The Kansas City Royals had come into baseball’s national consciousness in 1976, when they dethroned the Oakland A’s Dynasty in the AL West, and then took the New York Yankees to the final inning of the 1976 ALCS before coming up a just short of the pennant. The 1977 Kansas City Royals established that they were here to stay as a contender, but it was a rocky ride for much of the way before the Royals took over the AL West race.
Kansas City was built on pitching and speed—they ranked first in the American League in ERA and were second in stolen bases. Dennis Leonard anchored the rotation with 20 wins, a 3.04 ERA and chewed up over 290 innings. Jim Colborn won 18 more and lefty Paul Splittorf went 16-6 with a 3.69 ERA.
The bullpen was deep and manager Whitey Herzog made full use of it. Four relievers—Doug Bird, Marty Pattin, Larry Gura and Mark Littell all worked over 100 innings and most made some spot starts during the years. Steve Mingori, who threw 64 innings with a 3.09 ERA would have been the second-best reliever on a lot of teams. On this Royal staff, he was just fighting for his place in the pecking order.
Herzog liked to run, both here and in future managerial job across the state in St. Louis. Shortstop Freddie Patek stole 53 bases, easily tops on the team. Centerfielder Amos Otis and second baseman Frank White each swiped 23 bags. Patek and White were both marginal hitters, so this gave them an additional way to contribute to the offense and keep runners moving.
The muscle in the Kansas City lineup started with 24-year-old third baseman George Brett, who posted a .373 on-base percentage/.532 slugging percentage. Brett hit 22 home runs and had 88 RBIs. Similar numbers were put up by DH Hal McRae, and rightfielder Al Cowens, who led the team with 112 RBIs.
Further contributions were made by 25-year-old catcher Darrell Porter, at .353 OBP/.452 slugging, and first baseman John Mayberry.
Kansas City opened the season by winning three straight in Detroit, but mediocrity set in quickly and by the end of May, there were 21-23 and trailing the Minnesota Twins by 6 ½ games. The Chicago White Sox were hot on the Twins’ heels, while the Royals languished in sixth place. June didn’t start a whole lot better—the Royals went 7-8 in the first part of the month and fell seven games off the pace.
Minnesota, with their MVP first baseman Rod Carew, who made a run at the .400 mark throughout 1977 before settling at .388, came to KC for a three-game weekend set over June 17-19. The Royals were ready.
Kansas City banged seven doubles in taking the opener 7-1. Early on in Saturday’s game, Patek stole home and Splitorff won a 2-1 pitchers’ duel. On Sunday, the bullpen blew leads of 6-1 and 7-5, and the Royals came up in the bottom of the ninth were the score tied 7-7. Brett promptly singled, stole second and scored on a double by Mayberry. With the sweep, Kansas City was within four games of the AL West lead.
The Royals took the momentum and won 20 of their final 27 games before the All-Star break, capping the first half off with a sweep of the Yankees. The Royals were 2 ½ games out, but the Twins had faded hard and now the White Sox were setting the pace.
Kansas City’s momentum crested briefly at the end of July. They visited Chicago’s South Side for a four-game set with the leaders. Bird blew two saves, the Royals lost three of four and were 5 ½ out. Chicago paid a return visit in early August, another big weekend series in KC.
Otis and Porter set the tone in Friday night’s opener, each homering as a part of a five-run second inning and Kansas City won 12-2. On Saturday, the Royals trailed 3-1 in the seventh when Brett hit a three-run jack and KC won 6-3. On Sunday, with the game tied 2-2 in the ninth, Otis walked, was bunted over and scored the game-winner on a single by John Wathan. Another big home series sweep cut Chicago’s margin to a game and a half.
The Royals then lost six of nine, but the White Sox were also starting to fade, and the skid didn’t cost KC any ground. They were able to recover. Chicago wasn’t.
Kansas City swept the Boston Red Sox three straight in the latter part of August and during that series, got a hold of first place. The Royals won 11 of 12 in a sequence of games against the Red Sox and Orioles, both serious challengers to New York in the AL East.
The Royals’ AL West lead was nudged out to a three games and then they took over in September, reeling off a 25-5 stretch. After all the stops and starts of the first four months of the year, Kansas City ended up coasting him with a second straight division title and a 102-60 record that was the best in the baseball.
Unfortunately for Kansas City fans, the best record in baseball didn’t protect you from heartbreak in October. Another epic American League Championship Series with New York went down to the wire. The Royals were three outs from clinching in front of their home fans before a ninth-inning Yankee rally broke hearts again.
The October heartbreak, coming two years in a row, was hard, but the Kansas City Royals were now one of baseball’s respected teams, having successfully won a second straight AL West title.