U.L.’s Toothpick: The Year Of The Card–John Mayberry, 1975

A brief history of the Royals’ single-season home run record, pre-Steve Balboni:

In their inaugural 1969 season, the Royals had five players reach double digits in home runs. That sounds good until you realize that all of them were between 11 and 14 dingers. Ed Kirkpatrick hit 14, so he became the record holder. That lasted one whole season; Bob Oliver belted 27 home runs in 1970. No one came close to that number until the Royals traded for a little-known but promising first baseman named John Mayberry.

John Claiborn Mayberry was born on February 18, 1949 in Detroit. He was a three-sport star at Northwestern High School, twice named to the All-State Basketball team by the Detroit News, as well as being a fine football and baseball player. The Houston Astros drafted him in the first round of the 1967 draft, with the sixth overall pick.

He had a nice season in rookie ball that year, and saw time at three different minor league levels in 1968, hitting a combined .320/.430/.552 with 23 home runs. That got him a cup of coffee in the majors at the end of the season; he played in four games and didn’t get a hit. A similar story in 1969; Mayberry played well at Triple-A Oklahoma City, got a late callup, and didn’t get a hit in five games. Finally, in 1970 he got a little more of an opportunity, but he didn’t do much with it. In 50 games, he hit .216/.318/.365. In 1971, in 46 games, he did even worse: .182/.260/.350. The Astros had Bob Watson already, and then after the 1971 season they traded for Lee May.

That made Mayberry expendable, and three days after the May trade, the Astros dealt Mayberry and a minor leaguer to the Royals for two relief pitchers: Lance Clemons and Jim York. Clemons would be up three times in a 13-month span and never threw a pitch for the Astros organization. York would at least be a contributor for four seasons, but only as a reliever. Meanwhile, Mayberry would hit 143 home runs over the next six seasons.

Freed from the cavernous Astrodome and given a chance to play every day, Mayberry thrived. Even though Municipal Stadium and Royals Stadium were not home run havens, they were still a lot better for hitters than the Eighth Wonder of the World. Big John hit .298/.394/.507 in 1972, with 25 home runs. Sure, RBIs are a silly stat, but he did become the first Royal to reach the 100 RBI mark in a season that year. He followed that up with a .278/.417/.478 line with 26 homers and 100 RBIs in 1973. All that and he had a pretty nifty glove at first base. He played in the All-Star Game at Royals Stadium, led the league in walks and on-base percentage, and finished seventh in the MVP voting. In fact, his 122 walks is still the team record, and one that seems in no danger of being broken anytime soon.

Mayberry’s 1974 was not quite as good. He battled injuries (a pulled hamstring and a broken hand) and bad luck (a .234 BABIP), hitting .234/.358/.424 with 22 home runs. Those are still decent numbers, but of course in 1974 all people noticed was the batting average and the drop in RBIs to 69.

But in 1975, Big John rebounded in a big way. He started the season slowly, as he usually did. He hit just .194/.383/.258 for April. After homering on Opening Day, he didn’t hit another one until May 3. He ended May with a .210/.364/.350 line and just four home runs. But that last day of May, he had three hits to get his average back over .200 for the first time in over two weeks. His line improved to .235/.369/.398 by the end of June, but he still had only nine home runs. He caught fire in July, though. In 29 games that month, Mayberry had hits in 22 of them. In 11 of those 22 games, he had multiple hits. He hit three home runs on July 1, then hit one home run in each of the next three games. His totals for July: .365/.468/.788 with 12 home runs. After that, the .323/.429/.699 line with eight home runs he posted in August constituted “cooling off.” With 29 home runs by the end of August, Mayberry had already set a new team record for a season. He tacked on five more in September, ending up with a .291/.416/.547 line, 34 home runs, 106 RBIs, and again a league-leading 119 walks. He had a league-best 168 OPS+ and finished second in the MVP voting, although Boston’s Fred Lynn picked up all 22 first-place votes. One wonders if that would have changed a bit had the Royals won the division rather than coming in second, seven games behind Oakland.

The Royals would finally break through and win the division title in 1976. But Mayberry had an oddly poor year. He still walked more than he struck out, but his walk total dropped from 119 to 82. His BABIP once again dropped off, this time to a very low .240. Curiously, his power dropped a lot, too. His final line was .232/.322/.342 with just 13 home runs.

Mayberry rebounded again in 1977; although his average remained low, the power returned as he clubbed 23 home runs. But for the first time as a Royal, he struck out more than he walked. The final numbers were .230/.336/.401 with 23 home runs. However, the lasting memory of Mayberry and 1977 would be his performance in the ALCS against the Yankees.

The Royals won the first game of the series in New York easily. Mayberry homered in the third inning, a two-run shot that gave Kansas City a 6-0 lead. After the previous year’s heartbreak against the Yankees, it looked like the Royals would have their revenge. But Ron Guidry, a tough matchup for lefty hitters like Mayberry, shut down the Royals in Game Two. The Royals won Game Three in Kansas City, a Friday night game. Game Four was moved to a Saturday afternoon start time for television purposes. Mayberry showed up late, just minutes before game time. Manager Whitey Herzog put him in the lineup anyway and almost immediately regretted it. Mayberry dropped a couple of throws at first base, dropped a foul popup for an error that extended an inning where the Yankees scored, and struck out twice, one coming with runners at first and third. After four innings, Herzog removed Mayberry from the game and left him out of the lineup in Game Five. The official story was that Mayberry had a toothache and was on pain medicine. But later Herzog would imply that Mayberry was suffering effects from something else after a night of partying with his brothers.

“The man couldn’t even talk, and I knew what was wrong. God only knows the kind of stuff they did. It must have been a hell of a party. It’s just a damned shame, because John Mayberry was actually a wonderful young man. I always loved the way he played.”–Herzog, with Kevin Horrigan, in White Rat: A Life In Baseball, 1988.

At any rate, Herzog essentially told the Royals’ front office that either he or Mayberry would not be a Royal in 1978. The front office shopped him over the winter and finally just sold him to Toronto just before the 1978 season started. Mayberry had four nice seasons for the Blue Jays, hitting 30 home runs in 1980 and 92 for his Toronto career. Fun fact: that 30 HR represented the Toronto franchise record for home runs in a season until Jesse Barfield hit 40 in 1986, so Mayberry lost his two single-season marks in consecutive seasons.

Toronto traded Mayberry to the Yankees in May 1982. He played one year in New York and, with Don Mattingly ready to take over, was released in spring training in 1983. That ended his playing career, although he would come back to Kansas City as a hitting coach in the 1989 and 1990 seasons. Mayberry was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1996 and still takes part in Royals alumni events. Although the end of his time as a Royals player may have been bittersweet, it is apparent that time has healed any wounds.

John Mayberry’s best games of 1975:
7/1 @ TEX: Hit three solo home runs in 5-4 loss.
9/7 @ CAL: Homered twice, singled, scored three runs, and drove in three in 8-7 win.
7/21 @ DET: Homered twice, scored twice, and had three RBIs in 3-2 win.
7/26 vs. TEX: Went 4-4 with two doubles, scored twice and drove in two in 7-0 win.
9/3 @ CHI: Went 4-5, homered, scored twice and had two RBIs in 5-4 win.

About the card:
Too bad it’s slightly off-center, because this could be a beautiful card. I don’t usually care for pink and yellow, but the bright colors go well with the Royals’ powder blue road uniform and the blue type. I wonder which ballpark this is; I know Topps liked to send photographers to Oakland, and the Royals played there in mid-May of 1974, so that seems like a good guess. One look at those big arms and you can tell why Mayberry was a feared power hitter.

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