On a summer night in 1999, Dick Kaegel strolled into the Otesaga Hotel, where the living legends of the National Baseball Hall of Fame hold their Cooperstown, N.Y., congregation for the Hall’s annual induction ceremonies. The man playing his harmonica for an assembled lobby audience stopped and made an announcement.
“Hey everybody!” the man proclaimed. “Here’s Dick Kaegel from St. Louis and Kansas City!”
That man was “Stan the Man” -- Stan Musial. Kaegel had grown up idolizing Musial as a boy in southwest Illinois, so getting introduced by the man himself was one of the great thrills of Kaegel’s life. But Cooperstown offered yet another thrill for Kaegel this weekend, when he officially received the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s 2021 Career Excellence Award.
The award salutes the 81-year-old Kaegel’s six-decade career covering the Royals, Cardinals and Major League Baseball at large for MLB.com, the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Sporting News and other outlets. It is the highest honor a baseball writer can receive. In a presentation broadcast on MLB Network on Sunday, Kaegel was saluted alongside the 2020 Career Excellence Award winner, the late Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, as well as the 2020 and 2021 Ford C. Frick Award winners -- Ken “Hawk” Harrelson and Al Michaels, respectively.
“I just tried to do my job, work hard and respect others,” Kaegel said in his acceptance speech. “Especially the ballplayers I covered.”
That respect flowed both ways, as evidenced by Stan the Man’s introduction of Kaegel -- who indeed was “from St. Louis and Kansas City” in the eyes of those in the baseball world.
To simultaneously serve as a representatives of both anchors of the state of Missouri is quite a trick, but Kaegel pulled it off with long runs covering each of the Show-Me State’s two squads.
Kaegel’s baseball-writing career began, as he put it, “right at the top,” covering four games of the 1964 World Series at Sportsman’s Park to write about Cardinals replacement second baseman Dal Maxvill for his hometown Granite City (Ill.) Press-Record.
From there, Kaegel served as an associate editor at the Sporting News for three years and a Cardinals beat reporter and then executive sports editor for the Post-Dispatch for 12 years. He returned to the Sporting News as editor in 1981, managing the content for the ”Bible of Baseball” during a pivotal period when baseball fans eagerly awaited its Thursday arrival by mail. In 1988, Kaegel crossed the state to Kansas City to cover the Royals for the Star. He made a crossover of a different sort in 2003, when he embraced the internet era and turned in his ink-stained fingers for the bigger bandwidth of MLB.com -- where he graced the Royals’ site with his daily coverage until his retirement in 2014.
Kaegel’s last assignment? The Royals’ appearance in the 2014 World Series, exactly 50 years after his first Fall Classic.
“I covered a lot of baseball history, ranging from the famous World Series home runs of Carlton Fisk and Kirk Gibson to the devastating San Francisco earthquake,” Kaegel said. “But when you leave the everyday life of baseball, it’s really the people of the game that you miss and remember. Not only the men on the field but the teams’ hard-working, behind-the-scenes staff and the guys and gals who welcome you to the stadium with a friendly greeting every day. All of you folks always contributed to every story I wrote. It was you who made this honor possible. So please, let me share it with each and every one of you.”
As compelling as the stories Kaegel told were, his own story is one of survival. In 2006, he went to the doctor for routine blood work and was told that he had three cancerous masses in his liver. He was given three to six months to live with the inoperable condition. But his wife, Betty, implored him to fight and to seek out an organ transplant.
Three months later, Kaegel received the liver that saved his life.
After four years of medications and hospital stays as his body adjusted, Kaegel, in 2011, decided to do something that said a lot about him both as a scribe and as a person: He covered every single home and road game on the Royals’ schedule -- all in order to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation, in general, and the Gift of Life donor program, in particular.
So among the many people Kaegel thanked in his speech -- from Betty to his late parents to his editors and BBWAA brethren over the years -- he also made sure to thank the “anonymous angel” who gave him the gift of life.
Kaegel also had warm words for Mike and Ileana Hosmer, the parents of former Royals and current Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer. When visiting with Kaegel one day at Kauffman Stadium before a game a few years ago, they recognized symptoms of heart trouble and insisted he go to the hospital. Kaegel wound up getting emergency, life-saving heart surgery.
Add all those experiences together and one can understand why Kaegel’s honor meant more to him than just recognition of a job well done. It was representation of how much the game has meant to his life.
“Baseball truly is a family,” Kaegel concluded. “And it is a great one.”