By the end of the 1980 season, the Royals were already making their fourth trip to the post-season, an impressive feat for a franchise that had been born just over a decade ago. The previous three trips to the playoffs had resulted in disappointing losses to the rival New York Yankees, but in 1980 the veteran-laden Royals finally broke through and swept the Bronx Bombers in three games to win the first pennant in franchise history.
Led by first-year manager Jim Frey, the Royals had won 97 games that year, fueled by the MVP-season from George Brett. Brett had flirted with .400 much of the year before ending the year at .390, the highest batting average since Ted Williams in 1941. Setting the table for Brett was the swift Willie Wilson, who hit .326 that year, scoring 133 runs and leading the league with 230 hits, while swiping 79 bases. He was one of six Royals to swipe at least 15 bases that year as the Royals led the leagcue in stolen bases.
Also knocking in runs was veteran designated hitter Hal McRae, who hit .297/.342/.483, and a new young first baseman named Willie Aikens, who had been acquired the previous winter from the Angels. In his second full season in the big leagues in 1980s, Aikens had finished second on the Royals in home runs with 20 and RBI with 98. Veteran Amos Otis provided solid defense in centerfield, with a double-combo of Frank White and U.L. Washington. Clint Hurdle had one of his finest seasons that year playing right field. Catcher Darrell Porter, who began the year in drug rehab, had a tough season offensively.
The Royals finished fifth in the American League in ERA, getting a career season out of Larry Gura, who won 18 games. Gura and ace Dennis Leonard each worked over 280 innings for the Royals. But the rest of the rotation had mixed results from veteran lefty Paul Splittorff and young righties Renie Martin and Rich Gale. A 27-year old submariner named Dan Quisenberry emerged that season to become the closer, the first of five times he would lead the league in saves.
The Royals ran up against a tough, experienced National League pennant-winner in the Philadelphia Phillies. Like the Royals, the Phillies had been the League Championship Series runner-up every year from 1976 to 1978, finally breaking through in 1980 in a tough series against the Houston Astros. To put them over the hump, the Phillies had signed free agent Pete Rose, who had won two championships with the "Big Red Machine." Although 39-years of age, Rose was still a solid hitter who could get on base for sluggers Greg Luzinski and 1980 National League MVP Mike Schmidt.
Schmidt was a sensation in 1980, winning the first of his three MVP awards. He led the league in home runs (48), RBI (121), slugging percentage (.624), OPS (1.004), and he led all National League position players in Wins Above Replacement with 8.8. Schmidt would also win one of his ten career Gold Glove awards that season, part of a solid defense that included second baseman Manny Trillo, shortstop Larry Bowa, centerfielder Garry Maddox, and catcher Bob Boone, all of whom had won Gold Gloves in the past.
The pitching staff was anchored by Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, who had a fantastic year, winning 24 games while leading the league in strikeouts with over 300 innings pitched. Dick Ruthven won 17 games, but the rest of the staff was largely inconsistent. Screwballer Tug McGraw gave manager Dallas Green confidence in the bullpen with 20 saves and a minuscule ERA of 1.46 in 92 innings of relief work.
The Game One pitching match-up in Philadelphia looked like a mismatch when Royals 20-game winner Dennis Leonard faced off against Phils rookie Bob Walk. The Royals got to Walk early with a two-run home run by Amos Otis in the second and a two-run Willie Aikens home run in the third. But the Phillies stormed back in the third off Leonard for a five-run inning, capped by a three-run home run from Bake McBride.
"I couldn’t get my breaking pitch over worth beans tonight."
The Phillies would add two more runs to extend the lead to 7-4. In the eighth, Willie Aikens hit his second two-run shot of the game, pulling the Royals to within a single run and finally knocking Walk out of the game. However with closer Tug McGraw in the game, the Royals could not muster another run and the Phils took a 1-0 series advantage.
Philadelphia was the favorite to take a 2-0 lead back to Kansas City with ace Steve Carlton on the mound in Game Two. But the Royals got to Carlton for a baserunner in every inning he pitched, only to see Carlton manage a key strikeout or double play whenever he needed it. In the sixth, the challenge was made more difficult by the fact that star slugger George Brett had to exit the game with painful hemorrhoids. However, Carlton began to wear down in the seventh, allowing three runs, two on an Amos Otis double, to give KC a 4-2 lead.
With Quiz on the mound in the eighth, the Royals looked ready to tie the Series up headed back to Kansas City. But the Phillies had other plans. Bob Boone walked. Pinch hitter Del Unser doubled. After a Pete Rose ground out, Bake McBride singled. Mike Schmidt doubled. Rookie Keith Moreland doubled. When the smoke cleared, the Phillies held a 6-4 lead and a Game Two victory.
Game Three brought renewed excitement as the national spotlight shone on Kansas City for the first time in World Series history. George Brett electrified the crowd of 42,380 with a solo home run in the first to give the Royals the lead. Royals starter Rich Gale would give back the lead in the second. When the Royals surged ahead with another run in the fourth, Gale once again gave up the lead. In the seventh, Amos Otis hit his second home run of the series, to give the Royals a 3-2 lead. Yet again, the Royals would cough the lead back up when reliever Renie Martin allowed an RBI single to Pete Rose in the eighth.
Phillies starter Dick Ruthven began to wear down in the ninth, giving up two singles, but the Royals could not scrape together a run, and the game went into extra innings tied 3-3. The Phillies nearly grabbed the lead in the top of the tenth. With two on and one out, Mike Schmidt hit a scorching line drive that looked to give the Phillies the lead. But Frank White made a terrific play on the ball, snaring it out of the air and doubling off Bob Boone at second, ending the threat.
In the bottom of the inning, U.L. Washington led off against Tug McGraw with a ground ball single just past shortstop Larry Bowa. Willie Wilson walked on four pitches, but Washington was cut down trying to steal third. Frank White would miss a bunt attempt and strike out, so Frey tried to get Wilson in scoring position by having him steal second. However, with George Brett up, that made it easy for the Phillies to intentionally walk George, taking the bat out of his hands. That move by Frey would have caused a firestorm among Royals fans had Willie Aikens not saved the day with a hit to left center to score Wilson and win the game. Answering to reporters who questioned the call, Frey simply said "You can’t put the load on one or two guys."
In Game Four, the Royals brought Dennis Leonard back to face Larry Christenson, who had made just 14 starts all year. The Royals jumped on him early and often with an RBI triple by Brett and a two-run home run by Willie Aikens into the water spectacular in the first. Hal McRae would continue the scoring with a seemingly routine single to center that he stretched into a double when center fielder Garry Maddox fell asleep. Amos Otis would double him home for the fourth run of the inning. Christenson retired just one batter before giving way to reliever Dickie Noles.
Aikens would continue his hot series with a solo home run in the second to give the Royals a 5-1 lead. Controversy erupted in the fourth when Dickie Noles hummed an 0-2 pitch near George Brett’s head, brushing the slugger off the plate. Manager Jim Frey popped out of the dugout irate at the Phillies pitcher for taking a shot at his star player. On the way to the back of the dugout, he had words with first baseman Pete Rose, who drew boos and catcalls from Royals fans throughout the series. The Phillies would add runs in the seventh and eighth, but Quisenberry shut the door in the ninth for a 5-3 victory, tying the series at 2-2.
Game Five was a pivotal game. A home sweep could send the Royals to Philadelphia just one game away from their first championship. The match-up pitted Larry Gura against 21-year old rookie Marty Bystrom, who had just 36 innings of Major League experience. Bystrom ran into all sorts of trouble, but managed to escape nearly every jam. Mike Schmidt got the Phillies on the board with a two-run home run in the fourth, and the Royals answered with a run in the fifth to make it 2-1 Phillies.
Amos Otis tied it up with a solo home run to lead off the sixth, continuing a red-hot series. The Royals took the lead on a sacrifice fly by UL Washington, but failed to add an insurance run when Darrell Porter was cut down at home plate on a double by Willie Wilson.
Gura was helped out by a trio of spectacular defensive plays by Gold Glover Frank White. By the seventh, Gura was tiring after a walk to Greg Luzinski and a single to Keith Moreland. Manager Jim Frey turned to Quisenberry to get the remaining eight outs of the game. Quiz would get out of the seventh inning jam and breeze through the eighth and the Royals were just three outs away from taking a commanding 3-2 series lead.
The 1980 Phillies had been dubbed "The Comeback Kids" all season long, and they lived up to their name that post-season. Mike Schmidt led off the ninth with an infield single that just skipped off the glove of third baseman George Brett. Pinch hitter Del Unser ripped a ground ball that took a funny hop on Willie Aikens and went by him for a game-tying double. Manny Trillo hit a shot off the glove of Dan Quisenberry for an infield single to score Unser and give the Phillies the lead.
"A few moves either way for both teams. That’s pretty much how the whole series has gone,"
The Royals had chances to win the game in the ninth. With the game-tying run on base, George Brett stepped up to face McGraw. But the slugger proved he was human after all and was called out on strikes. The Royals then loaded the bases with a pair of walks, giving veteran Jose Cardenal a chance to win the game. Cardenal never had a chance against McGraw’s array of screwballs and sliders and struck out to end the game.
"I got a chance to be a hero or a bum. Today I’m the bum."
Dejected, the Royals returned to Philadelphia for Game Six having to face Phillies ace Steve Carlton. The Royals countered with Rich Gale, but had him on a short leash. In the third, Bob Boone led off with a walk. Lonnie Smith hit a grounder to Frank White, but Frank’s throw to second pulled UL Washington off the bag, leaving men at first and second with no outs. Pete Rose laid down a perfectly placed bunt in front of George Brett, loading the bases for slugger Mike Schmidt. Schmidt rose to the occasion, ripping a single to right field to score two runs. The Royals had a chance to catch Lonnie Smith after he stumbled around third base, but Jose Cardenal’s throw was cut-off without a relay.
The Phillies added runs in the fifth and sixth to take a 4-0 lead while Carlton was dominating Royals hitters. Through the first seven innings, Carlton had faced just three over the minimum and was working on a three-hit shutout. The Royals finally forced Carlton out of the game in eighth by loading the bases. UL Washington got the Royals on the board with a sacrifice fly, bringing up Brett as the tying run. Brett would load the bases again with an infield single, but Hal McRae grounded out to end the threat.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Royals mounted another threat in the ninth off Tug McGraw. They loaded the bases on a walk to Aikens and singles by John Wathan and Jose Cardenal. Frank White had a chance to bring the runners home but he was retired on a foul ball that popped out of the mitt of catcher Bob Boone, only to be caught by an alert Pete Rose. With the bases still loaded, McGraw struck out Willie Wilson, the twelfth whiff by Wilson in the series, setting at that time, a World Series record.
The Phillies were World Champions while the Royals had fallen just short. The Royals returned to Kansas City disappointed in falling just short of their goal, but proud of what they had accomplished that year. Manager Jim Frey summed it up, "We’re as proud as we can to be the Kansas City Royals, because we had one great year." The city held a celebration parade at 5th and Grand concluding with a ceremony at Liberty Memorial to commemorate the memorable season. Kansas City relished being in the national spotlight, and the nation responded with the highest television ratings in World Series history, a record that still stands.