40 years ago, Brett punched Nettles in ALCS; then the game continued

Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett tosses batting practice during spring training on February 22, 2009, in Surprise, Ariz. (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS)
Caption
Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett tosses batting practice during spring training on February 22, 2009, in Surprise, Ariz. (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS)

Credit: JOHN SLEEZER

Credit: JOHN SLEEZER

The clip is grainy. It is short. It is 3 minutes and 22 seconds, to be precise, and it is amazing.

It is 40 years old, too, its anniversary coming earlier this month, and as the baseball playoffs continue it is a window into another time, one hardly recognizable today.

On Saturday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was left puzzled and upset after his catcher, Willson Contreras, stuck his leg in front of home plate, allowing the Los Angeles Dodgers' Charlie Culberson to be ruled safe without ever touching home. Contreras had blocked the plate, failing to provide an unobstructed path for the runner. Culberson avoided a major collision and was vindicated by rule and a replay review.

"It's sad the direction our game has gone," Cubs pitcher John Lackey said afterward. "That's a textbook play by the kid, and he got penalized for it."

And then there was 40 years ago: Game 5 of the 1977 American League Championship Series in Kansas City, the Royals' George Brett tripling in the bottom of the first inning, sliding hard into third base and hurling a fist at Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles. The overhand right ignited a wild brawl. The scene ended in the strangest way possible.

Nothing happened. Nobody was kicked out. Both sides dusted themselves off and played out the rest of a decisive Game 5, the Royals losing 5-3 to New York in another heartbreaking postseason defeat.

"He kicked me and I slugged him," Brett said, matter-of-factly explaining the play. "But I didn't come into him dirty or anything."

The melee was the culmination of a heated and physical American League Championship Series, one fought between two bitter rivals across five days in October. It included hard slides and harsh words and a nearly Shakespearean drama between the old guard and a young upstart. But what stands out about the series now is not just Kansas City's Hal McRae catapulting himself into Willie Randolph at second base in Game 2 or the trash talk of Yankees manager Billy Martin ("It won't take us long to win it this year," he said before the series). It was how normal it seemed then.

"They beat us last year because we didn't know what we were doing," Brett told reporters before the series. "We know what we're doing now."

Forty years later, the clip is still short and still grainy and it lives forever on YouTube, where an MLB licensed video has more than 345,000 views. In the comments section, viewers marvel that no one was ejected.

"UNBELIEVABLE," a user named Skelter wrote. "Nobody got ejected."

Yet even now, with the Yankees back in the ALCS and baseball a billion-dollar industry, with the game sanitized and corporate and smooth at the edges, it is worth another look.

It begins on the night of Oct. 9, 1977, the ALCS tied at two games apiece, Kansas City hosting New York at then-Royals Stadium. With one out in the first, McRae singled off Yankees starter Ron Guidry. Moments later, Brett saw a pitch up from Guidry and clubbed a line drive over the head of center fielder Mickey Rivers.

The baseball bounded off the AstroTurf and up against the center-field wall. McRae scored easily as Brett sprinted around the bases, sliding hard into third base. In Brett's memory, it was a bang-bang play. As he slid into third, he popped up at the bag, falling awkwardly into Nettles, the Yankees' veteran third baseman.

By that point, the series had already been shaded with controversy. The verbal sparring came first. Then McRae laid out Randolph with an infamous body block in Game 2. Then McRae and New York's Cliff Johnson nearly came to blows before Game 4. Then Nettles came in hard against second baseman Frank White in a Yankees victory in the same game.

This was the mood when Brett arrived at third base in the first inning of Game 5. And then, with Brett on all fours and Nettles knocked off the bag, the Yankees' third baseman slyly lifted his left foot in the air and smacked Brett in the face.

"Nettles didn't do anything," said former Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto, as he watched the replay live. "And ... oh, there he did. Yep, he kicked him."

Brett was incensed. He hopped to his feet and wound up for a haymaker. He connected with a glancing blow before third-base coach Chuck Hiller grabbed Nettles around the neck and Brett around the shoulder, hoping to separate the two. Moments later, Nettles and Brett, along with pitcher Ron Guidry, tumbled to the turf at third base. The scene turned into a scrum as both benches emptied.

"What you gonna do when someone kicks you in the face?" Brett told The Star after the game. "You gonna lay there and say, 'kick me again?' No."

"If the same things happens next year," he continued. "I'll do it again."

In the moments after the punch, it was madness. Brett remembers the late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson covering him up at the bottom of the pile, protecting him from cheap shots. Forty-eight seconds in, the camera cuts to Martin, the Yankees' manager, standing with his left arm wrapped around Royals shortstop Fred Patek. First baseman John Mayberry appears from out of the frame, wrapping his paws around Martin. Together, all three surveyed the scene.

At some point, Martin found third-base umpire Marty Springstead, who delivered the news: There would be no ejections.

"Nettles thought he was pushed," Martin said after the game. "And Brett came up swinging.

"Springstead told me he wasn't going to throw Brett out. This is a championship game and not the time to be throwing players out. If this game would have been played in July, Brett would have been gone."

Brett was not gone, but the decision would not save the Royals. They would waste a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning and lose 5-3. They would wait three more years before breaking through and making their first World Series.

Four decades later, Brett still marvels at the old video. These days, he says, you'd be ejected and suspended for a week. These days, the story would go nuclear on social media and Twitter. It would lead the postgame show and dominate talk radio the next day. A fight between an All-Star and a future Hall of Famer in a decisive game of a playoff series? Can you imagine that?

But on that night in Kansas City, none of that happened. The umpires calmed the situation. Royals manager Whitey Herzog gave Brett a quick chat. Brett took a deep breath as he stood on third base. Both teams returned to the dugouts and the relievers trekked back to the bullpens in left and right field.

"Well, the batter will be Al Cowens," Yankees broadcaster Bill White said, as the camera cut to the left-field bullpen. "The Yankees will have to bring their infield in. Neither Brett nor Nettles thrown out of the ballgame."

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