Becoming George Brett

Meet Paul Schaal, the third baseman George Brett replaced

Updated: 2013-08-01T17:15:13Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

When George Brett incurred some nuisance back problems in the late stages of his career with the Royals, he sought relief from a chiropractor in Overland Park.

On one of his first visits, perhaps the first, Brett lay face down on the table — vulnerable, as he recalls — waiting for treatment, when he remembers hearing something like this:

“George Brett, I don’t like you. I’d still be playing if not for you. I wouldn’t be a chiropractor if it wasn’t for this (jerk).”

The culprit, Paul Schaal, laughs as he remembers making it sound more threatening:

“You took my job from me at third base, remember that? Here’s what I’m going to do to get even.”

In hindsight, he wondered if Brett knew he was joking, but Brett said he had no worries. After all …

“I was still playing,” Brett said, smiling, “and he was long gone.”

And, in fact, largely because of Brett.

He was called up from Omaha by the Royals 40 years ago this week to sub for an injured Schaal, an original Royal selected from the California Angels in the 1969 expansion draft who once held the club record for consecutive games played.

“Until Hal McRae illegally broke it because he was the (designated hitter). There should be an asterisk there,” Schaal said, laughing and adding, “But I was not a threat to (Lou) Gehrig at that time.”

Instead, he more evokes a modern Wally Pipp, the New York Yankees first baseman whom legend — but not strict fact — has it sat out one day because of a headache, allowing Gehrig in the New York Yankees’ lineup for the first of 2,129 more games in a row. (The “Iron Horse’s” streak of 2,130 games actually commenced the day before with a pinch-hitting appearance).

Brett would be sent back down in the summer of 1973 when Schaal recovered (for the moment) from an ankle injury that would later require surgery, and by the next May, Schaal was traded to the Angels to make way for Brett.

“I use it to my benefit now: I tell everybody it took a Hall of Famer to take my job from me,” said Schaal, speaking from his home in Hawaii, where he continues to do healing and energy work seemingly reflected in his soothing voice.

It’s perhaps easy for Schaal to have a sense of humor about it now, but by all indications he was gracious to Brett even as the displacement was underway.

“You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy,” Brett said. “I was trying to take his job, and he knew it.”

Each recalled Brett gingerly approaching Schaal in spring training 1973 and/or perhaps 1974 to see if it was OK to take the field with him.

With Brett’s hair sticking out from under his hat, Schaal remembered the energetic, Pete Rose-like, confident youngster saying, “Mr. Schaal, can I take some ground balls with you?”

Schaal said, “Sure,” and thought to himself, “There he is, the kid who’s going to take my job some day.”

He added, “I didn’t want him to have the job, of course. But it was going to happen.”

Inevitable or not, Schaal recalled that the timing “was up to me, really. I mean, I could have in my mind kept him from getting to the major leagues (in 1974 when Brett came up for keeps) just by having a good season. But I got off to that poor start (hitting .176).”

Only a few years before, Schaal had been the promising young infielder from California.

Debuting with the 1964 Angels, a cast of hard-living “partiers” such as Bo Belinsky and Jimmy Piersall, Schaal, who turned 21 that March, got over his “shyness” in a hurry.

“It was either sink or swim,” he said, laughing.

By the next spring, he was the starting third baseman. And he made a splash by hitting six home runs in a 17-game span in May.

“I still remember (a newspaper) story saying, ‘Schaal who?’ With a question mark,” he said, recollecting he was leading the league in home runs with nine by the end of the month. “I was going to be the next Babe Ruth.

“But the pitchers, I found out, were a lot smarter in the big leagues than they were in the minor leagues. So I had nine home runs at the end of the season. It was a very rude awakening.”

That was nothing, though, compared to what befell Schaal on June 13, 1968, when he was beaned above and behind his left ear at Fenway Park by Boston’s Jose Santiago and suffered a fractured skull and punctured eardrum.

When trainer Freddie Frederico reached the downed Schaal, bleeding from his ear, he said, “I thought you were dead, Paul.”

It was just the wrong moment, it turned out, for Schaal to have become frustrated with those spiffy new helmets with ear flaps that had been obscuring his view.

“I wore it for five or six games, and I could see the corner of the flap, so I thought, ‘Shoot, I can duck out of the way (if I have to),’ so I stopped wearing that,” he said, noting if he hadn’t made the change, “I probably would have ended up with just a bad headache instead of deafness.”

“It looked like,” he added, “I might not ever be able to play again.”

That’s why the Angels made him available for the expansion draft, and why he viewed being picked by the Royals as “a God-send” even if it was taking him away from home.

“I wasn’t ready to quit yet,” he said. “I was still young, and all I had at that time was a high school education so I had nothing to fall back on.”

Still, it was a painful way back in 1969 as Schaal still was contending with issues of equilibrium and confidence.

“I tried to hide it, but you can’t hide that kind of thing,” he said.

Especially not when he was trying to deal with popups, which he couldn’t judge until he was left lunging and staggering for them as they came down. It looked like, he told The Star in 1971, “some kind of clown routine.”

So Schaal was optioned to Omaha for the start of the inaugural Royals season, a development he remembers then-manager Joe Gordon literally crying about when he told him.

“‘You know I love you,’” he recalled Gordon, who had worked with Schaal as an Angel, saying. “‘I promise I’ll bring you back up. Just go down there and do a good job.’ And fortunately, I did.”

While Schaal’s fielding skills became diminished, he actually somehow became a better hitter as he navigated the psychological forest — so much so that Schaal remembers sending then-general manager telegrams saying, “What do I have to do down here” to get called back up?

When he did, he stayed put. Until Brett’s ascension, anyway.

In 1970, Schaal played 161 games — all of the Royals games that season, he feels the need to remind, perhaps still because of the assertion of then-manager Charlie Metro that Schaal wasn’t an everyday player.

In six seasons here, he hit .263 with 32 home runs and 198 RBIs, and he became so attached to Kansas City that he made it his home for years despite being going back to California in 1974 for what would become his last major-league season.

“I really fell in love with Kansas City,” said Schaal, whose wife was born and raised in Independence. “As you know, it’s a big little city. So friendly.”

But now there was the matter of being just 31 and what do with the rest of his life, something Schaal had long fretted over.

That’s why at one point during his playing career, he explored the air-conditioning business. At another, he sold cars for a summer in California. He sold four in three months.

“And three of them were to relatives,” he said, laughing. “So that didn’t work out.”

So Schaal heeded some advice from Bill Kelso, a former Angels teammate who had grown up and returned to the Kansas City area, where he was raised, and opened pizza parlors.

Kelso convinced Schaal that was the business for him, and ultimately Schaal opened up his own place: Paul Schaal’s Pizza and Pub in Overland Park.

“And it was pretty darned good pizza — ask around,” he said. “I still have people coming up to me on occasion in Kansas City, and I’m thinking they’re going to talk about my baseball career, and they say, ‘I used to go to your pizza place.’”

As he dipped more into his own inventory over the years, though, Schaal found himself putting on 30 or 40 pounds and wondering if he might need a change.

At a time he also was becoming more conscious of health care and nutrition, one of his customers, a student at Cleveland Chiropractic College, asked Schaal if he’d ever considered going in that direction.

Schaal hadn’t, but soon decided “it made sense,” and four years later he had earned his doctor of chiropractic degree.

“I was the oldest guy in the class,” he said. “And it’s tough after baseball. I had to learn study habits.”

At a time where chiropractic care was seen with more skepticism, he had hopes to create a sports-specific practice.

Kansas City Kings coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, Schaal recalled, embraced sending his players to Schaal, but the Royals did not.

“The (Royals) players that did want to see me had to more or less sneak in the back door: ‘Don’t tell the Royals I’m here,’” he said.

Brett was open about it, Schaal said, precipitating Schaal receiving a phone call from then-GM John Schuerholz telling him to stop treating Brett.

“‘Well, that’s not up to me; that’s up to George. He says I’m helping him, so I’m going to keep treating him,’” he remembers saying.

Shortly thereafter, Brett called to say he could no longer be treated by Schaal because of the Royals insistence.

“It frustrated the heck out of me,” he said, “because of course I’m not going to hurt the guy.”

Even if it was tempting on that early visit, Schaal said, laughing and reiterating his admiration of Brett and how fulfilling his own life has been.

“I have no regrets,” he said, “let’s put it that way.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868, send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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