Becoming George Brett

In 1973, George Brett arrived at a championship clubhouse in the making

Updated: 2013-08-02T17:12:49Z

By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star

Little did 20-year-old George Brett know that the Royals clubhouse he walked into for the first time in 1973 was the most skillfully crafted team in Major League Baseball’s 1969 expansion class.

Through bold trades and deft scouting and drafting, the Royals pushed enough of the right buttons in their infancy that by the time Brett first took the field in Chicago on Aug. 2, 1973, a team less than five years into its existence found itself in the thick of a pennant race and had started an upward trajectory that would soon place the franchise among the game’s elite.

Expansion status was no excuse in pursuit of a pennant, and Royals owner Ewing Kauffman made that abundantly clear after the 1972 season, when he fired popular manager Bob Lemon and replaced him with Jack McKeon.

“During the next 10 years, I expect to win at least five pennants,” Kauffman said at the news conference.

He was off, but only slightly, as the Royals made seven playoff appearances in a decade, starting in 1976.

The player who would become defined by his fierce competitiveness had landed in an organization that was driven to excel.

In other words, Brett and the Royals made a perfect marriage.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven saw it from the opposite dugout throughout his career.

“I’d come to the ballpark early to do my running, and he was always there, working his (tail) off, taking grounders, hitting, whatever he felt like he needed to do,” Blyleven said. “That was about every time we played the Royals.”

History tells us Brett became the Royals’ greatest player, and in time we’ll have a better understanding of the impact of his recently completed two-month tour of duty as the team’s hitting coach.

But if this group molds into a playoff-caliber club, 2013 will be seen as the start of something special.

As it was when Brett arrived in Kansas City in 1973, when a winning culture was being established.


John Schuerholz was there from the start, arriving in 1968, the year before the team’s on-field launch, and working his way up from assistant to farm and scouting director to general manager before joining the Atlanta Braves in 1990.

The buy-in was apparent at the outset.

“The way this franchise was being built, there was plenty of energy and excitement because there was the belief it was being done the right way,” Schuerholz said.

Kauffman had brought to the Royals the entrepreneurial spirit and competitive nature that turned Marion Laboratories from a shop in his garage into a multi-million-dollar pharmaceutical business. What Kauffman didn’t know after purchasing the expansion Royals was how to run a baseball team.

But after touring American League cities in his quest to gain support for ownership, Kauffman met several administrators, and made his first hires with specific purpose.

The California Angels were considered the most successful franchise of baseball’s first expansion round, in 1961-62, and the team’s new stadium earned high marks. The Royals embarked on the same path, with a new stadium in the works, and hired the Angels’ Cedric Tallis as vice president and general manager.

Tallis scouted and drafted success in Anaheim, but at the time nobody in baseball identified and accumulated talent better than the Baltimore Orioles, who were in the midst of winning four American League pennants and two World Series in six years.

Tallis persuaded the Orioles’ director of player development and procurement, Lou Gorman, to take a chance on a new team. And Gorman brought Baltimore’s philosophy, along with his assistant, Schuerholz, to Kansas City.

“You learned it and lived by the idea of scouting and developing to grow the organization,” Schuerholz said. “Baltimore made a commitment to it and became an industry leader. That’s what came to Kansas City.”

The scouting and drafting success stories piled up. Paul Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, Steve Busby, Al Cowens (in the 75th round!), Willie Wilson and Brett flowed through the early pipeline. So did Frank White and U.L. Washington from Kauffman’s brainstorm, the Royals Baseball Academy, which enrolled athletes and molded them into baseball talent.

But that was only half of the equation. On the trade market, the Royals made out like bandits, fleecing a half-dozen teams in a series of trades that brought to Kansas City future All-Stars Lou Piniella (Pilots), Amos Otis (Mets), Cookie Rojas (Cardinals), Fred Patek (Pirates), John Mayberry (Astros) and Hal McRae (Reds) for little in return.

All but Piniella, traded after the 1973 season, are members of the Royals’ Hall of Fame.

Some of the newcomers — McRae, Patek and Otis — had been part of pennant-winning teams, which helped mold the Royals’ clubhouse.

“I had come from a winning atmosphere,” said Patek, who arrived from Pittsburgh for the 1971 season. “When I got here, I didn’t know what to expect. But you could see it was a ballclub that was coming together.”

This blend of acquired and home-grown talent meshed perfectly.

“We finally got a team that had very good unity, that played together, was fundamentally sound and was a young club,” Rojas said. “We had people that knew how to play the game the way it needed to be played.”

To Brett, the tone was set by McRae.

“He’s the one who taught me how to play the game of baseball,” Brett said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1999. “He would do whatever it took to win a ballgame, and you know what? He wasn’t in a hurry to get home when it was done. He was willing to sit at his locker … and discuss the game for as long as it took.”


Early on, nobody was quite sure how Brett would fit in. After all, third base was in good hands, held down by Paul Schaal, an original Royal who hit .274 in 1971, when the team won 85 games.

An injury to Schaal prompted Brett’s call-up, and Patek, a six-year veteran at the time, took command of the left side of the infield.

“He was a happy-go-lucky guy, and in those earliest days he didn’t want ground balls hit to him,” Patek said. “I called pitches for him, fastball, off-speed, and gave him hand signs to let know that this guy might be pulling one down the carpet about 150 miles an hour at him.

“He was a little scared at first, but he grew into it.”

Kind of like the Royals and their quest to conquer the division. Upwardly mobile as the team was in the early 1970s, baseball’s mountaintop was painted green and gold. The Athletics soared to the pinnacle soon after leaving Kansas City for Oakland.

The region’s baseball landscape had the A’s remained — Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando and Bert Campaneris all played in Kansas City — is one of those delicious what-ifs. There had been talk in the 1960s that Kansas City could keep the A’s and Oakland would be granted an expansion franchise.

But under no circumstance did Kansas City want to deal with A’s owner Charlie Finley, who for years had constantly groused about … everything: Municipal Stadium, tickets sales, the media. For several years, he shopped the team to various locations, all while fielding a team that in 13 years didn’t turn in a winning record and finished in last place three of its last four years in Kansas City.

After Oakland was granted permission to relocate, U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri took to the Senate floor to describe Finley as “one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene. This loss (of the A’s) is more than recomposed for by the pleasure resulting from getting rid of Mr. Finley … Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

By comparison, the Royals were new, fresh and would never finish last in the division in the 21 years Brett wore the uniform.


Royals first-year manager Jack McKeon had seen Brett only in spring training.

McKeon had managed the Royals’ Class AAA team in Omaha during his first four years with the organization, and by the time Brett got to that level of the minor leagues in 1973, McKeon had been promoted.

When Brett got the call, McKeon remembered a “wild colt” type of player and wasn’t effusive in praise.

“A top-notch prospect who loved to play the game is what I remember thinking,” McKeon said. “But sometimes he tried too much, and he didn’t have a great spring, so we sent him to AAA.

“But a little while after he came to the big leagues, it was like night and day.”

The light switch, at least in the batter’s box, wasn’t flipped immediately. It would take until the All-Star break in 1974, and sessions with batting coach Charley Lau, for Brett to begin the climb to greatness.

But Lau didn’t last the season. McKeon demoted him and Lau wound up a minor-league instructor.

“It was a philosophical difference, nothing big,” said McKeon, who didn’t elaborate.

Still, some players like McRae were openly critical of the move, and when McKeon was fired the following July, his replacement, Whitey Herzog, brought Lau back to the parent club. Lau remained with the Royals through the 1978 season, when Herzog fired him because the team’s power numbers had started to decline.

By then, Brett was well-versed in the teachings of Lau, winning the first of his three batting titles in 1976. The Royals, after years of chasing, finally overtook Oakland and won three straight division championships.

The American League pennants and 1985 World Series championship lay ahead, and by the time Brett and Bret Saberhagen embraced on the mound to celebrate the franchise’s greatest achievement, the Royals were clearly established as baseball’s top expansion club. No other team had appeared in the playoffs more than twice when the Royals were there for the seventh time in 10 years.

By 1973, the seeds of greatness — for the franchise and Brett — were planted.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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