By Phil Ellenbecker
After rallying for a second-place finish behind the Oakland A’s in 1975, the Kansas City Royals broke through and took the American League West title the next year, holding off the team from the city that stole the A’s from Kansas City in 1968.
That breakthrough year also signaled the true emergence of a superstar in the making in George Brett, who’d given a glimpse of things to come by hitting .282 his rookie year of 1974 and by hitting .308 next year and leading the American League in hits and triples. The teachings of Charlie Lau were shining through.
It was perhaps the games of May 8-13 in 1976 when Brett showed he was truly something special.
Brett got three hits on May 8. And three hits again on May 9, and May 10. And May 11, 12 and 13. Six straight three-hit games. (The only other players to accomplish this feat, according to answers.yahoo.com: Sam Thompson in 1895 and Jimmy Johnston in 1923.) Brett’s average during the streak climbed from .277 to .396.
That was Brett’s high point of the season, but he was still up at .365 on June 15; at .371 on June 19; eventually tailing off to .331 on Sept. 26 before closing at .333 to beat out Hal McRae for the batting title by decimal points, on the last day of the regular season in a controversial finish. (After the game, McRae claimed that the Twins conspired to give Brett the title by letting a fly ball drop for an inside-the-park homer on Brett’s final at-bat.)
That was the first of three batting titles Brett won in separate decades, and his eruption from May 8-13 was the launching point. He went 18 for 26 during this span for a .692 average, with 16 singles, a double and homer.
During his streak the Royals went 5-1. It’d be nice to say this was the surge that sent K.C. into first place on its way to a first division title, but the fact was the Royals just treaded water during this time, as the Texas Rangers went 5-2 and remained in first place in the AL West. The Royals picked up a half-game during this time and moved within two games.
It’d also be nice to say Brett’s hits played a prominent role in the Royals’ victories. Maybe so, maybe not. In the first four games of the streak Brett either scored or drove in a run off three of his hits, with two leading indirectly to runs. In the last two games five of his hits figured directly in the scoring and one indirectly. But both of those games were blowouts, so the hits weren’t vital.
Nevertheless, 18 for 26 is 18 for 26.
Also of note is where the hits went. The play by play at retrosheet.org gives the direction for all but three of them. Nine singles went to left, or the opposite field; three singles went to center; two singles and a double to right. And note, all but three of the hits were singles.
So this indicates that Brett had yet to discover his power stroke. He hit seven homers in ’76 and 11 in ’75, although he did lead the league in triples in both years. He passed the 20-homer mark three of the next four years.
Here’s a game-by-game rundown of the streak (first two on the road, last four at home):
May 8: 3 for 5, 1 run in a 6-3 win at Baltimore
First inning: Brett singled to right with one out after Amos Otis singled, went to second on John Mayberry’s ground out and to third on Hal McRae’s single. McRae was caught stealing to end the inning.
Fourth: Grounded out leading off.
Sixth: None out, singled to left after Otis singled leading off, moving Otis to third; scored on Mayberry homer, giving Royals a 5-0 lead.
Eighth: Singled to left after Otis singled for third time; Otis scored on Mayberry’s sacrifice fly, giving Royals their final 6-3 margin.
May 9, 3 for 5, 1 run, 1 stolen base in 7-4 win at Baltimore
First: One out, Brett singled Tom Poquette to second; McRae singled in Poquette with two out, Brett moving to third; Al Cowens grounded to end the inning.
Third: Brett singled to left with one out, stole second and advanced to third on an error by catcher Elrod Hendricks; after Mayberry flied out and McRae walked, Brett scored on Cowens’ single, putting Royals ahead 2-1 in a five-run inning that gave them a 6-1 lead.
Fourth: Singled to center with one out; put out on Mayberry’s double-play grounder.
Sixth: Flied out to left leading off.
Ninth: Out at second leading off.
May 10, 3 for 5, a double, caught stealing once in 5-4 loss to Minnesota
First: One out, lined out to third.
Third: Two out, doubled to right; Mayberry grounded out; Royals were tied 1-1 after Otis’ homer coming before Brett’s at-bat.
Fifth: One out, singled to left; caught trying to steal second as Mayberry struck out to end the inning; Twins led 4-3.
Eighth: Singled to right leading off; forced at second by McRae for second out; Royals still down 4-3.
Ninth: Royals tied the game on a triple by Freddie Patek and double by Cowens; with one out and runners at first and and second, Brett grounded out to third and Mayberry flied out.
The Twins scored in the 10th and won 5-4.
May 11, 3 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 walk in 6-3 win over Minnesota
First: Two out, walked; Mayberry grounded out. Twins led 1-0 after one.
Fourth: One out, singled to left; went to third on Mayberry single; left stranded after McRae and Cowens made out. Twins led 3-0.
Fifth: Royals tied the game at 3-3 on a double by Poquette and a homer by Otis with two out; Brett followed with a single to left; Mayberry flied out to end the inning.
Seventh: One out, single to left scores Buck Martinez, puts Royals ahead 4-3; McRae singled in Otis to make it 5-3.
The Royals added an insurance run in the eighth for the final margin.
May 12, 3 for 5, 3 runs, 2 RBIs, reached once on an error, 1 stolen base in a 17-5 win over Minnesota
First: One out, singled to center, moving Otis to third; stole second; Brett and Otis scored on Cowens’ double, the start of a seven-run inning off Joe Decker.
Second: Led off with a single to center; scored on a McRae single, the start of a four-run inning vs. Decker and Vic Albury.
Third: One out, reached on an error by first baseman Rod Carew, Poquette scored; scored on a double by McRae; Royals now lead 14-0.
Fourth: Grounded out to end the inning, the first scoreless inning for the Royals in the game.
Sixth: Two out, singled in White to make it 16-4.
Eighth: Jamie Quirk pinch hit for Brett.
Besides Brett, other big bats in this 22-hit barrage included Poquette, 3 for 6, 4 RBIs, 2 stolen bases, a double and a triple; Mayberry, 2 for 5, 2 runs; McRae, 2 for 2, 2 runs, 2 runs scored, 2 RBIs and a double; Cowens, 2 for 4, 2 runs, 4 RBIs and 2 doubles; and Bob “Scrap Iron” Stinson, 3 for 4, 2 runs, 2 RBIs.
May 13, 3 for 4, 4 runs, a homer, 1 RBI, and a walk in a 13-2 win over the Chicago White Sox
First: Two out, single to left; after a single by Mayberry, two runs scored on McRae’s two-run triple to right; Cowens followed with a triple to left, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead.
Third: One out, solo homer, 4-0 Royals.
Fifth: After Otis’ leadoff double, grounded out to second, moving Otis to third; Otis scored on Mayberry’s single, the start of a three-run inning that gave the Royals a 7-0 lead.
Sixth: Walked with two out; scored on Mayberry’s two-run triple, expanding Royals’ lead to 9-2; they led 10-2 at the end of the inning.
Eighth: Singled to left leading off; scored on a three-run double by Cookie Rojas, 13-2 Royals.
Mayberry went 3 for 4 in the game with 3 runs, 3 RBIs and a triple; McRae was 3 for 4 with 3 runs, 3 RBIs, a double and a triple; Cowens was 2-4 with 2 RBIs. Lots of clout out of the 4-5-6 hitters in the lineup, behind Brett at No. 3. (Brett was in the No. 3 spot for each game of the streak.)
The beneficiary of all this offensive largesse was Dennis Leonard, who pitched a complete-game seven-hitter. He carried a shutout into the seventh inning as he improved to 2-1 en route to a season in which he went 17-10, the second of eight straight double-digit seasons including three 20-win seasons. (From 1975-1981, Leonard had 130 wins, most by any right-handed major league pitcher.)
As can be seen from the last two games of this streak, the Royals were capable of blistering the ball all over the park like a pinball game, with Brett and McRae in the middle of a lineup of line-drive hitters. The Royals led the AL in doubles and triples and were second in hitting in ’76. Illustrative of their attack was the opening inning of the May 13 game, when after back-to-back singles by Brett and Mayberry, McRae and Cowens followed with consecutive triples to opposite corners of the park.
The 17-5 and 13-2 pastings of the Twins and White Sox were the first of six games in which the Royals hit double digits in runs scored this season. On May 24 and 26 they routed the Texas Rangers 14-11 and 14-2 in consecutive games, the latter the first game of a doubleheader. (They lost the nightcap 5-4 in 10 innings.) On June 7 and 15, and Aug. 13, they bludgeoned Detroit 10-0, 21-7 and 15-3. On Sept. 12 they whacked the Twins again, 16-6.
So how was the May 8-13 surge by the Royals and Brett greeted by the Kansas City faithful? Not overwhelmingly. An average of 11,336 fans turned out at Royals Stadium for the four home games during the streak, topped by 13,657 for the last one on May 13. For the season the Royals drew 1,680,265, an improvement of 500,000-plus over 1975 and 300,000-plus over their previous best in 1973.
The Royals’ attendance, as they continued to establish themselves as an American League power, climbed to 1,852,603 in ’77 and topped 2 million for the first of three straight seasons starting in 1978. With the size of their stadium probably holding them back, they ranked third in the AL in attendance from 1976-80 except for ’79, when they ranked fourth.
Sources: primary: retrosheet.org and baseballreference.com; 1976 batting race: http://www.royalsreview.com/2010/2/9/1303471/hal-mcrae-racism-and-the-disputed