Posted on 25 November 2011.
The week of Thanksgiving brings a time for all of us to be thankful for family, friends, health, any a myriad of other things that each of us finds important. Here at I-70 Baseball, we take this time to show some thanks to some players that spent some time wearing both of the uniforms of our two teams, the Cardinals and Royals.
The requirements are that simple: the inducted player had to play for both the Cardinals and Royals in his career. From there, it is pure judgement of I-70 Baseball to say they deserve enshrinement in our “Hall Of Legends”. This year we induct five new legends to join the inaugural group of five from last season. The original five inductees were manager Whitey Herzog, pitchers Dan Quisenberry and Danny Jackson, outfielder Reggie Sanders, and catcher Darrell Porter.
The final inductee for 2011 is, appropriately, former Cardinals and Royals closer, Al Hrabosky.
St. Louis (1970 – 1977)
Alan Thomas Hrabosky, or as we would soon call him affectionately, The Mad Hungarian, was originally drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in 1967. Opting to wait for a better offer, that came along in 1969 when the Cardinals selected Hrabosky in the first round. They would send him to their Class A affiliate in Modesto, California and the young left-hander would dominate the league. In 13 starts, he would post an 8-2 record with an ERA of 2.48. That was not what caught the attention of the front office, it was his 112 strikeouts in 98 innings. Combined with the ability to miss bats (less than 1 hit per inning pitched) got Hrabosky a promotion to Arkansas (AA) to finish out 1969.
He would stay in Arkansas to start the 1970 season, but not for long. Trouble was brewing in St. Louis and a most promising start to the season was about to fall apart. George Culver, a big veteran right hander, had gotten off to a quick start for the season, winning his first three starts with a mind boggling ERA just over 1 run per game. Then things started falling apart and he would soon be heading to Houston. Nelson Briles was also struggling and newcomer and former Reds pitcher, Billy McCool was about to make his last major league appearance. All of that turmoil created an opportunity for Hrabosky, and he was called up from AA in early June. And he did not disappoint.
His second appearance was in a long extra inning game at Chicago on June 19. In two innings of work, he would retire all six men he faced, three by way of the strikeout. Thanks to bases loaded single by Ted Simmons in the seventeenth inning, Hrabosky would earn his first major league win. He would continue to pitch late in games through July and into early August, when the Cardinals finally fell out of contention. Even though the 1970 Cardinals had been somewhat of a disappointment, the 20 year old hard throwing lefty had made quite an impression. He would go back to Arkansas to finish out the season, but would return late in September when the rosters expanded.
Hrabosky would continue his development in the minor leagues, mostly as a starter, occasionally getting a call up to St. Louis to fill in for an injured pitcher. The last call was in June 1973, when the Cardinals traded Jim Bibby to the Texas Rangers. Hrabosky would take his spot, initially as a setup man to veteran closer, Diego Segui. By the end of the season, it was Hrabosky that was closing out games, and he would continue to do so for the next four years.
1974 would be big year for Hrabosky as he and right hander, Mike Garman, took turns closing out games for the Cardinals. They were a most effective tandem, providing late inning heat from both the right and left side. Hrabosky would post an impressive 8-1 record with an ERA of 2.95. His 9 saves may not seem like a lot, but when you have starters like Lynn McGlothen and Bob Gibson in the rotation, there just aren’t a lot of save opportunities to be found. But when called upon, Hrabosky held the game with regularity. He was a big part of the Cardinals late divisional race, falling just a few runs short of a post-season opportunity. For his effort, Hrabosky would get a few Cy Young votes, coming in fifth in the voting.
Taking one for the Team
The date was September 25, the last home game of the 1974 season. Thanks to a series of bad games, the bullpen had been used a lot and needed Bob Forsch to go deep into the game. He did not make it out of the first inning. Rich Folkers was able to get the last two outs, but not before the Pirates had a commanding 5-0 lead. A wiped out bullpen would have to finish this game, and that meant somebody would have to take one for the team.
Since the Pirates were somewhat vulnerable to left handed pitching, especially since they planned on facing the right handed Bob Forsch, manager Red Schoendienst ran out all the lefties he had. Following Rich Folkers, it was veteran Claude Osteen. While Osteen was on the mound, the Cardinals rallied and had taken a 6-5 lead.
Osteen got into trouble in the fifth inning, and again the call would go to the bullpen. This time it was Al Hrabosky. The Cardinals extended the lead to 9-5 but Hrabosky gave most of those runs back. In the ninth inning, Hungo was still pitching for the Cardinals when he Dave Parker with a pitch. Parker would score the tying run when Manny Sanguillen singles. Into extra innings we go.
Hrabosky pitches a scoreless tenth inning but gets into trouble in the eleventh. It all unraveled quickly with only one ball hit with any authority. Mike Garman came into to relieve Hrabosky and get the final two outs, but Pittsburgh had taken a 12-9 lead. That would not be the final score as the Cardinals roared back for four runs in the bottom of the inning with pinch hitter, Jim Dwyer, getting the game winning RBI with a sacrifice fly. The win probability chart from this game tells you all you needed to know about this game. Game Six of the World Series, anybody ? Well, almost.
Even though he had struggled, and had given up the lead in the ninth inning, Hrabosky took one for the team with 6 1/3 innings of relief. It wasn’t pretty and those earned runs he allowed ballooned his ERA by about 1/3 of a run per game. It was a gutsy performance, just one of the many that we would come to appreciate.
Fireman of the Year
If not for Mike Marshall pitching in nearly every Expos game in 1974, Al Hrabosky might have won the Fireman of the Year award for his outstanding relief work. He would win that award in 1975, a career year for Hungo and one of the best ever for a Cardinals reliever. In 65 appearances, he would post a 13-3 record with an ERA of 1.66. He averaged about 1 1/2 innings per appearance, so these were no short outings. His 22 saves would lead the National League. His strikeout total had started to fall off, but he more than made up for it by continuing to miss bats with an increased consistency. In addition to his Fireman of the Year award, he would come in third in Cy Young voting, behind Tom Seaver and Randy Jones, both of whom won more than 20 games. Hrabosky was the only reliever to receive any votes.
1976 would be another good year for Hrabosky, but the strikeouts kept falling and the number of hits allowed has started increasing. This would continue in 1977, but the story of that year would be the continual clashing with new manager, Vern Rapp.
Rapp was an old school authoritarian and was not handling a lot of the changes in the game, most notably more player freedoms in the new free agency era. Long hair and ridiculous facial hair was the new form of expression, and Hrabosky had some of the wildest of both. Rapp failed to notice that it was all part of Hrabosky’s on the field persona. He would go behind the mound and talk to himself. He would pop the ball into the glove, spin around and take his position on the mound. He would stare at the catcher with his eyes barely visible between his cap pulled down low and a glove held high on his face. Then, from what can only be called a maelstrom of arms and legs, comes a pitch somewhere in the confluence of body parts, and it is likely very hard and could quite possibly be well inside.
The crazy hair and outlandish mustache was just a part of Hrabosky’s act, and it had been most effective. But Rapp was having none of that, and wanted his players clean shaven and hair kept at a respectable length. They may finish dead last in the division, but they were going to look professional.
Throw in the emergence of an exciting young flame thrower named John Urrea and 1977 would be Hrabosky’s last season in St. Louis. He would be traded to the Kansas City for their former closer, Mark Littell. In 8 years in St. Louis, Al Hrabosky would finish with a 40-20 record, ERA of 2.93 and collect 59 saves, a big total for that era of baseball.
Kansas City (1978 – 1979)
It could have been the change of scenery, facing hitters in a new league or maybe it was just getting some distance between him and Vern Rapp, but 1978 would be something of a comeback year for the now veteran left hander. He would collect 20 saves in his first season with the Royals, which is a very good number considering that starters threw 53 complete games. His strikeout rate continued to fall, but he would lead all Royals pitchers. Where he was most effective was in missing American League bats, just as he had been doing in the National League. He was just as likely to walk a batter as let them get a hit. All of that added up to a stingy 2.88 ERA, third on the staff.
1978 would also be the only time that Hrabosky would appear in post-season, pitching in three of the four ALCS games against the New York Yankees.
Al Hrabosky would have another fine season for Kansas City in 1979, but a quirky young reliever make his major league debut that year – a redheaded right handed submariner named Dan Quisenberry. Quisenberry would entertain teammates and terrorize opposing batters for the next decade, so it was time for Al to move on.
The Royals let Hrabosky test the new free agency market and the Atlanta Braves signed him to a contract for the 1980 season.
Atlanta (1980 – 1982)
The former closer took on a new role with the Atlanta Braves, the setup man to Rick Camp and then later for Gene Garber. His best year for the Braves was the strike shortened 1981 where he posted a miniscule 1.07 ERA as a one inning specialist. Unfortunately for the Mad Hungarian, his career would come to an end in August 1982 and he would miss the chance to pitch against his former team in the NLCS.
Al Hrabosky pitched effectively for all three teams where he played. He was dominating closer in both leagues and proved to be an effective setup man at the end of his career. The final tally on Al was a 64-35 record with an ERA of 3.10 (ERA+ of 123, not bad). He had a positive win-loss record with all three teams, and he would finish with 97 saves.
Life after Baseball
After his playing days were over, Al returned to the St. Louis area and started a career as a broadcaster. He has been a commentator for the Cardinals since 1985 and can now be found doing most of the television broadcasts on the Cardinal Fox station, Fox Sports Midwest.
Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at On the Outside Corner. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.