FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver provided some of the funniest unintended humor of the season when they mistook a Panamanian gentlemman for former Yankee and Royal slugger John Mayberry during Saturday’s nationally televised broadcast. Thankfully, Ken Rosenthal caught up with the real Mayberry—the one who actually happens to be the father of Phillies rookie John Mayberry, Jr. Sadly, Mayberry’s legacy remains as obscure as the ability to identify him at Yankee Stadium over the weekend. Twenty seven years after he last suited up as a major leaguer—in pinstripes, no less—he remains a relatively forgotten player, despite being one of the top left-handed power hitters of the mid-1970s.
Emerging as a top prospect in the Houston Astros’ organization during the late 1960s, John Claiborne Mayberry found his path to the major leagues impeded by first basemen like Bob “The Bull” Watson and Lee “The Big Bopper” May, one of the main pieces acquired in the ill-fated Joe Morgan trade. With no place to play their young power protégé, the Astros decided to include “Big John” in a trade that brought pitching prospects Jim York and Lance Clemons from the Kansas City Royals. The Astros would end up regretting that transaction almost as much as the Morgan mega-disaster.
Beginning in 1972, Mayberry and Amos Otis teamed up to provide the main sources of power for the Royals. When the Royals added the Hall of Fame bat of George Brett and the speed and defense of Willie Wilson and Frank White to the Mayberry-Otis core, the expansion franchise came together to win the first of three consecutive AL West titles in 1976.
During his halcyon days in Kansas City from 1972 to 1975, Mayberry put up power numbers that equaled the best of any left-handed American League slugger, with the possible exception of a fellow named Reggie Jackson. In those four seasons, Mayberry crunched 107 home runs, despite having to play half of his games in cavernous Royals Stadium, a boneyard for home runs. Big John twice compiled slugging percentages of .500 or better, and twice surpassed the .400 mark in on-base percentage. He drew 122 walks in 1973, and another 119 free passes in 1975. He also reached 100 RBIs in three of four seasons. Now let’s look at Jackson. During that four-year window, Reggie hit 122 home runs, while playing in a slightly easier park for home runs in Oakland. He achieved slugging percentages of .500 or better in each of the four seasons, but never topped the .391 mark in on-base percentage. He never came close to drawing 100 walks, reaching a high of 86 in 1974. He reached 100 RBIs in only two seasons, though he did come close the other two times.
Was Reggie better than Big John during that four-year arc? Yes, especially if we consider Jackson’s ability to steal bases and his cannonlike throwing arm in right field. Yet, Mayberry was close, closer than most fans might think at first glance. In spite of the similarity in numbers, Mayberry remained painfully underrated, mostly because of Jackson’s postseason heroics and a larger-than-life personality.
Mayberry also lacked the staying power of “Mr. October.” Beginning in 1976, Big John’s game started to fall off badly. He appeared to sleepwalk through parts of the 1977 Championship Series, which the Royals lost to the Yankees. Suspecting that the play of Mayberry was being affected by cocaine and alcohol abuse, a furious Whitey Herzog convinced the front office to rid the team of its cleanup hitter in the spring of 1978, when the Royals sold him to the Blue Jays in a cash deal. The media never publicly reported Mayberry’s alleged problems with drugs, but his level of abuse became common knowledge among the game’s insiders. That’s why so few baseball people expressed shock or outrage when the Royals acquired only a small sum of cash for their No. 1 power hitter, who was still only 29 years old. To the best of my knowledge, Mayberry has never publicly acknowledged problems with drugs, but the stigma remains in baseball circles.
Mayberry revived his career partially north of the border, compiling OPS numbers of better than .800 in three consecutive seasons for the Jays. A poor start for Mayberry at the beginning of the 1982 season, coupled with the Yankees’ struggling fortunes, would bring the two parties together. With the Yankees thankfully abandoning their disappointing run-and-stun offense headlined by Dave Collins and Ken Griffey, George Steinbrenner decided to remake the team in midseason—a common occurrence in the 1980s. The Boss began to target potential trade candidates. At the same time, the Blue Jays furiously shopped Mayberry, whom they believed was cooked at the age of 33. Much to the delight of the Jays, the Yankees put together a fairly hefty package for Mayberry: prospects Jeff Reynolds and Tom Dodd and veteran first baseman Dave Revering.
Suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking, I was thrilled with the trade. First, it marked the end of the “Bronx Burners,” an experiment that manager Gene “Stick” Michael never seemed to embrace. And more importantly, it brought the Yankees the kind of player I’ve always loved in the Bronx—the left-handed slugger. I loved watching the super-sized Mayberry stand at the plate, striking the kind of intimidating pose that only Willie Stargell could do better. If the Yankees could no longer have Reggie Jackson, they could at least have Big John Mayberry.
Unfortunately, the trade occurred about a decade too late to benefit the Yankees. Weighed down by a slowing bat and growing flab in his midsection, Mayberry couldn’t crank up the power anywhere near his levels in Kansas City, or even in Toronto. (I really have no idea whether Mayberry was using drugs while with the Yankees, partly because I never heard the drug rumors until five or six years ago.) In 215 Yankee at-bats, Mayberry lofted only eight home runs, leaving him with a slugging percentage of .353, his worst in six years. The power-deprived Yankees, who needed a lot more help than Big John could provide, finished four games under .500 and ions behind the division-winning Brewers of Harvey Kuenn. About the only consolation that came from the Mayberry trade was the failure of any of the three ex-Yankees to do anything in Toronto. Revering, Reynolds, and Dodd all flopped for the Jays’ organization, either at the major league or minor league level.
In the spring of 1983, my father bought me a complete set of the newest Topps cards, which included a nifty action shot of Mayberry wearing Yankee pinstripes. I liked the card, but it would soon become a novelty item. During the latter days of spring training, the Yankees came to the same conclusion the Jays had determined the previous summer. With a growing supply of first basemen and designated hitters, the Yankees gave Mayberry his unconditional release.
Shortly thereafter, when no teams came calling, Mayberry decided to retire. As far as I know, he had never returned to the Stadium since, certainly not for any Old-Timers’ Games or to throw out any ceremonial first pitches. That all changed on Saturday, when Mayberry made it back the Stadium, not to watch the home team, but to watch his talented son begin his own major league climb. As a bonus, he saw junior hit his first major league home run.
So the next time that Big John makes it back to the Bronx, we’ll know it’s him. That’s a promise from Buck, McCarver, and the rest of us.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.