The Royals’ Five Greatest Hitters

Number 1George Brett (1973-93)

The quintessential icon of Kansas City baseball, Brett is best remembered outside of Missouri for two events: His pursuit of a .400 batting average in 1980 and, more embarrassingly, his enraged reaction to having a home run taken away from him during the infamous “Pine Tar Game” in 1983.

Aside from such sensationalism, Brett is far and away the greatest hitter in Royals history, ranking 18th on the all-time list in hits (3,154) and seventh in doubles (665); he is the only player to earn batting titles in three different decades, and he entered the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with an impressive 98% of the ballots listing his name.

With the look of an All-American with his blue eyes and sandy hair, Brett was one of four brothers to play professional baseball (Ken Brett was the only one of the other three to make it to the majors), and with his relaxed but very competitive nature carved an instant niche in the Kansas City lineup. In 1976, Brett was the first major leaguer to collect at least three hits in six straight games, eventually helping him to win his first batting title when he edged teammate Hal McRae on the final day of the season by a single point. Three years later, he became only the second player ever (after Jim Bottomley in 1928) to collect no fewer than 40 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs in a year. But all of that was prologue to what was to come in 1980, when Brett produced one of the greatest single-season performances in recent times.

After a slow start, Brett got hot, then red hot, then white hot—hitting .481 over a 53-game stretch in the summer to put him in fantastic position to become baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams, 39 years earlier. “If God had him at no balls and two strikes,” umpire Steve Palermo said during Brett’s incredible run, “George would still get a hit.” Brett was hitting over .400 with just two weeks to play, but wilted to the finish and ended up with a .390 mark. Despite missing 45 games on the year due largely to injury, he knocked in 118 runs—the first time in 30 years any major leaguer had averaged more than one RBI per game.

After tailing off through the early 1980s, Brett arguably had his most complete campaign in 1985, hitting .335 with 30 homers, 122 RBIs, 103 walks (31 intentional) and earned the only Gold Glove of his career at third base, all while leading the Royals to their first world title. To prolong his career and keep his potent bat in the lineup, the Royals moved Brett to the less demanding position of first base, mixing in some DH work; he responded in 1990 with a hot second half (.388 after the All-Star break) to win his third and final batting title.

Brett seemed to only get more dangerous when it came to postseason play. Though the Royals lost three straight times in the ALCS to the New York Yankees during the late 1970s, they couldn’t lay the blame on Brett—who hit .375 in those series losses with four home runs, three alone in Game Three of the 1978 ALCS. When the Royals finally overcame the Yankees to reach their first World Series in 1980, it was Brett who drilled a late upper-deck shot at Yankee Stadium in Game Three that helped give Kansas City the sweep. He hit .375 in the ensuing Fall Classic against Philadelphia (who beat the Royals in six games) despite a painful bout of hemorrhoids; in 1985, the Royals won it all behind Brett, who batted .360 for the postseason—including, almost, another three-homer performance in the ALCS against Toronto, with two home runs and a double that missed clearing the outfield wall by inches in Game Three.

Tired of being on the losing end of Brett’s heroics, the Yankees brought out the rulebook after he homered at New York in a 1983 game and challenged the bat he used, saying it had an excessive amount of pine tar; the umpires agreed and Brett, from a calm sitting position in the dugout, came storming out in a flash, bouncing and protesting furiously around the umpiring crew. The AL would eventually overrule the umpires, reinstate Brett’s homer and order the game replayed from that point; but the video of Brett flying into a rage remains ensconced in the memories of many baseball fans.

After his playing days, Brett began buying ownership in multiple minor league teams; in 1994, he had his number 5 retired by the Royals, for whom he served over two decades as the team’s VP of Operations.

Number 2John Mayberry (1972-77)

The Royals’ first bona fide slugging threat arrived in Kansas City after another in a series of blind giveaways by the Houston Astros, who parted with Mayberry after he wasted four years on the bench. Given everyday life with the Royals, Mayberry became an instant hit, batting .298 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in 1972; it would be the beginning of a six-year tenure that saw him as the big guy in the lineup amid teammates more fashioned with speed and the ability to rack up doubles and triples.

Three times, Mayberry knocked in over 100 runs and, showing patience, twice led the AL in walks. He finished runner-up to Boston rookie Fred Lynn for the 1975 AL MVP, hitting .291 with a career-high 34 homers and 106 RBIs. Despite his numbers, Mayberry was not a free swinger; he never struck out more than 100 times in a season and ended his career with more walks than K’s.

Mayberry’s time in Kansas City came to a turbulent end when then-manager Whitey Herzog, who in 1977 complained of Mayberry’s alleged indifference and, worse, accused him of being on drugs after a subpar ALCS performance against the Yankees, gave the Royals the he-goes-or-I-go ultimatum. The Royals picked Herzog to stay; Mayberry was dealt to the fledgling Blue Jays, where his contributions gradually waned.

Number 3Hal McRae (1973-87)

While many of the early designated hitters were aging sluggers given a chance to prolong their careers, McRae stepped in as one of the first young players to strive at the position; in fact, over the last 10 years of his career in Kansas City, he took the field only 17 times. McRae saved his punishment for the basepaths, often using a cross-blocking technique to break up double plays; the maneuver would soon be outlawed and be informally referred to as the Hal McRae Rule.

At the plate, McRae justified his place as a DH by hitting over .300 six times and twice led the majors in doubles, including a club-record 54 in 1977. Statistically, McRae made the most noise in 1982 after shedding 20 pounds, fattening his numbers to include career highs in 27 homers and a major league-high 133 RBIs. He barely missed out on a batting title in 1976 when he finished one point shy of teammate Brett on the season’s last day; an irate McRae blamed it all on Minnesota outfielder Steve Byre, believing he intentionally let up on Brett’s short fly ball that dropped for the hit that gave Brett the lead—adding more controversy to the mix by suggesting that race had something to do with it. (McRae is black; Brett and Byre are white.) For their part, the Twins claimed that Brett, defensively stationed at third base, was more deserving anyway than McRae, the DH.

After finishing his playing days in 1987, McRae returned to Kansas City in 1991 as the team’s manager, with mixed results; he’s best remembered for a turbulent 1993 campaign in which he was ejected eight times and, after one game, engaged in a bizarre postgame meltdown with the press in which he rambled profanely and threw numerous objects around his office, cutting the face of one reporter.

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Number 4Amos Otis (1970-83)

The exceptionally skilled outfielder was, like Mayberry, a young National League refugee who came to Kansas City after he clashed with the New York Mets over an assignment to be their third baseman. In the trade, the Mets got a depreciated Joe Foy and a lot of future flack from New York fans who still call the deal one of the worst in their history.

There were no complaints over the trade in Kansas City. Otis was granted a spot in the outfield, where he’d go to win three Gold Glove awards; at bat, he was an annual .300 threat with good power, twice leading the AL in doubles and twice hitting over 20 homers; and on the basepaths, he was a pest on opposing batteries, swiping a league-high 52 bases in 1971—including five in one game, the first player to do so since 1927. Otis was named to five AL All-Star teams.

Otis’ postseason resume was a bittersweet one. He hit .348 for his playoff career, including a sensational .478 mark with three homers in the Royals’ six-game World Series defeat to Philadelphia in 1980. But long-time Royals fans still wonder how differently the 1976 ALCS might have turned out had Otis not injured his ankle after his first plate appearance and missed the rest of the series; the Yankees went on to beat the Royals on Chris Chambliss’ famous walk-off, series-winning home run in the decisive Game Five.

Number 5Carlos Beltran (1998-2004)

The Puerto Rican native appeared to be the second coming of Otis, only better; for the most part, he fulfilled those expectations, starring on a roster of other budding talents such as Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Raul Ibanez—even as the Royals chronically dipped into 100-loss territory throughout his tenure in Kansas City.

Never a threat for a batting title, Beltran nevertheless juiced up his stat sheet on a constant basis, knocking in 100 runs four times, scoring 100 four times and producing varied high numbers of doubles, triples and home runs in five full-time seasons at Kansas City. But it was on the bases where Beltran impressed the most. He stole 164 career bases for the Royals—and was caught only 23 times.

With free agency looming in 2004, the Royals shipped Beltran off to Houston—where he exploded from the obscurity of small-market Kansas City to the spotlight of the postseason, tying a major league record with eight postseason homers for the Astros, including one in five straight games to set another mark. Beltran leveraged his success and newfound fame into a massive, long-term contract with the Mets that was dogged by recurring injuries.

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