Willie Mays and George Brett – They Won a Couple of Close Ones

WILLIE MAYS COMES BACK – HIS 1954 BATTING TITLE

WillieOn this day (September 26) in 1954, Willie Mays won his first (only) batting title – and it was quite a comeback.  The Say Hey Kid was coming back from missing the 1953 season (military service) and – on that September day – he was also focused on coming back from third place in the batting race.

The Giants, who were headed for the World Series, were taking on the Phillies in Philadelphia. As the game got underway, Giants’ RF Don Mueller was hitting .34258; the Dodgers’ CF Duke Snider (starting against the Pirates in Brooklyn) was just .00007 behind at .34251; and Mays was third at .34224.

That day, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, 23-year-old rookie southpaw Karl Spooner, was appearing in just his second MLB game.  In his first outing (September 22), he had thrown a complete-game shutout against the Giants. He picked up a 3-0 win, giving up just three hits and three walks – while fanning fifteen. Spooner built on that performance against the Pirates, again notching a complete game shutout (1-0), this time allowing four hits and three walks and fanning a dozen. The Pirates’ Jake Thies (3-8 on the year) was nearly as good, also pitching a four-hit complete game, giving up a single run on a Gil Hodges’ round tripper. Thies’ performance (the best of his two-season MLB career) cost Snider his chance at the batting title, as the future Hall of Famer went zero-for-three and dropped to .341.  Side note: Spooner suffered a shoulder injury in 1955 Spring Training and pitched in only two Major League seasons (1954-55), going 10-6, 3.09.

Meanwhile, the Giants were facing a tough pitcher in 23-game winner Robin Roberts.  Mueller got off to a good start with a single in the first inning, but he didn’t get another hit until the tenth (the Giants won in eleven). Mueller ended two-for-six, dropping his average to .342.  Mays touched Roberts (who pitched a complete game) for a single in the second, a groundout to second in the fourth, a triple in the seventh, a double in the eighth and an intentional walk in the tenth.  His three-for-four game pushed his average up to .345 – as Mays moved from third place to first on the leader board.

The anniversary of Mays’ batting title (and the close race described above) caused me to reflect on another very close batting race. This one took place in 1976 – and that’s what this post is really about.

Minnesota fans (I am a Minnesota fan, see my smile this year) may recall the 1976 AL batting race which carried right into the contenders’ final game (October 3) and final inning – with the three leading candidates playing in the same ballpark.

BrettReally, the stage had been set when the final regular season series opened two days before.  At that time, Royals’ DH Hal McRae was leading the AL with a .333 average, followed by Royals’ 3B George Brett at .328 and Twins’ 1B (already a five-time batting champion) Rod Carew at .325.

McRae took a zero-for-four that day (October 1) – as the Twins won 4-3 – and the batting race tightened up. Brett went three-for-three and pulled within .00005 of McRae – .33073 to .33078. Carew went two-for-four to move to .327 (no extra digits necessary).  Of interest here is that, despite the loss, the Royals were able to celebrate a division title that evening – thanks to an Oakland loss. The title-clinching opened the door for Carew to get back into the race.

The following day, the Twins again won (3-2) and – with Brett and McRae (and a number of other Royals’ regulars) on the bench – Carew reinserted himself into the final leg of the dash for the batting crown, going three-for-four and raising his average to .32945.

Here’s how things unfolded, with all three contenders on the same field for the final regular season game.

At game time, as noted earlier, Royals’ DH Hal McRae was leading the race at .33078, Royals’ 3B George Brett stood at .33073 and Twins’ 1B Rod Carew was third at .32945.

In the top of the first, Carew walked – and the leaderboard went unchanged.

In the bottom of the first, Brett (batting third) lined to short for the final out of the inning. His averaged dropped to .33022, giving just a bit more breathing room to McRae.

McRae, however, led off the bottom of the second and the Royals’ DH and cleanup hitter flied out to center and dropped to second in the race.  (McRae had more than 100 fewer at bats than Brett, so each out, or hit, made more of a difference.)  The race now stood at: Brett – .33022; McRae – .33015; Carew – .32945.

Carew lost more ground in his next at bat, by grounding out to shortstop in the top of the third.  His average slipped to .32890.

Brett added to his lead in the bottom of the fourth, with a double to right.  Now it was: Brett (.33126); McRae (.33015); Carew (.32890). But, McRae wasn’t done. He followed McRae’s double with a single to center of his own – raising his average to .33143 and retaking the lead.

Carew seemed to slip out of the competition in the top of the fifth, grounding out to second and dropping to .32836.  However, he got another at bat before Brett or McRae – and doubled to left (top of the seventh), putting the leaderboard at: McRae – .33143; Brett – .33126; Carew – .32947.

In the bottom of the seventh, Brett opened with a double to briefly retake the lead at .33230.  McRae, however, followed with an RBI single to go back in front. The leaderboard after seven innings: McRae – .33270; Brett – .33230; Carew – .32947.

The final inning of the final game and this thing wasn’t over yet – although Carew’s chances were. He singled in the top of the ninth, raising his average to .33057. But, even if Brett made an out in the bottom of the inning, the Royals’ 3B would finish at .33178.  Brett, however, did not make an out.  In the bottom of the ninth, he circled the bases on an inside-the-park home run that fell in front of and then bounced past Twins’ left fielder Steve Brye. (More on that in a minute.)  That put Brett in the batting lead at .33333. McRae, who was coming to the plate, still had a shot. A base hit would give McRae a .33397 average and the batting title, an out would put him at .33207, and  a non-at bat (walk, hit-by-pitch, sacrifice) would keep him at .33270 (still second to Brett). McRae needed a hit, but grounded out to shortstop.  The final tally – you can look it up – was Brett – .333; McRae – 332; Carew – .331. In one of the closest races ever – and one with a finish that quickly became controversial.

There were those in the stands – including McRae – that felt that Brye gave up on the Brett inside-the-park home run. McRae even felt that Twins’ Manager Gene Mauch had ordered Brye to misplay Brett fly ball, raising the possibility of racial motivation. In fact, after his ninth-inning groundout, McCrae made a one-finger gesture toward the Twins dugout, which led a bench-emptying confrontation.  Brye’s response was that he had been playing too deep and had simply misjudged the ball.  In the end, the first of three Brett batting titles was won in a tight race, in the last inning of the regular season, with a bit of a twist at the end – a twist that still stirs up some interesting conversation in Kansas City and Minnesota.

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