Amos Otis

This article was written by Bill Lamberty

 

Late in the evening of May 15, 1973, Amos Otis lifted a Nolan Ryan fastball to Royals Stadium’s spacious right-center-field gap. Angels right fielder Ken Berry “pulled it down,” Otis told the Kansas City Star. “Right there on the warning track. If Bob Oliver (whom Berry had replaced for defensive purposes) had been out there, I’d have had it, I’d have broken it up.”1

Instead, with Otis’s help, Ryan took a major step on the path that led him to immortality. The no-hitter was the first of seven fired by the famed Ryan Express. Ryan’s career would lead him to the Hall of Fame, while Otis played for another decade and remains one of the most productive and popular players in Royals history.2

While no one could have known it at the time, Otis and Ryan remain linked for another reason. The two came to symbolize the futility of the 1970s New York Mets, and are widely considered parts of the two worst trades ever made by the Mets.3 Ryan brought shortstop Jim Fregosi to the Mets, but Otis netted New York’s National League entry much less in return. The fledgling Royals received Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson for third baseman Joe Foy, who played only 140 more games in the majors, while Johnson was later shipped from Kansas City in a package of players that brought the Royals Freddie Patek.

Otis, however, was stellar. Sandwiching short stints with the Mets at the beginning of his career with a partial season in Pittsburgh at the end, Otis became a Royals legend. The five-time All-Star finished in the top 10 among AL players in OPS twice, was among the best 10 players in the junior circuit in runs created four times, and as of 2018 stood in the top five in games played (third, 1,891), runs scored (second, 1,074), RBIs (third, 992), walks (second, 739), and stolen bases (second, 340), and ranked in KC’s top five in every offensive career category except batting average. He helped lead the Royals from the futility of its brief expansion era to one of baseball’s most successful in less than a decade, and inspired the chants of “Aaaay-Oh! Aaaay-Oh!” that reverberated across the shimmering turf of sparkling Royals Stadium.

And while every Mets fan knows that the organization let Amos Otis slip through its hands, few know that he actually got away twice. In 1964, the year before the mahor leagues instituted the amateur player draft system, Otis was among 35 players flown to Shea Stadium for a workout during a Mets road trip. Sending Otis home to Mobile, the Mets told him they would contact him.4

Otis heard from a major-league team several months later, but it wasn’t the Mets. The Boston Red Sox drafted him with the 95th selection of the first draft. Like his hometown hero Hank Aaron, Otis was drafted as a shortstop. Mobile produced Hall of Famers Aaron and Billy Williams and major-league regulars like Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones, Otis’s future Mets teammates, but Otis remains the only player ever drafted out of the city’s Williamson High School who made it to the major leagues. Otis hit .329 with 9 home runs and 10 stolen bases on the Appalachian League’s Harlan club in 1965, leading third basemen in fielding (.910), chances accepted (134), and double plays (13).

The success on the diamond masked a tumultuous summer off the field. One of two African Americans on the squad, Otis recalled in a 1969 New York Times feature that he received an anonymous phone call several weeks into the season admonishing him to leave town in strongly-worded, racially-inflamed language. The Red Sox chose not to heed Otis’s pleas for reassignment, and he and teammate Bobby Mitchell endured sporadic threats and harassment not uncommon in the 1960s American South through the rest of the summer.5

If Otis needed a change in scenery, it would arrive soon. He advanced to Oneonta of the New York-Penn League the next season, and responded by earning all-star honors. He hit .270 with three homers, drawing 39 walks in 419 at-bats while stealing 14 bases. After the season ended, though, Otis received a jolt. The Mets, two years after working him out at Shea Stadium, drafted him from Boston’s farm system on November 29, 1966, in that year’s minor-league draft.6

Taking the move in stride, Otis hit .268 in 407 at-bats for Triple-A Jacksonville in 1967, with 11 doubles, 7 triples, and 3 home runs. He stole 29 bases, earning a September call-up to Shea Stadium. Otis indicated in a 1996 Sports Collectors Digest interview that he arrived in the majors with a clear sense of his defensive role, although New York manager Wes Westrum initially played him at third base. “I was a jack-of-all-trades in high school,” Otis said. “I could play all nine positions. I started out my pro career at shortstop, kind of lost interest at shortstop and moved over to third base for a while. Then I was the fastest guy in the outfield for the Mets and then I wanted to be an outfielder.”7

Returning to Jacksonville in 1968, Otis settled in for an outstanding season. He hit 15 home runs, matching his previous career total as a professional, and stole 21 bases. He again earned all-star honors and played in the Triple-A all-star contest.

Otis’s 1968 season landed him in an awkward position entering spring training in 1969. The 22-year-old was lauded as “the best piece of property we’ve got”8 by Mets farm director Whitey Herzog, who would be instrumental to Otis’s career in Kansas City, and New York general manager Bob Murphy tagged Otis as “untouchable” in trade negotiations with Atlanta for Joe Torre before the 1969 campaign.9 Drawing scorn from Braves GM Paul Richards (who asked, a few months early, “If they got so many ‘untouchables’ on that club, how come they haven’t won any pennants?”) as well as the New York sporting press, that untouchable list included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Bud Harrelson.10 Howard Cosell even asked Otis in one spring-training interview if he expected to win Rookie of the Year honors.11

If trying to break into a lineup for a New York major-league team wasn’t pressure enough, the label of untouchable was. “That untouchable label was a terrible burden,” Otis told sportswriter Arthur Daley in 1971.12 Although seen as a utility infielder during the winter months, he broke camp as a third baseman. Veteran Ed Charles earned time at third to begin the season, but when opportunity knocked Otis responded. He told the St. Petersburg Independent in 1971 that “the season started and I didn’t play for three weeks. After they had a losing streak I finally got to play and we broke the streak. Then (the press) started coming out with all this ‘phenom Otis breaks streak’ and all that stuff. I played three games in a row,” then returned to spot duty, playing primarily as a defensive replacement for the next several weeks. His bat went cold.13

On June 15, with only six hits to his credit in 66 at-bats, Otis was farmed out to make way for Donn Clendenon. Otis saw some action in September, but his September 2 recall eliminated him from consideration for the postseason roster. In fact, Murphy said that “Gil liked what he saw of him in the final series in Philadelphia,” saying Gil Hodges claimed Otis “looked like the player we always said he was.” Otis’s teammates appreciated his performance enough to vote him a World Series share, although he didn’t receive a championship ring.14

Significantly, Otis earned a second look from Hodges while playing center field. He also opened the eyes of Cedric Tallis, Kansas City’s general manager. Tallis built those teams by acquiring young talent, and the Mets stood as Tallis’s first victim. Immediately after the December 3 trade that moved him to the American League, the Royals installed Otis in Municipal Stadium’s spacious center field. Kansas City manager Charlie Metro said Otis’s acquisition was made to plug Kansas City’s hole in center field.15

Tallis correctly read New York’s displeasure with 35-year-old Ed Charles and Wayne Garrett, and the organization’s desperation to plug a hole at third base that had been a sore spot since the organization’s inception in 1962, and hawked the Mets through the summer and fall with the idea of moving Foy. “During the World Series, we sent a lot of people to Baltimore and New York. I assigned two men to each of the other 23 clubs to sound out their needs and what they would give in a trade,” Tallis said.16 He said the Mets had tried to acquire a young third baseman from Cleveland, but the teams didn’t match up. Negotiations began between the Mets and Royals at the World Series, according to Tallis, with talks heating up at the general managers meetings in Colorado Springs. “That was a kind of four-day outing, mostly golfing. Murphy didn’t play golf but we got together at night. We couldn’t agree at that time, but promised to talk again at the Winter Meetings in Miami. Bob Scheffing (who succeeded Murphy) and Whitey Herzog (farm system director for the Mets) was there, too. We finally made the deal with Foy going to New York and Otis and Johnson coming here.”17

Evaluating the opportunity facing him, Otis celebrated in ironic fashion. “December third was the happiest day of my life. I didn’t get to drink any of that World Series champagne, but on the day I was traded my wife and I went out and bought our only bottle,” he said in 1970.18 Otis never meshed with New York’s stoic manager Gil Hodges. When wished good luck by his former boss at the 1970 All-Star Game, Otis commented later that the salutation was about half the number of words Hodges had spoken to him in his entire time with the Mets.19 Still, Otis headed to America’s Heartland with mixed emotions: “The disappointment came from being traded from a World Series champ to an expansion team; it had only been around one year. The best thing about that was there were no superstars over there; the only name recognized there was Lou Piniella. He was Rookie of the Year that year. So it was like I went from being on top of the water barrel to being under the water barrel. That was probably my biggest thrill in baseball, getting a chance to play more in Kansas City and I stayed there for 14 years.”20

He also continued to hold mixed emotions about his opportunity in New York. In an August 1970 interview Otis said, “I didn’t want to play third with the Mets, but I think I could have played it if I’d really gotten a shot at it. But three games? That’s no test. I never got an explanation from anyone why I was benched.”21 Hodges showed little remorse in letting Otis go, commenting after the deal that it may have been “unfair to the boy to ask him to play third. He didn’t like the position and he didn’t play well there.”22 Comments by Hodges in the spring of 1969 offer further clues to the uneven career and limited opportunity Otis experienced in New York. “Lackadaisical is the word people in our organization use” to describe Otis, Hodges said in March 1969. “Seems like I play my best ball when they’re pushing me,” Otis admitted in that same article.23

Otis’s impact in Kansas City was immediate and unquestionable. In 1971 he recounted an incident during spring training in 1970. “I was standing in the outfield not far from the right-field foul line when I saw Charlie Metro walking toward me. I didn’t even know what to say to him and so I headed toward center field. I looked again and he was coming my way. Finally he pinned me against the left-field fence. ‘Amos,’ he said, ‘you’re my center fielder for as long as you can hold the job.’”24

On his way to hitting .284 in 1970 with 36 doubles, tied for the league lead, Otis reached base by hit or walk in 135 of his 159 games. He became the Royals’ second All-Star and was involved in one of the best-known plays in All-Star Game history. Otis made the throw to the plate on which Pete Rose collided with Ray Fosse. That throw, Otis recalled in 1996, spawned the nickname Famous Amos “because I made that great throw from center field. It was a one-hop throw. … That’s the way baseball’s supposed to be played.”25

If 1970 announced Otis’s arrival, the next year marked his coming-out party. Playing in 147 games, Otis stole a league-leading 52 bases in 60 attempts to set a stolen-base percentage record, and hammered 15 home runs with 26 doubles. His 1971 honors included the Kansas City Sports Personality of the Year Award from the city’s Jewish Community Center. The Royals continued to improve, adding Patek, Cookie Rojas, and John Mayberry to the infield mix through trades and matriculating George Brett and Paul Splittorff through the farm system, and battled Oakland through the Athletics’ five-year run of division crowns (1971-75). Otis played well through this period, earning renown for his speed and glove. He led AL outfielders in putouts (404) and total chances (418) in 1971, and on September 7 that season stole five bases in a nine-inning game against Milwaukee, one short of the major-league record. He became the first player since 1927 with five swipes in a game, and only the fifth since 1900 to do so. Otis and Patek swiped 101 stolen bases between them that season, the highest total by two American League players with 49 or more stolen bases on the same team since 1917.26 In 1973 Otis finished third in AL MVP voting, behind Reggie Jackson and Jim Palmer.

Otis’s production slipped some in 1974, a season in which some hard feelings emerged on both sides in his relationship with Royals fans. “I can’t help it if I make things look easy,” Otis said early in 1975 about the perception that he occasionally coasted. “Even in 1973, when I had my best year, people said I could do better. Last year I didn’t have the year I wanted to have. I got to pressing. It was just something I couldn’t overcome. Everything I do on this team, I’m first or second. I can’t do much more than that. I know I didn’t have the year I wanted, but you can’t always do it. I got so I hated to come to the park. It was embarrassing. … As soon as you came out of the dugout, they were on you. After a while, you just hated to play.”27

On April 30 and May 1, 1975, Otis tied an AL record for most steals in two consecutive games (seven), but he struggled with injuries and a midseason tonsillectomy during the season and finished with a .247 average, although his walk total spiked to 66 in 470 at-bats and his on-base percentage held at .342. Otis rebounded in 1976, and Kansas City finally outraced Oakland to the American League’s West Division championship. The postseason brought heartache, however. Leading off the bottom of the first in Game One of the ALCS at Royals Stadium, Otis severely sprained his ankle running out a grounder at first base and missed the remainder of the series. Kansas City was locked into a 6-6 tie with the Yankees in the deciding Game Five when Chris Chambliss’s home run off Mark Littell launched New York into the World Series for the first time in a dozen years, and also began a string of three straight American League Championship Series where New York beat the Royals for the AL pennant.

Otis nearly made another career move after Kansas City’s first divisional crown. The Royals completed a deal sending Otis and Cookie Rojas to Pittsburgh over the winter, but Rojas voided the transaction.28 Even then, Otis was a fixture in the Royals outfield. He won Gold Glove Awards in 1971, ’73, and ’74, and was Kansas City’s Player of the Year in ’71, ’73, and ’78. He led AL outfielders in fielding average in 1978 and ’79, and in 1980 the Royals finally beat the Yankees to advance to the World Series. Otis belted three home runs and hit .478 in a losing effort against the Phillies.

Throughout his Kansas City career, one of Otis’s calling cards was his one-handed style of catching fly balls in center field. Bucking a century of conventional wisdom that called for two-handed catches, Otis came upon his unique style early in his Royals career. While trying to help raw, athletic outfielder Pat Kelly, who tended toward nervousness in the field, Otis demonstrated that waiting on a fly ball after reaching its approximate landing spot in the outfield called for patience, not nerves. “I was trying to show him he didn’t have to be nervous or tense while waiting for the ball,” Otis said. “After a while, it felt awkward going back to two hands. I decided to go ahead and catch everything one-handed. I feel more comfortable, and I think it helps my throwing.”29

While his smooth defensive play and cool demeanor were occasionally misdiagnosed as hot-dogging or loafing, Otis became a fan favorite in Kansas City. He was also noted for acts of kindness and compassion. On September 12, 1977, with Kansas City cruising to its second straight American League West crown, a game in Royals Stadium was postponed because of a drenching storm. As 16 inches of rain swamped the city and flooded many areas, eventually resulting in 25 deaths, Otis came across eight wet, frightened boys. He piled them into his Lincoln Continental, fed them, and lodged them for the evening. One of the youngsters to whose aid Otis came, Richard Brown, eventually became a Missouri state legislator and in 2017 sponsored a proclamation commemorating the flood and honoring Otis as a Good Samaritan and humanitarian. “I was doing what any other dad would have done,” Otis said.30

After Otis played the two guaranteed seasons on a $1.27 million contract, the Royals declined to exercise a club option prior to the 1984 season in order to make room for Willie Wilson in center field. Otis hooked on with the Pirates, but was released in August, ending his career. Otis remained sporadically active in baseball after his playing days, working in the Rockies organization as a hitting instructor for a time in the late 1990s. Along with pitcher Steve Busby, Otis was in the Royals Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction class and remained a Royals icon.

Last revised: June 1, 2019

 

This biography appears in "Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition" (SABR, 2019), edited by Bill Nowlin. An earlier version appeared in SABR's "The Miracle Has Landed: The Amazin' Story of how the 1969 Mets Shocked The World" (Maple Street Press, 2009), edited by Matthew Silverman and Ken Samelson.

 

Notes

1 Sam Mellinger, “Amos Otis Remembers the Last No-Hitter Thrown Against the Royals,” Kansas City Star, May 19, 2008.

2 Ibid.

3 Jocelyn Taub, “New York Mets: The Team’s 10 Worst Trades Ever,” BleacherReport.com, December 14, 2011. The trades are also linked in several other online sites, including “The 15 Worst Trades in New York Mets History” on sportster.com, January 5, 2006, and a Fangraphs.com analysis “The Best and Worst Teams of the Trade,” from February 10, 2005.

4 “Otis, Met Rookie ‘Untouchable,’ Is Forced to Third Base by Mobile Neighbors,” New York Times, March 23, 1969.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Gary Herron, “Another Famous Amos (Otis) Offers Some Pretty Startling Revelations … for the Record,” Sports Collectors Digest, February 9, 1996.

8 Jack Lang, “Versatile Otis – Mets Blue-Chip Prospect,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1968: 52.

9 Jack Lang, “Mets’ Otis Available – And Murphy Enjoys Dig at Richards,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1969: 44.

10 Ibid.

11 Jack Lang, “Versatile Otis – Mets Blue-Chip Prospect.”

12 Arthur Daley, “The Mets Had Him and Let Him Get Away,” New York Times, August 18, 1971.

13 Ibid.

14 Lang, “Mets’ Otis Available – And Murphy Enjoys Dig at Richards.”

15 Joe McGuff, “Otis Loosens Up – He’s One of the Royals’ Elites,” Kansas City Star, March 27, 1971.

16 Joe Trimble, “Ex-Met Otis Spurs Royals,” New York Daily News, August 26, 1970.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Murray Chass, “Steady Work Agrees with Otis,” New York Times, August 28, 1970.

20 Herron.

21 Paul Ballot, “Otis Feels Royal in Kansas City,” Newsday, August 15, 1970.

22 Joe McGuff, “Royals Counting on Big Lift from Otis,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969: 38.

23 Jack Lang, “Mets to Put a Burr Under Otis’ Saddle,” The Sporting News, March 22, 1969: 19.

24 Daley.

25 Herron.

26 Joe McGuff, “101 Heists: Royals’ Otis, Patek, Now Steal Kings,” The Sporting News, October 23, 1971: 16, 40.

27 Joe McGuff, “Next MVP Could be Otis, Asserts Royals’ McKeon,” The Sporting News, May 10, 1975.

28 Joe McGuff, “Cookie Balks – Royals’ Trade Collapses,” The Sporting News, December 27, 1975: 50.

29 Sid Bordman, “Royals’ Otis En Route to Super Star Status,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1971: 3.

30 Eric Adler, “I Was Doing What Any Other Dad Would Have Done’: Royals Star Helped Kids in KC Flood,” Kansas City Star, September 8, 2017.