Grave Story: Ewing Kauffman (1916-1993)

Here lies Ewing Kauffman, who founded the Kansas City Royals and guided the team for more than 20 years. The Missouri farmboy made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business and gave back to his Kansas City home, not only with a world champion baseball team but also with a philanthropic foundation that continues to operate today.

Ewing Kauffman was born on September 21, 1916, on a farm near Garden City, Mo., which is about 80 miles south of Kansas City. The family moved to Kansas City when he was young after heavy rains ruined three years worth of crops and an accident cost his father, John Kauffman, his right eye.

Kauffman played baseball on Kansas City sandlots until a heart condition forced him into a year of bed rest when he was 11. With nothing to do but read, Kauffman went through dozens of books a month. That year’s rest helped pave his way to becoming one of the sharpest minds on the business world. He attended Westport High School in Kansas City and then Kansas City Junior College, earning a degree in business management. He used his math skills in a practical way while serving in the Navy in World War II. He turned into a poker whiz and exited the Navy with about $46,000, which would help launch his business career.

Kauffman took a job in Kansas City as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company after returning from the War. He worked without a set salary, basing all of his income on sales commissions. He became so successful that those commissions ended giving him a higher income than the company’s president. That didn’t set well with the president, and his compensation was “restructured,” which caused him to set off on his own. In 1950, he launched his own company called Marion Laboratories out of his house — Marion being his middle name.

According to the biography on his foundation’s website (Ewing & Marion Kauffman Foundation), he bought pills in bulk from a St. Louis company and repackaged them for other users. “I would count the tablets out and put them in bottles of one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand. I would label them with my own ‘Manufactured for Marion Laboratories’ label and put them in a box,” he said.

The company had $4,000 in sales in 1952 but steadily grew to the point that it topped $1.25 million in sales by 1959. It moved out its small headquarters to a larger building at 4500 East 75th St. in 1960. Among the company’s early innovations was a process that put a plastic-type coating on pills, which was twice as fast as applying the standard sugary coating.

Marion Laboratories continued to grow and introduce important medicines into the marketplace, and Kauffman was able to show his philanthropic side. In 1962, the company announced its support of a minimal three-year program at the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy to “provide a new concept of cooperative research.” The company pledged at least $178,000 to establish a Division for Industrial Research in the College. The school received a $202,500 grant from Marion Labs in 1964, with a project involving the syntheses and study of “novel organic compounds having marked activity in the cardiovascular area,” according to Kauffman.

By 1968, Marion Laboratories was an unqualified success. Ewing Kauffman was called “Midas-like” in the Kansas City papers, as everything he touched turned to gold. His wife, Muriel, was a cornerstone of the Kansas City society. Marion Laboratories went public in 1966, and the resulting cashflow left the Kauffmans with a major windfall. Muriel decided that her husband was working too hard and needed a diversion.

“She is from Toronto, and she’s loved race horses all her life,” Kauffman said. “She said, ‘Let’s buy some race horses’, but I just laughed at her.

“I never thought about making money out of it,” he added.

The laughing probably stopped when the horses started winning. One of them, Moontrip, won $50,000 at a race in Bowling Green and $59,000 in Manhattan. Again, a Kauffman venture turned into a financial success.

This statue of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman stands outside the Kauffman Foundation’s building in Kansas City, Mo.

So now that we’ve talked about success, let’s talk about the Kansas City Athletics for a change. The Athletics, of course, started in Philadelphia, where they were occasionally one of the best teams in baseball. They won back-to-back World Series in 1929 and 1930 and lost the ’31 Series to the Cardinals. But the A’s never stayed too good for too long, as owner Connie Mack inevitably gutted his team for financial reasons. After a couple more good seasons, the team went through a fire sale that dropped them into the AL cellar. From 1935 through its last year in Philadelphia — 1954 — the team finished over .500 four times and finished dead last 11 times. The team was sold to businessman Arnold Johnson, who moved the team to Kansas City. Johnson died in 1960, and Charles Finley acquired the team from his widow.

The A’s fortunes did not improve in Kansas City, no matter who the owner was. In the 13 seasons the team was in town (1955-1967), it never finished over .500 and had five last-place finishes. Finley announced plans to move the team to Oakland for the 1968 season, giving up on Kansas City completely.

Kansas City’s association with professional baseball dated back into the 19th Century, so baseball fans there did not take the news well. Facing threats to its antitrust exemption from Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), MLB hastily moved up a planned expansion and awarded franchises to Kansas City and Seattle for the 1969 season.

Kauffman was persuaded into making a bid for a new baseball franchise, though he didn’t know the first thing about operating a team. He understood how important baseball was to Kansas City’s economy, and it was a way to give back to the community. Muriel also encouraged the prospect.

“She said baseball would give me a new challenge, provide enjoyment and lengthen my life,” Kauffman said. Considering she proved right about race horses, he wisely heeded her advice.

The Kauffman Gardens, where Ewing and Muriel Kauffman are buried, is a beautiful spot for a visit.

Many bids from potential Kansas City owners popped up. When the announcement was made on January 11, 1968, Ewing Kauffman was named the sole owner of the Kansas City franchise. The initial cost to own an MLB team was $7 million.

“We feel that Kauffman is a man of prominence and that he will be the same in the nation and the American League. We had the feeling that there was none better than Ewing,” explained Bob Reynolds, president-director of the California Angels, who was part of the screening committee that selected Kauffman.

While he didn’t have any baseball experience beyond playing on sandlots, Kauffman did believe in giving his executives complete authority. He vowed to get the best baseball man he could find to run the team and stay out of his way. He also set up a timetable for the team. It would have a board of directors within a week, an executive vice president soon after that, a first-division club within five years and an AL pennant within eight years.

The board of directors included Kauffman and his wife, along with locals like Ernie Mehl, former sports editor of the Kansas City Star and chairman of the Kansas City Sports Commission, and Earl Smith, baseball chairman of the commission. His first hire was Cedric Tallis as executive vice president. Tallis, who came from the Angels, traded for future Royals stars like Amos Otis, Hal McRae and John Mayberry.

A fan contest to name the team resulted in the Kansas City Royals. The winning entry, submitted by fan Sanford Porte, was chosen as an homage to the American Royal livestock show and rodeo, held annually in Kansas City. It also is a nice tip of the cap to the famed Kansas City Monarchs Negro Leagues baseball team, even if it was not the intent.

The Royals began play on April 8, 1969. They won their first ever game, 4-3 over the Twins, thanks to a 10th inning walk-off single by Joe Keough. The Royals finished 69-93 under manager Joe Gordon, but in 1971, they won 85 games and finished in second place. The last part of Kauffman’s eight-year plan, winning an AL pennant, would prove tricky. The Royals finished first in their division from 1976 through 1978, but each year they lost the AL Championship Series to the Yankees.

Kauffman, true to his word, let the baseball people run the baseball product. The Royals made shrewd trades and drafted well, thanks in part to scouting director (and Hall-of-Fame executive) John Schuerholz and others like Lou Gorman and Jack McKeon. The Royals launched a good number of successful baseball executive careers, in fact. Home-grown talent like George Brett, Willie Wilson and Dennis Leonard established themselves as stars and helped the Royals become one of the top teams in the league.

Kauffman did come up with the idea of creating a baseball academy in Sarasota, Fla. He spent millions on it and dispatched recruiters to look for young, talented athletes — no baseball experience necessary. He believed that good ballplayers could be taught, as long as they had the basic athletic abilities. The Academy only lasted a few years, but thanks to its existence, the Royals found Frank White, one of the team’s all-time greats.

More from the Kauffman Gardens.

He also defied convention in the construction of Royals Stadium, which opened in 1973. Every other baseball stadium built between 1962 and 1991 was a multi-use stadium, made to accommodate baseball and football. Royals Stadium was built for baseball and only for baseball, and after more than 40 years of operation, it is still one of the best places in the country to take in a ballgame. The giant Royals-logo-shaped scoreboard and the outfield fountains are among its most distinctive features. Kauffman made sure it would be ready for the 1973 Opening Day by pouring an extra $7 million of his own money into the project to ward off delays.

While the Royals were on their upward trend, Marion Laboratories continued its success. The company made Kauffman a billionaire by the time he sold it, but he didn’t hoard the wealth. Thanks to stock options, many of the company’s employees ended up as millionaires. One maintenance man who retired in 1969 left the company with $200,000 in retirement and $400,000 in stock.

Oddly, as much as Kauffman was generous to his employees, he was a fierce proponent of baseball’s reserve clause. He filed a lawsuit in 1975 to prevent Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally from taking their demands for free agency to an arbitrator. Neither pitcher was a Royal, but Kauffman took the initial action because he feared their success would jeopardize his own team’s success. He went so far as to state that he would not have invested so heavily into the Royals (about $20 million to that point) if not for the reserve clause. That lawsuit, which all the other teams joined, went down to defeat, paving the way to free agency.

The Royals captured that elusive AL pennant in 1980. They lost the World Series to the Phillies, but five years later, the 1985 Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to become World Champions for the first time. Kauffman, who could be found in the middle of the champagne and beer showers in earlier postseason wins, celebrated his team’s greatest success to the side. When asked, he expressed his happiness for the people of Kansas City.

“Mrs. Kauffman and I were thinking back over our lives,” he said. “We have been very fortunate. She asked me what I want more than anything else, and I said a World Series championship for Kansas City.”

Kauffman by then was worth about $190 million, but the business decisions for the Royals started to go badly. He had a partner for a time, Memphis real estate developer Avron Fogelman, and the two had an agreement that would eventually transfer the team to Fogelman’s ownership. That plan evaporated in 1991, when Fogelman ran into financial problems, defaulted on a loan, and had his 50 percent stake in the team transferred back to Kauffman.

Kauffman also established a policy against chasing after higher-priced free agents. The Royals still had some good teams after the 1985 season, and the addition of players like Kirk Gibson could have pushed them over the top. As it was, the Royals fell short and eventually fell under .500. He later feuded with Bo Jackson, the two-sport superstar who was released by the Royals after injuring his hip while playing football. Kauffman said he tried to dissuade the slugger from playing football, and Jackson called the owner a liar and said there was a vendetta against him.

Away from the field, Kauffman established Project Choice at his old high school. He promised a free ride to college to the Class of 1992 for any student who wanted it, provided they make good grades in high school and avoid drugs, alcohol or teenage pregnancy. That program expanded to multiple high schools throughout Kansas City and lasted until 2001.

With his health declining, Kauffman figured out a way to keep the Royals in Kansas City, long after his death. When he couldn’t find a buyer who would promise to keep the team in Kansas City, he devised a complex succession plan. Kauffman essentially donated the team to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and charged them with finding a buyer. The two provisions were that the buyer would agree to keep the team in Kansas City, and the proceeds of the sale would go to local charities. Kansas City Star guest columnist (and GKCCF CEO) Debbie Wilkinson wrote in 2014 that it was the only time a professional sports franchise has been donated to charity. It took some legal wrangling and the IRS to sign off on the move, but it ensured the Royals would remain in Kansas City.

Ewing Kauffman’s last public appearance, when he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. Source: The Manhattan Mercury, May 24, 1997.

On May 19, 1993, Kauffman announced that he had been diagnosed with bone cancer. His last public appearance came on May 23, when he was inducted into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. His entire speech is as follows: “You are well aware that the associates of the Royals earned all the awards I will ever receive. I just want to ask you two questions. Number one, will you write your congressmen and senators to keep baseball in Kansas City? Number two, how do you like your fighting Kansas City Royals?”

He was too ill to attend a ceremony held in his honor on July 2, when Royals Stadium was renamed Kauffman Stadium. Muriel attended in his place and told the crowd that Mr. K never wanted anything made of bricks and mortar named after him. “I told him, ‘There’s a baseball diamond there, dear,'” she said.

Ewing Kauffman died on August 1, 1993 at the age of 76. “We wouldn’t have baseball in Kansas City without him,” Royals manager Hal McRae said at Kauffman’s induction into the Royals Hall of Fame. “We wouldn’t have a lot of good things in the community that we have, without him.”

More than 3,000 people attended Kauffman’s memorial service in The Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Dr. Robert Meneilly, presiding over the service, noted that the Kauffman Foundation would continue to do good in the community he loved.

“People far beyond this community will derive the benefits of his generosity and his foresight. Mr. Kauffman believed strongly that great wealth should be considered a sacred trust.”

Muriel Kauffman continued her own philanthropic work until her death at the age of 79 on March 17, 1995. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, located in Kansas City, is part of her great legacy. The Kauffmans are buried at the Ewing and Muriel Memorial Garden in Kansas City. It’s a beautiful and tranquil botanical garden with bronze statues, fountains, walkways and sitting areas. It’s well worth a visit, beyond its baseball significance.

Ewing Kauffman is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are plenty of obvious oversights when it comes to enshrinement in Cooperstown, but this one doesn’t get talked about. Between the success that the Royals had under his ownership and his philanthropic nature, Kauffman would seem to tick off all the boxes for a Hall of Famer. Hopefully the Veterans Committee will make it right one of these years.

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