Steve Busby was a southern California kid, graduating from Fullerton High School, the son of a former professional football player. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants out of high school, but elected to attend USC to play for their historic baseball program, and possibly play for the historic football team as well. The football career never panned out when Busby injured his knee, but he did become a standout pitcher under legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. His Trojans won back-to-back championships in 1970 and 1971, with Busby on the mound in Omaha for the 1971 Championship Game.
The 27th Greatest Royals Player of All-Time was perhaps the greatest pitcher in franchise history – Steve Busby. Busby had a tremendous arm, but injuries capped his talent to a brief, but brilliant career. He would rank much higher on this list but for the fact he basically pitched just three full seasons in the big leagues.
Busby was primarily a two-pitch pitcher, almost exclusively relying on his fastball and slider.
I’m a big believer in trying to make things simple; I wasn’t trying to stand out there and choose between five pitches, so I tried to make it real basic and throw a lot of strikes.
The Royals selected Busby in the second round of the 1971 draft and he immediately impressed, allowing just three earned runs (albeit eleven unearned runs) in forty innings of work in A ball in his first professional season. The next year, Busby found himself back in Omaha, this time as a member of the Royals top minor league affiliate. He finished the year with a 3.19 ERA in 217 innings and a league leading 221 strikeouts. He was a September call-up, pitching a complete game victory in his very first start, foreshadowing the workmanlike effort he would display in his Major League career. He would make five big league starts – completing three of them – with a 1.58 ERA. On October 3, a few days after his 23rd birthday, he finally suffered his first loss.
Busby figured to be in the rotation in 1973, but he simply dazzled new Royals manager Jack McKeon, going two starts in spring training without allowing a hit (again, a foreshadow of things to come), and finishing with a 0.60 ERA in thirty innings of Grapefruit League action. His performance earned the rookie an Opening Day start in his native Southern California against the Angels. Busby would struggle in that start, and in his next three starts, failing to make it past the second inning in an April 20th game against the White Sox.
In his next start, Busby took an 8.04 ERA with him to Detroit to face the Tigers, the defending American League East champions. He tossed the first no-hitter in Royals history – walking six, but allowing just seven balls to leave the infield. It was just his tenth career Major League start.
"I was so wild that game that every time I threw a strike, it was a surprise. But I never really considered it a strong possibility until the ninth inning. I knew what was going on, but it wasn't until the ninth inning that it started to creep into the forefront of my mind. Then I just had fun."
Despite the no-no, Busby would continue to struggle, dropping five straight games in May, leaving his ERA close to six. Busby would begin to turn things around in the hot summer months, winning eight of ten decisions in July and August, including a thirteen strikeout performance against Milwaukee on July 10. He would end the year with a mediocre 16-15 record and a 4.23 ERA, but his 174 strikeouts were ninth in the league. His 105 walks, however, were seventh in the league. Nonetheless, Busby finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and was named Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. The Royals were counting on the young right-hander to be part of their push for contention in 1974.
“There’s no reason Busby can’t win 25 games. He won 16 last year. Now he knows the hitters, his control is better and he has confidence in himself.”
-Royals Manager Jack McKeon
Busby initially struggled in April, but got things going in May, winning four straight starts thanks in part to a newly developed curveball. On June 19 in Milwaukee, Busby walked Brewers first baseman George Scott in the second inning on a 3-2 pitch. That would be the only baserunner he would allow all night. He retired 27 of 28 hitters to record his second career no-hitter. (Bill James devised a formula for predicting the likelihood of a pitcher tossing a no-hitter. Steve Busby was the least likely pitcher to throw two no-hitters, out of all the pitchers with multiple no-hitters.)
“I wasn’t nervous as much as fighting myself to keep my concentration. But this was my biggest thrill of all, bigger than last time, because this was my type of game. I didn’t make a whole lot of bad pitches and made them hit the ball. That’s what I have to do to help the ballclub.”
Busby would go on to toss a pair of three hit shutouts over the next few weeks and in July was named to his first All-Star game. He reeled off eight wins in nine starts over the summer and finished the year with a franchise record twenty-two wins. He was a workhorse for the Royals, making thirty-eight starts and completing twenty of them. His 292 1/3 innings pitched were ninth in the league. Busby significantly improved his control, dropping his walks per nine innings from 4.0 to 2.8, sacrificing strikeouts, which also fell from 6.6 per nine innings to 6.1
“I feel it would be a sin not to use our defense. Instead of going for strikeouts, I try to throw strikes, to make batters hit the ball.”
Busby earned the Opening Day start in 1975, and got off to a terrific start that season, winning seven of his first ten decisions and tossing back-to-back complete game shutouts in May. He reeled off four straight wins in June that included a ten-inning outing against the Indians and a twelve-inning outing against the Angels. In his next start against Texas, Busby noticed his arm felt different. It didn’t have the strength it once did. The problem lingered with him all season, although he continued to pitch well, throwing five complete games after that point and appearing in the 1975 All-Star Game. He would finish with eighteen wins, eighteen complete games and a career best 3.08 ERA.
Wins Above Replacement, American League Pitchers 1973-1975
1. Bert Blyleven MIN 22.2
2. Gaylord Perry CLE-TEX 20.9
3. Nolan Ryan CAL 16.7
4. Catfish Hunter OAK-NYY 15.7
5. Wilbur Wood CHW 15.6
6. Luis Tiant BOS 15.1
7. Jim Kaat MIN-CHW 15.1
8. Steve Busby KCR 15.1
9. Jim Palmer BAL 14.9
10. John Hiller DET 13.8
The soreness in his arm did not subside in the spring of 1976, so the Royals placed Busby on the disabled list to begin the year. He came back in mid-April and bounced back with a complete game win against the Yankees in May. But many observers noticed his fastball had lost its zip. Questions began to arise as to whether Busby was already finished.
“I hate to feel like I’m costing the other 24 guys on the team money. But I am. Every bad pitch I make, every mistake – its bad for everybody. My arm felt good tonight. It feels good now. It doesn’t hurt. But what difference does it make? What’d I do with it? The results are all that count.”
After his complete game, he made just one start in which he pitched into the seventh – and it would be his last of the season. He had torn his rotator cuff. In July, the team announced his season was over and he would undergo surgery – the first player to undergo such surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe.
Busby would pitch just three innings in 1977 – all in a minor league rehab start, before injuring his knee. By then the Royals had already written him off. They were contending for championships, and had already acquired right-hander Jim Colborn to replace Busby.
“They couldn’t count on me, and I don’t blame them. I couldn’t count on myself.”
Busby surprised observers by making the 1978 rotation and won his first start. But he was knocked around in his next three starts and was optioned to the minors. In 1979, he made the team as a long reliever and spot starter, making twelve starts. He posted a 3.63 ERA but walked 64 in 94 innings. His fastball velocity was noticeably down.
Busby underwent knee surgery in the spring of 1980, but was healthy enough to make the team as a reliever. He was sent to Omaha in June, but came back to make six starts in July and August. On August 26, he allowed five runs in six innings, but defeated the Brewers for his first win of the year. His ERA was 6.17. A few days later, the Royals gave him his unconditional release.
The next spring, Whitey Herzog – who had managed Busby in Kansas City and was now at the helm in St. Louis – offered Busby a tryout. At the end of spring training, the Cardinals gave Busby a chance to pitch for their top minor league affiliate. Busby elected to retire. He was thirty-one years old.
Managers Jack McKeon has received a lot of the criticism for Busby’s injuries with many claiming McKeon was asleep at the wheel, allowing his young right-hander to pitch until his arm fell off. Busby disputes accounts he was allowed to throw as many as 200 pitches an outing, but with his lack of command, and the number of complete games he threw, it is likely he threw between 100-130 pitches nearly every time out.
However Busby was not alone in his ridiculous workloads. Recall this was a much lower offensive environment than at any time since then, so pitchers did not necessarily need to go max-effort on every hitter. It was fairly routine for pitchers to go over 250 innings pitched in a season – 254 pitchers tossed at least 250 innings in a season in the 1970s. From 1973-1975 – Busby’s peak seasons – nineteen pitchers tossed more innings than his 791. Pitchers on that list include those that battled injuries in their 30s – Jim Palmer, Andy Messersmith, Catfish Hunter, and those that lost their effectiveness in their 30s – Vida Blue, Carl Morton, Ken Holtzman. But it also includes many that were very effective well into their 30s – Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver. Its not clear this divide is any different than a list of the top twenty pitchers from a decade ago, when pitchers began to be more protected with pitch counts.
It is quite possible that Busby was going to suffer injuries no matter what – that there was something about his delivery, something about his arm – that lent itself to breaking down. It is also quite possible that if Busby has his injury today, it is identified earlier and recovers much better. In any case, Busby appears to be at peace with what happened.
"I would've liked to have seen what would've happened. That's part of the deal, part of the business. It's not easy to deal with, but it happens. I was fortunate to be on some good ballclubs and be around a bunch of great guys. I'd never give that back.”