven games behind Oakland.
Tallis saw things differently, tired of coming up short, he sparked a deal with the Pirates which would send Cookie Rojas and Otis to Pittsburgh for rising star 1B/OF Al Oliver.
Because of Rojas’ league status, 10 years in the league and five with one team, league rules allowed Rojas to veto the deal.
Otis roamed the Kauffman turf until 1983, while Rojas held on until 1977, playing only 127 games in his final two seasons.
‘Scoop’ Oliver remained a fixture in the middle of the lineup. From 1975-83, Oliver crushed the baseball, .312/.355/.466, 306 2B, 128 HR, 757 RBI. Over the nine year span Oliver made six All-Star appearances, won three Silver Slugger Awards, and finished in the top 20 of MVP voting seven times.
Otis bounced back in 1976, he hit .279, 40 2B, 18 HR, 26 SB, and 86 RBI and earned his final All-Star appearance. More importantly the Herzog/Otis influence helped the Royals to 90 wins and cracked the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
When the Royals clinched their first division title Otis recalled the near trade, “Cookie gets his Series share and 10% of mine. We were on the verge of winning the championship, and I didn’t want to go with another club. I had been with this club during the building years. You don’t want to be a part of something, and then be shipped out before your ship comes in.”
Otis recorded one at-bat against the Yankees in the 1976 ALDS before injuring an ankle. The Yankees went on to a five game victory.
At 31, Otis had questionably his greatest season in 1978. Despite not being selected to All-Star team, he hit .298, 30 2B, 22 HR, 32 SB, and 96 RBI. Otis finished fourth in the MVP voting, the highest of his career.
After winning 102 games in ’77, the Royals won 92 in ’78. Both regular season triumphs ended the same as 1976, a Yankee defeat in the ALDS.
In 1980, with production starting to slip Otis managed .251, 16 2B, 10 HR, 16 SB, 53 RBI. With Otis and McRae the only major pieces still left in place from the first youth movement made by Tallis, a new wave of homegrown youngsters Frank White, Willie Wilson, and George Brett finally busted through the Yankees.
Their reward was a World Series showdown between the Philadelphia Phillies. After years of playing bridesmaid to the Yankees, Otis wouldn’t be denied his chance to be a champion. Otis hit .493 along with two doubles, three dingers, 22 total bases, four runs, and seven RBIs in the six games. Still it wasn’t enough as Steve Carlton mowed down seven in seven innings en route to a 7-1 clincher.
“Winning the World Series is the ultimate goal,” said Otis. “1980 was a heartbreak, because we led in each of the first five games, but the Phillies kept coming back on us and when we lost Game 5, we went into Philadelphia trailing, three games to two. We got ten hits off Carlton in Game 2, but we couldn’t hold a 4-2 lead going into the eighth. You don’t get to Carlton like that too often. He pitched a much better game and won Game 6. It was disappointing.”
In 1981 Otis hit .259, 9 HR, 16 SB, and 57 RBI. The Royals got swept out of the LDS by Oakland in the strike shortened season. It would be the final taste of the postseason for Otis, who had endured repeated playoff ‘heartbreak.’
Otis would be with the club through 1983, but when it came time to pick up his option, the club turned to a younger and speedier candidate, Willie Wilson. Wilson had already been with the Royals for six seasons and the 28 year old was deemed more suitable than the aging Otis. Wilson went on to be a similar fixture, helping the Royals to their 1985 World Series Championship.
Otis found work in Pittsburgh, whom had tried to trade for him nearly a decade ago. Otis only played in 40 games with the Pirates and decided to retire.
Over his 17 year career Otis hit .277, 374 2B, 193 HR, 341 SB, and 1,007 RBI, along with his three Gold Gloves and five All-Star nominations.
In the Bill James Baseball Abstract 1984, James described Otis’ legacy as well as anyone could.
“Amos Otis was an intensely private man leading an intensely public life. He disdained showmanship—probably he hated showmanship—of any type and to any extent. He could never quite deal with the fact that his business was putting on a show. This is what is called ‘moodiness’ by the media.
Yet there was a rare, deep honesty about him that was the defining characteristic of him both as a man and as a ballplayer. He could not stand to do anything for show. He could not charge into walls (and risk his continued existence as a ballplayer) after balls that he could not catch. He could not rouse the fans (and risk his continued existence as a baserunner) with a stirring drive for a base too far.
He never in his career stood at home plate and watched a ball clear the fence. McRae and Brett, they did that sort of thing; Otis would sometimes turn away interview requests with a sardonic comment, ‘Talk to Brett and McRae. They’re the team leaders.’
Famous Amos can be found at the top of nearly every offensive Royals All-Time Leaders list. Only George Brett and Frank White have played more games for Kansas City. Of all the numbers I believe the one which reflects Otis’ tenure the most is this: Otis was the centerfielder for nine of the eleven teams in Royals history which won 85 or more games.