The Royals were the pre-eminent team of the old AL West in the late 1970s. They won the division each year from 1976-78, but lost the League Championship Series to the New York Yankees each time. After a step back in 1979 resulted in a second-place finish, the organization made changes. Whether it was by cause or coincidence, the changes resulted in a breakthrough. The 1980 Kansas City Royals finally made the World Series.
Kansas City made a managerial change, firing Whitey Herzog and bringing in Jim Frey. The Royals parted ways with veteran reliever Al Hrabosky and shortstop Freddie Patek. They traded rightfielder Al Cowens in a package that brought them a power-hitting first baseman named Willie Mays Aikens in return.
Aikens boosted the offense, with a .356 on-base percentage, hitting 20 home runs and finishing with 98 RBI. The Royals got a good year from speedy young left fielder Willie Wilson, with his .357 OPB. Clint Hurdle was steady in right, a .349 OBP/.458 slugging percentage. Darrell Porter had a .354 OBP from behind the plate.
But the Royals got down years from mainstays, notably second baseman Frank White and centerfielder Amos Otis. And while Hal McRae had a good year, at .342/.483, it wasn’t what the DH had produced at his peak. Kansas City finished fourth in the AL in runs scored because one man stepped in a big way.
That man was George Brett. The future Hall of Fame third baseman was already an established star in 1980, and he produced his best year. Brett made a run at batting .400, trying to become the first player to do so since Ted Williams did it for the Boston Red Sox in 1941. Brett ended up at .388, with an on-base percentage of .454 and his slugging percentage soaring at .664. He hit 24 home runs and finished with 118 RBIs. Brett was an easy choice for American League MVP.
Larry Gura had his best year on the mound, and the lefty won 18 games with a 2.95 ERA. Workhorse Dennis Leonard churned out 20 wins and 280-plus innings, with an ERA of 3.70. Paul Splittorff started to fade a bit after his strong years in the 1976-78 run, but with 14 wins and a 4.15 ERA, the lefty was still steady. Rich Gale was a young arm that stepped up, winning 13 games, helping to fill out the rotation.
The bullpen lacked quality depth, but the Royals now had a bona fide closer, the lack of which had hurt them in previous Octobers. Dan Quisenberry was a submarine-style righthander, who saved 33 games, won 12 more and finished with a 3.09 ERA. Marty Pattin helped fill out the pen, while Renie Martin shuttled back and forth between the pen and making spot starts.
Kansas City started off the season fairly ho-hum, at 16-14 against mostly AL East competition. They picked up the pace going into Memorial Day, winning five of six games against the California Angels, who had dethroned them in 1979. It helped stick California into a 7 ½ game hole and they never recovered. By the holiday, the Royals had a 2 ½ game lead on the Chicago White Sox, with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s all close in the rearview mirror.
The start of June saw KC start to get some separation. After losing the opener of a home series with the Yankees, Kansas City ripped off a 10-2 stretch that included a four-game sweep in Texas. The lead in the AL West grew to seven games, and the rest of the division was starting to struggle. Even though Kansas City slowed down and lost 11 of 21 going into the All-Star break, they actually widened their lead during that stretch, holding an 8 ½ game cushion at the midway point, the division’s only team over .500.
Kansas City didn’t let anyone off the mat in the second half. They went 15-6 out of the break playing a schedule that had a regular dose of excellent AL East teams in the Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. The Royals took three of four from the White Sox, and then in August, Kansas City tore off a 23-7 stretch that put the division to bed.
The real focal point of Kansas City in August—and all of baseball—was Brett’s pursuit of .400, and the high point came in a series at the Milwaukee Brewers. Over a three-game set, Brett went 8-for-12, with one night that bordered on magical, as he went 5-for-5 and lifted his average to .407. At that point, on August 26, it looked like he might do it.
Brett and the Royals both cooled, with the third baseman finishing at .388, and the team going 12-19 through September and the handful of early October games. They still finished with a record of 97-65, and won the AL West by fourteen games over the Oakland A’s, who were managed by an old “friend”—Billy Martin, who was the Yankee skipper that beat the Royals in 1976 and 1977.
Kansas City got a crack at another old friend in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees, having taken a step back themselves in 1979, returned to the top of the AL East in 1980. This time, the Royals got it done. They won in three straight, clinching in Yankee Stadium with Brett hitting a massive game-winning home run into the third deck.
The Royals drew an appropriate foe in the World Series, as they met the Philadelphia Phillies, another team that had suffered LCS losses in 1976-78, taken a step back in 1979 and gotten back on top of 1980. The Phillies had been pushed to the brink in both their division race and then in the NLCS, and they continued to show their comeback moxie in the World Series, coming from behind to win Games 1 & 2, and ultimately ending the Kansas City dream in six games.
Kansas City was far from done when it came to October. They made the postseason in 1981, the year the size of the playoffs doubled due to changes made after a players’ strike. The Royals won the AL West in 1984. And in 1985, they finally found their ultimate baseball fulfillment, winning the World Series.