I’m going to take a short break from the former stars who played for the Royals, which will return later in December, along with an interview with famed Royal tormentor, Chris Chambliss, and get back to the year-by-year countdown of early Royal teams. This piece examines the 1978 Royals.
In 1978, disco music was exploding across the country. Discotheques were springing up like mushrooms. The movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, ignited the disco craze. It seems like Travolta was always at the forefront of these cultural changes in the 70s - Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Grease in 1978, followed by the country & western phase Urban Cowboy in 1980. I was right there with him. I probably did more dancing, all of it ugly, in those three years than I did in all my other years combined. Some people were just not meant to dance.
There were a lot of great things going on in 1978. Much to the relief of many teachers (and my parents), I managed to graduate from high school. There was still some decent rock music being made, such as Van Halen’s debut album and singles like Deacon Blues by Steely Dan and other hits by bands like Queen and performers like Warren Zevon. Animal House, Halloween and The Deer Hunter were huge at the box office. The first cell phone was put into service and the first test tube baby was born. The Dow Jones average closed the year at 805 and gas rose to .63 cents per gallon.
In May, Pete Rose collected his 3,000th hit and in June, Rose embarked on a 44-game hitting streak that captivated the country. It took a two-out, ninth inning change up from former Royals pitcher, Gene Garber, to snap the streak. On September 23rd, young Minnesota Twins star Lyman Bostock was shot to death in Gary, Indiana. Barely a week later, Bucky Dent lofted a fly ball over the Green Monster, completing the New York Yankees’ improbable comeback against the Boston Red Sox, sending them into the ALCS against the Royals. More on that later.
Jim Rice and Dave Parker won their leagues respective MVP awards, while Ron Guidry and Gaylord Perry collected the Cy Young awards. Guidry had a season for the ages, going 25-3. Lou Whitaker and Bob Horner won the Rookie of the Year awards. Horner, known as Mr. Ho Mah, looked a little chunky for a ballplayer, but lord, could he hit.
Coming off their historic 1977 season, the Royals were the consensus pick to repeat as Western Division champions. Having lost confidence in his young closer, Mark Littell, General Manager Joe Burke packaged Littell with catcher Buck Martinez and shipped them to St. Louis for Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky.
Even though he only went 5’11 and 185, Hrabosky projected the image of a bad-ass, with his massive Fu Manchu and stern face. Before facing each batter, Hrabosky would turn his back to home plate and go through a ten second psyche up, slam the ball into his glove, stomp to the mound and go into his windup. The fans ate it up, until he lost a few mph on his fastball and started getting lit up. Then it just became annoying. Hrabosky peaked in 1975, when he went 13-3 with 22 saves and a 1.66 ERA for the Cardinals. It was pretty much downhill from that point on, though the Royals did get 75 innings and 20 saves from him in 1978.
Burke looked to trade Mayberry after he was hung-over in the 1977 ALCS, dropping a few throws and a foul ball, causing him to be benched for Game 5. Burke finally found a taker in April, sending Mayberry to Toronto for “cash considerations”, ending the slugger’s brilliant six-year Royals career, which saw him slam 143 home runs, 552 RBI and accumulate 21 WAR in what still remains one of the greatest trade heists in club history. Burke made a couple of smaller moves during the season, selling high on pitcher Jim Colborn in June, but only receiving outfielder Steve Braun in return and in July selling pitcher Andy Hassler to the Red Sox.
There were a few rookies on the roster, but only pitcher Rich Gale and Clint Hurdle made any impact. The remaining group, Dave Cripe, Jim Gaudet, Bill Paschall and Luis Silverio were sent to the dustbin of Royals trivia.
Hurdle was the most ballyhooed rookie. After playing in only nine games in 1977, Hurdle was drawing comparisons to a young Mickey Mantle. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in March 1978, with the headline: “This year’s phenom”. Heady times indeed. GM Joe Burke called Hurdle “one of the top prospects I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been in the major leagues.” John Schuerholz, who was then the director of scouting, said “I bubble inside when I think about his potential.”
The Royals had been scouting Hurdle since high school, and the late, great Bill Fischer, who was the Royals minor league pitching instructor, used to pitch batting practice to Hurdle. Fischer stopped when Hurdle was 17, for fear “that I might get killed.” The Royals brass brought Hurdle to their minor league complex in Sarasota in the spring of 1975 to take batting practice under the watchful eye of Charlie Lau. “From the time he took his first swing, there was no doubt in my mind.” said Lau. “It was the greatest exhibition your ever saw.” added Fischer.
Hurdle celebrated his debut by buying a Dodge van, equipped with a refrigerator, sink, CB radio, stereo tape deck, fold-out bed and spittoon. Hurdle kept a harmonica within easy reach on the padded dashboard, and the refrigerator was never empty.
”When I’ve had a few drinks,” he says, “I want to get Rubin [Hurricane] Carter out of jail. When I came up to Kansas City last season (1977), I thought life in the majors would be great, but it was ten times better than I expected.”
The Royals came out of the gate red-hot, going 14-5 in April. They had a losing record in May, June and August, but played outstanding when it counted, going 20-8 in July and 20-10 in September. They finished with a record of 92-70, down from their 102-win pace of 1977, but still enough to win the West by five games over the Angels and Rangers. Despite their roller coaster monthly won/loss totals, the club was surprisingly consistent. Their largest lead was six games and the largest deficit they had to overcome was only 4 ½ games, which occurred in May. The longest win streak of the season was ten games (July 14-24th) and the longest losing streak was only five games. They collected seven walk-off wins. The Royals loved the home park, going 56-25 (.691) in Royals Stadium, while only playing .444 ball (36-45) on the road.
At age 31 and feeling the heat from an up and coming Willie Wilson, Amos Otis had the best season of his career, hitting .298/.380/.525 with 22 home runs, 96 RBI, 32 stolen bases and a .905 OPS, all good for 7.4 WAR, while playing outstanding in center field. Injuries limited George Brett to 128 games, but he still put up 5.4 WAR while hitting .294/.342/.467 with 9 home runs and 62 RBI. Darrell Porter continued to play like a star, hitting .265/.358/.444 with 18 home runs, 78 RBI and 75 walks. Frank White had the best season of his young career, hitting .275 with 7 home runs and 50 RBI.
The Royals were built around contact and speed. They had four players with more than 20 steals, led by Wilson with 46. With Mayberry exiled, and Hal McRae and Al Cowens having off-years, the club only hit 98 home runs. Hurdle, the phenom, played in 133 games, hitting .264/.348/.398 with 7 home runs and 56 RBI. Not bad for a rookie.
Brett, Porter, White and Freddie Patek made the All-Star team. In what had to be one of the great slights in Royals history, Amos Otis was not selected for the mid-summer classic. Fortunately for American League manager Billy Martin, the game was played in San Diego. Robbie Cano knows the heat that Kansas City fans can bring when one of their deserving players is snubbed. Robbie-Cano, clap, clap, clap, clap. Robbie-Cano, clap, clap, clap, clap. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ballplayer’s sphincter slam as tight as Cano’s did that night in July of 2012, while Royal fans reminded him why he should have selected Billy Butler for the home run derby. But I digress.
The 1978 Royals were primarily an American-born team. They only had one foreign born player all season, the rookie outfielder Luis Silverio, who hailed from the Dominican Republic. Silverio only played in eight career games, all in 1978, and went 6-for-11 (.545) before disappearing back into the Royals minor league system, where he remained until finally retiring in 1982.
The Royals pitching staff was once again solid. Larry Gura led the way, going 16-4 with a 2.72 ERA in 221 innings of work. Dennis Leonard was the workhorse of the staff, pitching 292 innings and posting a 21-17 record, picking up an amazing 38 decisions in his 40 starts. Rookie Rich Gale turned heads with a 14-8 mark, while Paul Splittorff turned in a fine 19-13 campaign while throwing 262 innings over 38 starts. Hrabosky psyched himself up enough to get 20 saves, while Doug Bird, Marty Pattin and Steve Mingori all threw significant innings. Former ace, Steve Busby, attempted a comeback, throwing 21 innings and picking up a win in the second game of the season against Cleveland, giving hope to Royals fans that he could join an already strong staff.
One of the most entertaining games of the season happened on May 12th. The hated Yankees were in town and Yankee starter Ed Figueroa was one out away from a complete game, six hit victory when he walked Darrell Porter. Yankee manager Billy Martin couldn’t leave well enough alone and brought in hard throwing righty, Goose Gossage, to face Amos Otis. Otis lifted a somewhat routine fly ball to deep right center field, but Mickey Rivers and Reggie Jackson both wanted to catch the last out. One ball, two gloves, two egos. That never works. Rivers and Jackson collided, the ball bounced off the turf and the speedy Porter and Otis circled the bases for a walk-off, inside the park home run while 33,000 fans roared with delight. Could be why Martin left Otis off of the All-Star team.
The Royals won the season series with New York, 6 games to 5. Of course, none of that matters unless you can win in October. The Yankees made sure that the two teams would meet again, overcoming a 14-game deficit, then beating the Red Sox in a one game playoff to set up the third installment of their heavyweight fight with the Royals. Tune in next week for that re-cap.