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.