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John Garrity
August 17, 1981
Jack Brett didn't ask too much of his four sons as they grew up—only that they be the best there was in everything they ever did
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August 17, 1981

Love And Hate In El Segundo

Jack Brett didn't ask too much of his four sons as they grew up—only that they be the best there was in everything they ever did

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Nineteen years old. Warmups. Butterflies. 54,575 fans. National television. Mike Shannon digging in at the plate. And then everything speeds up for the excited youngster: Shannon (a foul out!), Javier (a strikeout!), Maxvill (a walk), Gibson (a groundout!). Seventeen pitches and a giddy stroll to the dugout, triumphant. "Except for one walk," The New York Times reports the next morning, "he set down the Cardinals more handily than the older, wiser and sadder men on the Boston staff today."

The praise is echoed by his solemn teammates, who have little to celebrate. "This boy Brett," gushes Red Sox Catcher Elston Howard, "is as fast as Bob Turley was in his prime. I also think he's as fast as Koufax was."

The Brett family was in St. Louis that day—Jack, his wife, Ethel, the three Brett brothers—along with Kemer's high school coach, John Stevenson. For dinner they went to Stan Musial's restaurant. They gawked at the bats and trophies in the cases, rejoiced in the noise and confusion, and then indulged in a sense of importance when Ken, slickly attired in coat and tie—and shoes—said, " Ken Brett has a reservation." The crowd parted for them as they were shown to their table. "I imagine it made an impression on Ken's brothers," says Jack.

It did. "Here we are in the same lobby with George Scott and Jim Lonborg," Bobby remembers, his eyes getting wide, "and there's our brother Ken! I said, 'Jeez, I'd like to be one of those guys!' "

There was something fascinating and robust about the Brett family—the dark, thin, intense accountant father with the Brooklyn accent; his tall, animated wife (whom he divorced in 1975); and the four athletic brothers, playful, argumentative, almost boisterous. The dream would end bitterly for the oldest brother, John, his will thwarted in an Iowa town called Waterloo. The second brother, Ken, would achieve a measure of glory in a career that has never fulfilled its expectations. The third brother, Bobby, an opportunist, would find success and wealth outside baseball. The youngest brother, wearing the uniform of the Kansas City Royals, would one day look into the satiny void of a television camera at the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia, his impish smile punctuated by a gap between his two front teeth, and say, "Hi, I'm George Brett. I'm Ken Brett's little brother."

The Bretts lived at 628 Penn Street in El Segundo, which is adjacent to the L.A. airport, halfway up the hill on a narrow tree-lined street. It's a neighborhood of modest homes with small yards nearly overgrown with shade trees, flower beds and flowering shrubs. The Brett house was stucco with red brick wainscoting. A dormer window in the garage roof belonged to John, who sometimes snuck out late at night and got into fights with his rowdy friends, and Ken, who did not.

The street at the top of the hill is Mariposa. From there, the Brett boys could look down on the playing fields of Recreation Park, situated on the floor of a narrow valley bordering the flaming stacks and pipeline minarets of the Standard Oil refinery. A few blocks north of Rec Park is El Segundo High School, with extensive athletic facilities of its own—a football stadium and track, baseball practice fields and cages, two scoreboards.

The Brett family practically lived at Rec Park during the summer. Ethel, the "team mother," had a special feeling for George, her youngest. She sometimes worked the concession stand. Jack kept score or announced. They often sat on opposite sidelines at games, presumably because Jack tended to smolder when his sons failed to live up to his expectations. "When you talk to Jack today," reflects one of George's former high school teammates, "he's a class guy. But at that time we always thought he was a jerk."

Well, there are nicer ways of putting it. "My father was an enforcer," says George. "My mother was a lover, the thread that held the family together." Ken compares it to an interrogation "with a tough guy and a nice guy. My mother wasn't a disciplinarian. She's a lamb."

Ethel didn't come by that role accidentally. Remarried now and living in El Segundo, she admits she felt a need in those days to be the more encouraging parent. Inevitably, perhaps, Jack's overbearing ways with the children became a source of contention in their marriage.

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