Hal McRae: Royals player, manager, and an abrupt end in 1994

Part of the “African-American Royals Project” series.

Hal McRae is one of the more special stories in Royals history. McRae is not just a former Royals outfielder and designated hitter who spent 15 years in Kansas City and is also a member of the Royals Hall of Fame. He is also the first and only black manager in the history of the Royals, as he took over during the 1991 season and managed until the 1994 season, which was shortened by strike. Furthermore, he was the fifth black manager to be hired in MLB history at the time, and was one of the few managers in baseball history to manage his son as well (Brian McRae played for his dad during Hal’s entire managerial career in Kansas City).

And yet, McRae’s career and contributions to Kansas City seem to go under the radar in comparison to other Royals greats. Furthermore, he is more known in baseball circles for his epic tantrum to reporters in 1993 than what he did on the field as a Royals player or in the dugout as the Royals manager.

It’s a shame that McRae is more known for being a comic figure in Royals baseball history, more known for being on “Top 10” lists on ESPN and Fox Sports talk shows than for his baseball prowess. McRae is 9th all-time in WAR in Royals history, and he also has a winning percentage over .500 as Royals manager, something that many Royals managers (including Ned Yost) cannot claim.

Thus, it is important to take a deeper look into McRae, especially as a manager during that 1994 season which ended up being his final campaign as Royals skipper (and the final campaign so far for an African-American manager in Kansas City).

A multi-sport athlete in high school, McRae attended Florida A&M University, a HBCU in Tallahassee, Florida. At Florida A&M, McRae originally earned a scholarship for football, but, according to his SABR Biography by Thomas Brown Jr. in the collection “Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition“, “He realized that he was not big enough to succeed in football and switched to baseball, playing second base for A&M.” He played baseball for the Rattlers for two seasons before being drafted in the 6th round by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1965 MLB Draft.

A tremendous athlete in college, injury hindered McRae from becoming a true “five-tool” talent. While playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1969, McRae suffered multiple fractures in his leg while sliding into second base. The injury hindered his speed for the remainder of his career not only on the basepaths, but in the field as well. McRae, unable to capture the athleticism and speed he once had earlier in his professional career, became an average to below average outfielder over his 19-year tenure in Major League Baseball.

After four seasons in Cincinnati (he missed all of 1969 due to recovery from injury), the Reds traded McRae along with Wayne Simpson to Kansas City for Roger Nelson and Richie Scheinblum after the 1972 season. After not playing more than 99 games in any of his four seasons with the Reds, McRae played in 106 games with the Royals in 1973, and 148 games in 1974, and eventually became the Royals’ regular designated hitter, which was just recently instituted in 1973. Even though the new DH rule helped McRae transition from a “platoon player” to a “regular” player in the Royals lineup, he wasn’t exactly thrilled about being the Royals’ DH initially, as profiled by Brown:

“When I was told I was going to be the DH, I hated it,” McRae said years later. “You were considered a one-way player and baseball has always been a two-way sport. You were supposed to be good on offense and good on defense to be considered a good player.”

“Hal McRae” by Thomas Brown, Jr.; SABR Biography Project; Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition

As the Royals’ primary designated hitter, McRae became a potent force in the Royals lineup, as he accumulated three All-Star appearances (1975, 1976, 1982) and three “Designated Hitter of the Year” (now Edgar Martinez) awards (1976, 1980, 1982) over his 15 seasons with the Royals. For his career, McRae posted a slash of .290/.351/.454 with a career OPS of .805. McRae’s finest season came in 1976 at the age of 30, as he led the American League in on-base percentage and OPS. He was in the hunt for the batting title as well, but he was beat on the final day of the season by teammate George Brett, who out-hit him by a margin of less than .001.

McRae also excelled in the postseason, as he posted a triple slash of .294/.358/.427 in 48 postseason games and 164 plate appearances. His best series came in the 1980 World Series, in which the Royals lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. In the Royals’ first World Series appearance in franchise history, McRae hit .375 with an OPS of .923 in 26 plate appearances. Unfortunately, he could not replicate that performance in 1985, the Royals’ World Series championship year, as he only played in three games, and had three plate appearances against the rival Cardinals. Injuries and age (he was 39) caused him to regress as a hitter that year, and his DH position was eventually usurped by Jorge Orta, who eventually had the game’s most iconic moment from Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals.

McRae only played two more seasons after the 1985 World Series championship, and in fact, retired after only playing in 18 games in 1987. Even though his career didn’t exactly finish how he may have wanted it, the Royals organization and fans recognized McRae’s importance to the franchise, especially during their competitive years during the late 70’s and early 80’s. In 1989, just two years after McRae retired, he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame.

Being a manager wasn’t something McRae expected after his playing career was done, as he seemed to relish being a hitting instructor at the Major League level. After serving as a hitting instructor for the remainder of the 1987 season, he transitioned to a similar role in 1988 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. McRae loved being a hitting instructor so much that he initially turned down the Royals managerial job after Billy Gardner was fired toward the end of the season. In addition, McRae was also skeptical of the Royals and the pressure of the job, as they Royals wouldn’t commit to a contract extension after the 1988 season, according to Brown in McRae’s SABR Biography:

He turned [the Royals manager job] down because the club would not sign him to a contract beyond the season. “I don’t think any situation is a great opportunity if you can’t have fun at what you’re doing and can’t concentrate on the things you should be concentrating on as opposed to concentrating on saving your job with every decision,” he said in explaining his decision.

“Hal McRae” by Thomas Brown, Jr.; SABR Biography Project; Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition

However, after John Wathan was fired during the 1991 season, the Royals came back to McRae again, who at the time was a hitting coach with the Montreal Expos. This time, the Royals offered him a two year-contract, and he relented and accepted to be the Royals manager for the remainder of the 1991 season.

McRae, the fifth black manager in major league history, accepted a two-year contract for the rest of this year and next. The contract is believed to call for a salary in the $175,000 range the first year and about $225,000 for 1992.

“Hal signed,” McRae’s wife, Johncyna, told the Kansas City Star. “It’s official. It’ll be like going back home.”

“Robinson Is Fired; Royals Hire McRae” by Associated Press; Los Angeles Times; May 24th, 1991

Under McRae’s leadership, the Royals bounced back after a 15-22 start to the year and went 66-58 in the 124 games that McRae managed. They finished 82-80 overall, good for 6th place in the AL West that season.

Unfortunately, the good vibes and honeymoon from his first season didn’t transition the next year, as the Royals went 72-90 in 1992 and finished 5th in the American League West. The Royals continued to stick with and believe in McRae as the Royals manager despite the losing campaign in 1992. Furthermore, the Royals gave him such much needed firepower, as the Royals signed free agent pitcher and Kansas City native David Cone to a massive contract to be the ace of the Royals staff.

The vote of confidence and Cone signing had a positive effect on the Royals in 1993, as the Royals improved to 84-78 and finished third in the AL West, 10 games behind the division champion Chicago White Sox. However, even though the Royals improved record-wise, it was obvious that the pressure of having to perform with a high-payroll team took a toll on McRae as manager. In addition to his blow up on the reporters that made him “viral” before that was technically a thing, McRae was also ejected 8 times during the 1993 season. Rustin Dodd of the Athletic, recalled the incident on its 25th anniversary, and even years later, McRae pointed out that his infamous blowup was a culmination of a lot of frustration, and not just one isolated incident:

Even 25 years later, he doesn’t see much humor in the incident. He remembers the questions clearly, though. There was one about bunting his son, Brian. Why would he sac-bunt when the Tigers would have just walked No. 3 hitter Wally Joyner? There was the one about Miller and Brett. “Keith was a good ballplayer,” he said. In truth, though, the tirade had nothing to do with one night, or one question.

“It was just a build-up,” he said. “It wasn’t one night or one question. It was an accumulation of frustration.”

“Dodd: Twenty-five years later, those who were there remember Hal McRae’s famous rant” by Rustin Dodd; The Athletic

For many Royals managers, the blowup and multiple ejections would be enough for dismissal, especially in a small market like Kansas City where polite, Midwestern values rule the day. Managers like Billy Martin and Lou Piniella wouldn’t last long in Kansas City unless they’re super successful, and even then, that’s not always guaranteed with Kansas City’s typically conservative fanbase (though that has changed recently as the Metro has changed demographically).

Somehow, McRae survived 1993 and made it to the 1994 season. But without a doubt, there were a lot of questions concerning his tenure, especially in the wake of Kauffman’s death in 1993.

The 1994 season would be the first full season without Kauffman as the primary owner of the Kansas City Royals. Kauffman, knowing Kansas City’s history when it came to losing sports teams, set up a trust and foundation that managed the Royals after his passing until a permanent owner could be found that would be intent in keeping the Royals in Kansas City. Walmart CEO David Glass served as the leader of the trust and foundation, and he kept things pat during his first year, knowing that the Royals had a competitive team, and had a chance to make a Pennant run with Cone, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, and Mark Gubicza leading the rotation.

The Royals’ pitching carried the Royals in 1994, as Cone went 16-5 and posted a 2.94 ERA in 23 starts, and ended up winning the AL Cy Young award. Appier proved to be a stellar No. 2, as he went 7-6 and posted a 3.83 ERA in 23 starts, which set him up to be the Royals’ ace after Cone was traded to the Blue Jays the following season. Furthermore, the 26-year-old Gordon also proved to be dependable in the Royals rotation, as he posted a 4.35 ERA and 11-7 record in 24 starts. Overall, the Royals pitching staff was one of the best in the American League, as they had the second-best ERA, and finished first in saves (primarily led by Jeff Montgomery, who saved 27 games in 1994).

Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t keep up with the pitching, as the Royals ranked 8th in the AL in runs scored, and 11th in OPS. Designated Hitter Bob Hamelin carried the Royals offense, as he hit 24 home runs and posted a .987 OPS in 375 plate appearances en route to earning AL Rookie of the Year honors. Despite the breakout of the “Hammer”, he had relatively little support in the linuep, as only catcher Mike Macfarlane, Wally Joyner, and Felix Jose posted OPS+ numbers over 100 for the Royals in 1994.

After a 9-11 April, the Royals hovered around .500 for most of the year, going 16-13 in May, and 15-13 in June. However, after the All-Star break (they were 45-42 before), the Royals caught fire under manager McRae, as they went 19-9 in the second half, which included a 14-game win streak from July 23rd to August 5th, a franchise record. By the time the 1994 season was ended due to the strike and labor stoppage, the Royals were 64-51, and only 4 games behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox.

Unfortunately, the strong finish didn’t save McRae’s job, as the Royals decided to move on from McRae at the conclusion of the season. After years of spending big on Major League payroll, the Royals were changing course and cutting costs, and thus, were looking to put a much younger and cheaper team on the field when play resumed in 1995. Unfortunately, they didn’t feel McRae was suited to handle a young, rebuilding squad.

And surprisingly, McRae didn’t seem surprised or torn up by the decision:

“I want to thank Herk and the late Mr. {Royals owner Ewing} Kauffman for giving me the opportunity to manage,” McRae, 49, said from his home in Bradenton, Fla. “I’m a better person because I’ve managed. I believe I improved as a manager.”

“ROYALS FIRE HAL MCRAE AS MANAGER” by Associated Press; Washington Post; September 15th, 1994

McRae has been the only African-American to manage the Kansas City Royals, and he was the last one to have a winning record until 2003, when the Royals’ first Latino manager, Tony Pena, led the Royals to an 83-79 record. It’s interesting to wonder if McRae parted from the Royals mutually. After all, McRae was a hard-ass and fiery competitor who had little patience for those who didn’t go all out, or didn’t care about winning. Furthermore, he was the kind of person who didn’t like to explain himself, and preferred to let his actions do the talking. For him to go out gracefully was not typical of him, and it may have been a sign that McRae was exhausted from the grind of being a Major League manager at the time.

McRae’s fire was also memorable and especially relevant when it came to managing his son, Brian, on the Royals. Though it was a unique situation in baseball history, he frequently refused to discuss the issue with the media. He hated the suggestion that he played favorites with his center fielder son, and that was clearly evident in a 1992 article from the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

“There’s two things I won’t talk about,” McRae was saying here the other day in the visitors’ dugout before a game with the Tigers.

“Don’t ask me which team is going to hire the next black guy to be manager, and don’t ask me what it’s like to manage my son.

“They want to know if it feels the same way as managing their son in Little League. Well, hell, no, it doesn’t.”

“ROYALS’ MCRAES REFUSE TO PLAY FATHER-SON GAME” by Gordon Edes; South Florida Sun Sentinel; March 26th, 1992

McRae didn’t hold anything back with his play or his words. In many ways, that’s what made McRae so endearing. Even to this day, he feels justified in what happened with the locker room blow up, and isn’t the slightest bit apologetic about it. For some managers, playing the “media” game is an essential part of the game. But for McRae, he didn’t care. He was a baseball guy through and through, and he cared about his players and the game on the field. His popularity or perception from the local media was the least of his concern.

It will be interesting to see if managers with a style like McRae’s can exist in today’s analytical baseball landscape. After all, he became manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2001 and he only lasted two seasons before being fired in 2002, as his managing style didn’t produce the same results from his Royals days. Since being let go by Tampa Bay, McRae mostly served as a journeyman hitting coach for various MLB teams, which included winning a World Series ring in 2006 while serving as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.

McRae will always remembered for throwing the phone and how it hit the reporter in that 1993 press conference. It is a moment that is just far too burned into baseball fans’ memories at this point. But McRae was more than that: he was one of the best pure hitters in Royals history, and not only was he the only African-American manager in Royals history, but he was also a winning one as well.

Considering the Royals managerial history, the latter point should be fondly remembered with Royals fans when reminiscing about McRae.

5 thoughts on “Hal McRae: Royals player, manager, and an abrupt end in 1994

  1. I have every single Royals giveaway bobbleheads, every one. They have never had a Hal McRae bobblehead. How is that possible! There is a Rusty Kuntz, a James Shields, even a, wait for it…Tony Pena JR! Not a #11!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have found it weird too. It feels like McRae has been a bit unappreciated since he cut ties as manager with the Royals. Even White, who had a much less amicable divorce from the Royals, has slowly started to do stuff again with the Royals. It’s a shame that McRae, the first and only African-American Royals manager, and a longtime Royals player, is relatively unknown with Royals fans beyond his tantrum.


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