By Ben Welter
The 1976 American League batting race went down to the final game, with only a few points separating three players competing on the same field in Kansas City: Rod Carew of the Twins and Hal McRae and George Brett of the Royals. In his final at-bat, Brett lifted a short fly to left field. The ball bounced over the head of outfielder Steve Brye and rolled to the corner. McRae, the next batter, grounded out — and then made an obscene gesture at the Twins dugout. Tribune reporter Gary Libman explained:
Brett wins batting
Title, McRae angry
By Gary Libman
Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City’s George Brett won the American League batting championship by half a point over teammate Hal McRae and by three points over four-time defending champion Rod Carew of the Twins Sunday as Minnesota beat the Royals 5-3 in the last game of the regular season.
Afterward McRae, who is black, strongly implied that for racial reasons the Twins allowed Brett to collect the inside-the-park home run that won the title on his last at-bat. Brett is white.
The home run occurred in the ninth inning as Brett came to bat trailing McRae by four-tenths of a point in the batting race. Brett lofted a short fly to left field. Outfielder Steve Brye hesitated, came in slowly and stopped. The ball hit 10 feet in front of him and caromed crazily, high over his head, rolling to the left field corner. Brett beat shortstop Luis Gomez’s relay to the plate.
McRae, the next batter, was jammed on an 0-2 pitch from the Twins’ Jim Hughes and bumped an easy grounder to shortstop. That gave Brett the batting title, .33333 to McRae’s .33270. Carew finished at .33058.
|Gene Mauch was in his first year as Twins manager in 1976. (Minneapolis Star photo)|
As McRae ran past first base and turned toward the Royals’ first base dugout he looked toward the Twins dugout and raised his folded arm in an obscene gesture, presumably intended for Twins Manager Gene Mauch. He pointed at the dugout, gestured again and pointed two more times.
Mauch, 50, charged out of the dugout and got past the first-base batting circle before he was restrained by Kansas City players. He eluded them, as both dugouts emptied, and had to be restrained by two umpires and then by three as he churned to get to McRae.
McRae, meanwhile was forcibly restrained by three of his own teammates and Manager Whitey Herzog as he struggled repeatedly to break away.
An out later the Twins won the game, 5-3, and McRae was sitting on his stool in the Kansas City locker room sobbing and blowing his nose into a towel. Beside him Royals owner Ewing M. Kauffman was on one knee, his hand on McRae’s shoulder. “You won it… That’s all right,” he was heard to say as Royals officials shooed reporters away.
Things have been like this for a long time,” McRae said later after regaining his composure. “It’s changing gradually. But I know how things are, so I can accept them. … It’s too bad things like that have to happen in 1976.. …
|Rod Carew flirted with .400 the following season, earning national attention and winning the American League batting title with a .388 average.|
“If the shoe was on the other foot, I’m sure they wouldn’t let the ball drop for me. I know what happened, but I don’t think everybody else is going to find out.”
McRae, surrounded by a huge gathering of reporters, said repeatedly that he didn’t want to get specific because “it wouldn’t do any good.”
Many of Kansas City’s other black players also were resentful over the home-run play but refused public comment.
“I don’t think he lost it in the sun. You can say that,” said Dave Nelson seated next to Amos Otis, who expressed similar skepticism.
Brett also wondered if the Twins had given him the title-clinching hit.
“I didn’t think anything about it until I hit the dugout,” he said. “Then I thought about it and I thought he (Brye) could have given it a little bit better effort. I know Gene Mauch likes me and the Twins players seem to like me.”
Mauch was still boiling mad over the incident after the game.
“I would protect the integrity of this game at any cost,” he said angrily, yanking off his uniform. “This game has taken me out of the dust storms of western Kansas and made it possible to live in Palm Springs (Calif.) and play golf for the rest of my life if I want. Oh, man, that hurts. That hurts. …
“I told Steve Brye right before the game to play Brett shallow the whole game. Oh, God. To go home and sit on that instead of a beautiful summer.” Mauch sat in his office chair and stared into the distance for a moment.
Brye was told later, at the airport, that McRae had inferred that the play was racially motivated.
“Whew,” he said, exhaling slowly and sadly. “No way. … If any error was involved it was mine. Gene Mauch had nothing to do with it. Gene told me to play in shallow. The last couple of innings I played deep not to allow a ball to get over my head and keep alive the possibility of a double play if a man got on base.
“I was indecisive. I didn’t get a good jump on the ball. All during the series balls I thought would fall in front of me were going over my head. Cookie Rojas was jammed and hit one over my head once. It’s tough to pick up the ball here because there’s a gray background, plus you don’t hear the ball off the bat that well. It’s a very dead sound. When I play center field, which I usually do, I follow the pitch and the sound of the bat has a lot to do with the way I react. Then after I ran in I stopped because I didn’t think I could get to the ball.”
Carew and Larry Hisle of the Twins, who also are black, said racism was not involved in the incident.
“Gene would never doing anything like that,” Carew said. “That’s a bunch of crap when they talk about racial stuff. Gene said he wanted me to win the championship. He was ticked off when the ball fell in.
|When their playing days were over, Hal McRae and George Brett shared a laugh during spring training in February 1994. McRae was manager of the Royals; Brett was vice president and coach. (AP photo)|
“I was really disappointed that McRae did the type of stuff he did. He didn’t finish the season like the type of player he is. I can’t have respect for that type of person.”
“I know no one told me to drop it,” said Hisle. “If it had been hit to me in center field I would have done everything possible to catch it, and the same if McRae had hit it.”
Almost overlooked in the incident was the dethroning of Carew after four straight titles. Carew finished the season with 200 hits in 605 at-bats. Two more hits during the season would have boosted him ahead of Brett and enabled him to win the championship.
Asked about how he felt about losing the title, Carew grinned and kept playing gin rummy with coach Eddie Lyons.
“I feel like I’ve had a hell of a year,” the All-Star first baseman said. “I’m ready for a vacation. I’m going to Europe for about three weeks.”
Brett said he didn’t feel very excited about the title now.
“I think I may be more excited when things cool off and I can let what happened sink in,” he said.