Expectations were high for twenty-four-year-old Steve Busby going into the 1974 season. After all, he’d gone 16-15 while striking out 174 batters as a rookie in 1973 and threw a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers. That production landed him third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting and made believers out of Kansas City baseball fans including me. I was a twelve-year-old pitcher in the summer of 1973 in my hometowns unfortunately named “Midget” baseball league and Busby quickly became my favorite player, even to the point where I copied his delivery. My catcher was my best friend Dennis Luck, who was chosen to catch because of his build, which in those days was called “husky”. Today they call that body positive. Don’t ask me why. Dennis possessed a steady glove, quick feet and a decent arm and would later make a fine shortstop, though in those days, chubby kids played catcher. As for me, I didn’t possess Busby’s gift of a right arm, though I did strike out my share of batters. In one game, we were nursing a one run lead, with men on second and third and two outs and who should step into the batter’s box but Steve Gorsuch. Due to a technicality in birth dates, Steve, who was a seventh grader, somehow got into the Midget league with us fifth and sixth graders. This ordinarily would not be a problem, except that Steve was a big boy and probably outweighed me by one hundred pounds. Just the sight of him digging in made me break out in a sweat. I blew two fastballs by Big Steve, to jump ahead in the count. Dennis called time out and trotted out to the mound. Forty-five years later, I still recall the conversation verbatim:
Me: “What should we do?”
Dennis: “Throw him a change up.”
Me: “You’re out of your mind. He’ll kill it.”
Dennis: “Trust me. He’ll never think it’s coming.”
Me: “You better be right.”
Dennis trotted back behind the plate. Big Steve dug in with a maniacal grin on his face that said, “I’m going to crush whatever you throw me.”
Dennis put down two fingers, which was kind of ridiculous since I only threw one pitch. I dutifully shook him off, just to throw Steve off the scent. Dennis once again put down two fingers and I shook my head yes, went into my patented Busby windup and threw the most beautiful changeup of my entire life. The ball floated to the plate and Big Steve took a Jacksonian cut, nearly drilling himself into the dirt. The ball landed harmlessly in Dennis’ glove, and he held on, for the strikeout. Big Steve gave me a smile and a look like “I can’t believe you pulled that off” as I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the dugout. My teammates were whooping and hollering and exchanging back slaps as we reveled in our David and Goliath moment. I tell you this story to illustrate how exciting it is to be a pitcher, at any level of baseball, and what it feels like to realize that what comes out of your arm can fool and strike out batters.
To this end, Busby didn’t disappoint. 1974 was his finest season in a career tragically cut short by shoulder problems. In 1974, Busby posted a 22-14 mark while striking out 198 batters, which fell just short of the club record of 206 held by Bob Johnson. He threw 292 innings and completed twenty games. It was a year filled with highlights: Busby made his first American League All-Star team. He was named Royals pitcher of the year. He picked up some MVP votes. One of the highlights of the summer came on July 16th in a game against the Boston Red Sox when Busby struck out six batters in a row. The biggest highlight, however, occurred on the evening of June 19th in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers in old County Stadium. In that game, Busby became the first pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw no-hitters in each of his first two seasons.
There were only 9,019 souls in attendance on that 69-degree night to witness history. Busby was masterful, allowing only a second inning lead off walk to George Scott, on a 3-2 pitch.
In the classic baseball movie, Bull Durham, catcher Crash Davis implores Nuke LaLoosh with the line, “strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some groundballs, it’s more democratic.”
In this game, Busby was a master of democracy. Of the twenty-seven outs, thirteen were on groundouts and eleven on flyballs. Normally a strikeout pitcher, Buzz only fanned three Brewers.
The Brew Crew had a pretty decent hitting team, with Don Money, Robin Yount, Dave May, George “Boomer” Scott, John Briggs and Darrel Porter. The Royals gave Busby an early lead when John Mayberry led off the second inning with a walk against Brewer pitcher Clyde Wright. After two fly outs, Al Cowens drew a walk, which brought the Royals young third baseman, George Brett to the plate. Brett punched a single into center field, scoring Mayberry from second.
Scott led off the Brewer half of the second with the aforementioned walk. Busby then buckled down and struck out Briggs, got Porter on a liner to deep right field and ended the threat by getting DH Bob Hansen to ground out to Cookie Rojas at second base.
In the Royals fourth, Hal McRae led off with a single to right. Left fielder Jim Wohlford followed with a single to center, moving Mac to second. Al Cowens tried to punch a pitch into right field, but first baseman Scott made a nice scoop and throw to nail McRae at third. No worries. Brett drilled a hard grounder to shortstop Yount whose throw sailed past Scott, which allowed Wohlford to score and sent Brett to second.
Cowens saved the no-hitter in the bottom of the fourth by making an excellent running catch on Scotts hard line drive to deep right. The rest of the game was fairly uneventful as Busby continued to use his fielders, throwing fastballs and sliders that the Brewers pounded into the dirt. Busby retired the final twenty-four batters he faced, and he seemed to gain strength as the game progressed. In the ninth, he caught Bob Coluccio looking at a curve, which prompted an argument between Coluccio and home plate umpire Joe Brinkman. Buzz then induced Tim Johnson to fly out to Amos Otis and ended the evening by getting Don Money on an easy popup to Cookie Rojas in short rightfield.
The Royals mobbed their young star. A cigarette smoking Brewer fan even joined the party, going as far as stealing catcher Fran Healy’s cap before Royals coach Galen Cisco, a former football All-American at Ohio State, forcefully retrieved it from the interloper.
Busby was on a once in a lifetime hot streak. He rode the momentum of his no-hitter into his next game, holding the White Sox hit less for five and one third innings, until Pat Kelly singled to center to end the hit less streak at seventeen consecutive innings (2 1/3 closing out his start against Detroit on June 14th, the nine innings against Milwaukee and the 5 1/3 against the White Sox on June 24th). During the streak, Busby retired thirty-three consecutive batters to establish a new American League record.