One nice thing about compiling these historical pieces, is that it allows me to take a trip down memory lane to recall all the cool and exciting things that happened in a particular year. The bad thing about writing these pieces, is it allows me to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about cool and exciting things gone by. The movie Star Wars opened nationwide on May 25th and movie history was altered forever. Smokey and the Bandit and Saturday Night Fever were also huge movie hits. The Apple II and Commodore computers went on sale for the first time. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown. The Dow Jones Average closed the year at 831. A plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed, killing four. On August 16th, just as a team we know, and love was going on a historic win streak, Elvis Presley died. The music scene was hopping in 1977. Disco was starting to dominate the Top 100. Fleetwood Mac (Rumours), Billy Joel (The Stranger) and Meatloaf (Bat out of Hell) all released huge albums. Jimmy Buffett released a catchy little tune that went like this: “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville, searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt” and suddenly everyone was a beach bum. Makes me want to stop typing and have a drink.
The American League added two expansion teams in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners. Kansas City lost Rupert Jones (the #1 overall pick), Al Fitzmorris, Bob Stinson and Tom Bruno in the draft. Eddie Murray and Andre Dawson won Rookie of the year in their respective leagues. Steve Carlton won the National League Cy Young, while Sparky Lyle went 13-5 with twenty-six saves to win the American League Cy Young. Many batters in the American League developed the “Ryan flu” when facing the California Angels. It was a legitimate illness for many as Nolan Ryan went 19-16 with 341 strike outs. Rod Carew led the American League with 239 hits and a .388 average to win the league’s MVP while Cincinnati’s George Foster clubbed 52 home runs, hit .320 and drove in 149 to capture the National League MVP. The Los Angeles Dodgers become the only team in history with four players hitting thirty or more home runs, led by Steve Garvey with 33, Reggie Smith (32), Ron Cey and Dusty Baker (30 apiece). Oh, and the New York Yankee’s beat those Dodgers in six games to capture the World Series, led by Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in game six.
After coming oh so close in 1976, the Royals entered 1977 with the confidence of a team that had been through the battles. The team made one significant trade in the offseason, shipping Jamie Quirk, Jim Wohlford and Bob McClure to Milwaukee for pitcher Jim Colborn and catcher Darrell Porter. It remains to this day one of the most underrated and lopsided trades in Royals history with Colborn and Porter producing 20 WAR for the Royals, while Milwaukee only garnered 5 WAR from the trio they received, all of it generated by McClure, who had a very successful and underrated nineteen-year career. For Porter, who was born and raised in Joplin, Missouri, it was a homecoming of sorts. Porter had been a fantastic athlete in high school and made his debut with the Brewers as a nineteen-year-old in 1971. He brought with him a lively bat and an intensity that fit well with many of his teammates.
Colborn was no slouch. He went 18-14 and threw a no-hitter against Texas on May 14th, the first no-hitter by a Royals pitcher in Royals Stadium. In fact, the entire pitching staff was terrific in 1977. Dennis Leonard, the Royals Pitcher of the year, blossomed into a legit ace, winning twenty games, which was tops in the American League. Leonard also set club records for innings pitched (292), complete games (21) and strikeouts (244). Paul Splittorff’s record of 16 and 6 produced the best win percentage in the league at .727. Doug Bird went 11-4 with fourteen saves and Marty “bulldog” Pattin chipped in with ten wins. Bird, Pattin, Larry Gura and Mark Littell all pitched more than a hundred innings and made spot starts.
The Royals bats were also hot in ’77. Al Cowens won the Royals player of the year with a monster effort: .312/.361/.525 with 23 home runs, 112 RBI and a .885 OPS. Cowens also had fourteen outfield assists, won a Gold Glove and finished second in the American League MVP race behind Rod Carew. George Brett solidified his position as a superstar with a .312/.373/.532 season which included 22 home runs and 88 RBI. Hal McRae continued to pound American League pitchers as he turned in a .298/.366/.515 effort with 21 home runs, 92 RBI and a league leading 54 doubles. Freddie Patek led the team with 52 stolen bases.
All of this production resulted in a major league best 102 wins against only 60 losses. The win total remains a Royal team record. The 1980 squad won 97 games and the 2015 World Series Champs only won 95. In only their ninth season of existence, the Royals had finally climbed the mountain and stood on the pinnacle. They won the American League West by eight games over Texas. Besides Colborn’s no-hitter, there were some other notable games:
· Before a June 12th game in Milwaukee, thieves broke into the Kansas City clubhouse and stole gloves and uniforms. All but seven Royals had to wear Milwaukee road uniforms in the game. Perhaps this was some sort of payback for the Colborn/Porter heist.
· During an August 30th game against the Rangers, Morganna Roberts, a very buxom blonde nicknamed The Kissing Bandit, jumped the 3rd base railing and gave George Brett a smooch at home plate. Brett didn’t miss a beat, going two for four that night. The second base umpire that night? None other than Don Denkinger, who always seemed to have a front row seat to historic and memorable Kansas City games.
· On Sunday, September 18th, nineteen-year-old phenom Clint Hurdle made his Kansas City debut and in his second at-bat hit a monster home run into the right field water fountains. Hurdle would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March 1978, in a story titled “This years phenom” and many compared Hurdle to a young Mickey Mantle. I was sitting behind home plate that day and remembered thinking, some day I can tell my kids that I saw Clint Hurdle hit his first major league home run. Turns out, I was wrong about that. The young outfielder on that team who did become a superstar was twenty-one-year-old Willie Wilson, who saw action in thirteen games that summer.
Seems like I am forgetting something. Oh yeah, the streak. No Royal fan who was alive in 1977 will ever forget the streak. Every time I think about the streak, a goofy song pops into my head. In 1974, during the height of the streaking craze, singer Ray Stevens released a nutty song that became a best seller. Right now, you are either humming the song or looking it up on Youtube.
Oh yes, they call him the streak, look at that, look at that
Fastest thing on two feet, look at that, look at that
He’s just as proud as can be, of his anatomy
He’s going to give us a peek
On June 2nd, after a slow start, the Royals were seven and a half games back of the A’s. The Royals went twenty and seven leading into the All-Star break to chip away at the lead. A win against Boston moved them into first place on August 20th. That win kicked off a ten-game winning streak. They promptly lost three of four, then behind Colburn, beat Texas on August 31st. That win jump started a sixteen-game win streak which ended with a four to one loss to Seattle on September 16th. No worries, they rebounded the next day to win, which propelled them to another eight-game win streak and wins in twenty-four of the past twenty-five contests. The streak was temporarily put on hold as Kansas City dealt with the aftereffects of the September 12th Brush Creek flood (also known as the Plaza flood), in which twenty-five people lost their lives. When play resumed, they closed the season by winning thirty-eight of their last forty-seven games (.808). The sixteen-game win streak is still the fourteenth longest win streak in baseball history and remains the Kansas City club record. In the last one hundred years of baseball, the 1977 Royals are the only team to win thirty five of thirty-nine games (.897) which occurred between August 17th and September 25th.
It was pure joy to be a Royals fan in the summer of 1977. I would rush home from school every afternoon to read the Salina Journal sports page for details on yet another win. It seemed like they would never lose again. For a sixteen-year-old baseball fan, it doesn’t get any better than that. The 1977 Royals were primarily an American team, with Cookie Rojas being the only player born outside of the United States (Cuba). Ten players from that team now reside in the Royals Hall of Fame. That team had just about everything: starting pitching, power, speed, veteran leadership and a savvy manager. The only weakness would have been left field, which had been open for competition since the ill-advised trade of Lou Piniella to the Yankees after the 1973 season. Jim Wohlford had been shipped off to Milwaukee and Tom Poquette, Joe Lahoud and rookie Joe Zdeb had performed admirably, but they were not Piniella. And then there’s the Steve Busby question. Every Royals fan has wondered at some point in their lives, what if Buzz had stayed healthy and would have been on that 1977 staff. What a rotation that would have been: Busby, Leonard, Splittorff and Colborn. Wow! How many games could they have won? Would Busby had gotten them by the Yankees?
Meanwhile, out east, Billy Martin had led the hated Yanks to a 100-62 record. The Yankees were also loaded with talent. The 1977 A.L.C.S. promised to be another classic.