Very early on a Sunday morning in the late 1970s, I was behind the wheel of my truck with a couple of friends, parked outside a country and western bar in Salina, Kansas, and prepared for home line dancing after a night of beer and beer drinking. Suddenly the doors to the bar flew open and a little cowboy burst out. He wasn’t your typical Kansas cowboy, he was Asian, possibly Japanese, and appeared to be about 5’6 and maybe 125 pounds. He gave his cowboy hat to a friend and warmed himself up with a series of kung fu movements. Nobody called it martial arts in those days. Everyone fought with kung fu.
A short time later the doors opened again and a very tall cowboy appeared. My ears went up. This cowboy appeared to be about 6’4 ” tall and solid, a tall farm boy. I told my two friends let’s stay and see where this goes. The Asian cowboy continued to turn and made fighting noises. Oh-ho-ho-ho! Oh-ho-ho-ho! The big cowboy, completely unimpressed, handed his hat to one of his friends, took a big step towards the smaller cowboy, and unfolded a long right hand that was connected to the smaller cowboy’s jaw. The kung fu cowboy’s body stiffened and fell back coldly onto the gravel parking lot. The tall cowboy, satisfied with his handicraft, gathered up his hat and went back to the bar, presumably to get more beer and cotton-eyed Joe. The smaller cowboy’s friends gathered him up and drugged him to a nearby car with one that supported each side of his limp body.
If you’re reading this now you might think it’s just a story about two drunken cowboys fighting. For me, it was the perfect baseball analogy for the time. Heck, I’d seen dozen of bar fights but nothing like it. The smaller cowboy was, as my father could say, a big hat, not a cattle. In my mind he represented Al Hrabosky. The great cowboy represented Reggie Jackson. Cool, collected and unimpressed by all the noise going on around him. Someone who had the ability to change the game in one big blow.
Tired of playing second fiddle to the mighty New York Yankees, the royals were stabbed by manager Whitey Herzog’s public criticism of their inability to recruit a free agent. They exchanged their closer Mark “Country” Littell and catcher Buck Martinez for the closer Cardinals Al Hrabosky to St. Louis. Nobody used the term in detail in those days. They were called firefighters. Often times they were expected to place several innings to ensure victory. The league was dominated by eminent firefighters like Mike Marshall, Tug McGraw, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, John Hiller, and Sparky Lyle.
When the deal was first announced, my first reaction was: We’re going to win the World Series! As you know, they didn’t. The St. Louis baseball team was always a step or two ahead of its younger Missouri brother, or so it often seems. I mean, why would they trade their closer for a 24-year-old power pitcher who only appeared in 123 games and a 28-year-old catcher with a career average of .222?
Hrabosky himself was only 27 years old, but by the time he went into his ninth year in the league, he had tons of miles up his sleeve. He had an outstanding season in 1975 – a 13-3 record and an ERA of 1.66 over 97 innings that resulted in 22 saves. The 22 parades led the league and he was named National League Firefighter of the Year. Remember, this was an era when starting pitchers were expected to finish their jobs. The Cardinals staff threw 33 complete games this season. It was a different time.
No, I think the cardinals saw Hrabosky slowly losing his mojo. In 1976 his ERA jumped to 3.30 and in 1977 it rose to 4.38. His hits were allowed, runs allowed, and walks increased, while his strike numbers decreased. It appeared that Royal’s general manager Joe Burke became snooker.
Al Hrabosky was a fascinating player. Hrabosky was the epitome of the macho of the 1970s. Long hair. The Fu Manchu mustache. The intense look. Before facing a batsman, he retreated behind the hill, back onto the plate, and went through a ten-second psych-up routine. He punched the ball in his glove, stormed up the hill, got the shield, which was almost always fastball, and started moving quickly.
Early on, the batsmen were distracted by the psych-out routine, his jerky movement and the roaring crowds in St. Louis. Eventually the fastball lost a few mph and the rackets quickly caught up. I don’t remember announcers ever hearing much about Hrabosky’s different pitches when he had a curve or even a change. I suspect that since the fastball lost some speed, it was mistaken for a change on occasion.
A two-sport star in high school, Hrabosky was originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 11th round of the June 1967 draft, but did not sign. Instead, he went to Fullerton (CA.) College, and the Cardinals selected him in the first round of the January 1969 draft. He didn’t spend much time in the minors and played in fewer than 50 games before making his debut with St. Louis on June 16, 1970. He jumped back and forth between the big club and the minors for the next three seasons before finally staying with the Cardinals in 1974. He was a revelation that summer, going 8-1 with a 2.95 ERA over 88 innings work. Then came his landmark 1975 season and the legend of the Mad Hungarian was born.
Its introduction to the nation came on May 9, 1977 when the Cardinals hosted the Cincinnati Big Red Machine on Monday night. In those days before the cable, the games were only televised on Saturday afternoons until ABC released Monday Night Baseball, the weak sister of the hugely popular Monday Night Football. Hrabosky gave a single to Ken Griffey Sr., went to Joe Morgan and gave a single in the infield to Dan Driessen to load the bases.
He rallied and knocked out George Foster, Johnny Bench and Bob Bailey one by one as the crowd roared at Busch Stadium. Hrabosky barely made it through the tenth. Ray Knight singled with two outs. The next batsman, Griffey, tossed a brace into the gap in the right field in what looked like he was going to hit Knight. The Cardinals had a nice season and the throw from second baseman Don Kessinger to catcher Ted Simmons was on the money to pin Knight and end the inning. Simmons was leading at the end of tenth place and turned a walkable home run on the right field to give Hrabosky the unlikely victory. I know what you’re thinking. Kessinger played for the Cardinals? Yes, 204 games in 1976 and 1977. It’s hard to imagine that he’s anything but a Chicago Cub.
Hrabosky explains on his website: www.alhrabosky.net how he got the nickname “The Mad Hungarian”.
“I had gone back and forth in the small leagues and in 1974 I suddenly got closer to the Cardinals. My mind wandered and I wasn’t focused so I had to do something to stay in the big leagues. I developed a self psyche routine where I went behind the hill and mentally imagined throwing strikes. ”
It worked. Cardinal fans were crazy about it.
The madman gets nervous
The Royals had their own problems after losing two tight playoff series to the Yankees in 1976 and 1977. Whitey Herzog openly campaigned for Team Goose to sign Gossage, to no avail. The Cardinals made Hrabosky available after bumping into rookie manager Vern Rapp in 1977. Rapp ordered the Cardinals to cut neatly and wear short hair. “Relief pitching is 75% mental,” Hrabosky snorted. “How can I scare the thugs with my new image? How can I convince them that I am a dangerous maniac if I look like a pro golfer? “You have to love a guy like that.
The deal with Hrabosky was supposed to bring Herzog closer to the dominance he wanted. Hrabosky wasn’t terrible, he just wasn’t great. He appeared in 58 games in 1978 and recorded 20 saves. He only threw 75 innings and his ERA was a respectable 2.88.
During the 1978 playoff series, Herzog used Hrabosky primarily as his eighth inning type. He pitched a third of an inning in Game One and gave up a hit, a home run for Reggie. He threw the ninth inning of Game Two Royals win and mopped up the eighth inning of Game Three after Doug Bird abandoned Thurman Munson’s last Titanic homerun at Yankee Stadium. He didn’t appear in the crucial fourth game when Dennis Leonard walked the track. It was Hrabosky’s only appearance after the season.
In 1979 he appeared again in 58 games, but threw only 65 innings. His ERA jumped to 3.74 and his Save Total dropped to 11, which the team was still leading. The Royals employees threw 53 complete games in 1978 and 42 complete games in 1979. As I said, it was a very different time. In July 1979, another young pitcher named Dan Quisenberry arrived in Kansas City and began taking away Hrabosky innings.
The Royals missed the 1979 playoffs and in November of that year the Royals granted Hrabosky free choice. He signed a five-year $ 3.2 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. Hrabosky played for the Braves for the next three seasons, recording seven saves in 131 innings before being released. He signed with the Chicago White Sox, but never appeared in a game for them. He retired at the age of 32.
I remember seeing Hrabosky in 1978. I don’t remember who the royals played against, but the team rolled towards the playoffs, holding a narrow lead in the late inning that put Hrabosky in protection. The great crowd went wild as he took the hill and reached a crescendo as he went through his routine. The shine quickly wore off after a few hits and a walk. I remember thinking two things: is that it? The second was that we weren’t going to win the World Series this year. Big hat, no cattle.
You have to give Hrabosky credit, however. He made a 13 year career, made some cash, and brought life to an otherwise quiet game. He was really one of the first players to create a “brand” that athletes now consider more important than the game itself. The nickname The Mad Hungarian is one of the most recognizable nicknames in modern baseball history. Upon retirement, Hrabosky embarked on a long and successful career as a color commentator for the Cardinals, where he has become a St. Louis institution. He was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and serves on many charities in the St. Louis area where he and his wife June live.