The Kansas City Royals came into the 1979 major league baseball season as the winners of three straight AL West titles and the losers of three straight gut-wrenching American League Championship Series battles with the New York Yankees. 1979 saw the streak finally come to an end–although not the streak KC fans were hoping for. A season filled with ups and downs resulted in a second-place finish and ushered in significant changes.
The 1979 Kansas City Royals were built on a potent offense and that offense was, as per usual, led by the great third baseman George Brett. The future Hall of Famer batted .329, hit 23 home runs, drove in 107 runs, scored 119 runs and finished third in the voting for AL MVP.
Brett wasn’t the only contributor. Catcher Darrell Porter had the best season of his 17-year major league career. Porter finished with a dazzling .421 on-base percentage, hit 20 home runs and drove in 112 runs. That Porter provided this kind of punch from the catcher’s position, yet finished just ninth in the MVP results, is a severe indictment of the voters.
Hal McRae, the steady designated hitter, posted a stat line of .351 on-base percentage/.466 slugging percentage. Kansas City’s solid centerfielder, Amos Otis had a stat line of .369/.444. Speedy Willie Wilson stepped into the left field job and his OBP was .351. Even as Al Cowens had a disappointing year in right field, even as Frank White continued to be good-field/no-hit at second base, even as the Royals had offensive holes at first base and shortstop, they still scored the second-most runs in the American League.
It was pitching that undid the ’79 Royals. The names in the rotation look reliable—Dennis Leonard, Paul Splitorff and Larry Gura. And they generally were reliable. Except they all chose 1979 for mediocrity, all finishing with ERAs north of 4. Rich Gale, who won a number of key games in 1978, had a rough year with a 5.65 ERA. Al Hrabosky was mediocre in the bullpen and no one behind him who worked any significant number of innings was any better. The end result was a staff ERA that finished 10th in the American League.
After opening the season with three straight wins over lowly Toronto, Kansas City’s roller-coaster ride of 1979 kicked in. They lost eight of ten. Then found their footing with six straight wins over bad teams in the White Sox and Indians. At the Memorial Day turn, the Royals were a game and a half back of the Angels and part of a four-team race that included the Rangers and Twins.
Here is a good spot to note that prior to 1994, both leagues had just two divisions—an East and a West—and the winner of each went directly to the League Championship Series. In the American League that meant Kansas City, Chicago and Minnesota were all in the AL West, along with California, Oakland, Seattle and Texas.
KC came out of Memorial Day and won series against Baltimore, who ultimately won the American League and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998), who won 95 games. Then the roller coaster kicked in again. The Royals lost nine of thirteen against the powers of the AL East—Orioles, Red Sox, Brewers and Yankees.
Kansas City responded by then winning eight of ten, ,including a big road sweep of the Angels., where the Royal bats unloaded for 27 runs in the three games. But on the return trip, California saw that offensive burst and raised it—the Angels hammered Royal pitching for 28 runs in a three-game road sweep of their own.
KC was still tied for first as late of June 28, but a disastrous close to the first half saw them lose 14 of 16 going into the All-Star Break. They were now under .500 at 44-47, ten games back of the Angels and still looking up at the Rangers and Twins in between.
The Royals came out of the break and stopped the bleeding by going 8-5 to close out July. In August, the weather sizzles in Kansas City and during this franchise’s halcyon era, the baseball team often did too. 1979 was no exception. From August 1 to Labor Day, the Royals rolled to a 20-12 record. They actually wiped out the entire deficit and spent one day in first place. By the conclusion of the holiday weekend, KC was 72-64, 1 ½ back of California with Minnesota three games off the pace. Texas had faded, so the stretch drive would be a three-team race.
Kansas City and Minnesota played two series in the first couple weeks of September and the Royals lost two of three both times. But the Twins struggled in games not against KC and the Royals could only split two series with the lowly Mariners. It was a missed opportunity for Kansas City, but they were still within three games and they would play the Angels seven times in the final two weeks.
California came to Kansas City to begin the penultimate week. It was time for a veteran team to assert itself against a plucky challenger. In Monday’s opener, that’s exactly what happened. Porter and Cowens each drove in four runs, leading a 16-4 rout. But the next night, Gale could only get one out, allowed four runs in the first and KC lost 6-4. They bounced back on Wednesday, with Porter driving in three more runs and getting a 6-4 win. In the finale, the pitching failed one more time. In a game tied 2-2 in the seventh, the Angels unloaded off starter Craig Chamberlain and the rest of the bullpen. The final was 11-6.
The Royals went out west and won a weekend series in Oakland to keep their hopes alive as the final week started in Anaheim. And in Monday’s opener, that KC offense quickly hit Nolan Ryan for three first-inning runs. But the bats, having carried the team this far, ran out of steam. Kansas City ultimately lost that series opener 4-3 and then went quietly on Tuesday in a 4-1 loss. The race was over—not called or projected, but mathematically finished. Kansas City finished the season 85-77.
An organization hungry to get to the World Series didn’t stand pat. Cowens, who had been declining since his breakout year of 1977, was traded to the Angels and KC got a power-hitting first baseman, Wille Mays Aikens, in return. The Royals moved on from veteran shortstop Fred Patek and went to young U.L. Washington. Hrabosky was allowed to move on and Kansas City promoted a promising submarine-style pitcher in Dan Quisenberry to the closer’s role.
The biggest move wasn’t quite as inspired—Kansas City fired manager Whitey Herzog, who moved on to St. Louis where he won three pennants and a World Series title in the 1980s. But the Royals still landed on their feet. Jim Frey proved to be at least a decent replacement and the revitalized lineup finally reached the World Series in 1980. And when Kansas City eventually found Dick Howser to manage the team they were back to having real excellence in the dugout and won it all in 1985.