A look back at new beginnings for the Kansas City Royals
By Alan Todd
Nearly 40 years ago, George Brett edged out teammate Hal McRae for the American League batting title in 1976, hitting an inside-the-park home run in his last at bat that clinched the title for him, a hit that was questioned with racist accusations attached. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
For all things there is a beginning and an end. In baseball, seasons come and seasons go. Yet, baseball was not made for final endings.
Spring renews for all. The weather warms in the south. Players begin reporting in February, around Valentine’s Day, and everyone is in first place until the National Pastime has turned the pages on all the days in nine calendar months, and only one team remains standing.
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals were 90 feet from being that team. Fans just know the Royals will travel that final 90 feet in 2015. A resolve that renews and ensures there is no end from season to season and generation to generation.
There was a beginning, a playoff debut for a franchise that was then only eight years old.
The year was 1976, and the Royals had made the playoffs for the first time.
If you are a Baby Boomer, born following World War II up until the early 1960s, you remember watching the playoff series in 1976 against the New York Yankees. Quite possibly, you watched it on a black and white television with dials or push buttons along with nearly 22 million other viewers, according to Nielsen TV Ratings Data. Viewership has been on the decline ever since.
If you’re on the front end of being a Gen X (born 1963-1980), you might have been glued to the set as Bob Uecker, Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Reggie Jackson anchored the ABC coverage.
If you’re a Gen Y (born 1981-1994), you heard about the Royals’ first playoff experience, and if you you’re a Gen Z (born 1995-2009), you were born with an iPhone in your hand and there’s no telling what you pay attention to.
But knowing the past is your path to understanding the future.
So, put down your iPhone and imagine the warm black and white glow of a console Quasar TV with VHF and UHF dials, and let’s explore the days when the Royals first made the playoffs.
On Sept. 30, 1976, the headlines in the Chicago Tribune sports section read “Montefusco pitches no-hitter,” and “L.A. picks Lasorda (as their new manager)”.
Below the fold it read “Royals shut out A’s, clinch tie”.
Larry Gura, the Royals then-version of a crafty left-hander, much like Jason Vargas, came out of the bullpen for the win and Amos Otis, the center fielder who took control of games much like Lorenzo Cain did in the 2014 playoffs, had a double and home run.
The Royals needed only one win or one loss by the A’s in the final three games of the season to clinch. The Royals hosted the Minnesota Twins, and lost all three games. The A’s, coming off a run of five division-winning years including three straight World Series championships, dropped their first game of that three-day weekend to the California Angels.
Gura, who finished 111-78 in a Royals uniform, started the 1976 campaign as a Yankee. In 1974-5, his record in pinstripes was 12-9 with a 3.21 earned run average. These days, that would earn you $10 million a year for five years. Back then, Yankees Manager Billy Martin didn’t even use him in to begin the 1976 season, and the Yankees traded him to the Royals for catcher Fran Healy.
Gura, on getting the win on Sept. 29, said “I’d like to start all three (playoff) games against the Yankees, but my arm probably wouldn’t hold up.”
It’s a good thing Gura didn’t start all three. But before we get to the playoffs, there was a batting title to settle.
Teammates George Brett and Hal McRae entered the last game of the season atop the American League in batting with scant difference in their batting averages. The Twins’ Rod Carew was a point behind in third place, and the Angels’ Lymon Bostock was close behind.
Bostock missed the last two games of the season and finished fourth with a .323 batting average. Carew narrowly missed with a .331 average. Brett and McRae were virtually tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning of the last game. McRae’s average was .33269 and Brett’s stood at .3329. Brett batted first and hit a fly ball to left. Steve Brye, the Twins left fielder was playing deeper than usual and the ball bounced in front of him, over his head and Brett turned it into an inside-the-park home run.
Still, McRae could have won the title, but grounded out to shortstop.
On his way to the dugout, he turned to the Twins dugout and saluted them with his middle finger.
A melee broke loose on the field, and McRae would later accuse the Twins of racism and of letting Brett’s hit fall so he could win the batting title.
Brett, who won the first of his three batting titles, insisted that he and McRae remanded friends after the incident. The Royals went on to lose to the Yankees in five games, and Larry Gura, who wanted so badly to be a Yankee killer, was 0-1 with 4.22 ERA in two starts.
The Royals went on to lose to the Yankees the next two years in the playoffs and didn’t reach the World Series for the first time until 1980 when they finally surpassed, you guessed it, those damn Yankees.
Everyone remembers Chris Chambliss hitting the series winning, lead off home run in the bottom of the ninth in 1976 to beat the Royals in Game Five. Few recall that an inning earlier, a young George Brett hit a clutch 3-run home run to tie the score 6-6, setting up the Chambliss heroics.
The Royals came close in 1976, only to prevail some years later with that core of players.
In 2014, the Royals came close – 90 feet away. But just as the 1976 Royals team was just a beginning for a generation of fans, so too could the same hallmark be bestowed on the 2014 Royals.
It’s not difficult to believe, as history teaches, that Royals fans will look back on 2014 as just another beginning.