Editor’s note: The Top 100 Greatest Royals list began several years ago, before many recent Royals could get a chance to be honored. It is really more of a way to learn more about Royals in the past, so don’t take the list super serious.
Larry Gura was a soft-tossing lefty who relied on strong command and pitching-to-contact to succeed. He was a late bloomer, not really getting a shot until he was in his 30s, but made the most of his opportunity and became a major part of the Royals’ success in the 70s. Nicknamed “Slider” by his teammates, Gura was actually known for his change-up and for being a health nut and a farmer, owning land out in Buckner, Missouri. He never struck out many hitters, but relied on his defense, and was an excellent fielder himself.
Lawrence Cyril Gura was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, an hour southwest of Chicago,. He went on to one of the premier college baseball programs in America, playing at Arizona State University under legendary coach Bobby Winkles. He won two National Championships, and was a first-team All-American in 1969 when he won a school record 19 games with a 1.01 ERA. His hometown Chicago Cubs made him the 40th overall selection in the draft that summer.
The Cubs sent Gura straight to AAA, and by April the next year he was in the big leagues. But he found sticking in the Majors difficult, shuttling between AAA and the Cubs bullpen over the next four seasons. By November of 1973, he was already 26 and had made just 54 appearances as a big leaguer, with just ten starts. He was traded to the Texas Rangers for a minor leaguer and pitched one inning in big league camp with the Rangers before manager Billy Martin shipped Gura to the minors. In May, without ever appearing in a big league game for the Rangers, Gura was shipped to the Yankees for a minor leaguer. He was looking like a AAA journeyman.
Gura excelled in the minors in 1974, and injuries opened a door for him late in the year. The Yankees brought him up and he won five of his first six starts, with two complete game shutouts. He ended the year with a 2.41 ERA in eight starts. It was enough for the Yankees to carry him on all of 1975, where he posted a 3.51 ERA in 151 1⁄3 innings.
“I’m nothing but a junk pitcher. My fastball’s only average, but I rely on control and keeping the hitters off stride.”
When Yankees skipper Bill Virdon was fired was in August, Billy Martin took over, which put Gura on thin ice. He failed to make the rotation in 1976, and although Martin promised to use him as a long reliever and spot starter, Gura didn’t make a single appearance over the first six weeks of the season. Looking to get rid of the unhappy lefty, the Yankees swung a deal with the Royals, who were looking to dump an unhappy camper of their own, Fran Healy, who had been demoted to third string catcher.
Even in Kansas City, Gura found playing time very rare at first. He made just 20 appearances in 1976, usually in blowouts. But he made one of the biggest starts in franchise history up to that point when he faced the Oakland Athletics in September. The Royals were looking for their first division title, but had seen their 12 game lead in the division shrink to just 2.5 games late in the year. The soft-tossing lefty tossed a four-hit shutout - with just one strikeout - to clinch the first division title in franchise history for the Kansas City Royals.
“If I were Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman, I’d be calling Larry Gura tomorrow morning and tell him I would sign him for the next season for a $25,000 raise.”
-A’s manager Chuck Tanner
The first playoff series in Royals history matched them up against Gura’s old team - the Yankees - and his old skipper - Billy Martin. Gura took the opportunity to criticize his former manager for never believing in him.
“At Texas, he judged me on one inning. He came to the Yankees and the first move he made was to go from a five-man to a four-man rotation and cut me out...I started 20 games and had four bad outings that were actually my fault. He just seemed to remember the four bad outings.”
George Brett added to the criticism by slamming Martin for promising his brother Ken that he wouldn’t be traded - then dealing the pitcher to the White Sox two days later. The feud would carry over into the playing field, where Martin levied expletives at Gura (and some claim Brett as well). Ultimately, Martin would get the best of Gura and the Royals that year, winning the five game series, with Gura losing Game 1.
It was back to the pen for most of 1977 for Gura, as he served as a long reliever and occasional starter, posting a 3.13 ERA in 106 1/3 innings. He started Game 4 of the ALCS that year, again against the Yankees, but departed after allowing four runs in two innings.
Gura’s career really took off in 1978, at the tender age of 30. He joined the rotation and made a then-career-high 26 starts, winning 16 games and putting up 4.5 WAR. He finished sixth in the league in ERA with 2.72, and received votes for both Cy Young and MVP. He also picked up his first post-season win, besting the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS.
“Being a regular pitcher has done a lot for me. I have more confidence than ever before.”
The players had won the right to free agency, and Gura was one of the first Royals to exercise that newly won right. His old Yankees came crawling back to him with an offer, but Gura decided to reward the loyalty of the Royals, taking less money on a five-year, $1.3 million contract. He became first MLB free agent ever to re-sign with his club.
Gura regressed in 1979, getting off to a dreadful start. His ERA was over five in late July, and fans grumbled that he was a free agent bust. Gura’s low strikeout approach was getting hammered, as he gave up 29 home runs with an ERA of 4.47.
“Any time I make a mistake it seems like they hit the ball out of the park.”
The 1980 season afforded him a fresh start, and the lefty tossed a complete game shutout in his first start, then tossed two more that month, including a one-hitter against the Jays. That start proved to be a harbinger of things to come that year, as Gura won 18 games with a 2.95 ERA and was named to his only All-Star Game. He was a workhorse for the Royals, going 283 innings, third in the league. He completed 16 games, which doesn’t even include his 13-inning outing against Oakland in May. He was a 6.2 WAR pitcher, second in the American League only behind Chicago’s Britt Burns. Nonetheless, Gura received just one Cy Young vote, finishing behind even teammate Dan Quisenberry.
“For some reason, people think the leading pitcher on the team has to throw hard. That’s not true. I know a lot of pitchers who don’t throw hard. I tried to convince Leo Durocher when I was with the Cubs. I never go the chance because they kept sending me down. Once you get a label in this game, it’s hard to shake.”
In the ALCS, Gura got his revenge against his old club, the Yankees, by tossing a complete game victory in Game 1, as the Royals swept the series. He gave up just four runs in two starts in the World Series that year against the Phillies, getting a no-decision in both games.
Gura repeated his impressive performance the next season, a strike-shortened year, finishing eighth in the league in innings pitched, sixth in ERA, tenth in wins, and sixth in WAR. In 1982, his ERA skyrocketed to 4.02, but he still won 18 games.
Best pitchers, 1978-1982
Gura struggled mightily in 1983, posting a 4.90 ERA and leading the league with 18 losses. He admitted to “pressing” once the losses piled up in what ultimately be a losing season for the Royals.
In 1984, Gura got off to a solid start, but had a 6.44 ERA after the start of June, and by August he was in the bullpen. The Royals had a stable of younger pitchers now - Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, and Bud Black. The 36-year old Gura did not figure into their future plans. He tried to salvage his career by toying with a screwball, but the Royals placed him on waivers in May of 1985, after just three relief appearances, despite owing Gura over $1.3 million for the 1985 and 1986 seasons.
Gura is fifth all-time in franchise history in wins with 111 and fifth in innings pitched with 1701. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1992. Larry Gura may not have been a flashy name with a big fastball, but he was a very effective pitcher for several seasons, leading the pitching staff in some of the most successful years in franchise history. He was overlooked by several other organizations, but found success as a diamond in the rough in Kansas City, another example of the shrewd eye for talent the front office had that built the Royals in their early days.