Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
As baseball fans have become more aware of sabermetrics, batting titles seem to have become less important. I think we all understand now that on-base percentage is a better judge of a player’s offensive ability (specifically, how often do they avoid making an out). But in 1976, batting titles were still a big deal.
And the last game of the 1976 season would feature a three-way showdown for the AL batting crown between Kansas City’s George Brett and Hal McRae, and Minnesota’s Rod Carew. This was considered important enough that, for an otherwise meaningless game (the Royals had wrapped up the AL West title when Oakland lost in the early morning hours on Saturday), three official scorers were assigned for the contest, just as postseason games would have.
McRae led the race going into the final contest with a .33078 average, with Brett at .33073 and Carew, who had won the previous four titles, at .32945. Neither Brett nor McRae had played in the Saturday afternoon contest; the news about the AL West title meant quite a late night for many players, and manager Whitey Herzog rested most of his regulars. But Carew had played and went 3-4 to climb back into the race.
With the game’s outcome meaningless, Herzog and Twins manager Gene Mauch met beforehand and agreed they would not intentionally walk any of the three contestants. The title would be decided by what the players did.
Carew, of course, got the first chance, in the top of the first inning. Royals starter Paul Splittorff was uncharacteristically wild to start the game, possibly because he hadn’t started since late July, with only two ineffective relief appearances in mid-September as he returned from a finger injury. With one out, he walked Dan Ford and Carew before uncorking a wild pitch. Larry Hisle took advantage, smacking an RBI single to give the Twins an early 1-0 lead.
Facing Minnesota starter Jim Hughes, Brett lined out to end the first inning (dropping to .33021), and McRae flied out to start the second (falling to .33015). Carew grounded out for the second out of the third inning (putting his average at .32890), although the Twins would add three runs after that for a 4-0 lead.
Amos Otis singled with one out in the fourth, and Brett brought him home with a double, cutting the Twins’ lead to 4-1 and lifting his average to .33126. However, Brett was thrown out at third attempting to stretch the hit into a triple. McRae kept pace with a single, moving into the lead at .33142. But he would be stranded at first.
Al Fitzmorris took over for Splittorff to start the fifth and retired Carew on a ground ball, dropping his average to .32835. Now the Twins’ star would likely need a couple of hits and both Brett and McRae to not get any more safeties to pull out the title. He gave it his best, with a double off Larry Gura in the seventh to improve to .32947. Carew was thrown out trying to steal third and the score remained 4-1.
Brett led off the seventh with a double, pushing his average to .33230. McRae again kept up, with an RBI single to move to .33270. Brett scored on the play, cutting the deficit to 4-2, but Hughes retired the next three batters to keep the lead.
After Minnesota added a run in the eighth, Carew singled in the ninth. Assuming the Royals did not tie the game, he would end the season with a .33058 mark. The knock was also his 200th hit of the season, a nice consolation prize.
Both Brett and McRae would bat in the ninth. But no one could have expected the controversy to come. With one out, Brett hit a routine fly ball to left. Steve Brye was playing deep, then did not get a good jump on the ball. He raced in but pulled up and the ball dropped about 10 feet in front of him, then bounced off the artificial turf and went over his head. The ball rolled all the way to the wall as Brett circled the bases. Since Brye never touched it, Brett was credited with an inside-the-park home run, lifting his average to .33333. McRae still had a chance to claim the title, though; a hit would put him at .33397. However, he grounded out to shortstop, ending his season with a .332 mark, and then the problems began.
McRae gestured and yelled at the Minnesota dugout. He and Mauch had to be restrained by the umpires. Once order was restored, Hughes quickly finished out the inning to end the game.
After the game, McRae told reporters he thought Brye let Brett’s hit fall in on purpose, implying there was a racial motive behind it.
“I know what happened. It’s been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose…Things have been like this for a long time. They’re changing gradually, but I know how things are, so I can accept them. It’s too bad things like this have to happen in 1976.”–McRae, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, October 16, 1976
Mauch angrily denied any plot to cost McRae the title.
“I would protect the integrity of this game at any cost. This game has taken me out of the dust bowl of western Kansas and enabled me to live in Palm Springs and play golf the rest of my life without doing another thing. I trust Steve Brye implicitly. If I didn’t, I would do all I could to have him thrown out of baseball.”–Mauch, quoted by the Associated Press, October 4, 1976
Brye claimed he had just made a mistake, and that Mauch had told him before the game to play shallow against Brett.
“I was indecisive. I didn’t get a good jump on the ball. All during the series, balls I thought would fall in front of me were going over my head. It’s tough to pick up the ball in Kansas City because there’s a gray background, plus you don’t hear the ball off the bat that well. It’s a dead sound. After I hesitated, I ran in and stopped because I didn’t think I could get to the ball.”–Brye, quoted by Bob Fowler, The Sporting News, October 23, 1976
Carew vouched for his teammate and his manager.
“There was no conspiracy and no racial prejudice. Steve Brye is not that kind of person. Neither is Gene Mauch.”–Carew, quoted by Bob Fowler, The Sporting News, October 23, 1976
It was unfortunate that Brett’s first batting title was overshadowed by the controversy, especially given how important McRae had been to the young Royal’s career.
“I didn’t see Brye miss the play because I was running, but everybody tells me any batboy could have caught it. I love Mac. He’s been a real friend to me and he’s one of the last people in the world I want to hurt. I think I deserve the batting title and I think he does, too.”–Brett, quoted by the Associated Press, October 8, 1976
American League president Lee MacPhail conducted a brief investigation into the matter, but could find no evidence of a conspiracy. McRae seemed ready to drop the matter after a few days.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Brye deliberately let the ball drop. But he has to be feeling worse than anybody because he tried to do something for somebody and that person does not accept it…Some of the things I said about that right after the game I think were misunderstood.”–McRae, quoted by the Associated Press, October 8, 1976
We’ll probably never know the real reason Brye didn’t get to the ball. Personally, I have wondered if the Twins, like most other AL teams, didn’t like McRae because of his hellbent baserunning style, but then again, Brett often played the same way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Twins to care which Royal won if Carew didn’t get the title. Most likely, Brye really did play deeper than he should have, then played the ball too cautiously. The hyper-competitive McRae was understandably upset, but probably overreacted a bit. Mauch had a long career as a manager and was never, to my knowledge, considered a racist. In this instance, consider the “Greatest Moments” designation for this one as a historic signifier, rather than a celebration.