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Looking back at the career of Royals slugger John Mayberry

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John Claiborn Mayberry, born February 18, 1949 in Detroit, was a slugging first baseman with a soft glove and a dignified name. John attended Northwestern High School in Detroit, which also produced sluggers Willie Horton and Alex Johnson. That’s 61 WAR from one high school, impressive. While at Northwestern High, John was a three-sport standout, starring in football, basketball and baseball. Twice he was named an All-State basketball player in Michigan, but baseball was his true love, and stories of his prodigious home runs drew dozens of scouts to his high school games.

The Astros drafted John with the sixth-overall pick in the first round of the 1967 amateur draft. The 1967 draft was loaded, producing Jon Matlack, Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich, Vida Blue, Dave Kingman, Don Baylor, Ralph Garr, Richie Zisk, Davy Lopes and Dusty Baker, among others. The Royals were not in existence yet, but the Kansas City Athletics did draft Blue and Darrell Evans, two players who combined for 104 WAR in their career. Not a bad draft for Charlie Finley.

Mayberry had some early success in the minors and the Astros, desperate for wins, rushed him through their system. He made his Major League debut on September 10, 1968 as a 19-year-old and he appeared in four games that fall. He played in five more games for the Astros in 1969 but didn’t collect a hit. John finally collected his first big league hit on April 9, 1970, a fifth inning single against the Giants Frank Reberger. In hindsight, the Astros mishandled Mayberry badly, bringing him up too soon then shuttling him between the big-league club and AAA several times.

Mayberry had a terrific 1969 season at AAA Oklahoma City, slashing .303/.393/.522 with 21 home runs, 78 RBI, 95 runs and 62 walks in 123 games. You could see that the talent was there, but the Astros were stacked with first basemen, having Bob Watson, Curt Blefary and the underappreciated Rusty Staub on the roster, blocking Mayberry. Staub, known as LeGrand Orange, was a very good player with Houston and despite that, the Astros unbelievably traded Staub to the Expos (in one of many horrible trades the Astros made) prior to the 1969 season. Staub ended his 23-year career as a 46 WAR player, slashing .279/.362/.431, collecting 2,716 hits with 292 home runs and 1,466 RBI while appearing in six All-Star games. With stats like that, a case could be made that Staub is a borderline case for the Hall of Fame.

The Astros, disappointed that Big John had yet to develop the power they thought he should, for a short time tried turning Mayberry into a slap hitter, which frustrated Mayberry to no end. On November 29th of 1971, the Astros made a doozy of a trade, sending Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo and Jack Billings to the Cincinnati Reds for slugging first baseman (and future Royal) Lee May, in a trade that many rank as the worst in Astros history, which is saying something. The trade made Mayberry expendable and Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis jumped on a deal to pry him away from the Astros for pitchers Lance Clemons and Jim York.

Mayberry put up 21 WAR in his Kansas City career while York and Clemons accumulated a negative 1.7 WAR. Clemons was out of baseball after the 1974 season, having only appeared in nine games after the trade. York hung on through the 1976 season, appearing in 117 games with Houston and the Yankees. Making two trades of this magnitude, in less than a week, calls into question the competency of the Astros front office. On the other hand, the trade, which ranks as one of the best in Kansas City history brings us to the long running mystery: why is Cedric Tallis not in the Royals Hall of Fame?

Thus began the John Mayberry Era in Kansas City. Manager Bob Lemon made the 23-year-old Mayberry his starting first baseman and John didn’t let him down. Mayberry hit in 11 of his first 12 games as a Royal. In the month of June 1972, Mayberry stroked 32 hits with 6 home runs, 7 doubles and 30 RBI good for a .471 average. From August 25th to the 27th, Mayberry homered in four consecutive games in Yankee Stadium. With the season winding down, on September 29th, Big John cranked a three-run home run off Vida Blue, lifting his RBI total to 100, becoming the first Royal to hit that mark.

In the early to mid-1970’s, Vida Blue was a terror on the mound and one of the most difficult pitchers to hit, especially for lefties. Mayberry also led American League first basemen in five of seven defensive categories. The big change for Mayberry at the plate was batting coach Charlie Lau convincing him to move further from the plate. The results were spectacular: .298/.394/.507 with 25 home runs, 100 RBI and 78 walks. 1972 was the last year that the Royals played in Municipal Stadium, and Mayberry hit the last Royal home run in the old park in a September 29th game against the hated Athletics (he would also become the first player to ever homer in new Royals Stadium). In his first season with the Royals, Big John had become a star.

“I’ve never seen anybody as good as he is at his age for knowing the strike zone. Most big swingers have no idea what a strike is at that age.”

-Royals Manager Bob Lemon

The 1972 season began a run of five consecutive years of terrific production from Mayberry.

To prove that 1972 wasn’t a fluke, Mayberry collected 80 RBI in his first 87 games of the 1973 season, on his way to a .278/.417/.478 year with 26 home runs, 100 RBI, and a then club record 122 walks.

Mayberry got off to another great start in 1974 before Injuries started to pile up, limiting him to 126 games. The first was a pulled muscle in his right leg which sidelined him from June 24th to July 29th. The second was a broken right hand, courtesy of a Frank Tanana pitch, which shelved Mayberry from August 6th to August 28th. Early in his career, Tanana was one of the hardest throwers in baseball. Next time Mayberry saw Tanana, prior to a game, he grabbed the lefty and slammed him against the outfield wall, telling Tanana something along the lines that if he ever hit him with another pitch, that violence would be done. Mayberry still managed to hit 22 home runs in the 1974 season. Mayberry faced Tanana 36 more times in his career and hit .387 against him. Tanana never hit him with another pitch.

In 1975, Big John had a season for the ages, slashing .291/.416/.547 with a then club record 34 home runs, 106 RBI, 95 runs and a league-leading 119 walks. He collected 303 total bases, which was good for second in the league and put up 7.2 WAR. This production earned John a 2nd place finish in the league MVP race.

Mayberry was also known as a clubhouse jester. He could also be relentless with the needle. Prior to the 1973 season, the Royals acquired Hal McRae from the Cincinnati Reds. In those days, there was still a lot of rivalry between the American and National League. Players in the National League had an air about them that they were better and that was resented by players in the Junior Circuit. McRae was determined to change the culture of the Royals – run everything out, break up double plays, never back down. And thankfully, over time, he did change the culture. Successful teams must have someone like Hal McRae to make them accountable. But when McRae got off to a slow start in 1973, Mayberry was relentless with his needling.

“Tell us a little more about National League baseball, Hal.”

“Awful lot of talk for a .230 hitter, Hal.”

Finally, one day on the team bus, McRae couldn’t take it any longer. Even though Mayberry was taller and outweighed him, McRae said, “I’ll probably get killed, but here I come.” And with that Hal McRae went after John Mayberry. The fight was broken up, but the message had been delivered. Those Royal teams played hard. They broke up double plays. The ran out grounders and fly balls and if they didn’t, Hal McRae or George Brett would be waiting in the dugout for the scofflaw.

All athletes eventually start to decline. Sometimes it’s caused by injury or drug or alcohol abuse. Sometimes players sign a big contract, get comfortable and lose their fire. Occasionally, they think they’re fashion models or recording artists and forget that they are ballplayers. Most often it’s caused by Father Time. Father Time is undefeated. Mayberry’s decline started in the 1976 season at the age of 27. He still managed to put up a reasonable line of .232/.322/.342 but only hit 13 home runs. He did manage to collect 95 RBI and 82 walks.

Mayberry’s 1977 season was decent at .230/.336/.401. On August 5, 1977, he hit for the cycle against the Chicago White Sox. The power numbers came back to 23 home runs. He chipped in with 82 RBI and another 83 walks, but the Royals brass believed his better days were past him. The end came when John showed up late for Game Four of the ALCS against the Yankees. The rumor was that Mayberry had spent the previous night partying, stayed out way too late and showed up hungover, enraging manager Whitey Herzog. Mayberry started the game, struck out twice, bungled a relay throw and dropped an easy pop foul, which extended a New York inning, until Herzog had seen enough and yanked him for John Wathan after the fourth inning.

Herzog started Wathan in Game five, despite protests from several Royal players, who believed their best chance to beat the Yankees was a lineup with Mayberry in it. After winning a club record 102 games and having a 2-1 lead in the series, the Royals collapsed, losing Games Four and Five, in Kansas City no less, and Herzog laid the blame at Mayberry’s feet.

There were rumors of alcohol and drug use and Herzog had seen enough, demanding that the Royals part ways with their slugger. It helps to understand the times. The mid-to-late 1970s were the disco era and recreational drug use was fairly rampant and somewhat accepted by society. Cocaine was the drug of choice for many in all walks of life. The poor snorted their coke through a straw or a rolled-up dollar bill. The rich and the famous used custom-made spoons and straws for their indulgences. I don’t know if Mayberry was using coke and I’m not suggesting he was, though the drug did rear its ugly head a few years later (1983) resulting in the suspension of several Royals. Over the years, the NFL had their share of cokeheads. The NBA was awash in coke in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I’m sure there was some coke floating around MLB during those years.

Regardless, Kansas City sold Mayberry to Toronto in April of 1978. Just a straight cash sale. No players to Kansas City. No draft choices. A pitiful return for a player who had helped the franchise become a winner. The sale was especially difficult for Ewing Kauffman, who loved Mayberry. Mayberry played for five seasons in Toronto and put up respectable numbers: .256/.352/.450 with 93 home runs and 272 RBI. The Jays traded Mayberry to the Yankees in May of 1982 and John played 69 games in the Bronx before calling it quits at the age of 33.

For his career, Mayberry clubbed 252 home runs and drove home 879 while picking up 25 WAR, most of that in his prime with KC. He was a two-time All Star and received MVP votes in four seasons. He hit one of the longest home runs in Royals/Kauffman stadium history, a shot that bounced off the top of the circular concession stand in the right field plaza.

At 6’3 and 215 lbs., Mayberry was considered a big man in his era. Times have changed. Today a player that size is common place. New Yankee second baseman D.J. LeMahieu stands 6’4 and goes 215 lbs., nearly identical to Mayberry, but despite being a fine player, LeMahieu doesn’t provoke the fear in pitchers that Big John once did.

After retirement, Mayberry worked as a coach in the Blue Jays system for five years. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1996 and Bill James ranks him as the 49th best first baseman in baseball history. His son, John Jr., played for several major league teams, most notably the Phillies. So Big John, here’s looking at you on your 70th birthday.