They laughed when Ewing Kauffman, the rookie owner of the Kansas City Royals, announced to an unawaiting baseball world that he would build an academy devoted to the development of young major-leaguers. They laughed, too, when Judge Roy Hofheinz mentioned something about a stadium with a roof. But Houston's Astrodome was built, and the Royals' Baseball Academy is now well launched and functioning handsomely in Sarasota, Fla. So far it has cost Ewing Kauffman more than $1� million, and one day they—baseball's entrenched conservatives—are going to have to stop laughing.
From the road the Royals' academy looks no different from any of the hundreds of small-business developments that have sprung up on the west coast of Florida during the last 15 years. Two white, flat-roofed buildings crouch low under the hot sun and, at a distance, could be taken for fruit-processing plants or computer-card countinghouses. But in back of those buildings are five new baseball diamonds, each built to the specifications of the field that will sit inside the $43 million domed stadium scheduled to open in Kansas City in 1972.
As early as 6 a.m. the 39 students selected for the academy are up and getting ready for their day's business. As night falls, many of them still can be found in the batting cages working on hitting flaws or throwing baseballs up against the front walls of handball courts to sharpen their fielding techniques. Five months from now the majority of the first class at the academy will be playing as a team in the Gulf Coast League in Florida, one of three rookie leagues in professional baseball. Like the Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues, the Gulf Coast starts as soon as colleges let out and runs through a 60-game schedule. Unlike the other teams playing in rookie leagues, however, the Kansas City team will not be made up of the top draft choices or college All-Americas produced in 1970-71. The Royals' team will be composed of many youngsters aged 17, 18 and 19 who were chosen primarily for their athletic ability—their strength, their speed and coordination, their proven desire to succeed—and not for their past experience in baseball. Many of the young Royals did not even play the game in high school.
The new Royals are pioneers much in the sense the astronauts were, and they will be watched almost as closely. Once they take the field in the Gulf Coast League, scouts from all other major league clubs will be on hand to see what the academy has been able to teach its first class. Should the academy produce what scouts call "prospects," some of the other teams might even consider following Kauffman's lead.
The idea for a baseball academy came to Kauffman not long after he had bought the expansion Royals in 1968 and had carefully scrutinized what the brotherhood of owners had done for him. For the exquisite privilege of paying $175,000 per head, Kauffman received 30 players who, he noted, occasionally could be counted on to catch a thrown ball. Kauffman, at 52, already knew something about expansion franchises. He is a native Kansas Citian, which means that for 13 seasons he, like the rest, had remained remarkably temperate while watching the local version of a major league club lose anywhere from 90 to 100 games a year. Although Kauffman was happy to get the Kansas City franchise, he was aware that the restless citizens were not going to dump buckets of money into his lap merely to see teams play .400 ball forever.
As a young pharmaceutical salesman, Kauffman decided he could make more money by manufacturing products than by pushing them. From a start in his mother's basement, with an investment of $4,500, he built Marion Laboratories into a firm that is presently valued at $166 million. Kauffman, in other words, knew a little something about getting ahead, and after scouting the possibilities of what could be done to improve his team, he was not exactly overjoyed with his prospects. "Even before we drafted those 30 players at $175,000 each we had put $300,000 into scouting," he said. "I was only beginning to understand how truly complex a business baseball could be. But I wanted to bring Kansas City a winner in the quickest possible way. It became apparent to me that there were only four ways in which we could get better players, and not one of them was going to do us much good."
The four methods were the free-agent draft; the minor league draft, at which all but 40 players belonging to each club are offered for sale at $25,000 each; trades and buying players from other teams.
"In the free-agent draft," Kauffman says, "just about every club has nearly the same chance, so there is no advantage. The minor league draft does not provide many prospects. [Only eight players were selected from about 1,500 in 1970.] To trade well you have to be either lucky or have a lot of players other teams want. Money? It doesn't do that much for you. I tried to buy Reggie Jackson from Charlie Finley for $1 million, and I offered him $3 million for four of his players. He turned me down on both deals. The only thing I could do was go outside the normal baseball avenues open to us and try to find better players."
Kauffman's original idea was to go only after boys who had seldom played baseball and to make the Sarasota development into an athletic version of a Marine boot camp. By last winter, when the search for talent began, it was decided that anybody who was dying to go to Parris Island probably would be bored with baseball and academic training—which was another facet of the Kauffman plan—and it was decided further that just because a boy had tossed around a baseball once was no reason for excluding him. Syd Thrift, a onetime Pittsburgh Pirate scout, was appointed director.
In February, Thrift asked high school coaches around the country to nominate boys who might want to attend the academy. In June and July, tryout camps were set up in 41 states, attracting 7,682 athletes. Among the boys who survived and were invited to school are a former New Mexico high school wrestling champion, a two-time Missouri high school sprint champion, a pole vaulter from Wichita State, a boy who played no high school baseball at all but excelled in bowling and weight lifting and a quarterback from Topeka who set his school's record in the javelin throw.