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.
On May 21, 1980, George Brett went 0-6 as the Royals lost to Oakland in 14 innings. That extended a 3-22 slump that had dropped his average to .247. Brett already had a reputation as a slow starter, but normally he rebounded well in May. But here it was, nearly Memorial Day and he was struggling mightily.
But if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. Brett collected eight hits over the next four games, had an 0-4, then rattled off a 10-game hitting streak. When that stopped, he responded with three hits the next night. And then he got hurt, tearing an ankle ligament on a slide into second base.
Brett missed a month of action, but you’d never know it because he was somehow even more on fire when he returned. In his first seven games back, he had 17 hits. After a hitless game on July 17, he began a 30-game hitting streak. As most everyone knows, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games in 1941; in 1980, in 56 games from May 22 through August 18, Brett nearly duplicated that, hitting safely in 53 games. Even more astonishing, he had a .468 average in that span, climbing ever closer to the magical .400 mark. No one had batted .400 for a full season since Ted Williams, also in 1941.
With three hits on Saturday night, Brett entered this Sunday afternoon game with a .394 mark. The Royals were facing the Toronto Blue Jays, who were still in the expansion phase after entering the league in 1977. Toronto was headed for 95 losses, but they had come up with a couple of pretty good starting pitchers in Jim Clancy and Dave Stieb. Clancy would get the call for this start but battled wildness in the first inning, walking Willie Wilson, Brett, and Darrell Porter. Willie Aikens grounded into a force out to produce a run, but that was all the Royals got.
After Toronto managed a run against Royals starter Paul Splittorff in the top of the third, John Wathan began the bottom of the inning with a single. Brett followed suit, pushing his average to .396. But the Royals did not score. The teams traded single tallies in the fourth. Brett reached on an infield single in the fifth, and now his average was at .397.
The game remained tied at 2-2 into the seventh inning. Frank White led off with a walk, and reached third on a sacrifice bunt and a fly ball. But Clancy made the mistake of walking Wathan, bringing Brett to the plate. Almost predictably, he lined one into the right field corner, a bases-clearing double that gave the Royals a 4-2 lead and lifted his average to .399.
One more hit would push him over the .400 mark, but the Royals held the lead and would likely only bat one more time. Porter and Aikens followed with singles before the inning ended, so Brett would be due up sixth in the eighth inning.
Toronto scored a run in the top of the eighth, cutting the Royals’ lead to 5-3, and Blue Jays reliever Ken Schrom got two quick outs to start the bottom of the eighth. But U L Washington singled, and Schrom’s control deserted him. He walked Amos Otis and then threw four straight balls to Wathan, with the crowd of 30,693 growing louder with each one. With ball four to Wathan, the crowd went wild.
“That’s as hard as anyone’s ever cheered for me. It was close to a standing ovation.”–Wathan, quoted by Mike DeArmond, The Sporting News, Sept. 6, 1980
Toronto replaced Schrom with reliever Mike Barlow, allowing the crowd extra time to savor the moment. Of course, a new pitcher didn’t bother Brett, who hit a 1-2 pitch to the gap in left center field, where it bounced in front of the warning track and off the wall. Brett pulled into second while all three runners scored. The crowd roared as the scoreboard flashed his updated average: .401. Brett raised his arms in triumph and tipped his hat to the crowd.
“It was just electric, standing on second base and seeing the crowd react like that. It made me feel good. It was like hitting the three home runs in the playoffs (in New York in the 1978 ALCS). I got booed more and more each time I came up. Now I know what it would have been like if I had hit them here. I know I’ll never forget it.”–Brett, quoted by the Associated Press, August 18, 1980
“You watch this guy play every day and realize he’s just a different kind of animal. Like they say, if there was a higher league, he’d be in it.”–Royals manager Jim Frey, quoted by the Associated Press, August 18, 1980
Toronto got two hits in the ninth but no runs, and the Royals had another win, improving to 75-42 and moving to a 14-game lead in the AL West. Brett would extend his hitting streak to 30 games the next night in Texas, but the stretch ended there. A little more than a week after this game, Brett had a five-hit night in Milwaukee to push his average to .407. Of course, Brett “slumped” in September–any baseball player would accept a .324/.405/.649 month–and finished with a .390 average.
5 thoughts on “50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #10: Brett Reaches .400 Mark (August 17, 1980)”
I was lucky enough to see a lot of great Brett moments and seasons, but I was too young to witness his run at .400. The closest I’ve seen is Gwynn’s 94 season, which was, of course, ruined by the Strike. But Brett was something to see, man. I feel bad that my kids never got the chance. I try to explain that he was basically the equivalent of Mahomes back then, only on the other side of the parking lot, but it’s hard for them to fathom the Royals being that big of a deal. Even the oldest can barely remember the atmosphere from 2014-15.
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