U.L.’s Toothpick: The Year Of The Card–Hal McRae, 1974
We’ll never be able to quantify qualities like leadership or setting an example. I’m sure they exist inside the hallowed halls of the locker room, but all we have to go on is the anecdotal evidence. Perhaps that’s good enough—if players think another player is a leader, then I suppose he is.
As you probably know, after the Royals became a powerhouse in the mid-1970s, Hal McRae got a lot of credit for “teaching them how to win.” I’m sure some of that happened behind the scenes, but I always thought that sold McRae short a bit. Because while he might have been a locker room leader, it would be hard to overstate his impact on the field as well.
Harold Abraham McRae was born on July 10, 1945, in Avon Park, Florida. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the sixth round of the 1965 draft out of Florida A&M University. FAMU has produced four major leaguers: Vince Coleman, Andre Dawson, Marquis Grissom, and McRae. That’s a pretty good group, no?
Not surprisingly, McRae hit well in the minor leagues. In 1967, his age 21 season, he jumped from rookie ball to Class AA Knoxville, posted an .803 OPS in 197 plate appearances there, and moved up to Class AAA Buffalo, where his OPS was still a decent .720. In 1968, the Reds had him repeat Class AAA, this time with Indianapolis, where he hit .295/.344/.523 in 480 plate appearances. The Reds called him up briefly in July; he made his major league debut on July 11, the day after he turned 23.
During the winter between the 1968 and 1969 seasons, McRae went off to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. Here occurred the injury that changed his career and possibly the future of the Royals’ franchise, before they had even played their first game. McRae tried to run over a catcher on a play at the plate. Instead of scoring, he broke his right leg in four places.
The injury essentially cost him the 1969 season; he would not see the majors that year and only played in 58 minor league games. More to the point, it cost him his speed and his range as an outfielder. Before the injury, McRae had good speed and played second base and center field. After the injury, he was basically an average runner and viewed as a below-average defender as a corner outfielder, especially in the big, AstroTurf outfields that were increasingly a part of the game. But one thing happened during that 1969 season that would inform McRae’s view of the game for the rest of his career: Reds manager Dave Bristol chewed him out over his lengthy rehab time, comparing him unfavorably to broadcaster Harry Caray, who was hobbling around on crutches interviewing players after an offseason car accident. It would be a long time before an injury again cost McRae a lot of playing time.
He played part-time for the Reds for three seasons, hitting .262/.298/.439 in 641 plate appearances from 1970-1972. But the Reds, on the cusp of their Big Red Machine years, were loaded. They viewed McRae as expendable. And so on December 1, 1972, they dealt McRae and pitcher Wayne Simpson to Kansas City for starting pitcher Roger Nelson and outfielder Richie Scheinblum. Nelson’s career was almost over; he would appear in 31 more major league games. Scheinblum had enjoyed a terrific 1972 season but would only appear in 158 more major league games.*
*The Royals-Reds trade history is pretty lopsided. Besides the McRae trade, the Royals have basically stolen Charlie Leibrandt and Jeff Montgomery from Cincinnati. The Reds have won a few but nothing like any of those three deals.
Not that McRae made an immediate impact. In 1973, he hit a miserable .234/.312/.385 in 302 plate appearances. Luckily he showed a bit of power (nine homers, 18 doubles).
“I came over with the intention of tearing the American League up by hitting the ball out of the park. Charley (Lau) told me I could be a .300 hitter. I already considered myself that, but I was going to hit home runs. As it turned out, I didn’t hit anything. I fell on my face.” —Hal McRae, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, July 19, 1982
“I was a fastball hitter in a breaking-ball league. I got so fouled up I couldn’t hit anything. Charley got me to go to the opposite field. He flattened out my bat, got my feet closer together. You look at pictures of the old hitters—not the power hitters, the high-average guys—and you’ll see they carry their bats flat off the shoulder. What has Charley meant to me? Oh, I’d say about a hundred grand.”—Hal McRae, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, October 4, 1976
“Nobody was more of a student of hitting. Hal took what you told him and tried it.”—Charley Lau, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, July 19, 1982
McRae’s career turned around with the 1974 season. He got off to a fast start, with a .920 OPS at the end of April. He maintained that through May and June, entering July with a .940 OPS. A July slump cost him several points off that, but he was solid through August and September, finishing with a .310/.375/.475 line with 15 home runs, 88 RBI, and 36 doubles. For the first time, he had played a full major league season and really contributed, although the 1974 Royals finished a disappointing 77-85. That was hardly McRae’s fault; he had the highest OPS and OPS+ on the team.
McRae would go on to be a mainstay in the Royals’ lineup for the next decade. He would be an All-Star in 1975 and 1976, as well as finishing fourth in the MVP vote for 1976 as the Royals captured their first division title. For the 1975-1977 seasons, he hit .311/.379/.476 combined. For the 1975-1978 seasons, it was .301/.366/.463. For 1975-1980, how about a .298/.360/.467 line? After the strike-shortened 1981 season, he bounced back in 1982 with a .308/.369/.542 line while leading the league in doubles (46) and RBI (133). For the third time in his career, he was an All-Star. For the second time, he finished fourth in the MVP vote. And for the first time, he won the Silver Slugger award. His 1983-1985 seasons weren’t quite on that level, but he still hit .295/.363/.442 combined in those years. Not bad for a guy who turned 40 in that 1985 season.
At last, time caught up with McRae a bit in 1986, as he slipped to a .675 OPS in 299 plate appearances. By now, he was splitting time at DH with Jorge Orta, so he was not playing nearly as often. In 1987, McRae played in just 18 games, compiling 37 plate appearances, before he retired on July 21 and immediately became the Royals’ hitting coach. That lasted the rest of the season. McRae served as the Pirates’ minor league hitting instructor in 1988 and 1989, then moved on to become the Expos’ hitting coach in 1990. He was still in that role when the Royals fired manager John Wathan early in the 1991 season. McRae had actually been considered for the job when Wathan was hired, but he didn’t want to be an interim manager. But in 1991, he got his chance.
McRae is probably best remembered as a manager for two things: managing his son Brian, which was a cool story, and for the postgame explosion video. But McRae was really a solid manager; he had a winning record for the rest of the 1991 season, plus winning records in 1993 and 1994. For whatever reason, the Royals fired McRae after the 1994 season ended prematurely due to the strike. The reason cited was the youth movement the club planned to undertake the next season, but that never made sense to me.
That goes back to the credit McRae got for helping develop the young 1970s Royals into winners. He was well-known for his aggressive baserunning; actually, aggressive may not be a strong enough word. He famously took out Willie Randolph at second on a double play in Game 1 of the 1977 ALCS, and upset pretty much every team in the league at some point. The rule that a runner has to be able to touch second base on an attempt to break up a double play? Yeah, that’s the Hal McRae rule, with good reason.
Anyway, McRae recovered from his firing by the Royals, coaching in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay (including two dreadful seasons as manager), and St. Louis. After the 2009 season, he retired to Florida with his wife Johncyna. I’m a little bit surprised he has not been in baseball since then.
Hal McRae’s best games of 1974:
8/27 vs. CLE: Went 4-5 with three doubles and a home run, driving in six in a 12-8 loss.
4/6 vs. MIN: Went 3-4 with a home run and a double, scored three times and drove in four in a 23-6 win.
9/26 vs. CAL: Hit a grand slam in a 10-1 win.
6/25 vs. CHI: Homered, doubled, scored three runs and drove in two in a 10-9 loss.
8/10 vs. MIL: Went 3-4 with a home run and 3 RBIs in an 8-5 win.
About the card:
That is one serious-looking dude. Those powder blues were some great uniforms. I believe that picture was taken in the Oakland Coliseum. It looks like it was less of a dump 40 years ago. I guess McRae hadn’t started working with Lau yet, since he wasn’t holding his bat flat (this picture was probably taken in 1973, before he started really struggling). On the back…that’s the first I’ve ever heard of McRae taking ballet lessons. That’s pretty funny.
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