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Hal McRae, Racism, and the Disputed 1976 Batting Title

I'm teaching a course on the 1970s and the first assignment of the semester asked my students to analyze a magazine advertisement from the period. To make things a little easier, I picked up a box full of old magazines from a few Goodwills and a used bookstore. Probably ten yellowed copies of The Sporting News made it into the collection, and as such, I've been looking through them when I get bored.

Thumbing through the 10/16/76 edition, I stumbled across a stunning story that I'd never heard before: the imbroglio surrounding the 1976 Batting Title.

The '76 batting average race was already noteworthy because two teammates, George Brett and Hal McRae were chasing one another for the title. Brett was 23, and was enjoying his second season as an elite player in the Big Leagues (he'd been ok, but not super in 1973-74). McRae was 30, and was in the middle of his peak. He'd post the best OBP of his career in 1976 (.406) and the next year he added power to his game, hitting 21 homers.

On September 26, McRae led Brett, .337 to .333. Brett was remarkably steady down the stretch however, and when the season ended, he was still at .333, thanks to a, you guessed it, .333 final week (8-24). McRae lagged however, going 5-23 (.217). McRae ended up officially at .332, decimal points (in many sense of the phrase) behind Brett.

But that's just the wide angle version.

As it happened, the title came down to Brett's final AB of the season. When Brett stepped to the plate in the 9th (McRae was on deck) if he got a hit he'd move ahead of McRae, if not, he'd stay in second. Brett flied to leftfield, and when the ball couldn't be caught by Steve Brye, Brett ended up recording an inside-the-park HR. Next up, McRae, who grounded out. Brett is the batting champion.

Now remember, this was 1976, so having the highest batting average was an incredibly big deal.

According to Joe McGuff's story in The Sporting News, titled, "Misplayed Fly Ball Clouds Brett's Title" (page 31)after McRae grounded out he "made two obscene gestures at the Twins' dugout and had to be restrained when Manager Gene Mauch came on the field".

After the game, McRae claimed that the Twins conspired to give Brett the title. Racism, McRae said, was the motivation.

"Things have been like this a long time. They're changing gradually. They shouldn't be this way, but I can accept it." [...] "I know what happened. It's been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose."

McRae's claim centered on the argument that Brye was playing too deep (at Mauch's instruction) and that Brye likely hesitated on Brett's flyball, letting it fall.

Mauch called the accusations the "worst thing that's happened to me in 35 years in baseball" and the story includes a number of quotes from other players denying McRae's assertion. Cookie Rojas defended Mauch citing previous experience, but also said he "prays to God" that McRae's statement isn't true, which is somewhat ambiguous. According to the story, there was no enmity between Brett and McRae after the game. In fact, Brett also is quoted as saying, "I think maybe the Twins made me a present of the batting championship, and if they did, I feel just as bad about it as Hal does".

A few days later, on October 7th, Brett stated that he would like to share the title with McRae.

The story was further complicated by the fact that Rod Carew of the Twins finished third that year, finishing .331. Carew said after the game, "that's a bunch of crap when they talk about racial stuff."

I'm ashamed to admit I'd never heard this story and it appears that after a few years it went away. While researching this post, I noticed a few mentions of the game in late 1970s editions of Baseball Digest, but they touched only on the teammates and last game angles.

Here's what amazes me most: this story is buried on page 31 of The Sporting News. Just one more story in the stream of basic pieces that appeared in page after page. No cover tease. No editorial on page two. Nothing.

Can you imagine if this happened today? We'd be viewing replays of the flyball round the clock, with every baseball writer in America essentially required to weigh in on the issue. There'd be a pro-McRae party, to be sure, along with a vociferous party against him. There'd also be those simply arguing that the play might instead just be changed to an error. There'd be a really cool post someone analyzing the physics of the play, and comparing the fielder's position on that play as compared to similar situations. And, we'd also have quite a lot of "if McRae wanted to do something about, he woulda gotten a hit! Scoreboard!" And on and on and on. (For about three days.)

That crazy five minutes ended up being historically important, as it allowed Brett to win a batting title in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990). Hal McRae, of course, would continue to burnish his reputation as one to fly off the handle. In 1993 a question involving George Brett produced one of the greatest meltdowns of all time.

So what really happened in 1976? Test on Monday.