"It’s good to stay in touch with old baseball guys because we’re all in the same brotherhood.”
“A Kansas City Original” sounds like the perfect slogan for a downtown BBQ joint in the City of Fountains, and it may well be.
However, the nickname can also be applied to any of the 39 players who suited up for the Kansas City Royals in 1969, their inaugural season.
Mike Hedlund is one of those gentlemen and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Hedlund made his major league debut with the Indians at the age of 18 in 1965 after pitching just 25 innings in A Ball as a 17-year-old the season before. However, after not getting much of a chance in Cleveland, the Royals selected him in the Major League Baseball expansion draft of 1968. He was taken one pick after Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who was eventually traded to the Angels.
Unlike Wilhelm, Hedlund stuck around and became an original Kansas City Royal. Hedlund made his first appearance in the team’s third game, pitching one scoreless inning in relief against the Oakland A’s.
Hedlund’s best season came in 1971 when he went 15-8 with a 2.71 ERA. Objectively, Hedlund should have been an American League All-Star that season as he went into the break with a 7-5 record and 2.75 ERA with four first-half complete games and a shutout. He probably had a better first half than American League All-Star pitchers Marty Pattin (8-9, 2.81), Andy Messersmith (8-9, 3.70), Jim Perry (12-8, 4.10) and Sam McDowell (9-8, 3.09).
Alas, the All-Star game wasn’t in the cards for Hedlund, but that didn’t take away from what was a fantastic season. In his final start of the season, the righty locked horns with Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter in a game the Royals would drop 2-1. Hedlund went the distance, allowing just three hits to the eventual World Series champions in a game that lasted a cool one hour and thirty-five minutes.
Even with Rob Manfred’s speed-up rules, you’ll never see a Major League game like that again.
Hedlund finished the 1971 season fourth in the American League with a 2.71 ERA, ahead of Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Catfish Hunter.
Hedlund was traded back to the Indians in 1972 for Kurt Bevacqua, but spent the ’73 and ’74 seasons in the Majors before retiring.
Today, he still appreciates the attention he receives from fans and remembers his days of playing ball fondly.
Let’s remember some of those stories as we go Spitballin’ with a Kansas City Original, Mike Hedlund.
Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Hedlund! I always think it’s interesting to have someone who was a franchise original here with Spitballin’! Let’s start back to your childhood though. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
We had a vacant lot across the street from where I lived and we were always over there doing something, whether it was football or baseball of even Cowboys and Indians when the weeds were grown out. Kids all different ages would go there to play and that’s where I got interested in baseball. My dad was in the Navy and he played ball in the military. He even played fastpitch softball against Eddie Feigner and the King and His Court! My dad was real instrumental in supporting me. He pushed me into baseball because that was his sport, but the thing about it was that I happened to like it.
Did you have any favorite teams growing up?
We used to play in the backyard and play teams against teams, like Yankees versus the Dodgers. My team was always the Yankees and my friend was always the Dodgers. This was the mid-1950s. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were my idols because I was a Yankees fan.
It was a good feeling to shut them out. They didn’t give me much of a chance, so it was good to come back and show them what I could do. That was satisfying.
You had a really young start in professional baseball; just 17 years old when you signed and 18 when you made your major league debut. First, how did you end up signing with the Indians at such a young age?
I signed the year before the draft was established. Teams would scout high schools and colleges and if they saw someone they thought had talent, they would start to court them. I had three teams that were following me: the Yankees, Indians and the Kansas City A’s. The Yankees dropped off, the A’s signed Catfish Hunter, so they lost interest and the Indians came with a good offer, so I signed. I was 17 years old.
I can think of what I was doing at 17 years old and it wasn’t that. What was it like being a professional ballplayer at just 17?
Professional baseball was a whole lot different than high school. Most of the guys that I was playing with [Single A Burlington Indians] were at least three years older than me. A lot of them today are still my very best friends. We grew up in the minor leagues together and we all had the same dream: to get to the major leagues. The camaraderie that you build through that is even better than in the Big League sometimes.
I left here when I was 17 and landed in Greensboro, North Carolina to meet the team. It was the Carolina League, which was A Ball. Somebody was supposed to meet me, but I couldn’t find anyone. Now back then, my hair was fire-engine red, so I wasn’t easy to miss. Finally, I went to a pay phone and called the manager, Bill Herring, and told him I was here. He said, “We didn’t expect you for another week!” They asked where I was and I told them Greensboro. We happened to be playing Greensboro that night, so they told me to take a cab to the ballpark and I could ride back on the bus. I watched that game and realized that it was not the same kind of game we were playing in high school.
I’m sure! What was going through your mind as a kid riding that minor league bus for the first time?
That bus ride going back was something. We had a 1948 Ford converted school bus and when we got back, I didn’t have any place to go. A couple of the guys said I could stay with them. We went back to this house and it looked like the Munsters house! It was that old Victorian style and it looked like the bushes were dead. There were four bachelors living there. It was dark and the screens were falling off. I thought, “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?” Actually just last night I talked to Roy Kuhl. He was the catcher on that team and one of the guys who lived in that house.
Before the draft, if a major league team signed a player and they weren’t on the major league roster, another team could pick them up for a $25,000 waiver fee. If a team didn’t want to risk losing a player to the waiver process, they had to put them on the major league roster. Most likely that was a young person without experience who wouldn’t play much, but at least they’d get exposure and be protected. That was how I got into the Big Leagues in 1965. That guy was me.
That’s amazing you still keep in touch with these guys 60 years later. You made your major league debut in 1965 and the first batter you faced was Carl Yastrzemski. What was it like being an 18-year-old kid pitching in Fenway Park against Yaz?
I pitched nine total innings. I would throw batting practice or warm up in the bullpen every now and then. I think they were waiting for the right time to put me in; like maybe if the game was already lost. It was early in the season and it was the Saturday Game of the Week. Birdie Tebbetts had gotten me and somebody else up in the bullpen and Floyd Weaver was in the game. He gave up a home run [to Tony Conigliaro] to put the Red Sox up, so they called me in. I was shocked, but ready to go. I grabbed a jacket and hopped into the cart with the Boston hat on the top. Early Wynn, the pitching coach, was on the mound waiting for me with Joe Azcue, the catcher. He gave me the ball and said, “Just throw strikes kid.”
The first guy was a left-hander [Carl Yastrzemski] and he hit a ground ball to the right side, so I had to get over and cover first. We got him out. The next guy was Eddie Bressoud and he popped out to center. I was out of the inning because there was already one out. I came in and looked at the lineup card and saw I was third in line to bat. I scuffled around to find a helmet and bat and Birdie Tebbetts was down at the other end of the dugout. He called me over and I went down there with my helmet and bat. He said, “Well kid, you’re in the record books. Go take a shower.” That was my debut!
So awesome to live the dream and have that memory. There was another young pitcher on those Indians team that I wanted to ask you about, Luis Tiant. We always see the highlights of Luis with the Red Sox, but what was he like as a youngster with the Indians?
I met Luis in 1965 in Spring Training with the Indians. The Indians pitching staff was Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, Sonny Seibert and Steve Hargan. If you go back and check over a five year period, I think they hold some strike out records as a team. Luis was a real character and he was always nice to me. He and Gary Bell were always talking smack to each other. Gary was a funny guy and he ran our Kangaroo Court. Luis spoke real broken English at the time. We used to have Chico Salmon translate for us and he would joke that he was hard to understand because he spoke “Hillbilly Spanish.” But it was all in fun. Luis was a funny guy, but it was really something to watch him pitch. He had so many windups and threw from so many different positions. I always thought, “How in the world does he do that and get the ball to go where he wants it to go?” He even had a hesitation pitch. He’d do a full windup, plant his foot, stop for a second and then he’d throw. It wasn’t a full motion. It was something to watch. I believe Luis Tiant should be a Hall of Famer based on his stats, records and longevity. I know there are guys in there that had comparable or less credentials.
I think so too. You mentioned Birdie Tebbetts and when I looked at the managers you played for, there were some pretty big names. Hall of Famer players Joe Gordon and Bob Lemon. Alvin Dark as well. Did you have a favorite manager you played for?
Bob Lemon was my favorite manager. He didn’t criticize much and he let us go out there and play. He relied on his pitching coach to work with us and didn’t overcoach us. That was good for us young guys in Kansas City. I also had some pretty great pitching coaches. Guys like Mel Harder and Early Wynn. Bob Lemon was my pitching coach before he was my manager. Galen Cisco too. The other guys were Hall of Fame material as players; Galen Cisco wasn’t, but he was a great pitching coach. Sometimes guys who have that natural talent don’t make good coaches. But the guys who have to really work at it, learn it, been there-done that just to make it make better coaches. That’s what Galen Cisco was like.
That’s a fantastic list of managers and coaches. You were an original Kansas City Royal in 1969. What was that like being a part of a franchise in their first year of existence?
I got a note that I was drafted by the Royals and leaving Cleveland and I thought it was going to be a good opportunity. There, anyone established on the team because they were brand new. A lot of us were really young, some with no major league experience. The Pilots drafted more established players because they wanted to have veterans right off the bat. We were just young kids trying to learn the game and have fun, and we had a lot of fun. I think that’s why we did so well. We didn’t win anything, but we weren’t at the bottom. We didn’t have any expectations, so we didn’t have that pressure. We beat Minnesota the first day 4-3 in 12 innings. That was the icing on the cake for our first game as the Kansas City Royals.
You had your only career shutout in 1971 and it came against your former team, the Indians. I looked at that box score and Cleveland had Vada Pinson, Ray Fosse, Graig Nettles, Hawk Harrelson and guys like that. Not an easy lineup! Do you remember that game?
I still have the game ball and it’s sitting right here in front of me! I still had a lot of friends on that Cleveland team. It was a good feeling to shut them out. They didn’t give me much of a chance, so it was good to come back and show them what I could do. That was satisfying. They had a good club.
Looking at the American League when you played, there were so many great players you had to face. Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew; the list goes on and on. What did you think about that era in which you played?
Hawk Taylor was one of our catchers with Kansas City. He used to tell us that those guys put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Just go out and face them as an opposing hitter, not as a name that they made for themselves. He would tell me to pitch my game and do it my way and that’s what I tried to do. It didn’t intimidate me to face those guys compared to anyone else; at least outwardly it didn’t!
There were a couple of guys I had to pitch up and in against and Boog Powell was one of them. I had a hard time getting the ball in the strike zone against him because if you left it out over the plate, he would lash a rope out there. I could tell you that Brooks Robinson owned me, but I owned Reggie Jackson. You could check the stats; I did well against Reg. I was just blessed to be in the game and go out and face those kind of guys with that skill and talent. That’s something I don’t take for granted to this day. I have very fond memories of guys I battled hard against.
You had some great success playing Winter Ball too. Would you like to share that experience with us?
I played Winter Ball in Venezuela in 1969 after my first season in Kansas City. I played for the Tiburones in La Guaira and Hector Lopez was my manager. I ended up catching a bronchial flu down there and lost 26 pounds in three weeks. The funny thing about it was that during that time, I pitched 56 innings without allowing an earned run. I ended up with a 10-3 record and a 0.75 ERA in 120 innings. I have a couple of contacts down in Venezuela and they told me to this day, that record still stands.
That’s unbelievable! Did you enjoy travelling internationally like that?
I did. I was actually part of a USO tour during Vietnam too. That was very humbling. Dock Ellis, Bobby Bonds, Mike Kilkenny and I went over there for two weeks. We went to fire support bases and talked to the guys to try to keep their hopes up. We let them know what was going on in the States. I was really proud to be a part of that.
You should be for sure. Do you keep in touch with guys you played with or against?
Yes, some teammates and some I never played with. Some of us are even friends through Facebook. Someone like Jim Gosger. I never played ball with him, but through the Kansas City Baseball Historical Society, we got linked up on Facebook and we talk all the time. It’s good to stay in touch with old baseball guys because we’re all in the same brotherhood.
Indeed sir. This has been an awesome trip down memory lane and I am grateful you took the time to share some stories with us. I just have one last question for you. What are your reflections on achieving that dream so many of us have had; to become a Major League Baseball player?
That was such a long time ago. I know what I did back then. It’s an elite group and not everyone gets to that level. There are a lot of people out there who should have gotten to that level who never did. I never take for granted what I did. I am always proud of what I was able to do. I still get a few autograph requests a week through the mail on baseball cards. I love the fans who send those to me. I feel very humbled every time I read one of their letters and that people still ask for my autograph to this day. I am very proud of it and humbled that people still remember who I am.