Lordy child a good days comin’,
And I’ll be there to let the sun in,
And bein’ lost is worth the comin’ home.
~ Stones by Neil Diamond
Stones, which is my favorite Neil Diamond song, is a love song, but I’ve always thought that verse perfectly summed up the fan experience for the Royals, especially in the mid to late 1970’s. The Royals had come tantalizingly close in 1976, 1977 and 1978, only to be denied by the hated Yankees. Then came the magical summer of 1980.
We hear it today as well. “The Process II” is underway, just be patient and we’ll deliver. According to Dayton Moore, a good days coming. We’ll let the sun in. Worst case, we’ll keep the porn out. Okay, that shot was below the belt, but you can understand the frustration.
1980. What a year. Just seems like yesterday. The nation was in the grips of a brutal recession. Inflation was running north of 13.50% and interest rates spiked to over 21%.
In February, the United States Olympic hockey team upset the heavily favored Russian team, in one of the most monumental sports upsets ever. Iran held 52 Americans hostage and an attempt to rescue them on April 24th, failed when one of the rescue helicopters crashed into a transport plane, killing eight servicemen. The hostage crisis and the economy led to Ronald Reagan defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter for the presidency. In response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan, the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18th, killing 57 people. The United States was hit by a major heat wave and scores of tornadoes that summer, killing over 1,700 people. The weather wasn’t the only thing that was hot. The nation was riveted by “Who shot JR” and comedian Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor survived and used the incident as hilarious fodder for the next decade of his standup act. As if the year wasn’t bad enough, a deranged fan assassinated John Lennon on December 8th. The good news is that the baseball season was a dandy. The Philadelphia Phillies held off the Montreal Expos to win the National League East while the Houston Astros squeaked by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. The Phillies advanced to the World Series by beating the Astros, three games to two, in a classic Championship Series in which the last four games were decided in extra innings.
In the American League, after a second place finish in 1979, the Royals won their fourth American League West title in five seasons, posting a 97-65 record which bested the Oakland A’s by 14 games. It was a dogfight in the East, with the New York Yankee’s needing 103 wins to get by the Baltimore Orioles, who stayed home despite having the second-best record in all of baseball at 100-62.
The American League Championship Series was a moment of deliverance as the Royals swept the Yankees, punctuated by a Ruthian three-run blast by George Brett with two outs in the seventh inning off Goose Gossage. The ball landed high into the right field upper deck of Yankee Stadium, silencing the crowd of 56,588 and sending Royal Nation into a state of rapture.
The blow was fitting as the 1980 season had been the summer of Brett. 1980 was the year that Brett went from being a star to a full-fledged superstar. Brett had won his first battle title by hitting .333 in 1976 as a 23-year-old, when he edged teammate Hal McRae. In 1980, he took it to another level. How hot was Brett in the summer of ’80? He was Elvis in 1957. He was the Beatles in 1964 or Haight-Ashbury in 1967. He became a cultural phenomenon. Women wanted to marry him, and men wanted to be him. President Carter made a stop in Kansas City and had his picture taken with Brett in an attempt to revive his flagging presidential campaign. In fact, throughout the Midwest, Brett for President bumper stickers were prevalent than Carter or Reagan stickers.
Brett only appeared in 117 games due to lingering injuries, but slashed .390/.454/.664 in the greatest batting season in Royals history. He hit 24 home runs and drove home 118 while only striking out 22 times in 449 at-bats. He was good for 9.4 WAR and had an OPS of 1.118. Incredible. More home runs than strikeouts. More RBI than games played. By comparison, Jorge Soler struck out 23 times in his first 14 games of 2019 and that doesn’t even include his Platinum Sombrero in the season’s 22nd game. For his efforts, Brett won the American League MVP in a landslide. Brett captivated the nation in his pursuit of becoming the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit .400 for the season.
Brett started the season ice cold, as he was prone to do. He was still at .247 as late as May 21st, when he started to heat up. Over the next nine games, Brett went 17 for 40 to bring his average up to .301. Brett missed a stretch of games from June 11th to July 10th, but when he was healthy, and playing, he was on fire. Over the next 16 games, he went 34-for-65, an astounding .523 clip to bring his average up to .374. American League pitchers had no answer for Brett. He finally reached .400 on August 17th, when he thrashed Toronto with a four for four day. Over 105,000 fans packed Royals Stadium that weekend to watch the Royals sweep the three-game series from the Jays with Brett going 8-for-12 with one home run and 10 RBI to bring his average to .401.
George reached his high-water mark of .407 on August 26th with a five for five beat down of the Milwaukee Brewers. Brett’s final day at .400 came on September 19th, when he had two hits in four at bats against the A’s. A late season slump, over the seasons last 13 games, dropped him to .390. During that spell, Brett hit .304. It’s hard to call that a slump, but by this time Brett had grown weary of the national media crush. Though disappointed, he almost seemed relieved that the season was over. What Brett had accomplished still boggles the mind. In the final 82 games he played in the 1980 season, Brett went an astonishing 138 for 320, good for a .431/.488/.728 line with an OPS of 1.216. He clubbed 21 of his home runs in that 82-game stretch and drove home 92 while collecting 41 walks and only striking out 14 times. I was too young to see Ted Williams play, but in my lifetime, but I have never seen, before or since, a batter so completely dominate opposing pitchers like George Brett did in the summer of 1980.
Of course, there was more to the 1980 Royals than Brett. In the off-season, the Royals granted free agency to mercurial reliever Al Hrabosky and fan favorite Freddie Patek. They made one significant trade, sending Al Cowens to the California Angels in exchange for first baseman Willie Mays Aikens and a young second baseman named Rance Mulliniks. The biggest change in the offseason was the firing of manager Whitey Herzog. In his place they hired a longtime coach from the Baltimore Orioles, Jim Frey. Frey took the reins of a loaded, veteran team. Darrell Porter, Willie Mays Aikens, Frank White, Clint Hurdle, Hal McRae and Amos Otis were all in their prime. Frey also had at his disposal a young toothpick chewing shortstop named U.L. Washington and a rapidly emerging star in the outfield, Willie Wilson.
The pitching staff featured workhorses Rich Gale, Larry Gura, Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff, who threw 958.1 innings and won 55 games in 1980. Dan Quisenberry established himself as one of the game’s premier closers, appearing in 75 games and finishing with 33 saves. Frey essentially went with a seven man staff all summer, with the four starters, plus Quisenberry, Marty Pattin and Renie Martin throwing 1,313 innings. The remaining eight pitchers used that summer only threw a combined 146 innings.
At the plate, besides Brett, 24-year-old Willie Wilson emerged as a star. Wilson collected 230 hits, And slashed .326/.357/.421 and swiped 79 bases. On October 4th, he became the first player to ever get over 700 at-bats in a season and became only the second player in history to collect over 100 hits from both sides of the plate. Willie Aikens, Frank White, Amos Otis and Hal McRae all had solid seasons and Clint Hurdle enjoyed his best season in Royal uniform.
The Royals moved into first place on May 23rd and spent 137 days in the lead. They went 23-7 in August to move 39 games over .500 and opened a 20-game lead over Oakland. In a strange twist, the Royals went 53-31 against their Eastern Division rivals, while only going 44-34 against teams in the West. There was no pennant race in the West. The only suspense would be who they would face in the Championship Series. The Royals clinched the division title on September 18th with a 5-2 victory over the Angels. Renie Martin threw 8 innings of one run ball. Brett went 2 for 3 and Rance Mulliniks drove in two runs.
But back to Brett. George hit .472 in June, .494 in July and .430 in August. He was held hitless in only 22 games all season and 13 of those came in April and May. From July 18th to August 18, Brett went on a then club record 30 game hit streak.
Looking over old scorecards, I found one from an August 23rd game against the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were a decent team. Mike Hargrove and Toby Harrah were stars. Rick Manning was a solid player plus they had Joe Charboneau, who would soon win American League Rookie of the Year award.
The game itself was uneventful. Clint Hurdle and Frank White delivered two-out RBI hits in the bottom of the seventh to drive home the winning runs in a 3-2 Kansas City victory. George Brett went 0-3. Dan Quisenberry picked up a six-out save in a game attended by 40,192. I say uneventful because in those days, you expected the Royals to win. And they rarely disappointed.
The scorebook though was full of early ‘80’s gold. It marked the return of my personal favorite, the Hamm’s Bear.
And check out this classic George Brett ad for Lifebouy Soap.
My favorite though is the picture of the Amos Otis family. Nice looking family standing next to Amos’ Lincoln complete with AO-26 license plate. I had to pull out my magnifying glass to read his bumper sticker, which was a classic: “Watch my rear end, not hers!!”
Next week: 1980 ALCS and World Series