Season In Review: The 1977 Royals Win 102 Games, But Not The Most Important One

One inning. One lousy inning. That’s all it took for the 1977 Royals to have the best season in franchise history go up in smoke. Does one inning outweigh 102 wins? It depends on the timing, I suppose. Unfortunately, this team had that inning in the ninth inning of the ALCS, and it cost them their first-ever trip to the World Series. We’ve spent seven months here recapping them day-by-day; now, let’s review the season.

Setting The Stage

Let’s face it, the offseason following the 1976 playoffs and the entire 1977 season were all about finishing the job. Kansas City had finally reached the postseason, only for it to end suddenly on Chris Chambliss’ walkoff home run in Game Five. But the disappointment was tempered a bit by the fact the Royals had gotten there at all. And then the Yankees got swept by the Reds in the World Series, so it could be argued that Kansas City probably didn’t have much of a chance there, either. All in all, the 1976 ALCS was looked upon as a valuable learning experience for the Royals (despite the fact that it was the first time the Yankees had been in the postseason since 1964 themselves). Now it was time to take the next step.

Comings And Goings

The Royals had a fairly quiet offseason. The new collective bargaining agreement signed in July 1976 meant that the offseason was the first real experience with free agency for MLB. Back then, there was a re-entry draft, and teams had to “draft” the rights to negotiate with a player, who could be selected by up to 12 teams. The Royals went after some bats, including Gene Tenace and Don Baylor, and attempted to shore up their bullpen by drafting Rollie Fingers and Bill Campbell. But they were unsuccessful in signing all four of those players.

The team did make a couple of trades that really paid off. They dealt pitcher Bob McClure, catcher Jamie Quirk, and outfielder Jim Wohlford to Milwaukee for catcher Darrell Porter and pitcher Jim Colborn. Porter had shown some talent, but playing for crappy Brewers teams seemed to have sucked the life out of him. Colborn was likewise considered to be in decline after he won 20 games in 1973, but he was still expected to shore up the rotation.

In a smaller deal, the Royals acquired first baseman/outfielder Pete LaCock from the Cubs for minor league outfielder Sheldon Mallory. LaCock was brought in to be a left-handed bench bat.

Kansas City also lost a few pieces in the expansion draft, as Seattle and Toronto joined the American League. Outfielder Ruppert Jones and catcher Bob Stinson were selected by the Mariners, while the Blue Jays picked up pitcher Al Fitzmorris (and then traded him to Cleveland).

Notable major-league debuts: Clint Hurdle (September 18), U L Washington (September 6)

How It Played Out

It’s easy to look at the 102 wins and assume the Royals coasted to an AL West title. Well, they did coast to it once they started winning, but that took a while. After an 11-8 April, the team posted a 10-15 mark in May. At this point, they were in sixth place and 6.5 games out. They slowly started digging out of the hole, going 17-12 in June, then 18-8 in July. Now they were in second place, at least, but still 5.5 games out.

And then the Royals put together one of the greatest closing stretches in baseball history. They had actually split their first 16 games in August when they embarked on a 10-game winning streak, which was a franchise best at the time. They took over first place in the middle of that, held on to it while losing three of four, and then kicked off September with a 16-game winning streak, which still stands as the team record. By the time the streak ended, the Royals had a 10.5-game lead, and the race was all but over. Just to make sure, though, they won the next eight games. With the title wrapped up, they lost four straight, then finished the year with three wins in the last four games. All told, from August 17 through October 2, Kansas City went 38-9.

With our current playoff setup that takes a month to complete, postseasons in the 1970s seem like a blur now. Oddly, the ALCS was scheduled for five straight days, with no days off for travel. Kansas City split the two games against the Yankees in New York, and came home needing two wins to reach the World Series. They won Game Three, and had two chances to advance. But they couldn’t get it done, as New York jumped Larry Gura for four runs in two innings in Game Four. And in a nightmarish Game Five, the Yankees crushed the Royals’ hopes and dreams again in the very last inning, scoring three runs off three KC pitchers for a 5-3 win. 

What Went Right

Obviously, quite a bit. The only real weak link in the lineup was second baseman Frank White, but even he added 23 steals and, of course, sensational defense. Elsewhere, George Brett posted a .905 OPS, with Al Cowens enjoying a career year (.312/.361/.525 with 23 home runs) and Hal McRae hitting .298/.366/.515 with 21 home runs. Porter provided a huge upgrade at the catcher position, hitting .275/.353/.452. Amos Otis had a disappointing batting average (.251) but still hit 17 home runs and swiped 23 bases. LaCock was a solid bench option, hitting .303 and delivering several clutch pinch-hits. Joe Zdeb and John Wathan had good years as well, giving the Royals a dependable bench.

On the pitching side, Dennis Leonard won 20 games, Colborn won 18 and pitched a no-hitter, and Paul Splittorff went 16-6. Fourth starter Andy Hassler battled injuries but still went 9-6 in 27 starts. The team led the league in ERA.

What Went Wrong

In the regular season, not much. But in the playoffs, two problems came up, and both had ramifications for the future of the franchise.

First, manager Whitey Herzog wasn’t entirely sure about his bullpen. While closer usage was a far cry from what it is today, the Yankees had Sparky Lyle, whose proto-Madison Bumgarner act (5 ⅓ scoreless innings of relief in Game Four, followed by 1 ⅓ scoreless innings in Game Five) proved to be the difference. The Royals led the league in saves, but didn’t have the one guy you (or Herzog) could count on. Three different Royals compiled double-digit save totals: Doug Bird, Gura, and Mark Littell. And when the Royals took the field in the top of the ninth in Game Five with a one-run lead, who was on the mound? Leonard. 

Herzog would begin complaining that the Royals wouldn’t sign the relief pitcher he needed. When the Yankees added Rich Gossage before the 1978 season, the complaints grew louder. The rift between Herzog and owner Ewing Kauffman grew from there, and once the Royals failed to win the division in 1979, Herzog was fired. Too bad, as he was gone a year or so too soon to enjoy Dan Quisenberry.

The other problem was John Mayberry. The first baseman had a good, not great, year, hitting .230/.336/.401 with 23 home runs. Of course, in those days, batting average was king, and .230 is ugly no matter how many walks you take (83, in Big John’s case). Things came to a head in Game Four of the ALCS, when Mayberry arrived at Royals Stadium for the afternoon game with a hangover, or some similar malady. Against his better judgment, Herzog put him in the lineup, only to pull him after four innings, two strikeouts, and a dropped popup. The official story was that Mayberry had a toothache and had taken pain medicine on an empty stomach, but later Herzog would admit that that story was not true. Mayberry would not be in the lineup for Game Five, which upset some of the other players, and Herzog demanded that he be traded away. Eventually, in spring training of 1978, he was sold–not even traded–to Toronto. 

Through the years, I think this story has come to be viewed as a one-off: Mayberry showed up in bad shape, and Herzog wanted him gone after that. But I think it was really a last straw sort of situation. As far back as spring training, Herzog had brought in his former teammate, Roger Maris, to work with the team on hitting more home runs, but the manager specifically mentioned Mayberry when he talked to reporters about it. A couple of times during the season, Herzog made snide comments about the new stance he had suggested Mayberry use (after the first baseman hit for the cycle, Herzog said “[The stance] will probably last three or four days.”). 

Basically, I think Herzog had waited for two years for Mayberry to reproduce his 1975 season (.291/.416/.547 and 34 home runs) and was tired of waiting. Mayberry went on to have four good seasons for the Blue Jays; arguably, having him in the Royals lineup in 1979 might have made the difference in that team’s winning the division. 

The Mayberry situation also didn’t help Herzog’s future with the team, since Kauffman was a big fan of the player. Herzog won the battle but it further drove a wedge between him and the ownership.

Awards Time

Royals MVP: A lot of good candidates here, but I would probably choose Cowens, who had a slightly lower OPS than Brett (.905 to .885) but also played in all 162 games (Brett played in 139) and played fantastic defense in right field. McRae would also need to be in the discussion, with a .881 OPS, and he also played in all 162, although since he was usually the DH, he didn’t contribute as much defensively. 

Royals Cy Young: It has to be Leonard, who led the team in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, ERA, you name it. He finished fourth in the league Cy Young voting and definitely had a case to win it.

Main image from Kansas City Star

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