Baseball season has not yet begun this year. Looks like there won’t be a season most say. Forty years ago, there was a season and it was pretty amazing for me. My team, the Washington Senators (moved to Texas) were long gone in 1980 so I latched onto whatever teams I felt some familiarity with, or where I liked some of the players. By 1980, I had latched onto the Kansas City Royals.
By 1980, the Royals had bonafide superstar named George Brett who was also a joy to watch to play the game. He hit left handed and did it with power and ease and I spent much of my time back then tracking Brett’s games and his hits in the Washington Post sports section because that was all I had back then to track my superstar. And 1980, is a year Brett went on a tear and almost did what few ever do in baseball — hit .400.
In the history of Major League Baseball, only 20 players have hit .400 in a season (some did it more than once). The last person to do it was Ted Williams in 1941. None of these great seasons really measures up completely because it was achieved in a segregated baseball league without black players and pitchers who might have made a difference and knocked some if not all off the list. Also, some black players perhaps might have hit .400 as well. Nevertheless, hitting .400 is still a big deal before or after segregation. A really big deal.
Brett almost did it in 1980, and he did it after a horrible start to the season. Brett struggled out the gae and was only hitting .259 at the end of April. Brett, as he was apt to do throughout his career, pushed his average steadily up in May (.301) and by the end of June he was on fire, hitting .337. It did help more than likely that he missed all of the games in June after June 10 as Brett rolled into July and caught fire.
Brett’s Royals won 15 of their 21 games in July and George was sitting at .390. It was pretty special and people began to pay attention. It had already begun to get the media’s attention when the Royals played the Yankees in New York and the Royals played well as did Brett. They departed the Big Apple and Brett was hitting .377 and on a tear. In the nine games ending with the Yankees’ series, Brett had gone 21 for 38.
And then it got even better.
On August 17, 1980, in a home game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Brett went 4 for 4. The Royals beat the Blue Jays 8–3. The culmination was Brett’s final hit, a double. He passed .400 with the hit and stood on second base triumphant as the home crowd roared. He was hitting.401. No player had been hitting over .400 that late in the season as Brett was doing in years. Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Rod Carew had hit .388 in 1977.
One week later, the hitting god, Ted Williams, said he was rooting for Brett saying, “I hope he makes it” while admitting that September was when the weather would change and hitting might become tougher. By then Brett was hitting.406. Yet, as Williams and others noted, there were still a lot of games to go.
Of course, it did get tougher. Games have higher stakes, pitchers pitch around good hitters, the weather does get bad. Brett entered September hitting .403 and played hard and tough as Kansas City made their playoff push. He was able to keep his average at or near .400 the rest of the month but the last time he was at .400 was September 19. The Royals lost the next games and Brett only had 4 hits in that span. He emerged hitting .385.
At the end, George Brett got hot one more time but it wasn’t enough. He finished the season hitting .390. In addition, he had an on base percentage of .454, 24 homers, 118 R.B.Is. He amassed 175 hits in just 445 at bats, as injuries slowed him down during the season likely a little to his advantage.
Major League Baseball took note of what Brett had done, of course. He was voted American League MVP that year and was American League Batting champion, a feat he would win three times in his career. His Royals went onto the playoffs and the World Series where they would lose to the Phillies (4–2). Brett, however, had forever secured his place in baseball history for the ages.