Throughout the latter half of the 1970s the Kansas City Royals were the dominant team in the American League West, winning the division title in 1976, 1977, and 1978. They failed each year to defeat the New York Yankees in the playoffs, a frustrating experience to be sure. After failing to reach the playoffs in 1979, the Royals owner, Ewing Kauffman, fired manager Whitey Herzog and brought in Jim Frey to manage the team. Kauffman believed that Herzog had taken the Royals as far as he could. Someone else would have to lead them to the next level.
Frey managed a very talented Royals team to the American League pennant in 1980. The Royals came out of the gate in the 1980 to overwhelm the rest of the division. Despite a month-long decline in September, Kansas City finished the season at 97-65, fourteen games ahead of the second-place Oakland A’s. The most interesting drama on the field that regular season was Brett’s exploits with his bat.
Throughout the year, George Brett chased one of the Holy Grails of baseball, a single season batting record of .400. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was the last player to attain the goal, batting .406 in 1941. Brett had a shot in 1980. On July 10 his average stood at .341, certainly an excellent mark but not one to make anyone swoon that the grail could be achieved. But then something special happened. He started pasting the ball all over the park, and outside as he hammered twenty-four home runs for the season. By July 18 his average had risen to .377. By the end of July he was hitting .386 and people were starting to take notice. Kansas City Star sportswriter Joe McGuff dared to ask Brett about the likelihood of hitting .400. “Don’t ask me that,” Brett said. “I don’t know how long this hot streak is going to last.”
Meantime, Brett continued to stroke the ball better than at any time in his career, and his average finally reached .401 after a game on August 17, when he went four for four with two doubles and five RBIs. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh recalled:
I was working in the Royals’ marketing department….When he hit that double, the one that put him over .400, and he stood on second base and raised his hands, (30,000) people stood. There was a thunderous roar. After the game, I called him and said, “Do you have any idea what you mean to this community? Do you realize they are living their lives vicariously through you?”…That was the kind of stuff he didn’t want to hear. He was very humble about it.
Throughout the rest of the season Brett’s average hovered around .400, and the longer it did the more media attention it drew. Soon journalists who could not name the starting lineup of the Royals a month before were traveling with the team. The pressure became acute and Brett admittedly felt it keenly. Through the end of August he maintained the .400 average. After that, the pitchers worked him very carefully. They walked him constantly. In Cleveland, George Brett got hurt swinging the bat and missed eleven games. When he came back, he continued to flirt with .400 but he could never quite get there. All the while reporters hounded him and fielders made great catches. Balls he had clobbered in August now seemed to be fly outs. He went four for twenty-seven as the season drew to a close and dropped to .384. Brett then got ten hits in his last nineteen at-bats for the season and finished at .390, still not the magic .400, but still the highest batting average in thirty-nine years.
Other players on the Royals also had career years in 1980. Reliever Dan Quisenberry enjoyed his first big season (12 wins, 33 saves), and starter Dennis Leonard recorded his third twenty-win season in four years. Centerfielder Willie Wilson had an outstanding year by hitting .326 and leading the league in hits with 230 and runs scored with 133.
Most important, 1980 was the year the Royals finally beat the Yankees to capture their first pennant—with a three-game sweep in the American League Championship Series. They looked forward to a World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, a team revered historically as one of the worst in the National League. The Phillies had played in only two World Series prior to 1980, in 1915 and in 1950, and had been swept both times. Could the Royals finally bring a World Series championship to Kansas City after many near misses?
The fortunes of the Philadelphia Phillies paralleled those of the Royals in the latter 1970s. Like the Royals, the Phillies had become a powerhouse in the National League’s Eastern Division and won three straight division titles in 1976, 1977, and 1978, only to lose each year in the League Championship Series. After slipping in the 1979 campaign, the Phillies roared back in 1980 to take their division and the National League pennant.
The Phillies were led by two future Hall of Fame players, left-handed pitcher Steve Carlton (whom the Cardinals let go in 1971) and third baseman Mike Schmidt, and one player who should be in the Hall of Fame because of his excellence on the field but who has thus far been barred from enshrinement because of his lack of excellence in life, first baseman Pete Rose. A scandal in the latter 1980s concerning gambling seriously tarnished Rose’s reputation, so much so that the commissioner of baseball banned him from the game and the Hall of Fame, even though he is arguably the greatest player ever to take the field.
This was the first World Series played exclusively on artificial turf, and it made for fast and exciting play. There was also not much subtlety to the play, as both teams hammered the opposing pitching staffs for lots of runs and not a few homers. In the end, three come-from-behind victories allowed the Phillies to claim their first World Championship in their ninety-seven-year history, winning the series 4-2. Although the Royals almost matched Philadelphia in offense (.290-.294 in average and 23—27 in runs scored), they struck out forty-nine times. Kansas City’s leadoff hitter, Willie Wilson, set the all-time World Series mark with twelve whiffs in the six-game series. Philadelphia took games one and two, 7-6 and 6-4, at home in Veterans Stadium. Interestingly, and the media loved the titillating nature of the story, George Brett, who was two-for-two, had to leave game two after the sixth inning suffering from hemorrhoids. He jetted back to Kansas City early for hemorrhoid surgery prior to game three of the series. Brett later quipped, “Yes, I think my problems are all behind me now.”
Back in Kansas City for game three, the Royals took the Phillies 4-3 in a ten-inning contest. The Royals also won game four, 5-3, to tie the series. But then the Phillies came back to win the next two games in the series 4-3 and 4-1 to take the World Series.
Manager Jim Frey deserved the principal blame for the Royals loss in the 1980 World Series. Most especially, he let the Phillies see too much of ace closer Dan Quisenberry. The submariner was always best when brought in late in a game when the opposing batters had seen a different type of delivery. Quisenberry’s unique style always forced hitters to adjust from what they had been doing at the plate and was most effective when facing the order only once. While Frey had misused Quisenberry in the season too often by bringing him on to relieve in the seventh inning, when he repeatedly did it in the World Series against a good hitting Phillies club the reliever was hammered as they adjusted for his new pitching style.
Pete Rose summarized it best when he told a reporter at the time, “The guy [Frey] is giving us the World Series by letting us look at Quisenberry’s delivery so much.” Not surprisingly, Ewing Kauffman’s support for Frey wavered the next season, and when the Royals failed to play up to expectations he was replaced by well-liked coach Dick Howser, who did manage the Royals to a World Series victory in 1985.
As for the Phillies, prior to 1980 it was only the only franchise of the original 16 teams in Major League Baseball not to have ever won the World Series. The team felt the pressure to succeed clearly and they did so. As reliever Tug McGraw put it: “All throughout baseball history, Philadelphia has had to take a back seat to New York City. Well, New York can take this championship and stick it, because we’re No. 1!”
At a fundamental level Tug McGraw was the hero of this game, striking out Willie Wilson with the bases loaded to win the last game of the series while his wife quietly prayed in the stands on his behalf. It was one of the great dramatic moments in the Fall Classic, throwing up his arms in his iconic victory leap.