This article was written by Thomas J. Brown Jr.
In many situations, an injury or a trade can end up being a setback to a player’s career. Hal McRae turned both of them into an opportunity. After being traded to the Kansas City Royals when an injury reduced his defensive skills, he became one of the best designated hitters of all time.
Harold Abraham “Hal” McRae was one of the standout players in the Royals’ first decade of existence. He played an important role in helping Kansas City become the powerhouse team that it became in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Later McRae became the first African-American manager of the Royals and the fifth black manager in baseball history when the team hired him in 1991.
The right-handed McRae was born in Avon Park, Florida, on July 10, 1945. His parents were Willie James and Virginia Lily Foster McRae, who was known as “Sister” by her family. McRae’s father was a day laborer who also did yard work to supplement his income. His mother did not work much outside the home beyond some occasional housekeeping jobs since she was kept busy raising the couple’s 10 children. McRae grew up with five brothers and four sisters. He was the only one to pursue baseball.
Growing up in such a large household was a challenge. Harold moved in with his maternal grandparents, Lott and Clara Foster, when he was 5 years old. He said the competition of living with all those siblings was too much for him so he stayed with his grandparents. His grandmother had lost her only son to an accident years earlier and welcomed him with open arms. Harold lived with his grandparents until he went off to college.1
McRae learned the game of baseball from his father, Willie James, who had been a player and then manager of the Avon Park Black Tigers in the all-black leagues of central Florida. But he truly developed his love of the game playing on the sandlots in his neighborhood. His uncle Moses lived next door with his 11 children. McRae and his brothers and cousins played together. Sometimes they played other teams like the Bradenton Nine Devils. If they had no other team to play, they would choose sides among themselves.2 Hal would tag along with his father to the Sunday games when he was young. When he got older, he was able to play with the team but only after he attended Sunday church services.3
“I think you learn a lot more about the game and about yourself on the sandlot,” McRae told sportswriter Leigh Montville about his early exposure to baseball. “You get a lot more swings of the bat. You make your own rules. You solve your arguments. You find out who your leaders are. You don’t need parents around. You do everything by yourself.”4
McRae attended the segregated E.O. Douglas High School in Sebring, Florida. He was a multisport athlete. At the time, football was his first love, and he earned a football scholarship to Florida A&M University. After playing at Florida A&M for a year, he realized that he was not big enough to succeed in football and switched to baseball, playing second base for A&M.5 He grew to become 5-feet-11 tall and weigh 180 pounds.
McRae had two productive years with the Florida A&M Rattlers before he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1965. The Rattlers went 16-4 during his second season. McRae had 78 RBIs that season, a school record that still stood as of 2018. The team won its conference and made the NAIA district tournament. When McRae finally made the majors, he became the first player from the university to do so.
McRae married Johncyna “Jo” Williams, a fellow student, on April 21, 1966. A mutual friend set them up on a blind date. The couple had three children, Brian, Cullen, and Leah. Brian McRae followed in his father’s footsteps and played major-league baseball. Cullen also played baseball at Florida A&M.6
The Reds chose McRae in the sixth round of the June 1965 amateur draft. They signed him as a shortstop although he spent most of his time in the Reds’ minor-league system playing second base. The 19-year-old’s first team was the Tampa Tarpons of the Class-A Florida State League. McRae struggled in the 22 games that he played for the Tarpons, batting .154 with just 10 hits in 65 at-bats.
Sent to the Peninsula Grays (Hampton, Virginia, Class-A Carolina League) for the 1966 season, McRae dramatically improved at the plate, batting.287 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs. McRae lived with a black family during his season with the Grays. He said he didn’t experience much racial discrimination beyond some comments in the ballpark.7 He played with future Reds Johnny Bench and Bernie Carbo, the only players on the team who had better numbers than he did.
McRae started the 1967 season with the Knoxville Smokies of the Double-A Southern League. His production (.290, 10 doubles, 6 home runs, 25 RBIs) was good enough for the Reds to promote him to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons (International League) for the second half of the season. He continued to hit the ball there although his batting average dropped against the stiffer competition.
After playing winter ball, McRae spent most of the 1968 season with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians (Pacific Coast League). He continued to demonstrate the ability to hit the ball with power, hitting 16 home runs before the Reds called him up in July.
McRae’s major-league debut came on July 11, 1968, against the San Francisco Giants. He started at second base and had two hits in a 7-1 Reds loss. McRae got singles in his first two at-bats against Gaylord Perry, who pitched a complete-game win for the Giants. McRae struggled after his arrival in the majors, batting .196 with just 2 RBIs in 17 games.
After the season McRae played winter ball again, in Puerto Rico. During a game he suffered a multiple leg fracture. The injury cost him much of his quickness and “slowed [my] progress of getting to the big leagues. It hampered my ability to run like I had.”8 When he was able to play, McRae returned to Indianapolis, which was now in the American Association, and played in 17 games in 1969.
When McRae returned to the Reds, they tried using him in the outfield. His injury had taken away much of his mobility and they were hoping that playing in the outfield would make the difference. McRae never quite adjusted to the change although he continued to produce at the plate.
McRae was with the Reds all of the 1970 season. He played second, third, and the outfield in 70 games. His batting average slumped to .248 as he struggled to find his place in Reds lineup. McRae also made his first postseason appearance that year. He started in left field in the second game of the Reds’ sweep of the Pirates in the National League Championship Series. McRae also started three games in the World Series against Baltimore. He batted a team-best .455 for the Series. McRae’s two-run double in Game Five gave the Reds an early lead although the Orioles came back to defeat them, 9-3, and win the Series.
McRae had his best season with the Reds in 1971. He hit .264 with 24 doubles and 9 home runs. In 1972, primarily coming off the bench, he played in 61 games and batted .278.
When the Reds returned to the World Series in 1972, McRae had several key hits. In the first two games, he pinch-hit in the ninth and smacked singles both times. In the second game, his single scored Tony Perez for the Reds’ only run of the game. McRae also came off the bench in the seventh game and his sacrifice fly scored Perez to tie the game, one that the Reds would eventually lose to Oakland.
The Reds continued to feel that McRae had no place in their regular lineup because the 1969 injury had made him a defensive liability.9 After the 1972 season, they traded McRae and injured pitcher Wayne Simpson to the Kansas City Royals for reserve outfielder Richie Scheinblum and another injured pitcher, Roger Nelson. McRae wanted to play every day and felt he would have more opportunity to do that with the expansion Royals. The trade breathed new life into McRae’s career; he developed into one of the most reliable designated hitters in the American League.
The Royals originally planned to use McRae as their primary right fielder. He struggled in the early season and Royals manager Jack McKeon benched him for several games in mid-April. When he returned to the lineup, it was as the designated hitter. In his first game as DH, McRae hit a home run and reached base four times, scoring three runs in a Royals victory. Although he continued to struggle in his first season in Kansas City, he became their most frequently used designated hitter.
When American League started using the DH in 1973, McKeon had said, “I intend to keep juggling the designated hitter (assignment) in order to keep the morale high. We set out in spring training to find 25 guys who were unselfish and willing to do the little things required to win.” He changed his philosophy in 1974 and McRae became the primary designated hitter when he was penciled in the lineup in that role 90 times.
“When I was told I was going to be the DH, I hated it,” McRae said years later. “You were considered a one-way player and baseball has always been a two-way sport. You were supposed to be good on offense and good on defense to be considered a good player.10 But he settled into his new role and saw his batting average jump 76 points to .310 in 1974. He hit 15 home runs and had 88 RBIs.
But McRae was not quite ready to give up on being a two-way player. He played left field in 114 games and was the designated hitter in only 12 games in 1975. Although he remained a liability in the outfield due to his lack of range, he continued to produce at the plate, and the Royals used him more and more frequently as their designated hitter after that season.
McRae was chosen for his first All-Star Game in 1975. He pinch-hit for the American League in the bottom of the ninth inning and grounded out to pitcher Randy Jones in a 6-3 loss to the National League. McRae finished the season as one of the Royals’ batting leaders with a .306 batting average, 38 doubles, and 71 RBIs.
McRae became the Royals’ primary designated hitter in 1976. He played left field in just 31 games but was in the Royals lineup as the DH for 117 games. Although McRae was reluctant to become a full-time DH at first, he later saw it as his “opportunity to get 500 at-bats” and be in the lineup every day.11 He had a .407 on-base percentage and an .868 OPS that season, both the highest in the league. McRae was chosen for the All-Star Game for a second time and again grounded out as a pinch-hitter.
He also battled his teammate George Brett for the batting title that year. On the final day of the season, McRae led Brett,.33078 to .33073. Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins was also in contention with a batting average of .32945. The Twins were playing the Royals that day. Carew went 2-for-4 and finished at .331. McRae and Brett both had two hits in three at-bats through eight innings. McRae led Brett, .3326 to .3322.
In the bottom of the ninth, Brett hit a fly to left field. Twins outfielder Steve Brye was playing deep and broke in the wrong direction. The ball dropped about 15 feet in front of him and bounced over his head for an inside-the-park home run. McRae greeted Brett at home with a high five and then stepped up to the plate knowing that now he would need a hit to win the batting title. He grounded out against Jim Hughes. Brett was the batting champion at.333 while McRae with .332 was second.
When McRae walked back to the dugout he tipped his batting helmet to a standing ovation by the Royals fans. Then McRae turned and gave the Twins dugout the finger. Twins manager Gene Mauch immediately charged the field and both benches emptied. It took several minutes for the umpires to restore order.
Later McRae accused Brye of misplaying the ball in order to give Brett the title. “This is America, and not that much has changed. Too bad in 1976 things are still like that,” he said, citing racism as the reason why he came in second. Mauch denied the charge, saying: “This thing hurts me more than anything that has ever happened in my 35 years in baseball.”12
McRae developed a reputation as an aggressive baserunner at this time. He explained his baserunning philosophy this way: “I feel that playing like that can put pressure on the defense and sometimes intimidate people. If you can intimidate people, it makes your job easier.”13 Carew once stood in his way at first base so McRae ran into him. In another instance, Mike Cubbage caught the ball and when he went to tag out McRae, McRae kicked the glove off Cubbage’s hand and was safe.
McRae made his third trip to the postseason that year. He batted .125 (2-for-16) as the Royals lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. He finished fourth in the voting for the AL MVP that year, but earned his first Outstanding Designated Hitter Award.
McRae continued to produce at the plate in 1977. He played all 162 games and batted .298 with a league-leading 54 doubles as the Royals won the AL West championship again. Although McRae did not get chosen for the All-Star Games that year, he did garner several votes for the AL MVP. In the ALCS, McRae batted .444 as the Royals lost in five games to the Yankees for the second year in a row. His two-run homer in the first game gave the Royals the lead on the way to a win. McRae scored six runs and had several clutch hits in the series but it was not enough to get the Royals to their first World Series.
McRae continued to make news for his aggressive baserunning in the ALCS. He slid into second to break up a double play and took out Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph. McRae barely touched the second base on the slide and took Randolph with him as he slid to the end of the infield dirt.
Roger Angell wrote that McRae’s “body block seemed legal but ill-advised.”14 Although he broke up the double play, it fired up the Yankees, who scored three runs in the bottom of the inning on their way to a win.
McRae explained his aggressiveness in this way: “Any opportunity you had to avoid allowing the opponent to turn a double play, you have to take advantage of it. A double play could take you out of an inning. The middle infielder expected you to come in hard.”15
Even though McRae’s slides were legal at the time, they did lead to a change after that season that was eventually called the “Hal McRae Rule.” It stated that a baserunner who is not within reach of the base and who takes out an infielder is out and the ball is dead. Other baserunners cannot advance. McRae said that his goal was not to hurt a player but “eliminate the throw. A lot of players would try a leg whip on the infielder. I went in with a cross-body style. My purpose was to not take any chances.”16
McRae played 153 games as the Royals’ designated hitter in 1978 and just three games in left field. His bat helped the Royals to their third consecutive AL West title as he hit 39 doubles and 16 home runs.
Once again the Royals had to get past the Yankees in the Championship Series. McRae’s bat was not as potent in this series. He batted .214 and had just three singles as the Yankees won the ALCS in four games.
Both the Royals and McRae slumped in 1979. The Royals finished the season in second place and missed the postseason. McRae played in just 101 games, his fewest since the trade from Cincinnati. He still managed to hit 32 doubles and 10 home runs, with 74 RBIs.
The Royals bounced back in 1980 to win 97 games and reclaim the AL West title. McRae played in 110 games as their designated hitter, taking left field just nine times. He hit .297 and knocked in 83 runs while batting primarily in the cleanup spot in the order. McRae was so important to the Royals’ success that he was awarded his second Outstanding Designated Hitter Award that year.
When the postseason arrived, the Royals had to face the Yankees yet again. After losing to the Yankees three times in the 1970s, they swept them in the 1980 ACLS to play in the World Series for the first time. The Philadelphia Phillies won the Series in six games. McRae batted .375 with nine hits that included three doubles.
McRae reshaped the role of the designated hitter. He talked about how he had made the role his own: “The DH was designed for a clunker: a guy with a name who could stay around a little longer and hit a few more home runs. I think I’ve given [the role] a new dimension. The DH is now a guy who won’t clog up the bases; someone who’ll break up the double play, go from first to third on a single, take an extra base on hits and even steal a base or two.”17
Although McRae had another solid year in 1981, his best was yet to come. He hit .308 in 1982, an improvement of 36 points from 1981. He led the American League in doubles (46) and runs batted in (133), the first time a DH led the league in RBIs. McRae was chosen for the All-Star Game again, his third appearance in the midsummer classic. In his only plate appearance, he walked in the eighth as the American League lost, 4-1. At the end of the year, McRae finished fourth in the MVP balloting and earned a Silver Slugger award. He also won his third Outstanding Designated Hitter award.
Now in his late 30s, McRae started 155 games in 1983 and batted .311, but he started only 81 games in 1984 and 82 in 1985. Yet he maintained a .281 batting average and a slugging percentage of .424 during the latter two years. The Royals returned to the playoffs in 1984 but were swept by the Tigers in three games. McRae pinch-hit twice and had two hits.
By 1983 McRae had stopped playing in the field. He platooned at DH with Jorge Orta. When Orta went 0-for-4 in the first game of the 1985 American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, McRae started the rest of the series. He had six hits, including two doubles, and three RBIs as the Royals beat the Blue Jays in seven games to return to the World Series.
McRae saw limited action in the 1985 World Series due to a thigh injury. He pinch-hit in three games and had no hits. McRae earned his first World Series ring as the Royals overcame a three-games-to-one deficit for the second time in the postseason to beat the St. Louis Cardinals. “It was a relief to finally win it. We were in it seven out of 10 years,” said McRae in 2014.18
Brian McRae, Hal’s oldest son, was the Royals’ first-round pick in the June 1985 draft. Brian played with his father in a spring-training game before the 1986 season. Brian was just 18 years old at the time while his father was 39. Before the game, Brian said he wasn’t nervous about playing with his father “[t]hough I’ll probably get butterflies when the game starts. Advice from Pop? He said, ‘Let it loose.’ You know, swing the bat. Be aggressive.” Both father and son contributed to a five-run first inning with Brian hitting a single as his father watched from the on-deck circle.19
The 1986 season found McRae at the tail end of his career. He continued to platoon as designated hitter, appearing in 58 games. His productivity declined and he had only 70 hits and 37 RBIs. He played in just six games in 1987 before the Royals released him on July 21. His final appearance came as a pinch-hitter in a 3-1 Royals loss four days earlier.
McRae stayed in the Royals organization as a hitting instructor for the remainder of the season. He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the same role in 1988. When the Royals fired manager Billy Gardner near the end of the 1988 season, they offered McRae the job. He turned it down because the club would not sign him to a contract beyond the season. “I don’t think any situation is a great opportunity if you can’t have fun at what you’re doing and can’t concentrate on the things you should be concentrating on as opposed to concentrating on saving your job with every decision,” he said in explaining his decision.20
McRae stayed with Pirates in 1989 before becoming the hitting coach of Montreal Expos in 1990. When the Royals fired John Wathan as their manager early in the 1991 season, they again sought out McRae as their manager. This time he agreed to a two-year contract and became the major leagues’ fifth black manager. “It’ll be like going back home,” his wife, Johncyna, said at the time.21
McRae had no managerial experience and admitted that developing a managerial style by working in the minor leagues “is probably the best way to do it.” But he also noted, “It didn’t happened that way [and y]ou have to play the cards you’re dealt.” He also said that pitching decisions were the most difficult ones although “I don’t dwell on ’em. It’s the human element of the game.”22 The Royals finished the season with a 66-58 record after McRae took the helm.
When McRae became the Royals manager, his son Brian had arrived in the majors to become the Royals’ center fielder. As a result, McRae joined a small group of managers including Connie Mack, Yogi Berra, and Cal Ripken Sr. who had managed their own son. When he started his new job, McRae said he “didn’t think for one minute about the joys of managing my son. I thought about all the pitfalls. I thought about him being uncomfortable. I thought about me not doing the right thing sometimes because of my son. It was a worry.”23
His son was also concerned about playing for his father. “[I]t’s kind of like having your mother as your teacher in school. I can’t worry about my father. I have to play for myself. That’s how this game is,” Brian said. McRae talked with his son about the challenge and then decided that he would just treat him like any other ballplayer.24
After the Royals made several trades in the offseason, McRae found himself managing a very different team in 1992. The team got off to the worst start in its history, losing 16 of its first 17 games. The team finished with a 72-90 record. Despite the disappointing sixth-place finish, McRae was given a second two-year contract by the Royals.
The team once again got off to a slow start in 1993, winning just two of its first 11 games. After the team lost on April 26 to drop its record to 7-12, McRae held his usual postgame conference with reporters in his clubhouse office. The conference took an ugly turn when a sportswriter asked McRae why he didn’t pinch-hit Brett with the bases loaded in the seventh inning.
McRae snapped. He had heard enough and a tirade started. “Don`t ask me such stupid (expletive) questions. That’s it,” McRae shouted. At this point, he started throwing everything off his desk and flinging the items everywhere. One of the reporters was even cut by something that was thrown. After everyone backed out of the office, McRae came into the clubhouse and began shouting at his players. When he finished, he said, “Now, put that in your (expletive) pipe and smoke it.”25
McRae survived the tirade and eventually apologized to the reporter who was cut. The Royals finished the season with an 84-78 record to improve to third place in the American League West. McRae’s Royals were in third place with a 64-51 record when the 1994 season ended after the players struck. When McRae was asked years later what was the hardest part of managing, he said, “Losing. We lost quite a few games. That was the hardest part.”26
With the strike still on, the Royals decided that they needed a change and fired McRae on September 16, 1994. “I think Hal has done everything possible with the club he had. He’s done a good job. But as we move forward we feel we can find a manager who can better lead us into the next several years with the younger players,” said general manager Herk Robinson. McRae was diplomatic about the news, saying: “I’m a better person because I’ve managed. I believe I improved as a manager.”27
McRae became the Cincinnati Reds hitting coach in 1995. After two years in that role, he moved to the Philadelphia Phillies in the same role. McRae stayed in Philadelphia for three years before joining the Tampa Bay Rays as their bench coach for the 2001 season.
After firing Larry Rothschild on April 18, 2001, the Rays asked McRae to take over. When asked if he managed differently in his second stint as the dugout leader, he said that one learns from experience so that when he became the Rays manager, he “did things a little differently. You learn from your mistakes. You learn to deal with situations a lot easier than you did the first time around.”28 Although they finished with a 58-90 record, McRae remained their manager for the following season. The team did not improve and when they finished with a 55-106 record, McRae was fired.
McRae’s record was 399-473 as manager of the Royals and Rays. He remained as an assistant to the Rays general manager until he joined the St. Louis Cardinals as their hitting coach in 2005. Manager Tony La Russa added McRae to his staff to improve the offense. McRae stressed the importance of line drives and making good contact. “The plan [is] to be aggressive. [I don’t] care how they swing or how they look. [I] care about results.”29 He remained with the Cardinals until 2009 when he was replaced by Mark McGwire.
McRae retired from baseball after leaving the Cardinals in 2009. As of 2018, he lived in East Bradenton, Florida, with his wife, Johncyna, a retired educator and community volunteer. McRae enjoyed playing golf until he became ill in 2015 and had to limit his activity. He also spends time with his six grandchildren. In addition to his son Brian, who played in the major leagues for 10 years, his other son, Cullen, worked for the Marlins for 17 years and became their first video coordinator in 2014.
Castle Street, the street that McRae grew up on, was renamed in McRae’s honor in 1986 after the Royals won the 1985 World Series. It is presently known as Hal McRae Boulevard where it crosses Florida Highway 27 in Avon Park, Florida.30 McRae was inducted into the Florida A&M Hall of Fame in 1974. He has also been inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Royals Hall of Fame, and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. The Tampa Bay Rays placed a plaque honoring him in their “Walk of Fame” outside the stadium.
McRae will be remembered as one of the pioneers in the role of the designated hitter. He took a position that many thought was added to major-league rosters in order to provide some longevity to aging players and turned it into an essential part of American League lineups. McRae said the DH “gave a little more excitement” to the game and that he had his share of exciting moments in that role.31 He said his greatest accomplishment was the 1982 season, when he drove in 133 runs and had 27 homers as the Royals DH.32 He was an aggressive player who always tried to keep the defense off guard when he was on base. McRae maintained that philosophy when he turned to coaching and managing after his playing days.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used the Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for player, team, and season pages, and other pertinent material.
The author is also grateful to Johynca McRae who helped to fill in some of the gaps in Hal McRae’s personal life.
1 Johncyna McRae, email correspondence with author, April 14, 2018.
2 Leigh Montville, “Every Day Is Father’s Day,” Sports Illustrated, June 17, 1991.
3 Johncyna McRae, email correspondence with author, April 20, 2018
5 Johncyna McRae, email correspondence with author, April 14, 2018.
7 Hal McRae, personal interview, April 27, 2018 (McRae interview).
9 Steve Price, “This Day in Reds History: Reds Trade Hal McRae and Wayne Simpson,” Red Leg Nation.com, December 10, 2010. redlegnation.com/2010/12/01/this-day-in-reds-history-reds-trade-mcrae-and-simpson.
10 Robert Falkoff, “McRae One of the All-Time Dominant Designated Hitters,” MLB.com, September 10, 2012.
11 McRae interview.
12 Roger Launius, “The Great George Brett/Hal McRae Batting Title Race of 1976,” Roger Launius’s Blog, May 21, 2012. launiusr.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/the-great-george-bretthal-mcrae-batting-title-race-of-1976.
13 Murray Chass, “McRae of Royals Is a Good ‘Hitter’ on Basepaths, Too,” New York Times, October 8, 1976.
14 David Schoenfield,” History’s Most Notorious Takeout Slides,” ESPN.com, June 26, 2015.
15 Tracy Ringolsby, “McRae Discusses Replay, Plays at Second,” MLB.com, February 13, 2016.
17 Rick Gosselin, “McRae Reshaped Style for DH’s,” UPI.com, May 23, 1981. upi.com/Archives/1981/05/23/McRae-Reshaped-Style-for-DHs/4912359438400
18 John Lembo, “Kansas City Royals’ Run Thrills Bradenton’s Hal McRae,” Bradenton Herald, October 23, 2014.
19 Ira Berkow, “Historic Day for McRae and His Son,” New York Times, March 14, 1986.
20 “McRae at Home With Decision,” Washington Post, June 14, 1988.
21 “Robinson Is Fired; Royals Hire McRae,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1991.
22 Robyn Norwood, “Royals Making It Hard for McRae to Look Good,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1991.
25 Chris Jaffe, “20th Anniversary: Hal McRae Loses His Mind,” FanGraphs.com, April 26, 2013.
26 McRae interview.
27 “Royals Fire Hal McRae as Manager,” Washington Post, September 16, 1994.
28 McRae interview.
29 “Hal McRae a Hit with Cardinals,” St. Louis American, September 15, 2005.
30 Johcyna McRae, email correspondence with author, April 14, 2018.
31 McRae interview.
32 Johncyna McRae, email correspondence with author, April 20, 2018.