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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 5, 2022 1:45 am PDT
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BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Tommy John had surgery to replace the ligament in his pitching elbow in September of 1974 and, as a result, earned a place in baseball history, forever synonymous with the procedure that bears his name.

Steve Busby became the first active pitcher to have surgery to repair a rotator cuff in July of 1976, nearly two years after John had his ground-breaking operation. Busby’s surgery was no less ground-breaking and was even performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, the same surgeon who pioneered John’s procedure.

Yet, there is no Steve Busby Surgery today. There is no operation synonymous with Busby. There are only memories of how dynamic Busby was for Kansas City in the early to mid-1970s. Busby won 59 games over his first 114 career starts, had a pair of no-hitters on his resume, was a two-time All-Star and appeared primed to lead a Royals team that was on the verge of becoming one of the American League’s dominant team over the second half of the decade.

But Busby, 72, missed all of the 1977 season and appeared in only 40 games following his surgery. John, meanwhile, won 164 games after his surgery, finishing with 288 career wins.

So why doesn’t Busby have a surgery named after him? He was the first active player to have such a procedure, after all, and it served as the forerunner for the successful rotator cuff surgeries that are being done today. Busby said the answer is simple.

“His was successful,” Busby said. “Really, that’s the big part of it. He was able to come back and pitch successfully another seven, eight, 10 years and I didn’t make it back all the way. We’ve come to find out since that the rehabilitation and success rate of elbow surgery is much higher than the shoulder. That’s the best I can figure.

“Injuries [now] don’t get as far along the road as mine did. I was given a prognosis of, ‘We’re not sure [of what it is]’, but go ahead and pitch until you can’t pitch anymore and then we’ll try to fix it. A lot more is understood about it now. They can prevent damage with exercise programs and take specific cautions that were not understood then.”

While Busby did not have the benefit of modern medicine or the post-surgery success that John enjoyed, he remains a beloved figure in Kansas City, a masterful and dominant right-hander that helped shape the success the Royals went on to enjoy for the better part of two decades.

GRIDIRON VERSUS THE DIAMOND

Busby was both a baseball and a football star at Fullerton Union High School, the same school for which Hall-of-Famer Walter Johnson pitched 60 years earlier. Busby admits that he enjoyed watching and playing football more, though, and had hopes of playing football collegiately at USC.

Major League Baseball didn’t arrive in California until 1958 and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League didn’t hold much interest for Busby though his grandfather had taken him to see the Hollywood Stars a handful of times. He did come to love the Dodgers, though, specifically Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who he called “his idols”.

“They had some pretty good teams when they first came out there,” Busby said. “Their second year out there, they won it [the World Series]. They still had Duke Snider and Gil Hodges and Junior Gilliam. There was a lot to be proud of. I was a Dodger guy.

“I didn’t care much for the Angels. They were in Orange County where I grew up but it wasn’t quite the same. The Dodgers were the Major Leagues and the Angels were down the road quite a bit. They were an expansion team and it took years and years to develop a fan base around an expansion team.

The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams had been the sporting kings in Southern California in the early 1950s and later in the mid-60s they would sport the fabled Fearsome Foursome defensive line so it was not much of a surprise that Busby gravitated toward football.

“I liked the Dodgers but it wasn’t quite the same thing as watching the Los Angeles Rams play in the NFL,” he said. “I probably enjoyed watching football more. I enjoyed playing footy more, I know that.”

Busby was a linebacker and a punter but was also an accomplished pitcher as the spring of 1967 drew to a close. The San Francisco Giants saw Busby’s promise and made him a fourth-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft that June. Busby, however, had suffered a knee injury playing football as a senior and the Giants had reservations about his health. Busby also said the Giants didn’t make a serious financial offer.

“If they were going to lure me away from college, they weren’t too enthusiastic about it,” Busby said. “I knew I wanted to go to college and play football at USC but my knee said no. I had to have a second operation on my knee before I went to school and back then knee surgery was not a slam dunk. I hurt my knee in the second game of my senior year in high school and the doctors told me there wasn’t enough in there [the knee] to repair it one more time.”

“Complete games were expected. That was a starter’s job. He was supposed to be the starter and the closer. We were raised that way. ”

So, Busby played baseball at USC. He starred on the freshman team and sat out his sophomore season after undergoing surgery to realign a nerve in his right arm but came back strong in each of his final two seasons as a Trojan, playing a vital role in a pair of College World Series [CWS] championships. Busby went 11-2 with a 2.28 ERA in 1971 and pitched the CWS-clinching game against Southern Illinois.

He remains prominent in the USC record book as well. His nine complete games in 1971 remain second in school history while his .875 winning percentage is third all-time at USC.

The Royals liked what they saw and made Busby a second-round pick [39th overall]. He was immediately dispatched to the San Jose of the Class-A California League but his stay in the minor leagues would not be an extended one.

THE MINORS THEN THE MAJORS

Busby carved up the usually high-octane Cal League over the course of his eight appearances [40 innings], going 4-1 with a 0.68 ERA with a pair of shutouts. He fanned 50 and had a 1.125 WHIP.

“The Cal League wasn’t bad but everything my first few months in pro ball was a novelty to me,” Busby said. “I hadn’t experienced playing every single day. I wasn’t aware of the Cal League growing up because there were no teams in Southern California.

“I thought how the teams played in college was a little better. There was more teamwork and the guys pulled for each other more in college. The pro teams had better individual players but I thought college probably had better teams. I would probably put college baseball at that time at a High-A or low Double-A level. They could compete well; they just didn’t have the depth.”

Busby then went to the Florida Instructional League where he had another strong showing, impressing the Kansas City brass. He was named the Southern Division Outstanding Pitcher after going 5-2 with a 1.50 ERA while striking out 67 in 60 innings.

“He may be one of the most improved players in the Instructional League” Lou Gorman, the club’s director of scouting and minor league operations at the time told The Sporting News on Dec. 4, 1971. “We were very fortunate to get him. He should have gone in the first round but he had a little history of arm trouble and that scared people away. He has an outstanding curve, good control and a loose arm. His fastball is just average for velocity but it tails and can be hard to hit.

“We’re going to take him to spring training and he has a chance to make our club. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he did. He is surprisingly advanced for his amount of experience.”

Steve Busby #40 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Minnesota Twins during an Major League Baseball game circa 1979 at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Busby played for the Royals from 1972-80. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Kansas City manager Bob Lemon concurred as Spring Training kicked off in 1972, telling The Sporting News on Feb. 26 that “Busby has been very impressive. He’s inexperienced but he doesn’t show it.”

Still, the Royals sent Busby to Omaha of the Triple-A American Association, where he went 12-14 with a 3.19 ERA in 30 starts, 17 of which were complete games. He led the league in strikeouts [221] and innings pitched [217]. He had some exceptional moments along the way, including a May 4 victory against Tulsa in which he tied the American Association record by striking out eight consecutive hitters. He fanned 13 in the game and broke up Rudy Arroyo’s no-hit bid with a fifth-inning double. He then struck out seven in a row two weeks later against Iowa.

Busby closed out his season and was about to head back to California when the Royals called and summoned him to the Major Leagues that September. Kansas City starter Dick Drago suffered a broken jaw, the result of getting hit with a line drive, and Busby was to be his replacement. He would be a fixture in the Royals rotation for the next four seasons.

“I happened to be in the right spot at the right time,” Busby said. “I happened to get signed and had a pretty quick trip [through the minors]. By the end of my first full year to be able to get to the big leagues was a big move for me. I did have a little tough time adjusting to Triple-A ball. At that time, they had guys from the big leagues who were up and down so it took me about a month and a half to adjust before I felt comfortable and knew what I was doing. But I believed in myself and knew I could succeed there.”

Busby made his Major League debut at home on Sept. 8 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Twins. He pitched a complete-game five-hitter, striking out seven and walking only two. He would pitch two more complete games – at California [Sept. 20] and at Chicago [Sept. 26] – and finished the month by going 3-1 with a 1.58 ERA in 40 innings. He fanned 31, including 10 against the White Sox.

“My first game against Minnesota I had a tough time going in and trying to stay away from that ‘I finally made, I’m getting my chance stuff’ and all that,” Busby said. “Fortunately, it was the end of the season and I was pretty much in the mode of here’s another game, let’s go out and compete. I didn’t dwell on the moment.

“I enjoyed it and fortunately I didn’t get lost in where I was and am I really supposed to be here. I was able to go out and pitch reasonably well for me.”

The effort put Busby in a position where he would be competing for a spot in the 1973 rotation. It turned out that he would get just a bit more than that. The Royals were beginning to turn a corner and Busby was a major part of the club’s climb to the top of the American League West. Oakland was in the midst of its three-year run as World Series champions and five-year run as Divisional champs but the Royals were building as the A’s were breaking down. It would be just a matter of time before Kansas took control of the division.

A NO-NO AND SOME BUMPS IN THE ROAD

Kansas City manager Jack McKeon tabbed Busby as the Royals Opening Day starter in 1973 at California following what was a very strong spring training. Busby said that being on the mound for the opener wasn’t all that daunting despite having only 40 Major League innings on his resume.

Rather, there was an off-the-field issue that left him a bit shocked. President Richard Nixon was in attendance and wanted to see Busby before the game.

“What scared the heck out of me was that, after I had warmed up and started walking to the dugout, a guy in a suit comes over to me and says the president would like to see you,” Busby said. “President Nixon would like to see you. I went over, we were introduced, and he said ‘We are both Indians’. He also went to Fullerton High School so we chatted for a minute or so. That scared me worse than anything on the mound.

“You know what, I take that back. Maybe Frank Robinson scared me more. The first pitch I threw to him hasn’t come back yet. I don’t feel bad about it, though. I don’t wish it happened but it’s fine.”

Busby had made it through the first inning unscathed but Robinson, in his first season with the Angels, blasted the first pitch deep to left for what would be the first of his 30 homers that season. It was one of Robinson’s record eight Opening-Day homers and would mark a rough start for Busby, who took the loss that day. He was 1-2 with an 8.04 ERA through his first four starts heading into an April 27 outing at Detroit.

That night against the Tigers would provide Busby with one of his career highlights, though, while offering a respite from what was an otherwise poor first two-plus months of the season. Despite battling control issues [he walked six batters], Busby tossed the first of his two career no-hitters.

“I happened to catch them on a good night,” he said. “It was a cold night and their team was an older team and it was a night where they just didn’t want to swing the bats. I was wild enough, wilder than a Major League pitcher should ever be, but it worked out. They were trying to figure me out and get out of there without getting hurt.

“It was one of those things where you were afraid to blink because it might go away. It happened and I can’t explain why. It came completely out of nowhere and then I went back into the tank. I was getting my brains beat in almost every time out and I didn’t know how to handle it. It wasn’t until the middle of June that I really started to turn things around and get comfortable on the mound. It took the first half of the year to really feel like I belonged and that I could compete.”

Busby was 3-7 with a 5.06 ERA following a no-decision against Oakland on June 20. He went 13-8 over his final 22 starts, though, to finish at 16-15 while lowering his ERA to 4.23. He had a few clunkers and a few gems over the final two and half months of the season, closing with back-to-back victories at Chicago and Texas during which he allowed two runs [one earned] over 17 innings.

His strong finish was good enough to place him third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Baltimore’s Al Bumbry and Milwaukee’s Pedro Garcia.

“Mentally it gets to a point where you just start to believe in yourself,” Busby said. “It’s like a chicken and the egg thing. Does the confidence come first and it leads to success or does the success lead to confidence? I can’t answer that, but I know they go together. I have yet to see a confident loser, though.

“I can’t give you a timeline but somewhere in the middle of June during my first full year in the big leagues I started feeling like a Major League pitcher. I knew I had to get myself in gear or I wouldn’t be a Major League pitcher for very long.”

The strong finish in 1973 and recognition for what he accomplished set the stage for Busby’s career 1974 season, one that would see him take his place, temporary as it may have been, among the game’s best pitchers.

“There was a carry over into my second [full] year,” he said. “The more it happens, the better you feel about yourself and the more it has a chance to happen and it happened quite a bit in the second year. The third year was going to be my best until my shoulder blew out.”

THE HIGHEST OF THE HIGHS AND THEN THE FALL

1974 proved to be a great year for Busby. Not so much for Nixon. The two former Indians went in different directions and by the time the summer was in full swing, Nixon was leaving the White House in disgrace on Marine One while Busby was dominating.

Busby did not get the Opening Day start in ’74 and though he did pick up a win in his first start, it wasn’t a sterling effort. He gave up six runs on 10 hits and a pair of walks over five innings in a 23-6 victory over Minnesota. He began to find his grove by the end of April, though, and over a seven-start stretch [April 26-May 25], he went 5-1 with four complete games to lower his ERA from 4.42 to 3.01.

That stretch was followed by three consecutive losses, though, as Busby’s up-and-down season continued through mid-June when his fortunes finally changed. Busby pitched his second no-hitter on June 19 at Milwaukee. Only a leadoff walk to George Scott in the second inning stood between him and perfection.

When Busby retired the first nine White Sox he faced in his next start on June 24, he set an American League [that has since been broken] by retiring 33 consecutive hitters.

“That [the record] is never quite that easy,” Busby said. “I can’t tell you what I thought about it. I had no earthly idea. I didn’t even know it was a thing. They announced it over the PA that I had set a record and it caught me by surprise like most people in the stadium. It wasn’t even something I was aware of.”

The American League, however, was aware of Busby. He went 13-8 over the final three-plus months of the season to finish at 22-14 with a 3.39 ERA. He threw 292 1/3 innings [still third-most in franchise history] on the strength of 20 complete games [second in franchise history] while fanning 198 [fifth in franchise history]. He was named to the All-Star team and even got a few votes for MVP. Busby also set the franchise marks for most batters faced in a season [1,220] and hits allowed [284].

Steve Busby #40 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during an Major League baseball game circa 1975 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Busby played for the Royals from 1972-80. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

He was the second pitcher in franchise history to win 20 [Paul Splittorff, 20 in 1973] and held the top spot on the club’s all-time list until Bret Saberhagen won 23 in 1989.

The 1974 season should have been the start of something big for Busby. Instead, it was the pinnacle of his career. Things would begin to unravel the following year. Busby, however, can’t say for certain that his workload in ’74 had anything to do what happened in ’75.

“Complete games were expected,” he said. “That was a starter’s job. He was supposed to be the starter and the closer. We were raised that way. Pitching nine innings was part of the job description. I don’t think there is any way of knowing [if the workload had an impact]. If I had to deal with that, I would have gone stir crazy.

“I can’t tell you how many pitches I threw in a game or how many innings in a season. You pitched no matter how long it took you to pitch if possible. The pitch counts today, if you grew up with them, you got used to them. Unfortunately, we were never afforded that and never had a chance to get used to that. We never knew.”

The 1975 season proved to be a turning point for the Royals and for Busby. McKeon was fired after 96 games and replaced by Whitey Herzog, who piloted the club to a second-place finish, seven games back of the three-time defending World Series champion Athletics. The Royals would finish first in four of the next five seasons, culminating with a trip to the 1980 World Series, which they lost to Philadelphia.

“When I got called up in ’72 I can’t say I looked around and said we had the makings of a great team,” Busby said. “[George] Brett wasn’t there yet, [Freddie] Patek had just come over [from Pittsburgh] and [John] Mayberry was in the first few months of his [Kansas City] career [after playing part-time with Houston].

“There weren’t a lot of guys there yet that would combine into a team that would win the AL West. But Hal McRae came in [in 1973] and taught us all how to play and win. He came over from Cincinnati and the George came up and established himself as a great young player.”

It appeared as if Busby would play an integral role in Kansas City’s rise over the latter half of the Seventies, particularly when he started out so well in 1975. He had closed out June with a 12-inning, complete-game victory at California.

Busby said that he was at his best during the first half of that season – he was 11-5 with a 2.42 ERA through 18 starts – but everything changed following that game against the Angels. His shoulder felt different following that game and the usual rest in between starts didn’t seem to help alleviate the issue.

“I was scheduled to pitch four days later in Texas but there was something different,” he said. “I had a feeling of weakness in my hand and arm that I hadn’t experienced before. And it didn’t go away. It was the first time I had noticed anything abnormal about my arm. It got a little worse from time to time but I don’t think I missed any starts.

“The quality of my starts went down, though, and I wasn’t as consistent as I had been. I was trying to fight through the weakness and the lack of velocity and movement was what I noticed. I don’t think I panicked because every pitcher goes through periods where he is bothered from one thing or another. Pitching is not the most comfortable thing for an arm so I just chalked it up to one of those times when you don’t bounce back as fast.”

Steve Busby #40 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during an Major League baseball game circa 1975 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Busby played for the Royals from 1972-80. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Busby went 7-7 over the remainder of the season and his ERA climbed to 3.08 as he logged 260 1/3 innings. He did earn his second All-Star nod but that proved to be of little solace as the second half wore on. When the season ended, he went to see Jobe and Dr. Frank Kerlan. He had worked with both when experiencing arm troubles in high school and was hoping for answers. While Busby got answers they weren’t the ones for which he was looking.

“They did a lot of tests and they told me they thought they knew what it was without every saying rotator cuff,” Busby said. “We tried rest and injections and hoped it would clear up before Spring Training but it didn’t work as well as they hoped it would.

“As soon as I started to try and throw [in the spring] I knew there was something still there. I don’t know if you’d classify it as tired arm or tendinitis. Dr. Jobe said they’d keep after and try and get me through the season as best they could.”

EVERYTHING CHANGES

Busby’s 1976 season began with a stay on the disabled list and when he finally got on the mound, not much had changed. He started 13 games and had some good moments like a complete-game victory against the Yankees on May 1. But as the season progressed, the situation got worse. Busby made his final start of the season at Yankee Stadium on July 13 and took the loss after going seven innings. He finished his season at 3-3 with a 4.40 ERA.

“I got through the season, but it was not by pitching,” he said. “I ended up having surgery in the middle of July because I had gotten to a point where I could not throw overhand. There was no possible way I could do it. If I tried to raise my arm over my head it’s not going to work. I never had any problems playing golf but once they told me what it was, it made sense. Anything involving rotation under the shoulder was fine but above it was an impingement syndrome.

“It was the unknown that scared me. Dr. Jobe told me they had never performed this surgery on an active pitcher. With that in mind, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know about rehab or what the chance of recovery would be. So, with all those unknowns, I was a little bit scared.”

Compounding Busby’s frustration was the fact that the Royals were on their way to winning their first divisional crown. Busby was left as a spectator after helping turn Kansas City into a contender.

“That evolution took four years to happen,” Busby said. “The greatest thrill I had in Major League Baseball was when we won [the West] in 1976. We had all gone through the growing pains together and finally got the payoff. The biggest thing was that we had been beating our heads against the wall with the A’s for four years.

“They seemed to laugh at us and beat if anyway they had to but we finally got there in ’76. The A’s were just starting to break up a little bit and we knew we had a team to compete. They A’s were a pretty unlikeable team but you had to admire the way they were to do what they did. They were the best team in baseball for four years running, no dispute. That was quite a group of guys to play against and Cincinnati couldn’t beat them.”

The Royals would lose the ALCS to the Yankees on Chris Chambliss’s series-clinching homerun but the foundation had been laid for success in Kansas City. Whether Busby would be part of the future success remained the big question.

“The ’76 playoffs were not easy,” Busby said. “Talk about a gut punch; that was it for me. I wanted so much to be part of it and contribute. That hurt. It was what I had worked for my entire pitching life, pitching in that instance and it wasn’t available.”

Busby had plenty of time to think about the playoffs. He didn’t begin throwing again until the following spring and once he did he realized things weren’t the same. He said he felt like he was in a different body. He worked hard at his rehab, thought, and despite sitting out the entire 1977 season [he did throw three rehab innings for Class-A Daytona Beach], Busby was determined to get back on the mound for Kansas City in 1978.

“Nothing worked the way I remembered it working,” Busby said. “Whether it was my mind playing tricks, I don’t know. But I felt completely out of character. I was searching for that comfort feeling of throwing a baseball and it just wasn’t there. I don’t think I ever got that feeling back. At times it would work and feel familiar but those were few and far between over the next four years. It was a searching process and I never found a solution to it.

“The next four years were frustrating, that was the best way to put it. I never really found it. I tried all kinds of things and get into a routine but something would blow out at one time or another. It wasn’t a blur, though. It went by very slowly.”

There were few expectations of the former ace when he arrived at camp in ’78. Busby was still working his way back and he was still not his former self. Still, he made the staff out of Spring Training and started the season well enough, winning his first start while pitching 5 1/3 innings of shutout ball at Cleveland. The Indians roughed him up the following week, though, and after posting a 10.13 ERA through four outings, the Royals sent Busby to the minors.

Busby saw some action in the Gulf Coast League but spent much of his time in Omaha, where he went 3-7 with a 5.46 ERA in 12 starts. He was called back up in September but remained ineffective, allowing six runs in 10 2/3 innings over three outings.

The following season brought a little more of a sense of normalcy as Busby made the club out of Spring Training. He appeared in 22 games [12 starts], going 6-6 with a 3.63 ERA over 94 1/3 innings. Busby rode the Omaha shuttle again in 1980, pitching well in the minors and not so well in the majors, posting a 2.58 ERA in 58 innings at Triple-A and a 6.17 ERA in 42 1/3 innings for the Royals before he was released at the end of August.

“If I couldn’t pitch the way I had pitched before, it was a lost cause,” Busby said. “There was a lingering doubt because I wanted to do it on my terms and that was no longer valid. It was the cruelest cut I made for myself. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do and in the way I had been able to do it.

“I went to Spring Training in ’81 with Whitey and the Cardinals and he asked me to give it a shot. I did and it was okay; certainly not what I had been pre-injury. He wanted me to go to Triple-A and get some work in and I said I can’t do it. I had to make a decision and that’s how I left it. I don’t think it gnawed at me. Every pitcher and player, when it’s over, when it comes up and slaps you in the face, you have to make a decision. I tried and it didn’t work, so I had to do something else. I wish things had turned out different for me and the club but they didn’t and that’s just something I had to love with.”

POST-PLAYING DAYS

Busby went into broadcasting following his playing days spending the bulk of the next three decades broadcasting with the Texas Rangers. He also taught some pitching on the side but never officially got into coaching or managing. He retired five years ago.

“Broadcasting worked out great,” Busby said. “It was perfect for me. It was a feeling of being able to handle my career and turn what I considered a lack of a pitching career into something that gave me insight and the ability to go into the booth. Maybe I just accepted that my days as a player were finished.

“I didn’t envy the players and their chance to play. The only thing I ever envied was their ability to compete. Competition is what I enjoyed the most. I couldn’t do that anymore and that was that. Missing the competition was the big thing.”

Busby considered coaching following his playing days but backed off the idea after talking to then Kansas City general manager John Schuerholz, who informed him of the pay scale and the parameters of the job.

Busby doesn’t watch much baseball now. He keeps up with the Royals and the Dodgers [they are still a favorite] but otherwise he says he is busy being a professional grandfather.

“I had 40 years of traveling and hotels,” Busby said. “That was fun and I am blessed at having been able to do it and I’m glad I’m out it.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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