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One Last Play: A Former All Star Helped Kill Stadium Financing for His Old Team

Frank White was a Hall of Fame second baseman for the Royals. As county executive, he persuaded voters that sales taxes for a new stadium were a bad idea.

Jackson County, Mo., Executive Frank White
Frank White was one of the greatest players in Royals history. In retirement, his relations with the team have sometimes been rocky.
Jared Brey
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

In late March, some of the biggest names in professional sports appeared in a TV ad urging residents of Jackson County, Mo., to vote. It wasn’t an anodyne appeal to civic duty. Instead, the stars — including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, fresh off the latest of their three Super Bowl wins in the past five years — wanted voters to back a sales tax to fund renovations for the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium and help pay for a new stadium for the Kansas City Royals.

It seemed like a safe bet in a town whose professional sports teams are an enormous source of local pride. The 3/8-cent sales tax had already been approved by voters years before, bringing in about $50 million a year for the two teams. Now they hoped to extend it for another 40 years.

But as the votes were tallied on April 2, it quickly became apparent that the teams had lost. Despite the looming threat that the Royals and Chiefs could leave Missouri if the tax didn’t pass — and despite nearly the entire political establishment lining up behind the “Yes” campaign — almost 60 percent of voters said “No.”

One of the few elected leaders to publicly oppose the deal, and the one who arguably played the biggest role in its defeat, was Frank White, a hometown hero who played 18 seasons for the Royals, appeared in five All-Star Games, won the 1985 World Series, and now serves as the third-term Jackson County executive. How did a Royals Hall of Famer become one of the biggest obstacles to the team’s vision for a new stadium in downtown Kansas City? It’s actually pretty simple, he explained. He thought it was a bad deal for the county. “The voters just didn’t have enough information, and they didn’t have enough confidence in the information” that the teams shared about their plans, White said in an interview a couple weeks after the vote. “I didn’t want that to be my legacy, where I voted to put something on the ballot with no agreement and give the teams access to $2 billion with no accountability. I didn’t want that on my resume.”

Since making the transition from sports to politics, White has pushed for improvements to Kansas City’s east side, where he grew up, and sought to invest in the county’s parks and other public infrastructure. But he has struggled to maintain productive relationships with his fellow county officials and build majority support for his agenda. Finding himself thrust into the middle of the debate over stadium funding, White saw an opportunity to bring more public resources back to the county.

Despite his up-close experience with the sports business, though, he says he couldn’t get the county Legislature to trust him to negotiate a better deal. They overrode his veto and put the sales-tax question before voters. When it comes to working with other politicians, White says, “The biggest thing you really fight for is respect.”

Defensive Play

One reason Frank White was able to make a successful late-career entry into politics is because of his early career success as the Royals’ second baseman, where he was known for his fast, precise defensive play. And one reason he excelled at second base, his father once put forward, was that he’d spent time picking cotton as a child on his grandparents’ farm in Mississippi. “It had really sharp edges, and you had to use your fingers and your thumb to get it out — and you really did develop a method to get it out without getting stuck,” White wrote in his 2012 memoir, One Man’s Dream: My Town, My Team, My Time.

White, who is 73, was born in Greenville, Miss., but grew up on the predominantly Black east side of Kansas City. He was an athletic kid. He loved playing baseball, and when he ran out of balls to hit, he would rip the heads off his sisters’ dolls to use instead. He used to stand with his friends on the bleachers at Lincoln High School and watch the Kansas City Athletics play at Municipal Stadium, before the team left for Oakland in 1968.

When the Royals were founded the following year, owner Ewing Kauffman wanted to fast-track their success, so he launched the Royals Academy, a unique training program that recruited talented athletes from around the country and taught them baseball fundamentals, along with public speaking and other skills. White was one of the first hometown recruits and — at the age of 20, already a married father of one — one of the oldest.

His late-blooming baseball career became the stuff of local legend. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he earned a record-tying eight Gold Gloves at second base. His teammates nicknamed him “Smooth.” Always stronger in the field than at the plate, the high point of his career was being tapped to bat cleanup in the 1985 World Series, the Royals’ first championship win. He retired five years later. The Royals retired his number in 1995 and dedicated a statue of him at Kauffman Stadium in 2004.

White’s relationship with the Royals soured after he quit playing. He worked in community relations for the team and as a broadcaster, but he felt he didn’t receive serious consideration for managerial roles he wanted. After leaving his community relations position, he was fired from the broadcasting team, which caused a minor uproar in Kansas City. White was bitter about the experience. He once vowed never to set foot in Kauffman Stadium again. He coached first base for the Boston Red Sox in the 1990s and later worked with minor league teams and did marketing work for a local roofing company.

Caleb Clifford, who now works as White’s chief of staff, was an assistant prosecuting attorney in Jackson County in the early 2010s. Back then, he heard rumors that White was interested in seeking public office. There was an upcoming vacancy in the Jackson County Legislature and Clifford says he and the county prosecutor met with White to talk about running. White, who lives in suburban Lee’s Summit, was enormously popular in the Kansas City area. Clifford told White, “You’re going to win if you just put your name on the ballot.” White replied that the chance to serve, not just to win, would be his motivation.

Frank White baseball card with his signature

But he did win. Soon after, the county executive resigned, and White’s colleagues selected him to serve out the term. He won a special election in 2016 and then full four-year terms in 2018 and 2022. He was an easy candidate to work with, says Mindy Brissey, who managed his most recent campaign for county executive. “Frank is a very genuine person,” she says. “He’s very humble. He’s always been very open to talking to anybody.”

Also: “He has name recognition that would be the envy of any elected official across the country, at any level.”

Plays Well With Others?

But White’s time in office hasn’t been smooth. Early in his tenure as county executive, he was criticized for mismanaging a crisis at the aging county jail, where incarcerated women had been sexually assaulted after their cells were left unsecured. Sewage backups created foul conditions throughout the facility. And the county’s attempt to reassess long-undervalued properties has created a furor over wildly uneven appraisals.

His popularity with the voters hasn’t translated into good relations with other political leaders. Manny Abarca, a first-term Jackson County legislator, threatened to have White recalled last summer over the assessments issue. He says White spends too much time golfing and fishing and not enough time at work. In his office he has hung a fake “MISSING” poster with White’s face and phone number. “This is a petri dish of the worst ways to run a government that I’ve seen both in my studies and in practice,” Abarca says.

White’s popularity with voters has diminished, too. A challenger came close to beating him in the 2022 Democratic primary. The Kansas City Star editorial board endorsed his Republican challenger in the general election that year. The board did praise his “good, important work” during the COVID-19 pandemic. White helped launch a vaccine initiative on Kansas City’s east side that he hopes to build into a lasting, countywide health screening program for disadvantaged residents. But the newspaper said his time in office had been marked by “inattention and failure,” and that his performance was “uneven and too often lackluster” to earn a second full term.

White shakes off the criticism. “Whenever you spend your whole life doing something to make people happy, and all of a sudden you step into a role where you know you can’t make everybody happy, you’re always going to take a few hits,” White says. “But I think the biggest thing is just making sure that at the end of the day, you did everything possible to make the county better and make people’s lives better. If I can do that, I can live with the other stuff that comes with it.”

Kansas City Royals baseball stadium
With the Royals’ plans for a new stadium on hold, the question is whether they’ll leave Kansas City or even the state.

Public Subsidy Skepticism

Lots of professional sports teams are currently looking to build new venues. Many owners want public subsidies. They approach fans and public officials with appeals to economic growth and civic pride. But the tide may be turning against taxpayer support for such projects, as a growing body of research suggests that the benefit of sports stadiums is basically negligible within overall metropolitan economies.

The Los Angeles Rams built a $5 billion stadium with 100 percent private financing in 2020, showing it was possible, even profitable, to do big projects like that without public subsidies. Recently, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that the Chicago Bears’ hope of building a new stadium with as much as $2.4 billion in public funding was “a non-starter.” Virginia lawmakers were close to approving a big-dollar package to move the Capitals and Wizards from Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia earlier this year, but Louise Lucas, a top Democrat in the state Senate, managed to block it. The teams struck a deal with D.C. leaders to stay there instead.

Jackson County voters approved a sales tax to fund renovations on both teams’ stadiums back in 2006. That lasts until 2031, when the teams’ leases expire. Both the Chiefs and the Royals wanted the tax extended for another four decades, generating around $2 billion for the teams. Only the Royals were actively making plans to build a new stadium.

White says his conversations with the Royals’ ownership group started out cordially. By the time of the vote, the team owners and other leaders were openly blaming him for failing to negotiate a deal. Some local leaders say White’s stance on the stadium sales tax was the result of a personal vendetta with the Royals. But White says he’s long since moved on from his bitter break with the team, and that it involved a different ownership group besides.

There’s a “feel-good” value to having two big teams in town, White says, “but the economic benefit is not as great as one might think.” He wanted to work out a better deal and devote some of the tax proceeds to county services and infrastructure. The revenue the county sends to the sports complex is one of the biggest line items in its budget, he notes. “What we’re looking for here in Jackson County is just a more equitable arrangement with the teams,” White says.

Eventually, the teams went around him and leaned on the Jackson County Legislature, which passed a bill putting the sales tax on the ballot. White, initially believing it was a done deal, planned to let it go through. But when he heard that some legislators regretted their decision, he vetoed it, with the understanding that his veto would stand. Over the course of a few days, several of those legislators changed their minds again. The Legislature overrode White’s veto by a vote of 7-2.

It was a bit of political “melodrama” at the county courthouse, says Johnathan Duncan, a Kansas City council member who opposed the stadium sales tax. And the role of White’s veto in the eventual outcome of the vote is debatable. But it added some momentum behind a grassroots movement to reject the subsidy. KC Tenants, a network of tenant activists, argued there was no good reason for county taxpayers to help billionaire owners build private stadiums, especially not with a regressive sales tax that would fall most heavily on the people least likely to attend a game.

In the final weeks before the vote, the Royals revealed their proposed location for a new stadium, which would require the demolition of several blocks of a downtown neighborhood known as the Crossroads. That set off a whole new outcry, with many people worried about business displacement and gentrification. KC Tenants dropped a giant “Vote No” banner from the stands at Kauffman Stadium during the Royals home opener. “If we’re spending our money,” says Magda Werkmeister, a KC Tenants organizer, “it should be spent for the public.” The campaign was more successful than even its most ardent backers anticipated.

As for White, “Love him or hate him, he was right on this issue,” says Duncan, the Kansas City council member. “An overwhelming majority agreed with him.”

White says he wasn’t surprised that most other politicians backed the teams.

“Our elected officials, they faced immense pressure,” he says. “I think being a former player and playing in a lot of big games — I played 2,324 games in a Royals uniform, under all types of adverse conditions — it was probably a little bit easier for me to say I’ll stand up [and oppose this] than a lot of the elected officials.”

Frank White III, who was a year old when his father signed his first contract with the Royals and now works as the CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, wasn’t surprised by his father’s position. As a father, Frank White was strict, disciplined, had high expectations and emphasized that his children had to find their own path. “If we acted like we were him, there was a reckoning,” the younger White says.

He never played baseball. But he has clung to a few traits that he gained by watching his father play: the importance of mental toughness, managing high-pressure situations, coping with failure, nurturing self-belief, “not really caring what people think about you because you know who you are.” Plus, when you’re close with a professional sports star, he adds, “You learn pretty quick that it’s a business …. He took his position, and he stood on it and he didn’t back off. He’ll sleep fine.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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