A New Old Idea For the Kansas City Royals

Sabermetric pioneer and hero Bill James has suggested that certain teams need to abandon the traditional methods of putting together a baseball team and adopt unorthodox methods. Perhaps no team is better suited for this idea than James’ old favorite Kansas City Royals.

Founding Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was an original thinker which helped him develop his fortune with the Marion Labs pharmaceutical company. Kauffman was not any less creative in setting up the Royals and believed that it was possible to teach great young athletes to play baseball. He tasked his front office with doing just that. The result was the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy.

The Royals invited more than 1,000 athletes which met a list of criteria to tryout and selected individuals which met the various physical and mental skills established by testing 150 players within the Royals organization.

The Academy was not without success but was shuttered after four years when the Royals minor league directors convinced Kauffman that the significant money expended on it would be better directed to more traditional methods. All the system had produced was a light-hitting second baseman named Frank White and few other players laboring unimpressively in the minors.

A May 1976 Sports Illustrated note on the end of the project summed up the feeling when describing the lone success story: “For all his skills, he (White) is hardly a Two Million Dollar Man.” Indeed he wasn’t. Hitting just .229 with two home runs that year at age 25.

The brother of a Royals employee from Springtown, Oklahoma wasn’t doing a whole lot better in Omaha, hitting just .250 in just 136 at-bats. Young UL Washington had been a good football player in high school and managed to get his chance for the Academy when his brother asked if he could try out.

The Royals Retrospective blog describes the event: “UL impressed the scouts with his speed and arm strength. He then took the field at shortstop to take a number of ground balls. He missed every single one. He stepped into the batter’s box. He would miss pitches by a wide margin. He took various tests the Royals had compiled and failed miserably at all of them except a vision test.”

Nonetheless Washington was admitted into the Academy because of his athleticism and remained in the program even when Kauffman himself had reportedly given up hope on his prospects.

White did not play high school baseball and Washington was clearly not a talent a scout would get excited about. Nonetheless, the tandem teamed for productive double-play combination for the Royals for several years. Any idea that one might have about the Royals simply getting lucky with the two would seem to be a bit of a reach.

White and Washington were not the only Academy graduates to make it to the majors. In all 14 of the 77 players which made it through the Academy process eventually became major league players. Ron Washington, a catcher on the original Academy team, managed to spend all or parts of 10 seasons in the majors as a utility man.

The Royals reportedly spent $1.5 million dollars on its Academy site in Sarasota, Fla. and $700,000 per year in operating costs. That was quite a sum for the early 1970s and it might well have not been worth the substantial costs. But the economics have changed in major league baseball and the values of major league players has increased substantially. The costs of such a project have also potentially been substantially reduced as the taxpayers of Florida and Arizona now cover the costs of an Academy facility with multi-field spring training sites.

WAR career projections for Frank White and UL Washington alone come to more than $100 million dollars in today’s values while the costs to the Royals calculate to roughly $20 million dollars when adjusted for inflation. By today’s standards, the Academy would seem to be a reasonable way to acquire talent and the results were similar to the expected results of high major league draft picks.

The first Royals Academy team finished first in the Gulf Coast Rookie League with a 40-13 record when playing against other teams’ drafted players. The team stole a whopping 103 bases in the process while being caught just 16 times.

The best argument for the Academy might be Ron LeFlore who never even went through the Academy. LeFlore, whose life story was so remarkable it was made into a movie, did not begin playing sports until he was incarcerated at age 19. After excelling at basketball and softball in the prison yard, he was invited to the play on the prison yard baseball team. He knocked such heck out of the ball, prisoners urged Tigers manager Billy Martin to give him a tryout on a courtesy visit to the prison. One thing led to another and LeFlore was playing for the Tigers at age 26, just three short years after giving the sport a try.

With many young athletes now being encouraged to play a single sport, it is possible the Academy concept might be more effective today than it was in the 1970s. The modern day Henry Aaron may be playing cornerback for Valdosta State, never having picked up a bat. A resourceful major league organization could likely find enough great athletes playing college football and basketball to discover a few top-caliber prospects. These players might arrive a bit later in the majors than the average rookie, however, Jackie Robinson did not start playing in the majors until age 28 and the Dodgers still managed to get quite a lot of production from him.

When it comes to failed ideas, the Academy seems to have been one of the better ones. Maybe it was just a little ahead of its time and a team might want to make use of a “Back to the Future” concept.




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Dave Cameron
Admin
Member
6 years 1 month ago

I loved this piece. If you want a target to shoot for in getting your submission approved, use this.

Erik
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Erik
6 years 1 month ago

This is a great article. Thanks for writing it!

Owen
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Owen
6 years 1 month ago

Agreed. Very fine piece.

Matt Klaassen
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Member
6 years 1 month ago

Great post. I know I’ve wondered more than once why the Royals (or some other team) doesn’t try this, even if it “only” has the effect of some positive community involvement/PR.

Matt Harms
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Matt Harms
6 years 1 month ago

Isn’t this somewhat in the same vein as the Million Dollar Arm contest? I think there were 35,000+ people who tried out in India, with Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel being the two that were signed by the Pirates.

I’m sure it will be another five years before we can judge their success, but it’s certainly a novel idea that a fellow floundering organization has adopted in some form.

nmirra
Member
6 years 1 month ago

Nice article. I particularly like the point about having to fight the American tendency for athletes to focus on one sport from a young age. Baseball suffers versus basketball, particularly in urban areas, because of the required cost of land and equipment to play. This is also one reason (of the many) why African American participation in the game has dropped.

Baseball’s vast resources could be used to lower the cost to play baseball at the middle school and high school level. Team academies would serve as community investments (good PR) and scouting farms (good investment).

Matt Harms
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Matt Harms
6 years 1 month ago

A question I just thought of: can MLB teams even set up domestic academies? Aren’t all US born players first subject to the amateur draft before being able to be signed as free agents?

t ball
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t ball
6 years 1 month ago

Very interesting, great read.

Westside guy
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Member
Westside guy
6 years 1 month ago

This article was enjoyable on several levels. It’s extremely well written; plus I’d think it’d appeal to both stat-minded and more traditional audiences. It’s also outside the norm of what’s usually on FanGraphs, at least based on the past year or so that I’ve been following this site. All in all it was a “great read” – thank you for writing it!

Also, thank you to FanGraphs for all the great creative work you’ve been doing – whether it’s the interesting posts, this community blog, or great stuff like the customizable stats.

RyanC
Member
6 years 1 month ago

Great stuff. While not quite comparable to the Latin academies (because the Latin ones are actually getting the best baseball players, not just the best athletes), the concept of the baseball academy fascinates me. I would love to see one established in Africa. The speed and athleticism displayed by African athletes (I’m thinking of the soccer players) could translate well to a baseball outfield and on the basepaths.

I don’t see why it would be disallowed. Like Jamesian said, none of these guys will have been drafted, so if they really wanted to a team could jsut draft all of these guys at the tail end of the draft, as only a fraction of players drafted from rounds 30 onwards even make the majors. They might not even need to do that, as I imagine teams can sign undrafted free agents, just like any other sport.

Reanna Loertscher
Guest
6 years 1 month ago

Yeah, thank you!

RoyalsRetro
Guest
6 years 1 month ago

Great piece! Thanks for the link to my site.

Matt – from what I understand, if you are draft eligible, and you go undrafted, you are free to sign with anyone UNLESS you sign to play for a college. So I don’t think that would be an issue.

Seems way overdue for the Royals to at least try some sort of academy. I also think they should try my idea of a “knuckleball academy” where you take a couple of guys whose pro careers look like they’re done, have them work under Charlie Hough or Tom Candiotti, and learn the knuckleball. Having such a guy to eat up dead innings would be a huge plus for a small market team.

Again, great piece!

Tommy Dugan
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Tommy Dugan
6 years 28 days ago

Take it from someone that was there…the academy was not a failure…it gave young men like myself a chance to live a dream…The concept was an excellent one. As we all know their are the diamonds in the rough that get over looked. This type of opportunity provided me and the other 42 guys I was with in the first class that opportunity to continue our dreams….thanks Mr. Kauffman for the chance you gave me….

jfish26101
Member
5 years 10 months ago

The signing of Pat White this week reminded me of the Baseball Academy. He sort of seems like the quintessential athlete they would have wanted to target.

White probably has a 70-75 speed tool, possibly 60+ arm tool, which could very well translate into above average range/D in CF if all goes well. The power will be suspect and I truly wonder how his hit tool will look (not to mention his plate discipline) after 5-6 years away from baseball.

We will see what he can do though, will be interesting to watch as a WVU fan but I don’t think he will find much (if any) success.

Dan Berman4
Guest
5 years 1 month ago

I don’t see how it would work, really. I think very few athletes would be major league caliber if they haven’t picked up a bat until they are 18 or 20 years old. This happens in basketball al the time. Some tall, athletic player ins drafted, Very rarely do they pan out. Seems like it would be better to encourage more youngsters to tak up the game.

Jamesian
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Jamesian
5 years 1 month ago

I’d point you to Frank White, UL Washington and Ron LeFlore. It’s already been done. If you want more up to date examples, think Alexi Ogando and John Lackey who both started pitching in their early 20s after being outfielders.

Paul
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Paul
4 years 11 months ago

But doesn’t MLB already have the RBI program? It’s not a great success, but it seems to me that it’s an offshoot of the Royals academy. By the way, I re-watched Inning 4 of Baseball on Netflix the other day and never realized that the farm was invented by Branch Rickey when he joined the Cardinals, and that it was so enormous that they had something like 30 teams and hundreds of players. I think the Royals were really just trying to widen the net by going back to how the farm system began.

Regarding the notion that MLB teams won’t sign guys who never played. I don’t think this is accurate at all. This happens with foreign born players all the time. Alexi Gomez was signed out of Brazil after a scout saw his althleticism playing volleyball, which is the second most popular sport there. Trust me, if he played any baseball at all in Brazil, it wasn’t competitive – there is next to zero interest in Brazil. But then every year we get athletes signing over-slot contracts out of the draft, and the Dominican kids signing at 16 have played a lot of ball, but most of them are so raw it’s hard not to call them merely athletes.

Which brings me to what I think is the real problem. We as a society are uninterested in grass roots efforts in our own country. We’re segmented and we accept it. Inner city athletes play basketball, so we accept it and move on. I think it’s a real shame, but I also think it’s why something like the Royals academy had its time and place in this country, and just wouldn’t work now. There’s no willingness in leadership, or in the communities that might benefit to give it a go.

Kris
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Kris
4 years 11 months ago

I don’t think the Pirates did anything like this recently. Look at them now. The Royals just need to wait, like Pittsburgh did.

Jamesian
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Jamesian
4 years 11 months ago

First of all, you along with everyone else confuse the concept with getting more black players in baseball. That would probably be the end result but that is not the idea. The idea is to take great athletes and make them baseball players — whatever the race. Obviously, most of them would probably be black but that is irrelevant.

This is about giving yourself an advantage over your competition by accessing the greatest athletes in America and converting them to baseball players. The concept is already proven. Most people, like yourself, can’t accept that this idea would work despite the successes which is why it will never be tried again.

As for black players playing basketball, who really cares? Baseball is appropriately represented racially according to demographics with black players. It is clearly missing out on top athletes but it doesn’t have a shortage of talent. By finding a way to attract minority talent, a team could give itself a unique advantage.

The RBI program is never going to work because young athletes are not interested in baseball and they aren’t going to be ever again in the same way they were before. Baseball and basketball have a permanent advantage over baseball which is more boring than the other sports for the average fan.

In any case, the RBI program benefits all teams equally, therefore, it provides no real advantage to a particular team.

Bill McKeon
Guest
Bill McKeon
4 years 7 months ago

The Academy was my idea that I sold to Mr. Ewing Kaufman ( Owner Kansas City Royals ) in 1969 at our first organizational meeting in Kansas City at the Continental Hotel . I suggested to Mr. Kaufman that he purchase a Junior College in Arizona or Florida and conduct a baseball school year round with major league players being the instructors. This was during the Viet Nam War and Teachers were exempt from service duty where major leaguers were missing ( 2 ) weeks of Army Resrve or Natonal Gauard Training. The Academy players would attend college in the morning and baseball in the afternoon and the major leaguers would instruct during the winter months. I conducted the first try-outs for this Academy in Miami and Jacksonville Florida and later in Toronto, Canada. Yes, the Academy was expensive because of all the frills steak for breakfast etc., weight programs and scouts charging expensives to the Academy. Thats one of the major reasons it was terminated

Jamesian
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Jamesian
4 years 7 months ago

Thanks for the comment, Mr. McKeon. A great idea it was and we’ll happily give you the credit.

Justin
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Justin
4 years 7 months ago

Great write-up. Thanks for sharing it

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 years 5 months ago

This was really interesting, and written better than many articles written by paid fangraphs writers.

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footbook1
4 years 4 months ago

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