George Brett doesn't think he's ready to get married and start raising kids yet. When he goes out to dinner, he likes to have a few beers and stick French fries up his nose, and he doesn't think such behavior would be appropriate to a father whose children were present. (I tend to agree, but hashbrowns would be even worse.)
This curious intelligence is to be found in a book called The George Brett Story (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $12.95) by John Garrity, which was excerpted in the Aug. 17 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. I found the French-fries news remarkable in a portrayal of a 28-year-old man who is said to have matured greatly in recent years, but I should quickly add that it is probably misleading. The antics of rich, unattached ballplayers do come under occasional observation here, but this isn't the baseball version of the Joe Namath story. It is, in the main, a serious, though hardly solemn, treatment of an absorbing and, in this case, surprisingly complex subject: the development of a great hitter.
When discussing any of the biographies of still-active sports figures that have flooded the land in the last couple of decades, there is a temptation, to which I have succumbed, to quote Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." Most of the biographies are mediocre, and one of them, I do believe, was the worst book I ever read—or tried to. Garrity's Brett is a rare exception, and well worth your time. This is true almost in spite of Brett, who is pretty much the average jock, although set apart by extraordinary ability. But he comes from an interesting, if not always appealing, family; he went to an interesting school; and he made some interesting friends on his way to the top.
George Brett grew up in El Segundo, Calif., a town that carries on "a love affair with baseball," to which the high school team always responds. Under Coach John Stevenson, El Segundo High turns out big league ballplayers like an assembly line—Scott McGregor, Chris Chambliss, Dave LaRoche, Ken Brett, George Brett—and never has a bad season. Obviously, when you are El Segundo you try harder. And George sometimes had to try very hard indeed.
The youngest of four sons in a baseball-crazy family, George was subject to constant comparison with his brothers, usually by his stern and demanding father, and seldom to his advantage. Jack Brett was a baseball father, as intolerant of failure as any stage mother. To him, 0 for 3 in a Little League game was the adolescent equivalent of bankruptcy. "I hated my father," says George (he doesn't anymore), and it seems he had reason. The model he was urged to emulate was his brother Ken, El Segundo's golden boy, its greatest athlete, a good student (George took shop) and his father's choice to replace Mickey Mantle in the Yankee outfield. Despite his batting skill, Ken chose to make it as a pitcher and became a good one—the only other Brett to reach the majors, although they all played pro ball. He is still "a good student." He reads books (George likes to pretend he has read only two, Basketball Sparkplug and Love Story), buys good art, says witty things and generally sounds like a more amusing dinner companion than George, even without the potato trick. But George almost hit .400. There will not be a Ken Brett Story.
It was, of course, his 1980 attack on .400 that made The George Brett Story inevitable. And, inevitably, there were comparisons with Ted Williams, who hit .406 in 1941. No one has topped .400 since, and the consensus is that it's much harder to do now, what with night games, the slider, the great relief specialists and, above all, the tremendous media pressure. I guess the consensus is right, but I still wonder why no one ever brings up the fact that Williams was the only man ever to hit .400 without benefit of a sacrifice fly rule. Under 1941 rules, Bill Terry, who hit .401 in 1930, would have finished below the magic figure.
One of the more surprising actors in the Brett drama is Hal McRae, George's Kansas City teammate. Most of us remember McRae's anguish when Brett beat him out for the 1976 batting title with the aid of a weird defensive lapse on the part of a Minnesota outfielder. But I was unaware of the larger role McRae had played in Brett's success as a ballplayer. As teacher, counselor and living example, McRae taught him aggressive base running, how to keep cool in the face of adversity, and the insidious effect of self-pity. In one intriguing passage, the author likens McRae to Jean Valjean, trudging through the sewers of Paris. And in the context it works. Check it out.
There is revealing insight, too, into the character of Charley Lau, the celebrated batting coach who reportedly made outstanding hitters of both McRae and Brett. (There are dissenters to this notion, but McRae and Brett are not among them.) Lau turns out to be a strangely paradoxical personality: a man famed for his mastery of the mechanics of batting, but whose real strength seems to lie in his gift for building confidence in his pupils, helping them conquer fear; a man often thought of as a cold, aloof disciplinarian who is actually gentle, sentimental and vulnerable—more father confessor than drill sergeant.
Although hardly an intellectual, George Brett seems, from the evidence here at hand, to be a pretty good fellow. Certainly, for a ballplayer, he isn't a greedy one. But it is the Hal McRae story and the Charley Lau story, as well as the Clint Hurdle story and even the Jamie Quirk story, that lift The George Brett Story well above the general run of ballplayer bios. If you like baseball, I suspect you'll like this book.