Frank White: The “KC Story”, 1986, and the “Royals Divorce”

Part of the “African-American Royals Project” Series

There are only three retired numbers in Kansas City Royals history: No. 5, George Brett; No. 10, manager Dick Howser; and No. 20, Frank White.

White continues to be the most fascinating of the three to this day.

In many ways, White is the “Kansas City Story” in terms of Royals history. He grew up in Kansas City Public Schools, going first to Wendell Phillips and then Linwood Elementary before ultimately going to Lincoln High School, which is located not far from where Municipal Stadium once resided, the former home of the Kansas City Royals before the opening of Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium in 1973. Unable to play baseball in high school due to Lincoln not having a program, White played in amateur leagues around the area before getting an opportunity in 1970 through the “Kansas City Royals Academy“, owner Ewing Kauffman’s short-lived, but influential, player development project that looked to develop players outside the “traditional” scouting and draft structure. Because White did not play baseball in high school, he had gotten overlooked by Major League scouts and did not get drafted or signed by a club when he graduated from Lincoln. However, the Royals saw his potential as an athlete, and knew through proper development in the “Royals Academy”, he could contribute at the Major League level for the Royals.

In fact, White’s story of how he joined the “Royals Academy” is a bit of a heartwarming tale, as White thought he would be eliminated from consideration due to him being married (Kauffman didn’t want “married” players to be a part of the program due to the challenges of logistics), but in the end, it worked out, as profiled in White’s SABR Biography which was written by Richard Bogovich and is contained in “Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition“.

White was crushed when he also overheard that the plan was to send only unmarried players to the academy. White was married, and he and his wife, Gladys, had a baby, Frank III. When his tryout concluded, he thought his baseball playing days were over.

“Then, something that only happens in movies happened to me,” White’s 2012 autobiography says. “Later that day, I was at my parents’ house and I hear this commotion outside. I look out the window and there is a big blue limo parked in front of our house.” It was Kauffman’s, but the owner wasn’t in it. He didn’t send it to take White somewhere; he only wanted to speak with White on the limousine’s car phone (decades before there were such things as cell phones). “I’d never talked on a phone in a car before – I didn’t even know there was anything like that – and we started our conversation,” the book says. Kauffman said another married player, catcher Art Sanchez,
agreed to attend the academy, and Kauffman would give Frank’s wife, Gladys, a job in the camp’s ticket office if that would enable White to enroll. White replied that he’d need to discuss the offer with his wife and parents first, and soon agreed.

“Frank White” by Richard Bogovich; SABR Biography Project; Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition (c. 2019)

White is not only the “Royals Academy’s” greatest success story, but arguably one of Kansas City’s greatest baseball stories, which is saying something considering Kansas City’s baseball history which spans back to the Monarchs and the days of the Negro Leagues. There is after all, a statue of him in Kauffman Stadium located in the Outfield Experience portion of the stadium.

And yet, White remains absent from the organization, a by-product of a “Great Divorce” that White and the Royals had from one another after he was let go as the Royals’ play-by-play man after the 2011 season. While Brett, the other Royals player who has his number retired, continues to be the face of the Royals’ past, constantly in the luxury suites and chumming it up with Royals players and management, White remains distant to the Royals to this day, even though it would seem ideal for him to partner with the Royals considering he is legislator for Jackson County, currently.

One has to wonder how White and the Royals came down to this destination, especially after his 1986 season, where he was arguably the Royals’ best players and had his finest season, perhaps, as a Royal.

Defending a World Series championship is tough for any team in Major League Baseball. Royals fans know that firsthand, as the Royals finished 81-81 in 2016 after winning it all in 2015. Some things that went right for the Royals in 2015, took a turn for the worse in 2016. Edinson Volquez and Chris Young became unreliable in 2016. Alex Gordon’s production at the plate went south. Joakim Soria didn’t live up to the hype after being re-acquired by the Royals prior to the 2016 season.

And 1986 proved to be the same issue. After the Royals came back and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series to bring Kansas City it’s first World Series in franchise history, things took a turn for the worst in 1986. Hal McRae at 40 years old started to show signs of decline (82 OPS+), eventually losing his DH spot to the light-hitting Jorge Orta. The Royals struggled to get any production from the shortstop position, as neither Buddy Biancalana (72 OPS+) or Angel Salazar (60 OPS+) provided much at the plate. And though Steve Balboni continued to hit dingers (29 home runs), he also provided a lot of whiffs as well (146 strikeouts; .229 average). Add that with slight setbacks in pitching from Bret Saberhagen, Dennis Leonard, and Charlie Liebrandt (which mostly stemmed from injury), and it’s not surprise that the Royals went 76-86 and finished 3rd in the AL West in 1986.

However, while the Royals as a whole regressed, White stepped up to the plate and became one of the Royals’ most dependable, if not best overall, players in 1986. Hitting behind Brett, White became one of the most productive offensive second baseman in the American League as he hit 22 home runs and posted a slash of .272/.322/.465 in 151 games and 620 plate appearances. Of Royals hitters in 1986, White finished third in runs scored (70), second in home runs, RBI (84), and hits (154). Not only did White’s offensive production earn him an All-Star berth in 1986, but also the Silver Slugger award that season as well.

Even though White could be up and down at the plate over his 18-year career, White always proved to be a dependable glove in the Royals infield. In addition to an All Star berth and Silver Slugger award, White earned a Gold Glove as well, which would be his seventh at the time (he ended up earning one more Gold Glove in 1987, which would be his last). White led all Royals fielders in dWAR (defensive WAR) at 1.8, according to Baseball-Reference. However, while his 1986 season was good defensively, White had earned a reverence around the league as one of the game’s best defensively at the second base position over his entire career. That was evident from a quote by former manager Whitey Herzog, who actually managed against White and the Royals in the 1985 World Series, as profiled in Bogovich’s SABR piece.

“Frank White was the best defensive second baseman I have ever seen. I’ve seen second basemen that were pretty darn good such as Bobby Richardson and Bill Mazeroski. Frank played second base for me for five years and I just don’t see how you play the position defensively any better than
he played it.”

“Frank White” by Richard Bogovich; SABR Biography Project; Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition (c. 2019)

White finished tied with Brett for the best WAR of Royals players in 1986, at 4.0. It was the second best mark of his career, only 0.1 win short of his career high, which he set two years prior in 1984.

White would play four more seasons for the Royals before eventually calling it quits, though it was not by his own accord. Even though he was going to be 40, White still believed he could play baseball in 1991, even though he only played 82 games in 1990, and only posted an OPS+ of 58, his worst metric in that category since 1974, his second year in the league. Max Rieper of Royals Review, adequately profiled White’s final days as a Royals player, in which White felt as if the Royals did not help him finish the career in the way he wanted:

The Royals did not offer a contract to Frank White for the 1991 season, but Frank was determined to keep playing. The 40-year old threatened to play in Japan, but ultimately, he found there were no offers. Rather than accept the fact his age and declining numbers were the reason there was no interest, White instead blamed the Royals, accusing them of bad-mouthing him to other teams.

“The Royals did a good job of convincing people that I couldn’t play. They did a good job of convincing people that I had retired.”

“The end of Frank White’s career was sad” by Max Rieper; Royals Review

White immediately got into coaching after his retirement, and in 1997, just two years after he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame, he was hired on as a coach in the Royals organization, which included managerial positions at the Royals’ Double-A club from 2004-2006. However, eve though he was part of the Royals organization, White felt slighted that he never got more consideration to be the manager of the Royals. Twice White was passed up by white managers, with the first being Buddy Bell in 2005, and the second being Trey Hillman in 2008. The latter one appeared to anger White the most, especially since Hillman had never played at the Major League level.

Even though he wasn’t hired as the Royals manager, White stayed on with the organization as a broadcaster on Fox Sports KC from 2008-2011. However, the tenure proved to be a tumultuous as reports surfaced that White clashed with the Royals’ front office members and management, seemingly overly critical for a hometown announcer. In 2011, Fox Sports KC released White from his position as color commentator, and White, feeling this was the last straw, decided to cut ties from the Royals organization completely.

That being said, White has softened his stance recently and has seemed to reconcile things with the Royals a bit after vowing to “never step foot in that stadium again” in his 2012 autobiography. After the 2015 World Series, White has been a bit more active when it comes to participating in Royals honoring events. However, White still has no formal role with the Royals, and even though politics runs his life now, it’ll be interesting to see if the Royals will bring him back in any capacity when his tenure in legislature is done.

In many ways, White and the Royals are almost like a divorced couple after quite some time apart. The fire of disdain isn’t there like it was back in 2011, but it seems like the damage is done, and there isn’t much hope for a more substantial reunion anytime soon, if ever. That was further amplified by White putting much of his memorabilia for auction, including an award given to him by the Kansas City fans, which rubbed some fans the wrong way.

White represents the best of the “KC Story”: a kid who went to school on the east side of Kansas City; who was developed by the Royals Academy; played only for the Royals during his 18 years in baseball; is one of three Royals figures to get his number retired; and currently serves in local government for Jackson County, the county which the Royals and Kauffman Stadium are located in. White should be a fixture near the Buck O’Neill seat as a shining beacon of the African-American success story when it comes to baseball in Kansas City. He should be regularly throwing out first pitches at Kauffman Stadium and a frequent guest at Royals Spring Training, talking to prospects and sharing his story that is quite unique in the vast history of baseball lore.

But that doesn’t seem to be case, though that could change when he’s done in local politics. One of the most influential athletes to ever come out of Kansas City, and one of the few to ever play for the hometown team, is pretty much a ghost at Kauffman Stadium these days, a relic of a long past time. Some will blame the Royals for how they handled White’s tenure with the Royals in his post-playing days. Some will blame White for not handling things with more grace.

At the end of the day though, White stood up for what he believed in, even if it came at a tremendous cost to his legacy with the more modern Royals fan, who may only know him as the legislator who jacked up property taxes in Jackson County.

Maybe the reconciliation will only be surface-level between the Royals and White. But White should be remembered for who he was and what he meant to not only the Royals, but African-American athletes in Kansas City.

That can’t be taken away from him.

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