It’s day one of the World Series, one of this country’s superior inventions, a good time to remind you that one of baseball’s greatest ever players was born in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the hamlet that forms a twin town with Moundsville. (Movie still available here.)
George Brett is the most accomplished of the 120 Major League Baseball players born in West Virginia, who include Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski and Toby Harrah, and a couple of 19th century greats, Jack Glasscock and Jesse Burkett.
The Hall of Fame third baseman played 21 years with the Kansas City Royals. In 1993, he retired with 3,154 hits, most ever by a third baseman, and 317 homeruns. In 1980, Brett hit .390, flirting with a mythical .400 batting average. Maybe even more impressive: He homered 24 times and struck out only 22 times. He won a World Series with the 1985 Royals, and famously beat the Yankees in 1983 with a game-winning homerun with a bat loaded with pine tar.
“A throwback to an earlier time, Brett favored pine tar over batting gloves, chewing tobacco over bubble gum, and cold beer over weightlifting,” reads his Society for American Baseball Research bio.
How Brett came to be born in West Virginia reflects the prosperous movement of Americans in the 20th century, from war to peace and play, cities to suburbs, and toil in the crowded east to comfort in the big western sun.
George Brett’s father Jack was born in Brooklyn in 1923. His dad worked on Wall Street. Jack “quit high school and went to work in a factory in a very large machine shop,” he told Brett biographer John Garrity, author of The George Brett Story.
And when I was eighteen the war came along and I joined the army, and I was in the army until 1945. I had been wounded– shot in the leg in France. They said, ‘What you should do is go to school and learn something.’ So I went to Pace College in New York and got a degree in business administration. Got through by the skin of my teeth.
“George was born in West Virginia,” Jack Brett said. “Two towns claim George. We really lived in Glen Dale, West Virginia. The next town down the road, about two miles, was Moundvsville had the daily newspaper. But he was really born in Glen Dale.”
Shortly after that, the family moved to California, where Brett played football and baseball at El Segundo high school in suburban Los Angeles. (One teammate: future Baltimore Orioles lefty Scott McGregor.) The Royals selected him in the second round, with the 29th overall pick, in the 1971 draft. According to SABR:
Because Brett still had some baby fat around his midsection, many scouts passed on him. Even some of the scouts for the expansion Kansas City Royals were skeptical. However, scouts Tom Ferrick and Rosey Gilhousen saw Brett as a diamond in the rough. Gilhousen pushed the hardest for the Royals to draft Brett, basing his assessment on the intangibles of desire, instincts, and aggressiveness. He persuaded the Royals vice president for player personnel, Lou Gorman, to see Brett in action during a high-school game.
In California, the family lived at the ballpark. “With all four of them playing baseball from Little League on to high school and American Legion ball, his dad always followed Ken more,” his mother said. “If there were conflicting games, I always followed George.”
Brett’s dad was a tough customer, according to Garrity:
More than once, George has told this story: how he struck out twice in one game, and endured that short but painful drive up Mariposa Street with a silent, furious Jack Brett behind the wheel. “I remember I got out of the car in my uniform, my head banging,” George says, “and the next thing I felt was a foot coming right my ass! For embarrassing the family.” Brett shakes his head and smiles wanly. “That’s probably where I got my hemorrhoids.”
Of his father, Brett says, “he used to steal cars. He used to get in a lot of scrapes. I think he just didn’t want us to be like him.” As Garrity describes, Brett senior mellowed, the relationship healed, and George grew up to become one of the game’s all-time greats.
The book, published in 1981 and hard to track down, is a spirited trip through 1970s and 1980s baseball. Garrity relates the anecdotes of Brett’s mom visiting and doing “fifteen loads” of his laundry, and the ballplayer’s legendary carousing as one of America’s most famous bachelors with teammates Jamie Quirk and Clint Hurdle.
One night, the three bachelors went partying in Kansas, all in the same car– unusual, Hurdle says, because, “You don’t wanta depend on one of those guys for a ride” — and Brett found a date and went off with her. Hurdle and Quirk got back to the house at four in the morning, drunk, and discovered they had no key to the front door. And Brett was not at home, either. “We said, the hell with it,” Hurdle laughs. “I put my shoes up on the doorstep and slept on the lawn. A neighbor lady came out at about six thirty in the morning and asked if we wanted to come in the house.” Hurdle snorts. “There was dew all over us.”
Did such antics constitute a public nuisance? Did the neighbors complain? Hurdle shakes his head. “Everybody loved George.”
Brett was also famous for this incident, related in the SABR bio:
On May 15, 1980, Brett’s 27th birthday, the Royals were 16-14 while enjoying an offday. In lieu of a ballgame it was the nationally televised Miss USA Beauty Pageant that had fans in Kansas City cheering. The contest’s “Miss New York,” Debra Sue Maurice, informed host Bob Barker that she was dating George Brett. Brett, who tried to downplay his long reputation of being a ladies’ man, was caught off-guard by her statement. He acknowledged having had a few dates with Miss Maurice but nothing more serious than that.
Brett, now an older and wiser married father of three, remains beloved in Kansas City, where his number is retired, he’s still involved with the team, and he can look back on a great and colorful American life that started in the West Virginia northern panhandle.
John W. Miller