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A look back at Dennis Leonard

One of the best.

To younger fans, the name Dennis Leonard is just another name in the record books. To older Royal fans, Leonard was the team’s first true ace. There were others who looked poised to grab the crown. Steve Busby was on his way to being not just the Royals ace, but one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball before arm problems derailed his career. Paul Splittorff fans can certainly make a case. Splitt was the first Royal hurler to win 20 games in a season and his name still dots the club’s top ten pitching records.

Roger Nelson had the stuff to be the number one. Nelson had arguably the best season ever by a Royals pitcher in 1972. Nelson didn’t even break into the starting rotation until July 4th, but still sits at number one for ERA (2.08), hits-per-nine-innings (6.231), walks-and-hits-per-nine-innings (.871), and shutouts (6) during that impressive summer. His single-season shutout record will probably never be broken.

When Busby went down, Leonard emerged to cover the loss. If you have any doubt about Big Red’s talent, let the top ten record book lead you. Wins in a season? Yeah, he’s got three of the top ten. Innings pitched? Number one, two, and five. Strikeouts in a season? Number one. Games started in a season? One. And two. And three. Complete games? One, two, five, and ten. Shutouts in a season? Three of the top ten. Batters faced? Yep. Two, three, five, and nine.

Career top ten? Why not. Second in wins (behind Splitt), number eight in games played, third in innings pitched, games started and strikeouts, and first in complete games and shutouts. His complete game and shutout mark will never be broken. It’s hard to lose when your pitcher throws a shutout. And Leonard’s teams won. A lot.

Leonard was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, by a NYPD father and a security guard mother. He was a marginal prospect in high school and had to walk on to the baseball team at Iona College. He battled arm problems during his junior season in 1971 that scared off most scouts who had been following him. Al Diez and Tom Ferrick of the Royals continued to follow Leonard and gave Royals Director of Scouting, Lou Gorman, a positive report.

The Royals selected Leonard in the second round of the 1972 amateur draft. Their first-round pick was George Brett’s future wingman, Jamie Quirk. The Royals assigned Leonard to their Kingsport, Tennessee Rookie League team. After four starts, he earned a promotion to Class A Waterloo (Iowa). Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo still looks much the same way it did when Leonard arrived in the summer of 1972. It’s an old stadium and carries a very heavy Bull Durham vibe. Leonard announced his presence by throwing a no-hitter in his first start. If that weren’t enough, he also hit a home run.

He replicated the feat in 1973 while pitching for AA San Jose against Visalia. He went 15-9 at San Jose which put him on the Royals' radar. Leonard pitched in Puerto Rico that winter, returned home and nearly made the Royals staff in 1974. He spent that season in Omaha, where he was named to the American Association All-Star team. He hurled 18 complete games and 223 innings for Omaha, which earned him a late-season cup of coffee with the big club. The Royals, under the tutelage of Jack McKeon, were in the midst of a late-season meltdown, losing 26 of their final 35 games to drop out of contention. Leonard, after pitching in San Jose, Puerto Rico, and Omaha without much of a break, was out of gas. He lost his only four starts of the lost season.

Leonard was the last pitcher cut after the 1975 spring training but was called back to Kansas City in early May and was a revelation. Leonard made 30 starts while throwing 212 innings. The Royals went 20-11 in games Leonard appeared in. Leonard posted a fine 15-7 mark and finished second to Dennis Eckersley in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. Thus began a brilliant eight-year span in which Leonard went 130-86 with an astounding 97 complete games and 21 shutouts.

Despite his huge numbers, Leonard never received much love in the Cy Young voting. His highest finish was 1977, when the voters gave him fourth. Sparky Lyle of the Yankees somehow won that Cy. Lyle had a fine season, 13-5 with 26 saves over 72 appearances, but the award should have gone to Nolan Ryan or Jim Palmer. A case could also have been made for Ryan’s teammate, Frank Tanana. Leonard in fourth was just about right.

1985 World Series
Dennis Leonard of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the World Series at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri in October of 1985.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Leonard was even better in 1978, 21-17 with 20 complete games, good for seventh place in the voting. But once again a Yankee took the prize. This time the voters got it right. 1978 was the summer of Ron Guidry. Louisiana Lightning, as Guidry was known, went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA and 9 shutouts. He was virtually unhittable that summer, so no argument here.

Leonard ended up playing his entire 12-year career in Kansas City. He was a bit of an unusual pitcher in that he had far more success in the majors than he did in the minors. His career minor league record was only 33-28. He went 144-106 with the Royals and won 20 or more games in a season three times, back when that meant something. His high for strikeouts in a season was 244 in that magical summer of 1977, which is still a club record.

Deception was not Leonard’s game. He was a power pitcher through and through. Good fastball, sharp slider and a power curve. Here’s my best stuff Amigo. Try to hit it.

Batter’s often did connect. Leonard gave up almost a hit per inning pitched: 2,137 hits allowed in 2,187 innings pitched. He was also prone to giving up the long ball, 202 in his career. From 1975 to 1981, Leonard won more games than any righthander in major league baseball. Understand this was a time when Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, and Nolan Ryan, just to name three, were still at the peak of their powers. Leonard had a very distinctive pitching motion. Much like Seaver, his follow-through drove his body close to the ground. When you saw him pitch, you knew it was Leonard.

Leonard helped lead the Royals to the playoffs five times between 1976 and 1981. He never had much post-season success, only going 3-5, some of that was bad luck. Some of it was the fact that the Royals were playing the Yankees and they too were very good. I’m sure some of that playoff failure was also due to overuse. In 1976 for example, Leonard threw 177 pitches in 10 23 innings against California. The guy was a horse and the Royals rode him to exhaustion.

Have you ever been up close to a Percheron horse? Percherons were originally bred to be war horses, but in more peaceful times, they became workhorses. They’re a handsome breed, typically standing 15 to 18 hands and weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds. They have great stamina and are willing workers with a mild disposition. When you see a Percheron in the field, it gives a snort and tips its head as if to say, “you going to put a harness on me so we can get to work, or you just going to stand there?” Dennis Leonard on the mound at Royals Stadium was a Percheron. Whitey put the harness on him and he went to work.

Eventually, even horses break down. For Leonard, that came in the third inning of a May 28th, 1983, game against Baltimore. Leonard was rolling towards another fine season when on a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr., the patellar tendon in his left knee snapped. This is a devastating injury for any professional athlete, but especially for a right-handed pitcher.

Leonard refused to give up. He endured four operations on the injured knee and put in hundreds of grueling hours of rehab to make it back to the game he loved. He missed the remainder of the 1983 season and all of the 1984 campaign. He made two late-season relief appearances in September of 1985. In all he missed almost two and a half seasons of playing time. He gave it another shot in 1986, making 30 starts for the World Champions. He even threw five complete games and recorded two shutouts, but at age 35, he knew the end was near.

The Royals released him once the season ended and in February of 1987, the workhorse announced his retirement. In retirement, Leonard ran a baseball academy, played briefly in a senior baseball league, served as a guest instructor at the Royals spring training and was a frequent ambassador on the Royals' off-season caravans. Not bad for a walk-on from Long Island.