McRae a pioneer at designated hitter in KC
Slugger set standard for position after trade to Royals
KANSAS CITY -- Si Burick, a longtime chronicler of the Cincinnati Reds for the Dayton Daily News, once wrote about Hal McRae coming out of the dugout to pinch-hit in 1972 at Philadelphia. McRae smacked a home run, stayed in the game and won it in extra innings with another homer.
"If we had two platoons in baseball, I'd be a superstar," a jubilant McRae was quoted as saying afterward.
In those days, McRae was a bat off the bench for the Reds. Little did he realize that, a year later in 1973, the American League would incorporate a sort of platoon system with a designated hitter batting for the pitcher, and that he'd become known as the definitive DH.
"I did say that," McRae recalled, "and I was just joking around, but I didn't get to play. I was the No. 1 pinch-hitter on the club, so I got important at-bats and I had important hits. The reason I didn't play was because of the injury and my defensive liabilities. There was always somebody on the club that played better defense than I did."
The injury was the broken right leg he suffered in 1969 when he slid into a catcher while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. Originally a second baseman, he missed the 1970 season and returned to play outfield. The leg hindered his defense, restricting his running and throwing, but he could still hit. In effect, he was a one-way player when the AL -- with attendance sinking alarmingly -- passed the DH rule.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said, laughing.
That was because the Reds, tired of hearing McRae complain about not playing more, had traded him to the Kansas City Royals on Nov. 30, 1972, and the AL owners approved the DH rule on Jan. 11, 1973.
"Yeah, I wanted to play and I was traded because I was unhappy, which was a blessing in disguise," he said. "It was great for me, but I was complaining so much they were going to trade me anyway. If I stayed there, I was going to be a pinch-hitter all my life, and how long can you stay in the league being a pinch-hitter? You have a bad year and it's easy for them to find somebody else."
McRae took away something valuable from Cincinnati, however: what he learned from teammate Pete Rose.
"I kind of patterned my play after Pete Rose. He was an aggressive kind of player," McRae said. "And his attitude -- when he came to the ballpark, he didn't give an inch. He was always ready to play, very enthusiastic about a ballgame, never tired of playing. So I picked up quite a bit from him."
Rose was always ready, no matter what the score or the stage of the season.
"He took all his at-bats seriously. He didn't want to leave a game, he wouldn't miss a game. Regardless of what was going on, he was enthusiastic about that game that day," McRae said. "He knew everything about the game. Not only did he know his stats and his team's stats, he knew the stats of other teams and other players. He kept up with everything. He was very aware of most things that were going on in either league.
"He may never have seen a player play, but he would know his name and what he could do. So he was a baseball guy all the way."
Under Royals manager Jack McKeon in 1973-74, McRae eased into the DH role. Although mostly an outfielder in '75, he became a DH fixture in '76, Whitey Herzog's first full season as manager and the Royals' first time in the playoffs.
"At first, nobody liked it because you were considered a one-way player, a half ballplayer, you could say," McRae said. "And they thought it would affect the pay. Nobody really wanted to do it, because you didn't know how you'd stay in the game, or if you'd feel like a pinch-hitter when you went to bat.
"But the reason I accepted it was because we had a better team with me DHing, because I couldn't play as well as any of the guys that were in the outfield. It didn't make sense for me to be in the outfield and hurt the ballclub when we had guys that were better defensive players than myself and that would increase our chances of winning. It was a no-brainer. I think we had [Tom] Poquette in left, Amos [Otis] in center and [Al] Cowens in right, and I couldn't play as well as any of them defensively."
McRae refined the job of DH. He became a prototype for the position. There was really no one to pattern himself after, so he improvised.
"You watch a little bit just to get a feel for what the pitcher's doing. You never get away from the game," McRae said. "I would go in the tunnel and run before my at-bats, and I would go in the clubhouse and listen to the game on the radio or watch on TV if it was on. But you had to be in the game so you had the rhythm of the game. So I was never out of the game."
He got so good at it that Phil Elderkin, the Christian Science Monitor's baseball expert, wrote in 1981: "What he has become in the last few years is the American League's ultimate designated hitter."
Minnesota's Tony Oliva and Detroit's Willie Horton were early successes at DH. Some clubs tried ex-National League players who were late in their careers, such as Frank Robinson at California and Orlando Cepeda at Boston, with good if short-lived results.
But McRae was the pioneer who lasted more than a decade at the task.
According to Baseball Reference statistics, as we approach the DH's 40th big league season, McRae still holds his own against later prominent DHs. His 1,476 games as DH is second only to Harold Baines' 1,643; he's third in hits with 1,555, behind Baines' 1,690 and Edgar Martinez's 1,607, and fifth in RBIs with 823; David Ortiz's 1,094 tops the list.
Hal McCoy of Fox Sports Ohio recently published an all-time ranking of DHs and put McRae seventh behind Martinez, Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, Baines, Ortiz and Jim Thome. All of them, of course, came along after McRae blazed the trail.
McRae hit .294 as a DH, four points higher than his overall average, with 5,916 of his 8,058 plate appearances coming in that role. He was named DH of the Year three times by The Sporting News.
By coincidence, McRae also was a .294 hitter in the postseason, but in four World Series -- two with the Reds and two with the Royals -- he stroked .400 (18-for-45). But in the Royals' 1985 World Series triumph over St. Louis, the DH was not used -- it was used in alternate years in the Fall Classic at that time -- and McRae got to the plate just twice as a pinch-hitter.
Not that he regretted it at all.
"That year I had played with an injury -- I had a torn muscle in my thigh -- and I played about six weeks with that," McRae said. "And luckily we didn't have the DH, because I was worn out from going through the pain every night. So it was a good thing. The last [playoff] game in Toronto when we clinched, I was relieved when we got back to the hotel, because I didn't have to play anymore."
He'd injured his thigh sliding into second base to break up a double play, and it wouldn't heal up.
"If I reached for a pitch, if I swung and missed a pitch, it would always bite," he said. "So I got closer to the plate and tried to pull everything to keep from reaching and missing. So I was sort of relieved when it was over. I had two hits that night in Toronto in the clincher, but not disappointed when I couldn't play."
McRae was 39 that year, and his career was winding down. He'd play in 1986 and part of '87, then retire as a player. But his student-of-the-game approach as a DH led to jobs as hitting coach for Montreal, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis, and as manager for Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Retired in Bradenton, Fla., he's mostly interested in hitting golf balls these days.
Although the DH still has not been accepted by the National League, McRae thinks it's here to stay.
"I think the DH is good for the game, because when pitchers bat, most of them can't hit, most of them make outs," he said. "So you put more excitement into the game by getting a more productive player to fill that role."
Someone like McRae.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.