Season In Review: The 1980 Royals Win KC’s First Pennant

When I decided to chronicle the daily adventures of the 1980 Royals, of course I was aware of the highlights–George Brett hitting .390, the first American League pennant, and so on. But spending so many nights with the team over the last six months (figuratively speaking, of course) has given me a new appreciation for the strength of this squad. I could be wrong, but I feel like the 1980 Royals don’t get enough credit when people discuss the best teams in franchise history. Is it because they didn’t win 100 games? Or because they didn’t win the World Series? I don’t know, but in my mind, this team belongs on the short list with the 102-win 1977 team and the 2015 Series winner. It’s a topic for another day, but the 1980 team did everything you could want…except win four of the last seven games. 

You can check out the daily recaps of the 1980 team under the “This Date In Royals History” tab, but here is a big-picture look at Kansas City’s first AL champion.

Setting The Stage

The 1980 season had several new sensations for the Royals and their fans. For the first time since 1976, the Royals were not defending AL West champions. For their failure in 1979 (the Royals finished three games behind California; failure is a relative term), manager Whitey Herzog had paid the price with his job. After three straight ALCS losses and then a second-place finish, this was a team at a crossroads: win something or be slapped with the dreaded “underachiever” label.

Comings and Goings

In addition to Baltimore Orioles first base coach Jim Frey replacing Herzog in the manager’s seat, the Royals had a couple of new faces in key spots. Longtime shortstop Freddie Patek had left as a free agent, joining the team Kansas City figured to be battling all summer for the division title, the California Angels. The day after Patek signed with California, the Royals and Angels made a trade, with right fielder Al Cowens and infielder Todd Cruz going to the West Coast and first baseman Willie Aikens and infielder Rance Mulliniks coming to the Midwest. I guess it would be more accurate to say the Royals had fresh faces in key spots, since the moves opened up shortstop for U.L. Washington and right field for Clint Hurdle. Aikens, meanwhile, was expected to provide much-needed power to a lineup that finished 11th in the AL in home runs in 1979; he was taking over Pete LaCock’s spot at first base. On the pitching side, after a two-year stint as the Royals’ closer, Al Hrabosky was allowed to leave as a free agent. This made way for another fresh face, Dan Quisenberry

The Royals added a few depth pieces during the season: infielder Dave Chalk was signed as a free agent near the end of spring training, while outfielder Jose Cardenal and relief pitcher Ken Brett were added in August as the Royals were already looking ahead to the playoffs. 

This section wouldn’t be complete without noting the end of an era, as the Royals released Steve Busby in late August. The future Royals Hall of Famer had struggled to return from rotator cuff surgery for most of three seasons.

Notable major-league debuts: Onix Concepcion (August 30), Manny Castillo (September 1), Mike Jones (September 6), Ken Phelps (September 20)

How It Played Out

The Royals scuffled at the start of the season, ending April with a 10-8 mark. Part of that was that the expected lineup just wasn’t available. During spring training, catcher Darrell Porter checked himself into rehab for his drug and alcohol addictions. Outfielder Amos Otis injured his hand right before the regular season started. Anyway, the low point of the season came on May 14 and 16, when Kansas City dropped games to New York and California by 16-3 and 11-1 scores. That left them in fourth place, although they were just 1.5 games out of first, with a 16-15 mark. They followed that up by winning eight of nine, taking the division lead for good on May 23.

The only thing hotter than the Kansas City weather in the summer of 1980 was the local baseball team. The Royals went 17-12 in June, 18-9 in July, and 23-7 in August. By the time September rolled around, Kansas City was in first place by a whopping 20 games (nobody else in the AL West was even at .500 at this point, so that helped).

This Royals team should have set a franchise record for wins. They entered September with 31 games left and needed 18 wins to do it. Instead, they slumped bigtime, going 8-18 before winning four of five games in October. As a result, the 1980 Royals didn’t even reach 100 wins, ending with a 97-65 mark. It didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, as they still won the division handily, but this team ought to be remembered as one of the elite teams in baseball history, and falling short of 100 wins probably gets them overlooked sometimes.

Of course, with such a big division lead, much of the focus for the second half of the season was on the postseason. The Royals avenged the 1976-1978 teams by sweeping the Yankees in the ALCS. And frankly, they could very easily have won the World Series. Probably should have. They had the lead in both of the first two games, on the road in Philadelphia. In Game Two, they had done that against the Phillies’ best pitcher, Steve Carlton. They also lost a late lead in Game Five. No disrespect to the Phillies, though–they made the comebacks to win the title. But this was a closer Series than the 4-2 final count sounds.

What Went Right

Pretty much everything except the ending. On an individual basis, Brett deservedly won the AL MVP despite playing just 117 games. Had Brett hit just .320 or something, Willie Wilson would have had a great case for winning the MVP himself; Wilson hit .326 (with a league-leading 230 hits), stole 79 bases and also played in 161 games. As it was, Wilson finished fourth in the MVP vote, but did win a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award. Everybody else was overshadowed by Brett, but Hal McRae (.297/.342/.483), Aikens (.278/.356/.433), Hurdle (.294/.349/.458), and John Wathan (.305/.377/.406) all had very nice years too. The only position player who saw a lot of playing time but didn’t hit that well was second baseman Frank White, but he still won his fourth straight Gold Glove. Oh, and he was MVP of the ALCS.

On the pitching side, Dennis Leonard won 20 games for the third time in his career. Larry Gura led the league in ERA for most of the season before a groin injury slowed him down some in September. Gura still wound up with an 18-10 mark and 2.95 ERA. Paul Splittorff won 14 games. Quisenberry led the league in saves with 33; Quiz and Gura finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Cy Young voting.

What Went Wrong

Hmm…um…well, besides the unhappy ending…not much. I guess the one thing you might note is that the Royals never really found any good middle relief options. Here in 2020, that seems like a fatal flaw. In 1980, with pitchers still expecting to go nine innings, and with Quisenberry more than capable of pitching multiple innings, it was a minor inconvenience. It is true that Royals relievers had a 3.79 ERA in 370 innings, but almost a third (128 ⅓) of those belonged to Quiz and his 3.09 ERA. So you can imagine the other 242 innings were not great. However, it hardly mattered, unless Quisenberry was tired by the end of the season and less effective in the World Series. To his credit, he never admitted as such that I’m aware of.

Awards Time

Royals MVP: With apologies to Wilson, Brett is the best choice here. The Royals went 74-43 when Brett played and 23-22 when he didn’t.

Royals Cy Young: This one’s a bit tougher. I lean towards Gura, who did lead the staff in innings and ERA. 

Final Thoughts

This was a fun research project, but at times it turned into a drag, particularly writing about the September games where the Royals had little to play for, and played like it. I would like to acknowledge SABR, which partners with the Paper of Record website to make the archives of The Sporting News available to members. I would also like to thank Google News’ archives, which offer back issues of the Lawrence Journal-World, St. Joseph News-Press, and (when I wanted a national perspective), the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And of course, there’s Baseball Reference, which is pretty much the most amazing site on the whole internet.

I would also like to thank you for reading and following along, and for any words of encouragement I got. I’d like to thank my friends at Royals Review, Clint Scoles at Royals Academy, and Kevin O’Brien at Royals Reporter, for including these articles in their roundups and retweeting them. Those are all good resources for your news and opinions on Royals past, present, and future.

Finally, I’d like to thank my tremendous wife, Michelle, for general awesomeness, but also for patiently understanding why her husband was writing about a 40-year-old baseball team instead of doing something productive.

4 thoughts on “Season In Review: The 1980 Royals Win KC’s First Pennant

  1. Thanks for your commitment to this project. Following the 1980 team is a great memory from my childhood. Still remember my brother and I jumping around the family room in our Royals jerseys when Brett launched the 3 run homer into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. I also remember my mom saying no to letting us dump 7 Up over each other’s heads when the Quiz closed them out.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this all season, this was a good distraction during this pandemic Royals season, was fun to relive the Royals finally slaying the Yankees and of course the magical season by Brett. Most of all I enjoyed being reminded of Royals and MLB players I hadn’t thought about in many years, look forward to your future work, keep it up.

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