Welcome back to our mini series on the Top Single-Team Players of the Past 25 years. In Part 3, we had a look at three absolutely incredible talents. Robin Yount, a member of the 3,000 hits club, also nearly helped the Brewers to a championship in 1982. Kirby Puckett won not one, but two World Series titles in Minneapolis, and did so with a flair for the dramatic and inspired Jack Buck’s original (and still the best) “we will see you tomorrow night” call. And Mariano Rivera was truly the Sandman, nailing down 652 regular season saves and helping to propel the New York Yankees to several memorable post-season moments and finding himself frequently in the spotlight on baseball’s greatest stage: the month of October.
In part four of our series, we’ll be examining the numbers 4 and 3 position on our Top 10 list, and these two Hall of Famers have two things in common: they’re the last two players to give the .400 mark a run for its money over the course of a season, and they are, with very little argument, the best hitters to don the uniforms of their respective organizations.
4. George Brett, Kansas City Royals, 1973-1993. Hall of Fame Class of 1999
George Brett is best-known for three things: the fact that he is the only player to ever win a league batting title in three different decades (70’s, 80’s and 90’s,) his tremendous 1980 season in which he flirted with .400 and finished with a .390 batting average, and the Pine Tar Incident in 1983, in which a go-ahead home run he hit against the Yankees was celebrated, then nullified, then reinstated on appeal. The rest of his career turned out to be pretty great, too, and for 21 seasons, he anchored the Kansas City Royals’ offensive attack.
Brett broke in with the Royals during the 1973 season, and by 1974 had established himself as the team’s every day third baseman. Brett posted solid, but unspectacular numbers in his rookie year of 1974 and sophomore year of 1975 (a year in which he led the league in hits with 195 and triples with 13,) but established himself as a rising star in 1976. That year Brett won his first batting title, leading the league in hits with 215, triples with 14 and hitting .333. Brett was also selected to his first All Star team, the first of 13 consecutive selections that helped establish Brett on the national scene.
Brett was not always a consistent power threat, going through periods where he would hit 20+ homers and other periods where his home run total wound up in the single digits. After hitting a total of 20 home runs in his first three seasons, Brett showed he had a power stroke in 1977, hitting 22 home runs and following up on his batting title by batting .312. After falling below .300 in 1978, Brett bounced back to hit .329 in 1979, again leading the league in hits with 212 and a career-high 20 triples to go with 42 doubles and 23 homers. Brett also broke the 100 RBI barrier for the first time, driving in 107 runs.
1980 would be an historical year for Brett. Despite only playing in 117 games, he flirted with .400 all year and wound up hitting .390 on the season. More than that, he hit a then-career high 24 home runs and 118 RBI’s, a total that would have projected to over 162 had Brett played every game that season. Brett was rewarded for his efforts with the 1980 American League Most Valuable Player Award.
Brett continued to be a steady performer through the early 80’s, but his most famous moment came in 1983. On July 24th, with the Royals trailing the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium by a score of 4-3, Brett hit a two-run home run with two outs to put the Royals ahead by a score of 5-4. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin came out and argued that Brett had an excessive amount of pine tar on his bat. The umpires got together and conversed and measured the amount of pine tar and eventually home plate umpire Tim McClelland moved toward the Royals dugout and called Brett out, nullifying the home run and reverting the score to 4-3, Yankees. Because Brett was the third out of the top of the ninth inning, the game was over and the Yankees won. However, American League President Lee MacPhail later reversed the call on protest and the game was resumed on August 18th from the point of the home run. The Royals went on to win the game, 5-4.
1985 would prove to be the finest season in Kansas City Royals’ history, and Brett spearheaded the offensive attack. Brett hit .335, hit 30 homers and drove in 112 runs, winning both the Gold Glove award as a third baseman as well as the Silver Slugger and being named the 1985 ALCS MVP. The Royals meanwhile would win the 1985 World Series in both thrilling and controversial fashion over their in-state rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. Brett would shine in the playoffs, hitting .344 with 3 homers in the ALCS on his way to winning the ALCS MVP award and hitting a strong .370 during the World Series. Brett also fell just short of winning his second MVP award, placing second in American League balloting.
Though the Royals did not return to the postseason for the remainder of Brett’s career, he continued to put up solid numbers at the plate. In his career Brett batted over .300 eleven times, hit 20 or more homers eight times, and drove in 100 or more runs four times. Moved to first base and designated hitter later in his career, Brett continued to flourish. Brett became the first player to win his league batting title in three different decades when he batted .329 in 1990. Although his batting average began to decline after that season, Brett did show one final flourish of power during his last season of 1993, when he hit 19 homers at the age of 40.
Brett finished his career with a .305 batting average, 317 homers, 3,154 hits, and 1,596 RBI’s. Brett won three American League batting titles, was selected to the All-Star team 13 times, won 3 Silver Slugger awards and a Gold Glove. Brett was also named the American League Most Valuable Player in 1980 and won the ALCS MVP award in 1985. His number 5 is retired by the Kansas City Royals and he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 98.2% of the vote in 1999.
3. Tony Gwynn, San Diego Padres, 1982-2001. Hall of Fame Class of 2007
Arguably the greatest pure hitter since Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn spent his 20-year career epitomizing what the San Diego Padres organization was about: class, loyalty and integrity. As a ballplayer, Gwynn put team first, prioritizing getting on base, patiently working pitchers, not trying to do too much with a baseball. To be sure, Gwynn had some power and hit as many as 49 doubles and 17 home runs in a season, but by focusing on taking what a pitcher gave him, he became the ultimate table setter in the Padres’ lineup.
Gwynn broke into the Major Leagues in 1982. In his first season, Gwynn put up a solid .289 batting average in 54 games. What makes this statistic unique is that it was the only time in his career that Gwynn hit less than .300 in a season. Gwynn hit .309 in 82 games in 1983, then took the league by storm by hitting .351 during his first full Major League season in 1984. That year Gwynn would also lead the National League in hits with 213, and the Padres would go to the 1984 World Series where they would fall 4 games to 1 to the Detroit Tigers. Gwynn batted .368 in the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs, but watched his average fall to .263 in the World Series against the champion Tigers. Additionally, Gwynn would be selected to his first All-Star team and finished third in voting for the National League Most Valuable Player.
While the Padres frequently struggled to contend for playoff spots in Gwynn’s early years, Gwynn kept fans in San Diego entertained and kept opposing pitchers nervous. Never hitting below .309 after the 1982 season, Gwynn won his second batting title in 1987 when he put up a .370 average. Gwynn followed that season up with two more titles in 1988 and 1989, hitting .313 and .336, respectively. Additionally, Gwynn was a perennial All-Star and was an asset defensively in right field.
A major part of Gwynn’s success was his ability to avoid striking out. He struck out 40 times only once in his career, never more, and averaged 23.4 strikeouts per season. Gwynn struck out fewer than 20 times in eleven seasons and had an on-base percentage over .400 in six seasons. He also led the league in hits seven times and hit over .300 nineteen times.
The Padres found some success in the mid-90’s, winning the National League West in 1996 and returning to the World Series for only their second-ever appearance in 1998. Meanwhile, Gwynn went on a hitting tear, winning the National League batting title four straight years. The most significant of those season was in 1994 when Gwynn flirted with hitting .400, a number not reached since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. When play was stopped for the year by the players’ strike, Gwynn was hitting .394. Further, his batting average was on the rise: Gwynn hit .475 over the course of 10 games in August, a hot streak that seemed destined to push him over the .400 line and give him a legitimate shot at becoming the first player in 53 years to hit .400 with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Gwynn also led the league in hitting with a .368 average in 1995, a .353 average in 1996 and a .372 average in 1997, a year in which he and Los Angeles Dodgers’ catcher Mike Piazza both hit over .360 and spent the latter half of the season taking turns holding the batting average lead (Piazza finished the year at .362.) During that 1997, season Gwynn also set career highs by hitting 17 homers and driving in 119 runs.
The Padres made one more run at a title in 1998, with Gwynn helping set the table again by carrying a .321 average and hitting 16 homers. After struggling to a .200 average in the NLDS and a .231 average in the NLCS, Gwynn hit a stunning .500 against the New York Yankees, going 8-for-16 in the four games with a homer and three RBI’s in an effort to get the Padres going and win a championship. Unfortunately, the Padres fared worse against the Yankees than they had against the Tigers 14 years earlier, being swept 4 games to none.
Gwynn collected his 3,000th hit on August 6th, 1999, a single off Montreal Expos’ pitcher Dan Smith. Gwynn collected four total hits in the game and at age 39, finished the season with a .338 batting average. Gwynn would play two more seasons before retiring at age 41. Despite being hampered by injuries that limited him to 107 games, he hit .323 over his final two seasons, still a force at the plate when healthy.
For his career, Gwynn compiled a .338 batting average to go with 3,141 hits, hit 135 homers and had 1,138 RBI’s. Gwynn was selected to the All-Star team 15 times, won 5 Gold Glove awards, 7 Silver Slugger awards, and was an 8-time National League batting champion. Gwynn’s number 19 has been retired by the Padres and he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 2006. Gwynn passed away on June 16th, 2014 at age 54 due to complications from cancer. He has been commemorated by the Padres organization with a statue in the “Park in the Park” behind right-center field at San Diego’s Petco Park.
We’re down to the wire! In Part 5, we’ll look at the top two single-team players of the past twenty-five years, both of whom have left an undeniable impact not only on their respective teams, but on the whole of Major League Baseball.