Card Corner Plus: 1974 Topps: The Tragic Loss of Ken Brett

The Pirates were Ken Brett's fourth team in his first seven major league seasons.

The Pirates were Ken Brett’s fourth team in his first seven major league seasons.

At first glance, there is clearly something amiss with Ken Brett’s 1974 Topps card. Yes, the Pirates’ cap has been airbrushed by one of the photographers at Topps. But there is nothing unusual about this; the company airbrushed hundreds of cards during the 1970s.

Yet, this example of airbrushing is not only crude in its rough finish; it also contains a rather obvious error. In covering up the maroon colors of Brett’s 1973 team, the Phillies, the artist colored the entire Pirates cap in the team’s trademark gold. Apparently, the artist at Topps was not wholly familiar with the Pirates’ color scheme in the early 1970s. Pirates caps of this era were two-tone in color. Only the crown of the cap featured gold; the bill was colored black, the team’s other primary color.

KenBrettBeyond that, we notice that Brett is sporting somewhat of a crooked smile on his card. That’s a consistent feature on just about all of Brett’s cards. You’d be hard-pressed to find him frowning, or looking sad, or just plain serious, on any of his cards. The ever-present smile tells us a lot. Brett was a popular easygoing guy, known for his sense of humor and willingness to laugh. That only made his early death from cancer that much tougher to accept, especially for someone who came to know about him through his repeated connections to upstate New York.

By 1974, Brett had already established himself as one of the game’s consummate journeymen pitchers. The Pirates represented his fourth team in the first seven seasons of his career. For fans who remembered Brett being drafted and signed by the Red Sox in 1966, this development must have come as a shock. When the Sox selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 1966 amateur draft, scouts raved about his talent and his potential. He was the most celebrated of the four Brett brothers, including his younger brother, George. Not only that, Ken Brett wasn’t even regarded exclusively as a pitcher at the time. No, scouts across the country, also viewed Brett as one of baseball’s best young outfielders.

One scout considered Brett the finest amateur player he had ever watched in person. “He was the best prospect I ever saw,” said veteran Red Sox scout Joe Stephenson, “a combination of George Brett, Fred Lynn, and Roger Maris.”

Given such comparisons, it’s not surprising that most teams in a position to draft Brett in 1966 would have focused his talents on playing the outfield—and hitting. With his smooth, powerful left-handed swing and cannonlike throwing arm, Brett had the makings of an All-Star center fielder. The Red Sox’ front office, however, viewed Brett a bit differently. The Sox desperately needed live young arms, so they decided to channel Brett toward pitching. After signing him to a reported bonus of $85,000, and assigning him to the Oneonta Red Sox of the NY-Penn League, the parent Sox hoped that Brett would begin a quick climb up their organizational ladder.

Located 22 miles from Cooperstown, Oneonta is not a large city, but Brett somehow managed to get lost on his first attempt to reach the ballpark. Oneonta’s front office became so concerned that it put in a call with the police to track Brett down.

Brett finally made it to Oneonta, settling in at nearby hotel. He then walked three blocks from the hotel to Damaschke Field. His arrival created another stir, as the Oneonta coaching staff noticed his feet; for some reason, Brett was barefoot. Strangely, Brett wasn’t carrying any shoes with him, either. “My feet were aching,” Brett explained to The Sporting News. “I’d spent most of the summer on the beach and wasn’t used to wearing shoes.” Besides, Brett didn’t like to wear shoes to begin with.

Once Brett arrived safely, he proceeded to struggle with his pitching in the NY-Penn League. In spite of his shaky debut in upstate New York, the Red Sox moved him to a higher classification in 1967. First, he went to Winston-Salem of the Carolina League. And then, in mid-season, the Sox bumped him up to Double-A Pittsfield. Remarkably, Brett pitched better as he moved up each classification. He pitched so impressively for Pittsfield, forging a 1.80 ERA in 25 starts, that the Red Sox rewarded him with a late-season recall to Boston. As the Red Sox battled a host of teams in a jumbled and frenetic American League pennant race, Brett made one appearance in relief, finishing out a blowout loss to Cleveland on September 27.

Although Brett was still a teenager, his personality made him an immediate hit in the Red Sox’ clubhouse. “He was very mature for his age and very well-liked,” Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli told the Boston Globe years later. “He fit into the clubhouse perfectly. We were [all] young and everybody could take things lightly.”

Brett pitched in only one regular season game for the Sox, but manager Dick Williams fell in immediate love with his arm. Williams also had high praise for Brett’s level of courage, crediting him with having “the guts of a burglar.” When Sparky Lyle went down with a season-ending injury, the Red Sox petitioned the Commissioner’s Office to allow Brett to be his replacement on the postseason roster. Spike Eckert gave his approval; with little hesitation, Williams included Brett on the Red Sox’ World Series roster.

Brett made two appearances in the World Series, allowing no runs in an inning and a third against the Cardinals and becoming the youngest player in the history of the Fall Classic. Though the Red Sox lost the Series in seven games, the 19-year-old Brett had passed his first test.

Despite his impressive showing in October. Brett was clearly not ready for fulltime major league duty. The Red Sox envisioned him as a fulltime starter, not as a bit player out of the bullpen. Still only 19, he went back to the minor leagues, this time to Triple-A Louisville of the International League, but arm trouble limited him to only nine appearances. Set back by the injury, Brett returned to Louisville in 1969, made 19 starts, and then went to the Instructional League to work on his curve ball and change-up.

In 1970, Brett earned another call-up to Boston—this time for good. Needing starting pitching, the Red Sox put Brett into the rotation right away, but he was hit hard in eight starts, to the tune of a 5.26 ERA. Sox manager Eddie Kasko tried Brett in relief in 1970 and he showed improvement, striking out 155 batters in 139 innings, but his ERA remained above 4.00. Then came a disastrous 1971 season, in which Brett pitched almost exclusively in relief, as his ERA soared to 5.34.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Frustrated with Brett’s lack of improvement, the Red Sox decided to move on. As they negotiated a monstrous trade with the Brewers that October, the Sox agreed to include Brett in the deal. The 10-player trade sent Brett, right-hander Jim Lonborg, slugger George Scott and outfielders Billy Conigliaro and Joe Lahoud to Milwaukee for Tommy Harper and two pitchers, Lew Krausse and Marty Pattin. Brett’s career in Boston was over—seemingly before it had begun.

As a relatively new franchise, having just entered the league as the Seattle Pilots in 1969, the Brewers were excited to own a talented young left-hander like Brett. Brewers manager Dave Bristol inserted Brett into his starting rotation, but neither Bristol nor Brett would last the season in their respective roles. Bristol ended up getting fired in May, while Brett struggled in 22 starts before being pulled from the rotation. All in all, it was a disappointing season for both the Brewers, who finished last, and Brett, who won only seven games and sported a bloated ERA of 4.53.

The Brewers were so disappointed in Brett’s output that they gave up on him after just one summer and willingly included him in another blockbuster trade at season’s end. This time it was an eight-player deal between the Brewers and the Phillies. The trade sent Brett, Lonborg, and relief ace Ken Sanders to Philadelphia for third baseman Don Money, utility infielder John Vukovich, and right-handed pitcher Billy Champion.

The change in scenery, along with a change in leagues, suited Brett well. He became a regular member of Danny Ozark’s starting rotation, emerging as a solid No. 3 starter behind Steve Carlton and Wayne Twitchell. Brett lowered his ERA to 3.44, won 13 games, and logged 211 innings. For the first time in his career, Brett pitched like the prospect that the Red Sox and other teams had once envisioned. As an added bonus, Brett hit home runs in four consecutive appearances, recalling the hitting exploits that had once been the envy of scouts in the mid-1960s.

Brett’s positive first season in Philadelphia should have found him a permanent home, but it actually had the reverse effect. By increasing his trade value, Brett became the bait to help solve the Phillies’ longstanding problem at second base. The Phillies liked Dave Cash of the Pirates, a player that could not only play the middle infield but could also bat leadoff. In turn, the Pirates needed some pitching, especially of the left-handed kind. So the two teams made an old-fashioned one-for-one swap, trading Cash for Brett.

Brett gave the Pirates exactly what they wanted. In fact, he matched almost identically the numbers that he had posted in Philadelphia. He again went 13-9, assembled an ERA of 3.30, and pitched 191 innings. He pitched so well during the first half of the season that he made the All-Star team and then proceeded to pick up the win for the National League stars. After Jim Rooker and Dock Ellis, Brett settled in as the third most effective starter on the Pirates’ roster. The only downturn was a sore elbow that he developed after the All-Star break.

Thankfully, the Pirates broke the pattern of trading Brett after just one season, instead keeping him on their roster into 1975. Brett continued his run of effectiveness, even though the Pirates changed his role slightly because of some added depth to their rotation. This time Brett made 16 starts and seven relief appearances, doing good work as a kind of utility pitcher for manager Danny Murtaugh.

Brett pitched a variety of roles without complaint, but the Pirates became concerned about his increasingly fragile left arm, specifically an arthritic elbow, which had caused him to spend time on the disabled list for two seasons running. Besides, the Pirates saw a chance to make an intriguing trade with the Yankees that winter. Badly wanting Doc Medich, the talented young right-hander whom they considered a star in the making, the Pirates gave up a king’s ransom of Dock Ellis, prized second base prospect Willie Randolph, and Brett.

The trade included an interesting clause: if Brett’s left elbow came up sore again, the Yankees would have until May 31 to return him to the Pirates. Some observers speculated that the arthritic elbow might eventually force Brett to give up pitching and concentrate on hitting, one of his other talents. With 10 home runs and a .262 lifetime batting average, Brett ranked as the game’s top hitting pitcher.

If healthy, a good, young, left-handed pitcher like Brett should have found a long-term fit at Yankee Stadium. But he understood that the Yankees had acquired him on a conditional basis. “It’s nice to be wanted,” Brett said sarcastically in a spring training interview with Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News.

Brett’s arm passed all of the tests that spring, but he soon learned how quickly plans could change in the Bronx. The Yankees had so much starting pitching that they relegated him to the bullpen. While they had a logjam of pitching, they needed some help on offense. Seeing a chance to acquire veteran DH Carlos May from the White Sox, the Yankees packaged Brett with outfield speedster Rich Coggins in a 2-for-1 trade. In joining his sixth team in six years, Brett would now be wearing the throwback uniform colors of Bill Veeck’s band of rebels.

Sox manager Paul Richards immediately installed Brett into his starting rotation and watched him spin a team-leading 3.32 ERA in 26 starts. On a team that featured relievers like Terry Forster and Rich Gossage miscast as starters, Brett emerged as the staff ace. No one could blame Brett for the White Sox winning only 64 games and finishing last in the AL West.

Although Brett’s frequent travels gave him the look of an aging journeyman, he was still only 28 years old. The Sox were so pleased with his pitching that they made him their Opening Day starter in 1977. But Brett didn’t look right in the opener, giving up five runs to the expansion Blue Jays, who knocked him out after only three innings of work.

That start turned out to be a foreshadowing of a bad summer—and a sore elbow that hampered his pitching. Brett made 13 starts for the ChiSox, struggling in most of them, as his ERA settled in at 5.01. No longer the pitcher that he had been in 1976 and clearly lacking as the ace of the staff, Brett again became expendable. So the Sox traded him to the Angels for a package headlined by two young right-handers, John Verhoeven and Don Kirkwood.

Brett remained a starter for California, but did not pitch particularly well. The following season, he was hit so hard that he lost his spot in the rotation. Angels fans took note, remembering that Brett had just signed a lucrative three-year contract the previous summer. Brett hated the fact that he was doing little to earn his money. “I’ve thought of mailing my checks to the bank instead of going up in person,” Brett explained to United Press International. “I see my friends on the beach where I live, and they look at me and don’t know what to say. Well, I don’t like that. I know that I’m not comfortable in the fact that I’m making good money and I’m not producing the way I should be.”

As difficult as Brett’s season was to begin with, it turned tragic in September, when Angels teammate Lyman Bostock was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in Gary, Indiana. The death of the 27-year-old Bostock was a horrific tragedy that only seemed worse because it occurred in the middle of a season, his first with California after signing a celebrated free agent contract. Highly respected by his teammates, Brett was asked to deliver the eulogy at Bostock’s funeral. Brett did so eloquently, impressing Bostock’s widow, among others, with his touching words about a well-liked teammate struck down in his prime years.

Given Brett’s status as one of the leaders in the Angels’ clubhouse, the events that would occur at the end of spring training in 1979 did not please his teammates. Just before Opening Day, the Angels released the veteran left-hander, citing his poor pitching performance in 1978 and his continuing struggles that spring. Brett remained unemployed for the next month, until the pitching-needy Twins placed a call for his services.

Failing to gain any traction with the Twins, Brett drew his release after only nine appearances. A week later, the injury-wracked Dodgers added him to their bullpen. Perhaps energized by the pitcher-friendly environment at Dodger Stadium, Brett pitched creditably in 30 appearances.

Brett’s second-half efforts might have boded well for a return in 1980, but he lost his job as the Dodgers’ lefty relief specialist to a young Steve Howe. So the Dodgers cut him near the end of spring training, marking his second consecutive spring release. Brett then signed with the Royals, his 10th major league stop, where he pitched sporadically over the next two seasons. Brett didn’t pitch particularly well for the Royals, but the experience gave him a chance to play with his brother, George.

In November of 1981, Brett asked the Royals to give him his release. He then negotiated a spring training invite from the Pirates, who brought him to their Bradenton camp in February. Brett auditioned as a left-handed relief specialist, but failed to make the team. At the age of 32, Brett was done, his once-celebrated major league career over and out.

After his playing career ended, Brett went to work for a printing company, but received a huge career break when Miller Lite asked him to film a commercial for their beer. As part of the script, the well-traveled Brett stood in a bar, trying to recall the name of the city that he is currently in. He rattled off the names of numerous major league and minor league cities that he had played in, before concluding his prospective list by saying quizzically, “Utica?”

A natural in front of the camera, Brett drew rave reviews nationally for his smooth comedic performance. But the reaction in central New York was different. Some thin-skinned residents of the Utica area interpreted the commercial as an insult, motivating Utica mayor Louis LaPolla to invite Brett to town as his special guest. The mayor hosted a special luncheon for Brett, gave him a tour of the area, and handed him the key to the city. Brett loved the special treatment he received.

In the meantime, the use of Utica as the punch line to the commercial spurred an idea in the mind of Utica Blue Sox owner Bob Fowler, a former sportswriter who had purchased the franchise in the early 1980s. Rather than take the commercial as an insult to his city, Fowler offered Brett a job to manage the team. Jumping at the chance to leave the printing business for a return to baseball, Brett accepted the offer in March of 1985.

Brett managed the Blue Sox for only one season, but made a vibrant impression on the Utica community. As Brett led his team in pregame workouts, he routinely joked with his players, displaying the sense of humor that had made him so popular with his teammates in the major leagues. He also developed a few quirks, like delivering his postgame press conferences while wearing only his shoes and socks—and nothing else.

With Brett, it was more than just an act. When he had the chance, he took time to talk to fans in the stands, charming them with his graciousness and down-home manner. Brett’s personality won over the city, leading to a surge in attendance at Utica’s Murnane Field.

I first heard about Brett’s managerial exploits in the late 1980s, when I worked in Utica at the radio station that aired some of the Blue Sox’ games. Several years later, Brett re-entered my consciousness when I was watching FOX’s coverage of its Saturday Game of the Week. For some reason, the upstate New York market was not airing the game being broadcast by the main announcers, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. Instead, it was a secondary game being called by two backup announcers. The color analyst immediately gained my attention, with his ability to analyze situations quickly but cogently, along with a nice, easy storytelling manner. I soon realized that the broadcaster in question was Ken Brett.

Brett’s work as a color announcer impressed me greatly that day, as it did on another Saturday, when he again happened to be calling one of the backup games. I thought to myself, “Brett is too good for this. He should be calling the No. 1 game for FOX.” By then, he had already broadcast games on a local basis for the Mariners and Angels, but his natural talent in the booth seemed to have him destined to appear on a national stage.

A few years later, I had the chance to meet Brett in person. It was January of 1999, the day after his brother George had been officially elected to the Hall of Fame. As part of my duties at the Hall, I attended the press conference at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where we interviewed George and some of the other dignitaries who happened to be there.

One of the people we interviewed was Ken Brett. To no surprise, he was personable and funny. I was struck by how genuinely thrilled he was about his brother’s election. I had wondered if Ken might have resented his brother’s success, in contrast to the relative disappointment of his own playing career, which had never quite lived up to snuff. Ken quickly put such thoughts to the side; he was fully elated, and proud, that his brother had reached the game’s pinnacle of individual success.

Five years later, I heard the awful news that hit us hard in Cooperstown. Ken was gone, having lost a battle with brain cancer at the age of 55. Some noted that Brett had become the third member of the 1981 Royals—along with relief ace Dan Quisenberry and manager Dick Howser—to die from brain cancer. That number has caught the attention of both baseball and medical people, who wonder at such a high incidence of brain cancer within such a small group of players, coaches, and managers.

I really don’t know what to make of all of the cancer-related death surrounding those Royals teams, but I did that Brett had struggled with cancer for the last six years of his life. That meant that he had already been diagnosed by the time that I had met him, back in 1999, in New York City.

Ken Brett, or “Kemer” as he was known to his friends and teammates, certainly didn’t look ill that day at the Waldorf. Quite the contrary, he appeared strong and young, the spitting image of his brother George. More to the point, Ken gave no one any indication that was fighting a deadly disease. There was no sadness or anger, not a tinge of negative sentiment. All that Ken Brett seemed to care about that day was his brother, George.

That, I think, speaks volumes about the kind of character that Ken Brett had.

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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9 years ago

Good story, Bruce. I saw a lot of Pirates games in the early-mid ’70s so almost certainly saw Brett pitch, though I don’t have any clear memories. Sounds like a guy who treated life, and death, the way they should be treated.

9 years ago

Great Story! Great guy.

Rich Mueller
9 years ago

Nicely written Bruce. I’ll think of it now every time I see Ken’s ’74 Topps card.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

This one brought back memories. I remember him well in 1967 when he first came up with the Red Sox. He fit a certain template that was popular in the mid to late 60’s: the young prospect who was loaded with potential such that a rookie 10-5 year would extrapolate to 18-9 and then to 22-7 and then onto the Hall of Fame. The clean version of this species was Tom Seaver or Johnny Bench. The flip side was Rick Reichardt or David Clyde or maybe even, gasp!, Bo Belinsky, he of the rookie no hitter and Mamie Van Doren romance fame. Interestingly, he was the second young left hander who came to the Red Sox in 1967 full of promise. Billy Rohr started his first major league game in April, 1967, and one hit the Yankees which he followed up with a 6-2 victory over them again a few weeks later. It was all downhill from there for Rohr, who is now practicing law in California. I really enjoyed reading about Brett as a human being and oddball. I never knew that about him. Seems like a modest and self deprecating man who parked his ego at the door. Thanks Bruce.

Tony Cunningham
9 years ago

I remember seeing Ken Brett pitch for the Sox against the Yankees. He hit a mammoth homer into the right-field upper deck. I think it was the longest homer I ever saw in the old Yankee stadium. He belted some other ropes that day too.

Dave Simeienski
9 years ago

I had the pleasure of knowing and interview Kemer many times. Very honestly the nicest professional athlete that I ever met, and was profoundly saddened by his premature passing. I feel privileged to retain some very special memories on video,– which graphically support what my experiences were with Ken Brett. RIP Kemer.

Johnny Cabrera
9 years ago

I always wondered why the bill of the Pirates cap Ken Brett is wearing was not black. Many of Ken Brett’s other baseball cards from the 1970’s are also airbrushed due to the frequency of trades. Your article brings Ken Brett to life for me. We certainly could use a person like him in our game today!

9 years ago

Nice story. I remember seeing Brett at a Phillies game when I was a kid. Not as a pitcher, but as a pinch-hitter and he hit a triple. You do not see to many pinch-triples by pitchers.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

According to Retrosheet, Brett only hit one triple in his career, on May 27, 1974, when he played for the Pirates agains the Padres. Only triple he hit in his career. Never hit a triple as a Phillie or against the Phillies. You have my sympathy. If my memories of what I witnessed as a kid at baseball games were subject to scrutiny, I would be embarrassed.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Maybe he advanced to third on a throwing error or fielder’s choice.