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A look back at some forgotten players from the 1969 Royals

SB Nation logo SB Nation 7/29/2020 Bradford Lee
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Joe Keough

Joe Keough. For longtime Royal fans, the name should ring a bell. Keough was the eighth pick by the Royals in the 1968 expansion draft. He was their best hitter in the 1969 spring training, raking at a .350 clip, but was not in the starting lineup when the Royals made their major league debut on April 8. With the score tied at three, in the bottom of the twelfth, the Royals called on Keough as a pinch hitter and he delivered a sharp single to right, over the head of Minnesota outfielder Tony Oliva, to give the Royals their first ever win.

Keough was born and raised in Pomona, California and came from a baseball family. His older brother Marty had an 11-year career with six different teams from 1956 to 1966. Marty’s son Matt, carved out a nine-year career as a pitcher primarily in the 1980s. In the summer of 1965, Joe was playing for an amateur team in Valentine, Nebraska in the old Basin League when he caught the eye of Kansas City Athletics scout Art Lilly. The Athletics made Keough their second selection in the first ever amateur draft, behind Rick Monday and before Sal Bando and Gene Tenace. Lilly said, “We consider Keough one of the best young hitting prospects in the country.”

Keough was assigned to the Burlington (IA) Bees of the Midwest League. He only hit .225 in 114 games, but the Athletics moved him up to Leesburg for the 1967 season and he improved dramatically, hitting .294 with 18 home runs. He started the 1968 season in Birmingham, but by early August earned a callup to Oakland. He was called upon to pinch hit in his first game on August 7 and in his first at-bat slammed a home run off Lindy McDaniel of the Yankees, becoming just the tenth player ever to hit a pinch hit home run in their first at-bat. Though highly regarded by the Athletics, Keough, an outfielder, was left unprotected in the expansion draft and Cedric Tallis brought him back to Kansas City with the team’s fourth pick.

Keough’s hot start in spring training carried over into the regular season. In the Royals second series of the year, Keough got a measure of revenge against his old team by collecting six hits in eighteen at bats in a four-game series. Keough then endured a brutal 18 game, oh for 40 slump that deep sixed his batting average for the season. He was sent to Omaha on May 28 to work it out and was recalled to Kansas City in late July.

Keough got off to an another excellent start in 1970 and earned a starting position when Lou Piniella went down with an injury. As a young fan, I always thought that Keough would develop into a star. And he might have had it not been for an unfortunate injury suffered on June 28 in a game against the Angels. Keough had been hitting in the leadoff position and came into the game with a .322/.394/.444 slash line. Keough’s batting average was the best on the Royals and sixth-best in the American League.

In the bottom of the fifth, Keough hit a one out single. After advancing on a Cookie Rojas single, Keough tried to score on an Amos Otis hit. He caught his spikes sliding into home and dislocated his right ankle and suffered a broken leg. He had to be carried from the field on a stretcher. The resulting surgery ended his breakout season.

He came back in 1971 but was never quite the same. He hit .248 in 110 games followed by a 56-game stint in 1972 in which he hit .219. That winter the Royals shipped him to the White Sox in exchange for another outfielder, Jim Lyttle. Keough appeared in just five games for the Pale hose in 1973. He spent most of the season at their AAA affiliate in Des Moines, the Iowa Oaks. He retied after the 1973 season at the age of 27.

In retirement, Keough worked in marketing and real estate development. He died on September 9, 2019 in Miami, Florida after a short illness at the age of 73.

Ellie Rodriguez

When I first became a fan of the Royals in the early days of 1969, I was somewhat embarrassed that our catcher was named Ellie. Ellie? Sounded like a girl’s name, right? This was about the same time that Johnny Cash had a hit song called “a boy named Sue”. I thought, heck, we’ve got a catcher named Ellie. How do you do? Turns out his first name is Eliseo, which makes more sense. The truth is, Ellie Rodriguez is quite a story. He was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New York City when he was seven. He grew up about ten blocks from Yankee Stadium and idolized Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella.

In addition to playing baseball, Rodriguez also boxed, rising as high as a 175-pound middleweight in the New York Golden Gloves competition. After breaking a finger while sparring, Ellie turned solely to baseball.

After graduating from James Monroe High School in 1964, Rodriguez was signed by the Kansas City Athletics as a free agent. He caught the eye of rival scouts as a solid defensive catcher, primarily from the footwork he learned as a boxer. His hometown New York Yankees selected him away from the Athletics in the first-year player draft in November of 1964.

Rodriguez began to climb through the Yankee’s minor league system from Greensboro to Columbus to Syracuse. Rodriguez made his major league debut on May 26, 1968 at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox. With a large contingent of family and friends in attendance, he caught all nine innings. He picked up his first hit in his next appearance on May 31, an eight inning single against Mickey Lolich. Rodriguez hit three of his 16 career home runs against Lolich, which says something. Lolich could bring it in those days.

The Yankees had another young catcher in the wings, Thurman Munson, so they left Rodriguez exposed in the expansion draft. The Royals used the 13th pick in the draft to select Rodriguez.

Rodriguez played well for the expansion Royals, batting .260 in the first half of the season to earn his first All-Star berth. In fact, Rodriguez was the Royals first All-Star. Detroit manager Mayo Smith did not play Rodriguez in the game, going instead with his own Bill Freehan and John Roseboro of the Twins.

a man holding a sign

I remember feeling kind of offended after the game, angry that the only Royal didn’t get a single inning of play. Baseball was different then. Today’s managers are really good about seeing that everyone get some time on the field.

Rodriguez had a nice homecoming on the weekend of June 9-11. In three games at Yankee Stadium, Rodriguez went 5-for-13 with a three-run home run and threw out two would be base stealers.

In 1970, the Royals replaced Charlie Metro with Bob Lemon and Lemon began immediately platooning the right-handed hitting Rodriguez with lefty Ed Kirkpatrick.

During the winter of 1970-71 Rodriguez was playing in the Puerto Rican league when his boxing skills came in handy. Earlier in the season, Rodriguez had homered and doubled off Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who warned Ellie that he would “stick it in his ear next time.”

On November 16, Lee gave up a home run to Rodriguez’s teammate Willie Montanez, who did the cha cha around the bases. Lee hit Rodriguez with the next pitch. Ellie charged the mound and Lee won that round with a left hook that knocked Rodriguez down. On November 20th, Rodriguez saw Lee getting off his teams’ bus and confronted Lee, drilling him with a punch to the mouth. Lee fell onto a handrail, busting out four of his teeth. The feud eventually reached the states, when on May 24, 1973, Lee drilled Rodriguez with another pitch, prompting another mound charge.

In February of 1971, the Royals sent Rodriguez to the Brewers in exchange for another catcher, Carl Taylor.

Rodriguez had his best season in the bigs in 1972 for Milwaukee, slashing .285/.382/.352 and making his second All-Star team.

Milwaukee, which had a young Darrell Porter in the wings, sent Rodriguez to the California Angels in October of 1973 as part of a nine-player trade. On June 1, 1975, Rodriguez caught Nolan Ryan’s fourth no-hitter, of which he said, “it’s better than going 4 for 4 and hitting a home run. I just want to catch his fifth.” Ryan was equally effusive about his catcher, saying “the thing I like about him is the way he picked up my pitching pattern. He takes command. You’ll see him moving infielders around all the time.”

On March 31, 1976, the Angels traded Rodriguez to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he appeared in 36 games. He broke his collarbone in the Puerto Rican league in 1977 and that started the slow decline that is inevitable for all ballplayers. The Dodgers released him in May of 1977. He played the remainder of that season with the Pirates AAA team in Columbus but never again appeared in a major league game. He played three more seasons in the Mexican league before retiring and making the move to coaching and scouting. As a scout, he singed Raul Mondesi, Ruben Sierra and Andres Galarraga among others.

Rodriguez continues to give back to the game, coaching at the Roosevelt baseball school in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Roosevelt teaches youngsters, ages 6 to 18, the basics of the game. So, here’s to Ellie Rodriguez, the catcher who was the Royals first All-Star.

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