Tom Brunansky (TRADING CARD DB)

Tom Brunansky

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Tom Brunansky (TRADING CARD DB)Over the course of a 14-year major-league baseball career that ran from 1981 through 1994, Tom Brunansky played in exactly 1,800 big-league games. Most of them he played in right field, but he played all three outfield positions, some at first base, and some as a designated hitter. He was a member of the World Series champion 1987 Minnesota Twins and also reached the postseason with the 1990 Red Sox, thanks in part to a spectacular catch he made in Fenway Park’s right-field corner that clinched the Al East.

Brunansky played for the Angels, Twins, Cardinals, Red Sox, and Brewers. For the years 1982 through 1989, he racked up eight consecutive seasons hitting 20 or more home runs each year.1 He hit 271 home runs in all and drove in 919 runs.

He was a first-round pick of the California Angels – the 14th overall selection in the June 1978 draft, the month he graduated from West Covina High School, about 20 minutes from Angels Stadium. Scout Larry Himes was credited with the signing. Brunansky had a 3.8 grade point average and an offer of a four-year football scholarship to Stanford but the Angels’ courtship of him included an invitation to a late-June game where he met owner Gene Autry and former President Richard M. Nixon. They helped seal the deal.2

He was dubbed “Bruno” or “Bru” by teammates, but was born Thomas Andrew Brunansky in Covina, California, on August 20, 1960.

Tom had an older brother, Joe, and an older sister Joanie, older by 11 and 7 years, respectively. Their parents were Joe and Margaret – known as Rae to her friends. Both came from the East Coast originally, Joe from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and Margaret from Wilmington, Delaware. Joe Brunansky went to Duke University, where he played football and baseball. After time as a major in the Air Force, he played some professional football, and baseball, but needed a better source of income and so returned to coach football at Duke, and later at Elon College and the University of Delaware.3 After marriage and beginning to raise a family, he took a position with Avon Products, the cosmetics company. The company offered him a management position in either New York City or southern California and the family moved to West Covina, California. He became an executive branch manager working out of Pasadena. Tom is the only member of the family who is a native Californian.

Brother Joe was briefly a scout with the Philadelphia Phillies and later went into business management. He also coached girls’ high school softball and Junior Olympic Travel Ball. Sister Joanie worked in the Flight Service Department of American Airlines.

Tom played Little League ball for the 1974 West Covina Pony League team, which won the tournament in California. They traveled to Springfield, Illinois, where they won the World Series. At age 13, Tom was the youngest player on the team. He played first base, pitched, and played some shortstop, but come tournament time he played in the outfield.

After the June 1978 draft, Brunansky was assigned to short-season Rookie League ball and hit .332 for the Pioneer League’s Idaho Falls Angels. He also drew 45 bases on balls and had a .458 on-base percentage. In 48 games, he drove in 45 runs. He turned 18 years old that summer.

In 1979, Brunansky was assigned to the Salinas Angels in the Class-A California League and played in every one of the team’s 140 games. He drove in 76 runs, with a solid .270 batting average with a very good .396 OBP. Throughout his time in the minors, he got on base more than 40 percent of the time – a .412 OBP.

Climbing the professional ladder one rung a year, most of his 1980 season was spent in Double A, with the El Paso Diablos (Texas League). He hit .323 with 97 RBIs and might well have had 100 but at the end of the season he moved up to play nine games at Triple A, for the Salt Lake City Gulls (Pacific Coast League.) Beginning on August 23, he drove in eight runs there for a combined 105.

He was seen as having, in the words of Angels batting instructor Merv Rettenmund, “superstar potential” and the question heading into 1981 was how soon he would get to the majors.4

His 1981 season began in the big leagues. His debut was on Opening Day in Seattle, playing left field. He reached on an error by the third baseman his first time at bat, grounded out in the fourth, and collected his first major-league base hit in the top of the sixth – a single to center off starter Glenn Abbott. Bobby Grich hit behind him and tripled to center. Brunansky scored his first run, and the Angels had a 5-0 lead. They won, 6-2.

Two days later, still in Seattle, he got his first run batted in – in fact, he got four of them. He hit a two-run homer in the top of the second off Floyd Bannister and then, after grounding out back to Bannister in the fourth, another two-run homer off the Seattle starter in the sixth. The Angels won, 7-4. In his next 23 at-bats, he only mustered two hits (though one of the two was a home run against the visiting Twins on April 17). Brunansky was batting .152 and after the first 11 games was optioned back to Salt Lake. There he had 81 RBIs in 96 games (.332 BA, .430 OBP). He hit 22 homers, topping 20 for each of his three minor-league seasons.

On August 8, he endured a 21-day stay on the disabled list due to torn ligaments in his left thumb.

The Angels were loaded with proven outfielders and Brunansky began 1982 in Spokane, which had been a Mariners affiliate in 1981 but came under the Angels in 1982.5 He played 25 games for the Spokane Indians and only batted .205. At the time, the Angels were after top relief Minnesota pitcher Doug Corbett and second baseman Rob Wilfong and traded Brunansky on May 12, along with Mike Walters and cash.6 It was a propitious trade for the right fielder. He debuted for the Twins the very next day and played with them for seven years.

The new Twin got base hits in his first five games, drove in a run in the sixth, and had six RBIs after those first six games. He played right field the first three games, left field the next three, and then center field for the seven games after that. He didn’t miss a game all season long. By year’s end, he’d hit .272 with 20 homers and 46 RBIs. He struck out 101 times but drew 71 walks and had a .377 OBP, best on the team. He’d scored 77 runs.7 The Twins, managed by Billy Gardner, finished in last place (60-102).8 His biggest hit of the year was an inside-the-park grand slam in a home game against the Brewers on July 19.9

From 1983 through 1989, Brunansky played in more than 150 games each year.

Statistics for his 1983 season make it look as though he traded batting average (which dipped to .227, with a .308 OBP) for run production. He homered 28 times (tops on the Twins) and drove in 82 runs (ranking him third). Gardner’s Twins won 10 more games and finished tied for fifth.

In 1984, Brunansky led the team again in homers (32) and was second only to Kent Hrbek’s 107 RBIs, with 85. He hit .254 and was clearly a key component of the Minnesota offense. His 32 homers were a career high, though one he matched in 1987. The Twins spent a good part of September in first place and finished tied for second with the Angels, only three games behind Kansas City.

Brunansky’s 90 RBIs in 1985 were his career high in the majors. He had another strong year overall, this time recognized by his being named to the American League All-Star team.10 Ray Miller took over from manager Billy Gardner about a third of the way into the season; the team finished fourth.

The 1986 season was also a disappointing one for the Twins, and Tom Kelly replaced Miller as manager during the final month of a sixth-place season. Brunansky’s stats dipped just a bit, but were still solid, fourth-best on the team in several key categories.

Everything worked right for the Twins in 1987. They finished two games ahead of the Royals in the AL West, beat the Detroit Tigers four games to one in the League Championship Series, and won a dramatic seven-game World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals to become World Champions. Brunansky was a major contributor during the season with 32 homers and 85 RBIs.

In the ALCS, he hit .412 with nine RBIs – including three in the 8-5 win in Game One, the first run in the Game Two 6-3 win, and three in the 9-5 Game Five victory. He had a pair of RBIs and scored five times in the World Series. In Game Seven of the World Series, St. Louis took an early 2-0 lead. Brunansky singled and scored the first Twins run, and then scored the third (and go-ahead) run in the 4-2 triumph after walking to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

In victory, Brunansky looked back at the team’s 102-loss season in 1982, when he had first joined the Twins. “It was like having a Triple-A club in the majors. If they didn’t sweep us, they considered it a bad series. We took our lumps and it hurt, but it was a learning experience. Five years later, we’ve come full circle,” he said.11 They were world champions.

After the first 14 games of the 1988 season, Brunansky was traded to the team he’d just helped defeat – sent to St. Louis on April 22 for second baseman Tom Herr. The Cardinals wanted to add offense. Reports were that the Twins wanted a left-handed hitter at the top of their batting order.12

Brunansky produced for the Cardinals as he had for the Twins. Again, playing almost exclusively right field, his RBI totals for 1988 were precisely the same as in 1987: 85, six for the Twins and 79 for the Cardinals. The 79 were 26 more runs driven in than the total produced by any other Cardinal. St. Louis finished fifth, 25 games behind the first-place Mets.13

For the third year in a row, Brunansky drove in exactly 85 runs in 1989. This time they were all for St. Louis, where he played 158 games. His 20 home runs made it eight years in succession he had hit 20 or more homers in the major leagues.

One could hardly ask for more consistency, and for a steadiness rarely interrupted by injury or unavailability. Brunansky’s fielding – throughout his career – was steady as well. His career fielding percentage was .984. In 1989, his 286 putouts in right field led the National League. In 1983, 1984, and 1989 he led the league in double plays in which a right fielder played a part.

The 1990 season paralleled 1988 in one respect. Fewer than 20 games into the season, he was traded. This time, it was to the Boston Red Sox on May 4, traded for reliever Lee Smith. The Cardinals needed a quality reliever, and the Red Sox needed a right fielder, with Dwight Evans transitioning to DH. “Going to Boston is like a dream for me, because I hit so well there,” he said at the time. “That park is tailor-made for me.”14 Brunansky had gotten off to a very slow start but rebounded after being traded. In his second game at Fenway, on May 19, he was 5-for-5, homering twice and driving in seven runs. Despite a bruised left shoulder suffered on June 16, he was a significant element in the Red Sox reaching the postseason, particularly in the final week. On September 29, with five games to play and Boston only one game ahead in first place, he had a three-homer game. He had 11 RBIs in the final seven games. Though he missed the team’s first 23 games while with St. Louis, his 71 RBIs were third on the Red Sox. His 15 homers were second.15

And there was “The Catch.” The Red Sox entered the last game of the season one game ahead of the second-place Blue Jays. Should Toronto win their game in Baltimore and Boston lose to the visiting White Sox, the two teams would be tied. Brunansky’s second-inning triple drove in Boston’s second run; he came in to score a couple of batters later when he attempted to steal home – and would have been out but for an error by the pitcher.16 Heading into the ninth inning, the Red Sox held a 3-1 lead. Scoreboard watchers at Fenway had seen the Jays take a 2-1 lead in Baltimore in the top of the eighth. The O’s tied it in the bottom of the inning.

In Boston, Jeff Reardon retired the first two White Sox. All Boston needed was the final out, and the division was theirs, no matter what happened in Baltimore. The two games were running parallel in terms of time; both were in the ninth inning. Sammy Sosa singled to center. Scott Fletcher was hit by a pitch. Chicago had the tying run on first, and a go-ahead run at the plate in the person of Ozzie Guillen. On an 0-2 count, Guillen hit a ball deep into the right-field corner. The runners had been off with the pitch. Both would easily have scored, had the ball fallen in. But Brunansky ran hard – and caught the ball for the final out.17 There were moments when people wondered what had happened, particularly when Brunansky reached down to try and pick up something off the ground – but it was his cap which had fallen off. He displayed the caught ball to umpire Tim McClelland.18 The Red Sox won the game, and the division.

The Red Sox made it to the ALCS, but they had the misfortune of the experience being a re-run of 1988 – once again, they were swept by the Oakland Athletics in four games. Over the course of the four games, they only collected 23 base hits – and Brunansky had only one of them, in Game One. The Red Sox scored just one run in each of the four games. Brunansky drove in one of the four, the lone run they scored in the 4-1 loss in Game Three, on a second-inning sacrifice fly that briefly gave Boston a 1-0 lead.

He became a free agent after the season but re-signed with the Red Sox. He was hailed by a number of teammates as a key part of the ballclub; a quiet leader, but one who knew how to have fun in the clubhouse.19

Brunansky played for Boston in 1991 (16/70/.229) and 1992 (15/74/.266). He played in most of his team’s games (142 of 162) in 1991, but his .229 average was the lowest among the primary starting players. His RBIs ranked fourth. In 1992, he appeared in 138 games; had he played in 145, a contract clause would have kicked in that would have guaranteed him an additional year at around $3 million. He was reportedly convinced that manager Joe Morgan kept him under the threshhold. He did, however, admit at the time that he worried he might have lost some confidence in himself.20 Looking back on the year, he said, “I don’t remember the actual struggles, but that was part of the life of a big-league ballplayer. There were years you just couldn’t find it. Frustrating years. After winning, you want to come back. There was a lot of changes going on. We were starting to being some younger players up, trying to fit in the mix. Things just didn’t come together that year.”21

The Red Sox had a new manager – Butch Hobson – in 1992. Brunansky played right field, but also 28 games at first base and 17 as DH. He had a pair of grand slams in July, one on the 11th and the other on the 27th. His 74 RBIs led the team in 1992, as did his 15 homers, but while the Sox had finished in second place in 1991, they finished last in 1992. His 138 games played came in under the 145-game target.

A free agent once more, the Milwaukee Brewers signed him in January 1993. It proved very much an “off” year. He appeared in only half the games, with scattered days off through the first four months, and then was out of action after August 4, forced onto the disabled list due to a bad back. He’d suffered a back injury in the seventh grade, missing the mat after a high jump. Three vertebrae were out of alignment and had to be manipulated back into place. “It’s something I’ve always had to deal with,” he says. Rarely did he miss games; over the 10 prior seasons (1983-92), he averaged 152 games per year. But this year, he wasn’t being used as regularly as in the past, though, and it proved more difficult to stay fully in shape when not a true everyday player. “If you’re a role player or a bullpen pitcher, not knowing when you’re going to play – or if you’re going to play – that was difficult. For me that was a hard adjustment. Those guys don’t get enough respect in the game…One swing or one movement when you’re not really hot…I ended up tweaking my back.”22

He was slow to start in 1994, not exceeding .200 until May 25. On June 16, batting .214, he was traded back to the Red Sox for his second stint with the team, traded for backup catcher Dave Valle. In his first game back – June 16 – he homered twice and drove in three, but the Sox lost, 7-6, when the Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth. In the 48 games Brunansky played for Boston, before a player strike ended the season early, he hit 10 homers and drove in 34 runs. At the end of the season, he became a free agent once more.

The 1995 season started late. There had been a long stretch at home. The Red Sox made an offer, but for significantly less than he had been making. “I had two young kids at the time – my first two boys – and they were just at the age of starting school. Do I go back to Boston and move them back and start them in school, or do I leave them home in California and start them in school and not have them with me? I decided to just retire and become a full-time dad…Once those other priorities became more important to me than playing the game, I knew it was time to retire.”

For pretty much the next decade, he was just that – a dad. “I took the kids to school. I would volunteer my time to work in the classroom. I helped coach their Little League team, their basketball teams. I was just involved. We would do the father/son stuff. My third child was a daughter. We’d do father/daughter dances. Basically, I was the dad that I had been looking forward to be(ing) able to be since I had kids. That’s what the game afforded me.”

Tom married Colleen Schumann in 1985. She was the sister of major-league ballplayer Dave Engle’s wife Cindy; Tom and Dave were on the same Twins teams from 1982-85. Tom and Colleen had five children – Jason, Ryan, Alexa, Tom, and Erin.

In 2004, Brunansky went back to work, locally, where the family lived in Poway, California. He coached Poway American Little League from 1996 through 2003, and from time to time worked with certain kids before they reached high school. He adds, with humor, “Though I was coaching the kids, I was really trying to coach the parents to relax and enjoying the experience and not put “tons” of pressure on their kids to be the next great professional player out of Little League!” A friend from Poway, Deron Johnson (son of the major leaguer of the same name), was a golfing friend and was coaching at Poway High School. Johnson asked Brunansky to help out. He did, already knowing most of the kids, who had been in Little League. Brunansky found it rewarding and coached at Poway High School for six years, from 2004 through 2009.

“That really ignited the flame of the game back in my heart. Coaching Little League was more like helping the parents than helping the kids. But at the varsity level of high school baseball, it really got my blood flowing again. I realized that I need to give back to the game.” He thought about taking a college job, but he also though about pro ball and reached out to the Twins. Their rookie ball hitting instructor was going back to his own hometown to coach. Would Brunansky be interested?

Short-season rookie ball for the 2010 Gulf Coast Twins was only a two-month season. “It wasn’t too much of a burden on the family. My wife did a good job of keeping everybody together. I actually fell in love with it, with everything about it.” His boss, Bill Springman, had been a teammate for four years way back when. “It was almost as if it was destined that I be there. Bill was awesome. He taught me so much – so many things about hitting. I just knew one thing about hitting but he taught me about teaching and coaching and things to look for. I found that I liked it, and that I could be good at it.”

Working as a hitting instructor, he started off another climb up the ladder of the minor leagues – 2011 with Double-A New Britain. Riding on buses – the whole thing. “I was just a coach, and I loved it. I enjoyed listening to the kids and how they reacted to each other. I’d find out their stories and where they came from and what they were doing.”23

In 2012, it was Triple-A Rochester.

And then in 2013, “I got the big-league job. Which had become a goal. Which was a dream – to make it back to the big leagues. I wanted to make an impact. Not on the game, but in developing good people…”

From 2013 through 2016, Tom Brunansky was the major-league hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins. He coached under Ron Gardenhire for two years, and under Paul Molitor for the next two.

Inevitably, there were changes. GM Terry Ryan was let go, and a new front office was put in place. Brunansky was not rehired.

In another parallel structure of sorts, the Johnson family came through again – this time it was Dom Johnson, Deron’s brother, who had been a pitching coach at Poway High School but was now working at the nearby University of Saint Katherine, a small NAIA university in San Marcos, California. He asked Brunansky to help out. “I said, ‘I’ll take a look’ – and I’ve been there almost five years now,” he said in November 2021. Both he and Dom Johnson serve under head coach Daniel Stange as assistant baseball coaches.

“The game is a gift,” Brunansky says, “and it teaches us many things and that’s why I’m still involved. I want to give the gift back.”

Last revised: January 26, 2022

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and David H. Lippman and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, SABR.org, and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Thanks to Rod Nelson for scouting information, Joe Wancho for supplying Brunansky’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Boston Red Sox for reaching out to Tom Brunansky. Thanks to Tom Brunansky for the November 10, 2021, interview.

 

Notes

1 Hitting home runs that many years in succession is not unheard of but indicates an important and valued element of consistency. At the author’s request in November 2021, Tom Ruane of Retrosheet ran a listing of players who have hit 20 homers in eight or more consecutive years. Hank Aaron leads the list with 20 years. Aside from Brunansky and Aaron, there are only 85 other major leaguers to have done so.

2 Mike Ward, “Youth Torn Between Two Sports,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1978: SG1.

3 Tom Brunansky says his father played professionally as a catcher in the minor-league system of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His pro football was with the Chicago Cardinals. Email from Tom Brunansky, November 22, 2021.

4 Ross Newhan, “Spring Bud May Be Summer Rose,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1981: D1.

5 Salt Lake City became the Seattle Mariners’ affiliate in the PCL in 1982. For a good picture of where Brunansky was at in the Angels system at the time, see Tom Hamilton, “If Others Falter, Tom Brunansky’s Ready,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1982: OC-F18.

6 Ross Newhan, “Angels Make Bid for Pennant, Trade Brunansky for Corbett,” Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1982: D1. Corbett had been an All-Star closer in 1981 but was a disappointment in 1982 and 1983.

7 Brunansky’s average and runs scored placed him third on the team, while his homers and runs batted in both placed him fourth.

8 Looking back on Gardner as manager, Brunansky was nothing but complimentary, saying “Billy kept it loose…If we’d have had to play for a high-strung manager during that period, we’d all be in an asylum by now.” Ross Newhan, “Home in A Dome,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1987: E1.

9 Jerry Augustine was the pitcher. The homer followed two errors by Paul Molitor which helped load the bases. It was hit into the center-field gap (“Homer Heaven”). Gorman Thomas dove for the ball, but it got by him and rolled all the wall to the wall. The throw to the plate was offline, and too late. The Twins won the game, 6-4. Brunansky had a modicum of speed; he stole 69 bases in his career.

10 He had one plate appearance and grounded out, short to first.

11 Ross Newhan, “Home in A Dome.”

12 “Notes,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1988: B3. Brunansky’s salary was somewhat higher, saving the Twins a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but Herr was nowhere near as productive as Brunansky in 1989. For more on the trade, see Rick Hummel, “‘87 Series Foes Engineer an Early 1-for-1 Trade,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1988.

13 The Twins finished second, but 13 games behind Oakland. Neither Herr nor Randy Bush, who played right field, really stood out.

14 Sean Horgan, “Brunansky, Fenway are a good match,” Hartford Courant, May 12, 1990: E1A.

15 Ellis Burks ranked #1 in both categories.

16 It was actually a botched suicide squeeze and Brunansky was dead to rights, caught in a rundown, but pitcher Alex Fernandez threw the ball back to third base – and there was no one there, so Brunansky – who had slid back into third base, just picked himself up and ran home, scoring easily as the ball rolled away. See Nick Cafardo, “Sox come through in a clinch,” Boston Globe, October 4, 1990: 93.

17 It was a catch that many (including this author) could not see from their seats, tucked deep in the corner as it was, but the reaction of the crowd told the story. In an instant, everyone knew. As it happens, seven minutes later, Baltimore’s Mickey Tettleton hit a two-out walkoff homer and Toronto lost that game.

18 Michael Madden, “As chaos reigns, the hero emerges clutching the ball,” Boston Globe, October 4, 1990: 93. He never did get his cap back. It was snared by one of many fans who hopped over the barrier and swarmed onto the field. The author of this biography is one of many in Fenway Park who were unable to see the play deep in the corner and had to gauge the reaction of the fans situated where they could see. Brunansky said, “I was either going to get it or kill myself going into the wall…These are the situations I live for. A lot of people tend to put pressure on themselves, but I think it’s fun.” Ross Newhan, “Red Sox Clinch: Brunansky Has Big Hand in It,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1990: 49. As it happens, network television cameras failed to get a good view of the catch. See Jack Craig, “Nobody caught it on replay,” Boston Globe, October 5, 1990: 68.

19 Sean Horgan, “Brunansky growing on Red Sox,” Hartford Courant, May 7, 1991: E3A.

20 Sean Horgan, “Brunansky: A fright in left field,” Hartford Courant, March 24, 1992: D1.

21 Author interview with Tom Brunansky on November 10, 2021.

22 Tom Brunansky interview, November 10, 2021.

23 “The hardest part for me about coaching was learning how to become a scout. Because you have to evaluate the other team’s players. I can evaluate my players. I can do that and tell them what we need to fix and all this other stuff. But we were required to write reports on other players as well. I had to learn the scouting system, the vernacular. I had to learn how to scout. All the lingo. And write reports. You learn to evaluate. These guys who have been doing it for years – our general manger, Terry Ryan, was awesome – and all the guys who were there in the Twins system that helped me to learn how to evaluate and teach me to write reports and how to grade.” Tom Brunansky interview, November 10, 2021.

Full Name

Thomas Andrew Brunansky

Born

August 20, 1960 at Covina, CA (USA)

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