Al Hrabosky’s alter ego provided him with a pathway to stardom and popularity from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately for Hrabosky, the Mad Hungarian persona that he adopted also helped hasten his departure from the game.
Hrabosky, 72, was putting together a rather pedestrian season in 1974 with an ERA that hovered above 4.00 for much of the first half of the year. It had gotten to a point where the St. Louis Cardinals were close to sending him back to the minor leagues.
The California native and southpaw knew he needed to do something to turn his season around and finish with a flourish so he reached back into his days as a starter in the minor leagues. Hrabosky decided that he would mimic the routine he employed as a starter of going behind the mound and firing himself up when he in the St. Louis farm system. He employed that routine for the first time in a Major League game on Aug. 9, 1974 [the same day that Richard Nixon resigned] and the Mad Hungarian was born.
Hrabosky psyched himself up when he entered a game that day in the seventh inning with St. Louis clinging to a two-run lead over the Dodgers at Busch Stadium. Los Angeles, which went on to reach the World Series that season, had runners in scoring position when Steve Garvey came to the plate.
Garvey would go on to win the National League MVP that season but on that night, Hrabosky had had enough, storming behind the mound and into the national spotlight.
“Basically, I only threw a fastball,” Hrabosky said. “When I was young and pitched once a week, I had a good fastball. But when I established myself as a closer, I was pitching three or four times a week and warming up every day. Steve Garvey was up in a crucial situation when I went behind the mound.
Remember, I didn’t have a very good fastball [at that point].
“So, I visualized throwing the fastball down and away the way good pitchers pitched to Garvey. I got on the mound and tried to duplicate physically what I had done mentally. I got a swing and a miss and it was like a lightbulb went off. My fastball had more life and I was hitting my spots. So, after that, whenever I felt as if I needed something extra, I would go behind the mound and get into that self-hypnosis.”
Garvey ended up striking out as Hrabosky finished the game by not allowing a hit over three innings and striking out two. The game helped catapult him into a strong finish to the season as one of the game’s most popular and lovable characters was born.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “When I played it was a sport and I was an entertainer. Now it’s entertainment and there are just not many entertainers. I started doing it because it was a last-ditch effort and I wanted to stay in the big leagues. It turned my career around. As long as I was successful, I brought all the attention on me. And if I failed, it was also on me.”
The successes outweighed the failures for much of Hrabosky’s career, though, beginning at Savanna High School in Southern California, where football, not baseball, was his love.
“‘Willie Stargell said ‘I don’t know what it is about you. You’re a little shit but you act like a big tough guy.’”
WHEN FOOTBALL WAS KING
Football was Hrabosky’s first love. He was a linebacker and a slot receiver but his size [5-foot-11, 185] didn’t translate into a future with the helmet and pads. He had a few small schools chasing him with scholarship offers and one of the Savanna coaches had a brother who was coaching at USC. There was talk that the Trojans would offer him a scholarship but that talk dissipated when Minnesota drafted him in the 11th round of the 1967 First-Year Player Draft. He chose not to sign, opting for Fullerton College instead.
“I didn’t play three years of little league, so the first year I played was when I was 11,” Hrabosky said. “I was a first baseman/outfielder and didn’t start pitching until my senior year. My senior year pitching I didn’t know what I was doing. Football was my love and I just played baseball to stay in shape for football. But I got drafted out of high school to pitch so I went to a JUCO and concentrated on baseball. Seven or eight guys at Fullerton had signed the year before so I knew I’d get scouted and seen.”
Hrabosky certainly played his part well, earning the type of recognition for which he was hoping in order for scouts to take notice. He made the All-Eastern Conference second team as a freshman and then earned first-team laurels as a sophomore. Hrabosky still holds the school record for strikeouts per nine innings [14.07], strikeouts in a season [148 in 1969] and a career  as well as most innings pitched .
His 14 career wins tie him for sixth in school history while his career ERA [2.01] is fourth. His 10 complete games are tied for second with former Major Leaguer Steve Trachsel. Hrabosky also authored one of the school’s two no-hitters on March 25, 1969, against Rio Hondo. He fanned a school-record 18 that game. He also holds the school record for second  and third  most strikeouts in a game.
Hrabosky had achieved his goal – St. Louis made him a first-round pick [19th overall] in the January Phase of the 1969 Draft.
“The January draft was for people who didn’t get drafted or who didn’t sign,” said Hrabosky, who is in the Fullerton Sports Hall of Fame. “The scout that was supposed to contact me offered me $2,000. I was the conference player of the year but they never came back to me. It went down to the last day they had the rights to me right before the June draft. I told my college coach [Mike Sgobba] I wanted to sign with the Cards but that they never came back and made an offer.”
Sgobba called the St. Louis scouting supervisor and smoothed the whole situation out, allowing Hrabosky to sign. He was thrilled to be a Cardinal. He came to know about and understand the team better the previous summer when he was playing semi-pro ball in Wichita.
“I was 18 or 19 years old and I was staying at the coaches house listening to Cardinal baseball on the radio,” Hrabosky said. “The Cardinals were in the World Series in ’64, ’67 and ’68 so I probably knew them better than any other team than the Dodgers.”
Hrabosky became one of 114 players in school history to get drafted and is one of only 14 to reach the Major Leagues.
Al Hrabosky of the St. Louis Cardinals stands on the sideline before a game of the 1977 season at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images)
THE ROAD TO THE BIGS
The Cardinals sent Hrabosky to Modesto of the Class-A California League where he immediately made an impact by going 8-2 in 15 games [13 starts] with a 2.48 ERA over 98 innings. Included in that effort were a pair of back-to-back 16- and 17-strikeout performances [July 19 and July 24 both coming against San Jose], according to the Modesto Bee.
Hrabosky was then bumped up to Arkansas of the Double-A Texas League where he went 1-0 in a pair of starts.
“I went straight to high-A and most of the guys there had been playing for two or three years,” Hrabosky said. “On the very first day I noticed the difference between them and myself was that I wanted to be a Major Leaguer and they were just content being professional ballplayers.”
Hrabosky had a strong showing in Spring Training in 1970 but began the year back at Arkansas, where he went 8-1 with a 3.26 ERA in 15 games [14 starts].
“I kind of made the team [out of Spring Training] but they had three or four older lefties trying to hang on so I went back to Double-A,” Hrabosky said. “I played for Ken Boyer and came up that June.”
Hrabosky made his Major League debut at San Diego Stadium on June 16, 1970, tossing a scoreless eighth inning in a 4-0 loss to the Padres. Ollie Brown, the first batter he faced, singled and was then thrown out trying to steal second. Ivan Murrell and Chris Cannizzaro followed with pop outs. Hrabosky earned his first career win three days later at Wrigley Field, throwing two scoreless innings while striking out three.
“I don’t remember much about that first game,” Hrabosky said. “It was in San Diego and my parents were there. I pitched a mop-up inning so it was no big deal. I don’t remember being jittery or extra nervous, though. In Chicago, the game into extra innings and I pitched the 16th and the 17th and got my first win.
“A few days later, we went to Pittsburgh and I got my first and only Major League start. I remember I was warming up and the pitching coach said he’s not going to tell me how to pitch to these guys but said don’t throw [Roberto] Clemente anything inside. I got the first two guys and then threw a curve to Clemente and he hit it over short for a single. When I got back to the dugout he said I forgot to tell you not to throw him any curves. I always said that he wouldn’t have gotten 3,000 hits without me.”
Hrabosky went 2-1 with a 4.74 ERA in 19 innings over 16 games setting up what would ultimately be a career-defining year in 1971. He spent the early part of the year fulfilling his military obligation and by the time he was out and ready to pitch, the season was well into the summer. Hrabosky appeared in 17 games that season [five starts] between the Triple-A American Association and the Double-A Dixie Association. He went a combined 2-1 with a 6.37 ERA in 41 innings.
“[Tulsa manager and Hall-of-Famer] Warren Spahn threw me about 10 days in a row,” Hrabosky said. “It was a combination of in the game, on the side or both. After being in the army, I was not in shape. After about the fifth day, I was hiding from him. I told him Warren I can’t throw the ball 60 feet. I developed a good 55-foot curveball, though. It really probably didn’t help my learning curve on getting to the Majors.”
The real news came about in the Florida Instructional League [FIL] that fall. The Cardinals didn’t have a team in instructs so general manager Bing Devine asked future Cardinals skipper Whitey Herzog, who was the New York Mets Director of Player Development and FIL manager, if Hrabosky, Mike Tyson and Ed Kurpiel could go to instructs with the Mets. Herzog agreed.
Hrabosky Shouts With Happiness: Al Hrabosky, pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, shouts in victory as he leaves the mound following a win over the New York Yankees, tying the American League Championship series at one game apiece, at Royals Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri, October 4, 1978. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
“Whitey wrote a very favorable report on me,” Hrabosky said. “He thought I could be a short reliever and not a starter. Bing called him up and Herzog told him ‘He’s too hyper, too emotional, I think he’d be fine in relief’.”
The transition to the bullpen had, for the moment, begun.
When Hrabosky arrived in Spring Training in 1972, his military commitment was behind him and he thought that his stay in the minors was as well. That proved not to be the case. The Cardinals sent him back to Arkansas in what has become a time-honored refrain among front office and player development types – he needed more innings. So, he returned to a starting role in the Texas League and went 7-12 with a 3.41 ERA in 25 games [22 starts] before pitching seven scoreless innings over five games and earning a victory with St. Louis.
The following season he was sent to Tulsa of the Triple-A American Association, where he would start nine games before getting recalled by St. Louis. He would spend the next decade in the Major Leagues.
“I went in in 1972 and I’m ready to win and a take a roster spot and almost he first thing I heard was ‘But you didn’t pitch last year and you need to pitch in the minors’,” Hrabosky said. “I wasn’t a happy camper. If you’re a reliever in the minors, you’re just filling out a roster. I needed innings and the best way to do that was by being a starter. Until Whitey told them that, I was going to be a starter.
“I always felt like I was one of those agreeable kids but when I was in the minors I noticed that the guy who makes waves, two things happen. He’d either get called up or get traded and then called up. I was pitching well at Triple-A and I had a real good game against Indianapolis and [St. Louis director of player development] Bob Kennedy comes up to me and says we want you to learn how to throw a screwball. I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me’ and I walked away. Now I’m almost ready to fight. Then I went to the big leagues.”
Hrabosky had a 2.09 ERA in 44 games for St. Louis in 1973, picking up five saves. It appeared as if the 56 innings he would throw that season would cement his place in the St. Louis bullpen. A slow start in 1974, however, would necessitate the emergence of The Mad Hungarian.
THE ALTER EGO APPEARS
The beginning of the 1974 season was not exactly the highlight reel portion of Hrabosky’s career. He had a 10.13 ERA through his first five appearances, marking what would be an up-and-down first half. He settled in, though, putting together 11 consecutive scoreless appearances through the end of May to drop his ERA to 3.98.
Hrabosky allowed four runs in nine June innings and then had a rough going early in July, allowing seven runs in 3 2/3 innings over five appearances. He once again settled down but the inconsistency harmed him, pushing the front office to strongly consider sending him back to Triple-A. Had Hall-of-Fame catcher Ted Simmons not intervened, Hrabosky would have likely been at Triple-A as the summer drew to a close.
“[St. Louis announcer] Jack Buck came up to me early in July and told me ‘Simmons saved you, they were getting ready to send you down’,” Hrabosky said. “I always felt like I was on borrowed time. The Mad Hungarian was a key to concentrating. The more success I had, the more I started to grow my hair and my moustache. I was not this physically imposing person but I created the Mad Hungarian who was 6-foot-8 and the biggest, baddest dude.
“Willie Stargell said I don’t know what it is about you. You’re a little shit but you act like a big tough guy. I told him I’d get down on my knees with my hands tied behind my back and still fight. Stargell was one of my favorite opponents. I tried to create a one-on-one battle with everyone but I didn’t have to create anything with Willie. With him, the drama was already there.”
The prospect of being sent down combined with the emergence of The Mad Hungarian pushed Hrabosky to a level of dominance not often seen. He made 26 appearances between July 14 and Sept. 17, going 5-0 with six saves and a 0.22 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. He also struck out 44 and held the opposition to a .112 batting average during that stretch, fulfilling the expectations that Herzog had placed on him when he suggested Hrabosky move into the bullpen.
Hrabosky did have a difficult time late in September, though. He allowed 12 runs [eight earned] in 12 innings over his final six appearances, one of which was a 6 1/3-inning stint in a slugfest against the Pirates in which he was tagged for six runs on 10 hits. He finished the season at 8-1 with nine saves and a 2.95 ERA over 88 1/3 innings. The strong second half earned him some MVP votes and landed him fifth in the National League Cy Young race.
The Mad Hungarian mania reached a fever pitch in 1975 as the man with the Fu Manchu and outrageous behavior became one of baseball’s biggest storylines. Hrabosky responded by having a career season. He went 13-3 with a 1.66 ERA in 65 games. He led the National League in winning percentage [.813] and saves , earning the National League Relief Pitcher of the Year Award. He finished eighth in the MVP voting and third in the Cy Young race behind Tom Seaver and Randy Jones, both starters.
“Hitters allowed it [his routine] to distract them and I was just doing this to prepare myself to throw the ball,” Hrabosky said. “You take a hitter who goes to the plate 600-plus times and he might face me three to five times a season. He was never thinking about situational hitting those times, all he wanted to do was knock my head off. They took it as if I were challenging them. I got into their heads. I loved pitching on the road and getting greeted by a standing boo. All of a sudden the crowd is yelling at me and telling the hitter don’t let this donkey do this to you.
“I was just totally trying to get myself focused. They thought I was showing them up. Al Oliver was a tremendous hitter and anything I did never fazed him. He was just ready for the pitch. We were playing Pittsburgh when Chuck Tanner was the manager and Bill Robinson on was on first base. Every time I would go behind the mound, Robinson would call time out and tie his show trying to distract me but he was distracting Oliver. Oliver was yelling at Robinson don’t do that, it doesn’t bother me so I went behind the mound and tied my shoelace and then went to the mound. I knew Al was never distracted by it. With other guys it got into their heads even though the purpose was to help me so it didn’t matter.”
Hrabosky had another solid season in 1976 but couldn’t match the numbers he put up in ’75. He was 8-6 with a 3.30 ERA, earning 13 saves in 95 1/3 innings while pitching in full-blown Mad Hungarian mode.
1980: Pitcher Al ``The Mad Hungarian`` Hrabosky #39 of the Atlanta Braves during the 1980 season. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
THE MAD HUNGARIAN WEARS OUT HIS WELCOME
Hrabosky’s departure from St. Louis following the 1977 season was a combination of a disagreement with manager Vern Rapp and his somewhat diminished production. He saw his ERA jump to 4.38 while his strikeout totals dropped. Hrabosky also issued a career-high 41 walks in 65 innings but it was his disagreement over Rapp’s rule about hair length and facial hair that probably did as much to hasten his exit from St. Louis as anything else.
Rapp took over for St. Louis legend Red Schoendienst in 1977 and his disciplinarian attitude didn’t sit well with many players, particularly Hrabosky. Rapp insisted that his players cut their hair and shave and Hrabosky balked, arguing that his appearance was tied to his success. The skipper wasn’t buying it and after much discussion with Rapp and team ownership, Hrabosky cut his hair.
“I had a torn abductor muscle in my left leg and it affected my pitching all year and I didn’t have my best year,” Hrabosky said. “I had torn it two or three times and there was no surgery, I just taped it up and pitched. I couldn’t drive, though. Bing Devine and I went to lunch after the season. He asked me with all the problems I had with Rapp, could I play for him. I said yes I could and that I wasn’t requesting a trade. But then the relationship between Whitey [Herzog, who was managing Kansas City] and Bing came into play.
“Whitey needed a left-handed reliever. The thing is Bing was probably going to get let me stay without Whitey’s push. But then it made a whole lot of sense to him and he decided to make the trade.”
The Cards sent Hrabosky to Kansas City on Dec. 8, 1977, for Mark Littell and Buck Martinez. The move rejuvenated Hrabosky who had a bounce-back season with the Royals going 8-7 with a 2.88 ERA and 20 saves in 58 appearances. Kansas City once again won the West Division but also lost to the Yankees yet again in the ALCS. Rapp was fired 17 games into the 1978 season.
“Here I am being reunited with Whitey and in my mind I’m going to a friend,” Hrabosky said. We had a real good team and were coming off back-to-back seasons of being division champs. I knew I was going to a good team that played NL-style ball. I had a lot of fun there. There were a lot of great guys and it was a great place to play.
“I was 250 miles west of St. Louis but a thousand miles in terms of attitude. The blue bloods in St. Louis thought they were just west of Manhattan while Kansas City was proud to be part of the Midwest. [Owner] Ewing Kauffman treated it as a business rather than it being an owner’s hobby. In St. Louis it was just a mechanism to sell beer.”
Hrabosky had another solid season in ’79, going 9-4 with a 3.74 ERA and 11 saves in 58 games. He elected, however, to take the free-agent route after the season, making one of the two decisions that he regrets regarding his career, signing with the Braves instead of the Dodgers.
“I made two big mistakes,” Hrabosky said. “The first was not shaving after [St. Louis owner] Gussie Busch gave me an ultimatum. He read me the riot act and told me it was his rule and not Vern Rapp’s. This was right after the All-Star break and I told him that if he had told me that at the beginning of the season, I would have shaved. I should have just shaved and stayed in St. Louis.
“The other one was going to Atlanta instead of accepting the Dodgers offer. The Braves let me defer money and the Dodgers wouldn’t. I thought Atlanta had a good young team and there was the deferred money.”
Hrabosky spent nearly three seasons with the Braves before he was released in August of 1982. He pitched well in 1980 and extremely well [1.07 ERA in 33 2/3 innings] during the strike-shortened 1981 season but his ERA ballooned to 5.54 in 1982. He signed with the White Sox as a free agent for the 1983 season and spent the entire year in Denver of the American Association, where he went 7-6 with a 5.82 ERA while splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen.
(Original Caption) Casual portrait of former St. Louis Cardinals player and current broacaster Al Hrabosky posing in front of the St. Louis Arch. St. Louis, MO 6/22/2000 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
“I thought I could still pitch but I had to come up with something because my fastball wasn’t good enough,” Hrabosky said. “[Chicago pitching coach Dave] Duncan thought I could still pitch but said they had to get me into shape and asked if I’d go to Triple-A. I said yes but I was a fool. Triple-A was in Denver and you’re playing a mile high.
“When I was in the minors before I always started so I wanted to start. I got a few of those starts and I forced myself to stay but the longer I stayed I knew the dream was over. I had a career. I was lucky to play as long as I did but I had to get on with my life. The Mad Hungarian made me and created me but it kind of accelerated my exit. Red would always tell me about the organizational meetings they had in 1974 and 1975 where Bing was raving about me. Red Said wait till he loses a foot or two off his fastball and see how much we like him.”
Hrabosky returned to St. Louis following his playing days and spent more than three decades as a color man for Cardinals broadcasts. He’s spent the last half dozen years doing a third of the pre- and post-game shows. He’s also an ambassador for the club, doing public relations work and making appearances at games.
“I think about the game now and I’m worried about it,” Hrabosky said. “You have three outcomes, a strikeout, a walk or a home run. Obviously, I think the players are phenomenal athletes and are unbelievably talented. But I don’t think they play with the same intensity that we did or with the dislike we had for the opposition. I don’t begrudge them the money they make, either, under two conditions – work hard and earn it and be fan friendly.
“When I played, you still had to work [in the off-season and after retiring] so you do your networking with the fans and if you impressed some fan, you might get offered a job. Today, they make so much money it’s like they don’t need the fans. You miss the best part of being an athlete. Be accessible and accommodating to the fans. It takes more time to be rude than it does to be accommodating and nice.”
Hrabosky certainly practiced what he preached, being nice away from the game before turning into the Mad Hungarian when he took the mound.