If a player ever had claim to the title “The Franchise,” it would have to be George Brett in Kansas City. Brett played his entire career for the Royals, leading them to six AL Championships and two World Series in their heyday of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The all-time team leader in every offensive category except for stolen bases, Brett’s number 5 was retired along with those of former manager Dick Howser and second baseman Frank White on April 7, 1997.
Brett came from a baseball family. His older brother Ken pitched thirteen years in the majors while two other brothers played minor-league ball. Yet his own beginnings in professional baseball were modest. He batted .281 over three-plus seasons in the minors. He led the California League in errors at third base in his second pro season. He hit only .125 in his first major league call-up in 1973 and hit but two home runs with 47 RBI in his first full season with Kansas City in 1974.
In an effort to boost Brett’s average, Royals’ batting coach Charlie Lau worked with Brett on hitting to all fields on every type of pitch. Brett soon learned to adapt to what pitchers offered instead of waiting for fastballs. Hal McRae, acquired by the Royals the year Brett came up, taught him resolute baserunning. The results spoke for themselves in his second full season, when Brett led the AL in hits and triples while batting .308.
Star-studded batting statistics would soon become the norm for Brett. He captured his first batting title in 1976 with a .333, the first of ten .300+ seasons. In 1979 Brett tallied 85 extra-base hits and was only the sixth player ever to rip 20 or more doubles, triples, and home runs in the same season. Brett proved more than a one-dimensional player by continually improving his defense and baserunning. The most productive player in Royals’ history, he was rewarded with a lifetime contract.
Brett flirted with the .400 batting mark throughout the summer of 1980. He eventually wound up with a .390 average, at that time the highest since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. His incredible season included a 37-game hitting streak, the batting crown, and the AL MVP award. One wonders what might have been had Brett been healthy. He suffered through a bruised heel, tendinitis, and torn ligaments that summer. However, the highlight of his season was capturing the AL pennant. Brett’s upper-deck homer off Goose Gossage in the top of the seventh inning in Game Three of the ALCS sealed a three-game sweep of the New York Yankees. “I know I captured a lot of the media’s attention this past season,” Brett explained, “but the Royals have a team built on teamwork, not on individuals.”
Despite Brett’s best efforts in the World Series (he hit .375 with a homer and three RBI) the Royals fell to the Phillies four games to two. It wasn’t until 1985 that Brett had another chance at a title. During the regular season he was on fire, hitting .335 with 112 RBI and a career-high 30 homers; he went on to hit .348 in the playoffs and .370 in the World Series as the Royals beat the Cardinals for their first and only World Championship. Brett’s nine career home runs and .728 slugging average are LCS records.
Brett had to overcome numerous injuries during his career that kept him on the disabled list more than 32 weeks from 1978 to 1989. In 1987 he moved to first base to make room for rookie phenom Kevin Seitzer. Despite the shift, his bat continued to terrify AL pitching. 1990 saw him win his third batting title — he hit .329 and also led the league with 45 doubles. In doing so, Brett became the first player in major league history to top the league in batting in three different decades. On October 1, 1992, Brett singled the 3,000th hit of his career against California’s Tim Fortugno at Anaheim Stadium.
After finishing up his 20-year Royals career in 1993, George moved to the front office as the Royals’ vice-president in charge of baseball operations. In 1998, along with his brother, Bobby, Brett formed a group of investors in an effort to buy the franchise from the estate of the late Ewing M. Kauffman.