KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Kansas City Royals took the field for their first game in 1969, it wasn’t just the beginning of a great sports franchise, but the beginning of lifelong relationships for many of the people working behind the scenes.
Nelson Thomas began the season selling concessions inside Municipal Stadium. After a few games, the stadium’s operation manager, who attended the same church as Thomas, asked the teenager if he wanted to be the team’s batboy.
Thomas remembers going to the stadium to meet with the team’s General Manager Cedric Tallis.
“I came down here, about 15 years old, and asked to speak with Cedric Tallis. They looked at me like, ‘Who is this little guy talking about speaking to Cedric Tallis?’,” Thomas remembered 53 years later.
Tallis only had one question for Thomas: could he do the job? Thomas replied with a confident “yes” and began right away.
Besides being on the field during games to pick up the bats Royals players dropped after a hit, Thomas did a lot of work before the game in the clubhouse. He often shined the players’ shoes or picked up barbecue from Arthur Bryant’s and now-closed Harris Barbecue.
Partway through the season, the Royals’ original batboy returned and Thomas landed another role with the team: on the grounds crew.
Legendary groundskeeper George Toma was early in his career in 1969. He quickly saw something in Thomas.
“Nelson was one of the leaders with Geno [Armstrong]. He was a tall, thin boy. Nelson was a leader,” Toma remembered.
Thomas, who attended Central High School, worked with Toma until 1973 when the Royals moved from Municipal Stadium to what is now called Kauffman Stadium at the Truman Sports Complex.
During those years, Thomas and fellow members of the crew developed a reputation for sweeping the field during the 5th inning of games at lightning fast speed, once completing the routine in 26 seconds.
“We took a lot of pride in it that. We would challenge other ground crews: beat our record. We made a mark,” Thomas said with a puffed chest all these years later.
Toma stuck with the Royals (and the city’s football team, the Chiefs) when the Truman Sports Complex opened. He’s since helped prepare the field for every single Super Bowl and is in several halls of fame, including the Royals’. He gives credit for his success to Thomas and the other teenagers who worked before and after school during the early stages of his career.
“You can bet your boots the fingerprints of these young boys from Lincoln and Central High School are on any event [I attended] or award I ever made,” Toma said. “They’re the ones that made me.”
Thomas is planning a reunion for the Royals’ original grounds crew. He would also like to create a foundation in Toma’s name to give teenagers supplies and training to run their own landscaping businesses.