George Brett and Tom Watson fondly remember this icon who truly made Kansas City better

The statue of George Brett stepping into his gorgeous swing is picturesquely perched just beyond the fountains in the outfield of Kauffman Stadium. And the inscriptions on three of the four sides extol the virtues of the only man in the National Baseball Hall of Fame who played for the Royals his entire career.

The fourth side, though, is as revealing about Brett the person as the others are about Brett the player.

“I made a promise to a friend and I intend to keep it,” it reads, amplified by Brett’s signature.

The friend was Keith Worthington, the Woolf Brothers clothing executive with whom Brett began a fellowship during a fashion shoot after he was called up by the Royals in 1973.

The promise was to continue Worthington’s dedicated fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS — with which Worthington was diagnosed that very year and in whose name a local ALS chapter office was opened in 1981. Worthington died in 1984.

Brett, honored by the ALS Association in March, “is a man who is good to his word …,” Worthington’s son, Kirk, once told me. “Every time I read this story it brings me to tears.”

Some 20 years after Keith Worthington’s death, golfing legend Tom Watson made a similarly solemn vow to his friend and caddie, Bruce Edwards, whom Watson told in his dying days he would “work on this and try to find a cure for the rest of my life.”

He has been an equally ardent advocate ever since Edwards’ death in 2004. And like Brett, a great friend to one of my personal heroes, Sarah Nauser, Watson has spent meaningful time with many who have faced the cruel fate of the condition also known to many as Lou Gehrig’s disease — named after the baseball great whose last game was an exhibition in Kansas City.

Those parallel oaths make for a unique bond between Brett and Watson, whose honoring of their word is annually most visible at — but not limited to — the Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic at the Nicklaus Golf Club at Lionsgate in Overland Park.

Theirs is a rare, if not unprecedented, alliance toward such a cause between two such prominent athletes in one community. But there’s another vital Kansas City institution who fuels their zeal: the towering yet humble force for whom the event Monday was named.

Take it from them both.

“Don’t forget about Joe: Joe McGuff,” Watson said.

Chimed in Brett: “The guy who’s rear end we had to kiss so he wouldn’t write anything bad about us.”

Brett was joking about the former Star editor, sports editor and sports columnist whom they both treasured for his integrity and compassion. McGuff was diagnosed with ALS in 1999 and was 79 when he died in 2006.

“He was always very fair,” Brett said. “He took a human interest in everybody and didn’t want to bury anybody, and I had a great relationship with him.”

When Brett was pulled from Game 2 of the 1980 World Series because of his painful and mortifying bout with hemorrhoids, he still remembers McGuff’s “face was so sad” on his behalf for having to speak about the issue.

“I say, ‘Why me? Why not Joe McGuff?’” Brett recalled, laughing. “That (became) the title of his book!”

While Brett grew up in California before becoming a Kansas City fixture, Watson is a Kansas City native and recalls regularly reading McGuff’s work in the 1960s.

“He was instrumental in getting the Royals into Kansas City,” said Watson, correctly recalling McGuff’s crusading as Charlie Finley moved the Athletics to Oakland. “There’s Joe McGuff, right on the front page, writing columns that we need … a major league baseball team and this is how we might be able to do it.

“And the city fathers … and mothers, got together. Lo and behold …”

Added Brett: “Probably pressured Ewing (Kauffman) into doing it.”

Behind the scenes, perhaps.

And McGuff was at about every scene.

For instance, the man who bore witness to and animated so much of such a pivotal era in Kansas City history was in Mexico City for the 1967 owner’s meetings when the American League awarded the city an expansion franchise.

And months later he was at the Muehlebach Hotel, the ever-happening site where the American League in 1968 designated Kauffman the owner for the sum of $5.3 million.

The price tag for the Royals had ballooned to $1 billion by 2019 when John Sherman and his ownership group bought the team from David Glass — whose purchase of the team in 2000 was facilitated by the Royals’ board of directors that McGuff joined in 1994 following Kauffman’s death in 1993 and McGuff’s 1992 retirement from The Star after 44 years.

Although Watson and Brett came to know him best as their friends, they also revered him for the work that went well beyond sports — deftly encapsulated by then-Star editor Mark Zieman upon McGuff’s death.

“Joe always put The Star’s interests above his own, and Kansas City’s interests above The Star’s,” Zieman said in McGuff’s obituary. “He wanted the paper to improve our community, not bludgeon it. But when facts supported it, he loved hard-edged, investigative reporting, especially if it involved misspent tax dollars or standing up for the little guy.

“And when the big guys complained, he always listened graciously to their objections, sent them happily on their way — and ran more tough stories. He was just an outstanding editor, and a good man.”

Watson considered McGuff direct and fair, over the years speaking about how he appreciated McGuff’s journalist duty to “call out people in power when they’re doing something wrong.”

Like Brett, though, he also valued that McGuff never was mean-spirited.

Perhaps one example of that prevailing way of McGuff’s was in 1974, when Watson won his first PGA Tour title at the Western Open. When he later accepted the trophy at the Kansas City Country Club, Watson said that he could become the best golfer in the game.

That led McGuff not to a hot take but a long conversation with Watson, to whom McGuff essentially handed the mic for his column as he clarified what he meant and responded to McGuff’s questions about what sort of pressure he might be putting on himself with such a statement.

“You have to put pressure on yourself and be determined not to hit a bad shot,” Watson, then 25, told McGuff. “The more times you beat the pressure, the easier it becomes.”

It indeed became easier and easier for Watson, who stood among the best golfers in the world as he won eight major championships between 1975 and 1982 while being named PGA Tour player of the year six times.

Watson, who entered the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame along with McGuff in 1984, so trusted and admired McGuff’s broader sense of Kansas City that once in the middle of an interview Watson asked him for a historic and architectural tour of the city.

“He said, ‘Sure, let’s go,’” Watson said.

During the approximately three-hour tour, Watson learned about a downtown building he’d previously known merely as where he’d get to see the American Royal Parade and play Skee-Ball in a little shop.

Turned out his grandfather had owned the building, he learned, and that time with McGuff further spurred his own fascination with Kansas City’s roots.

“A lot of it had to do with inspiration from Joe and that trip,” he said.

Just one of the ways he inspired so many.

I wish I’d had the honor of meeting McGuff, for whom the press box at The K is named.

But I’m grateful to have some sense of him through Watson and Brett and others I’ve heard speak fondly of him. And through his illuminating work that I’ve come across so often since I moved to Kansas City in 2013.

Work that my friend and colleague Blair Kerkhoff spoke to eloquently when I asked him about McGuff after our time with Watson and Brett on Monday.

“He was the greatest example of a journalist championing a city that I’ve ever seen,” said Blair, who knew McGuff and has attended this event for decades. “He made Kansas City a better place.”

And he still does.