Brett, George Howard

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BRETT, George Howard

(b. 15 May 1953 in Glen Dale, West Virginia), baseball player who was one of the best-hitting third basemen in history; he is noted for his performance in clutch situations and his .390 batting average in 1980, the most serious assault in the last half of the twentieth century on the 1941 record of .400.

Brett is the son of Jack Francis Brett, an accountant, and Ethel Hansen, a secretary. He grew up in a competitive, athletic family with three older brothers, all of whom played sports professionally. His brother Ken was a journeyman pitcher for several major league teams.

A shortstop at El Segundo (California) High School, Brett was the second draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1971. He switched to third base in the minors, where he had solid though unexceptional seasons, never batting higher than .291. Brett was not happy about being drafted by an expansion team, but he moved up quickly. By 1974 he was a regular with the major league Royals.

The young Brett was far from being a star when Charley Lau, the Royals batting coach, challenged him to become a better hitter. During hours of practice, Lau transformed Brett's technique. Coach and player formed a close bond; Brett described Lau as "a second dad." From his teammate Hal McRae, Brett learned an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of play.

Brett and the Royals improved quickly. In 1976 the team won the American League (AL) West, while Brett and McRae fought to the final game for the batting title. In his last at bat of the season, Brett hit a routine fly that dropped for a hit. He ended up with an inside-the-park home run and the batting championship. McRae, a black player, angrily charged that the ball should have been caught, hinting that the fielder wanted Brett, a white player, to win. Brett agreed that the ball was catchable, declaring, "I got a present." Notwithstanding the controversy, Brett had clearly established himself, at age twenty-three, as one of the premier hitters in baseball, leading the league in hits, total bases, and triples. His six consecutive three-hit games was a major league record.

The Royals faced the New York Yankees in the AL playoff. Brett hit a three-run homer to tie the deciding game in the eighth inning, but the Yankees scored once more to win the pennant. It was the beginning of a heated rivalry. The Royals faced the Yankees again in 1977 and 1978, losing both times. Brett was plagued by multiple injuries early in 1980 but seemed unstoppable when he came off the disabled list in July. His average climbed throughout the summer, reaching .407 in late August, raising hopes that he would become the first to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. He did not succeed, but his .390 average was surpassed only by Williams in the last sixty years of the twentieth century. Brett drove in 118 runs in his 117 games, the first player in over thirty years to have more RBI (runs batted in) than games played. He won the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Though an exceptional season, 1980 was emblematic of Brett's career—stretches of greatness interrupted by injury. No regular player had ever won MVP while missing so many games. Kansas City met New York in the league championship series for the fourth time in five years. Brett's three-run homer off of Richard "Goose" Gossage won the decisive game, giving the Royals their first pennant. They were defeated by the Philadelphia Phillies 4–2 in the World Series.

New York and Kansas City were again contenders on 24 July 1983, when, with two outs in the ninth inning, Brett hit a two-run home run off of Gossage at Yankee Stadium. While the Royals celebrated a possible game-winning homer, the Yankees protested that Brett's bat had more pine tar than the allowable eighteen inches above the handle. The umpires agreed and called Brett out. He charged the home plate umpire in uncontrolled fury and had to be restrained. "I don't remember any of it," he later observed. "It's probably the one time in my life where I got so mad, everything just blanked out." Thanks to countless television replays, Brett's tirade became the shout heard round the world. American League president Lee MacPhail later overruled the umpires and reinstated Brett's home run. The angry reaction of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner added to the theatricality of the event. Relatively insignificant in baseball terms, the "Pine Tar" home run, which set no records and decided no championships, became one of the most famous homers in baseball history.

Brett had his finest overall season in 1985, leading the league in slugging and batting .335, the second highest average of his career. Once an erratic fielder, he won the Gold Glove as the AL's best-fielding third baseman. The Royals captured their division again but lost the first two games of the league playoff series to the favored Toronto Blue Jays. In the next contest, Brett seemed to will his team to victory, going four for four with two home runs. He stopped a Toronto rally with a brilliant defensive play. Kansas City went on to the World Series, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

By 1990 Brett's best years appeared behind him. Struggling at the plate, he was hitting only .256 as July began. But, rekindling memories of 1980, he hit .388 in the second half of the season after the All-Star game, and captured his third batting title. He thus became the first player to win championships in three different decades. Though partly an accident of the calendar (his span of titles could have easily fit in two decades), it was a notable achievement. Winning multiple championships over a fourteen-year period was a feat matched by Stan Musial and exceeded only by Ted Williams. Only Williams and Honus Wagner were older batting champions than the thirty-seven-year-old Brett.

Brett married Leslie Davenport on 15 February 1992. They had three sons. After retiring in 1993 Brett became a vice president of baseball operations for the Royals. He and his brothers made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the team after the death of longtime owner Ewing Kaufmann.

In his twenty-one-year career, Brett recorded 3,154 hits, 317 home runs, and 665 doubles, the fifth highest number in history. The totals could have been higher had injuries not caused him to miss over 400 games, the equivalent of two and a half seasons.

In an era of free agency, Brett was an anomaly, spending his entire career with one organization. Although he played in one of baseball's smallest markets, his playoff battles with the Yankees, his pursuit of the .400 batting record, and the Pine Tar incident kept him in the national limelight. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

George Brett with Steve Cameron, George Brett: From Here to Cooperstown (1999), offers many pictures and limited text. Brett has written a brief account of his relationship with Charley Lau in the foreword to Charley Lau, Jr., Charley Lau's Laws on Hitting (2000). Steve Cameron's George Brett: Last of a Breed (1993), is an uncritical account. Two invaluable sources for watching Brett's career unfold are Number 5: George Brett and the Kansas City Royals (1993), and George Brett: A Royal Hero (1999), overlapping collections of articles first published in the Kansas City Star. For a Yankee perspective on the Kansas City/New York rivalry, including the Pine Tar incident, consult Richard "Goose" Gossage, The Goose Is Loose (2000).

Fred Nielsen