Before Ohtani, there was Ken Brett

George's older brother considered the best two-way prospect many have ever seen

March 23rd, 2018

Ken Brett: In my baseball career, I was traded NINE times, but wherever I went, one thing was always the same. Everyone drank Lite Beer from Miller. In Boston, they said the best thing about Lite was that it's got a third less calories than their regular beer. In L.A., they said the best thing was Lite's less filling. But I think the best thing is it tastes great, right here in New York City.
Bartender: Ken, this isn't New York.
Ken: Chicago.
Bartender: No!
Ken: Milwaukee.
Bartender: Ha ha ha.
Ken: Kansas City.
Announcer: Lite Beer from Miller.
Ken: Omaha? Spokane?
Announcer: Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less.
Ken: Utica?
-- Lite Beer commercial, 1980

If you are a certain age, you probably remember this commercial that played all the time back in 1980. But there's something you don't know about it, something that tells you a lot about the ex-ex-ex-ex-ex-ex-ex pitcher, as Ken Brett was identified in the commercial.
Then there's probably a lot you don't know about Ken Brett. There's a decent chance you know that he was the older brother of Hall of Famer George Brett. If you saw the commercial, you know that he played for 10 teams, which was then a record for a pitcher (he was NOT traded nine times though; only six times, all of them in fewer than six years from 1971-77).
Watch the commercial
If you are a trivia-savvy baseball fan, you might know that he is the youngest pitcher ever to appear in a World Series game. And if you are a SERIOUSLY devoted baseball fan, you might even know the extraordinary baseball thing he did that even Babe Ruth did not match.
But even these wonderful things only skim the surface of the amazing career of Ken Brett.
* *
For all the talk of being the best two-way prospect ever, Ken Brett came first. He was a phenom on the mound and in center field before he became a journeyman. About 30 years ago, John Garrity wrote a book called "The George Brett Story." This was shortly after George almost hit .400 and was one of the biggest sports stars in America. Garrity quoted George's father, Jack:
"I went to a game one time," Jack said, "and somebody said, 'Casey Stengel is in the stands today to see him.' Yogi Berra was there. Carl Hubbell came to see him. I thought, 'God. Maybe he's good.'
"He was Mister America -- it was almost like he was a man among boys. I thought he could be a decathlon athlete. ... And he had a knack for doing the right thing. He was very modest. He was quiet. He was somebody you could be proud of. ... I always wanted him to play for the Yankees. I wanted him to replace Mickey Mantle."
Only after a little while did Garrity reveal that Jack was not talking about George. He was talking about Ken Brett.
"To this day," George says, "people just flat out say that he may be one of the best all-around athletes to ever come out of Southern California. ... He could have gone to any college in the country on a football scholarship or baseball. And academically."
Mister America. Future Major League All-Star Scott McGregor grew up in the same neighborhood; he said that Ken was his idol. But he was everyone's idol, really. Ken was the fourth pick in the 1966 MLB Draft. Here's how different it was then, The Associated Press story that introduced him to America said this:
"Boston snatched Ken Brett, a 17-year-old schoolboy from El Segundo, Calif., who was recommended by scouts."
That's a weird line, right? Recommended by scouts? Why did they put that in there? Were other players in the draft NOT recommended by scouts?
But there is some underlying truth to it because scouts adored Ken Brett. He was the perfect prospect. He was smart. He was a good student. He was an incredible athlete. And he was equally gifted as a pitcher and a hitter; going into the Draft, nobody knew which way he would go. Joe Stephenson, the legendary Red Sox scout (and father of Jerry Stephenson, a big leaguer and himself legendary scout for the Dodgers), saw Brett hit and wanted him to play center field.
"Kemer [Ken Brett's nickname] was the best prospect I ever saw," Stephenson once told Peter Gammons. "Kemer was a combination of George, Fred Lynn and Roger Maris."

But the Red Sox wanted Ken to pitch instead ... and why not? Carl Yastrzemski said he threw as hard as Sudden Sam McDowell, who had one of the greatest fastballs in baseball history. In time, injuries would steal that fastball. And after that happened, there was some some second-guessing, particularly by people who saw the Mister America version of Ken Brett.
How good a hitter could he have been?
"What you have to understand," Ken Brett's close friend, 1980 American League Cy Young winner Steve Stone, says, "is that when you have a brother like George Brett, a Hall of Famer, an all-time great, you become the other brother in the relationship. But what they don't understand is that Ken Brett could hit better than George. He could throw better than George. He could run better than George. He did just about everything better than George."
George concurs.
"Whoever was drafting fifth [Cubs] was taking him as a center fielder," George says. "Whoever was drafting sixth [Washington] was taking him as a center fielder. Whoever was drafting seventh [St. Louis] was taking him as a center fielder. I don't know how many teams there were in 1966 [20], but he was everybody's choice as a left-handed-hitting center fielder. He could run. He had a great arm, obviously. But the guy could frickin' hit "
* *
They called him Shoeless Ken Brett when he first got to the Minor Leagues in Oneonta, N.Y. He was 17 and, as the nickname suggests, he didn't like shoes. He wasn't wearing shoes when he signed with the Red Sox for $71,500. He didn't wear shoes when he walked into the ballpark. "That must be the way they dress on the West Coast," Oneonta's general manager Neal Bennett said. The local newspaper called him Shoeless Ken the entire time he was with the team.
He didn't mind. Ken Brett let things roll off his back. He was ultra-competitive, sure. He was ambitious, sure. But he had another side, too. He loved to read. He enjoyed visiting art galleries. He dated a lot -- he often told his son Casey that it was for the best that he didn't get married while he was playing ball. Ken often said that he loved baseball and played the game hard, but he lacked the particular fury of his younger brother George, lacked the single-minded drive of George.
"Played each game with ceaseless intensity and unbridled passion," is how George's Hall of Fame plaque begins. It was different with Ken.
"He loved baseball," says Casey. "But even my dad would say that there was a time on the mound when he looked over at George and just thought how incredibly focused he was, his eyes always on the win. Meanwhile, my dad on the mound, he was competitive, don't get me wrong, but sometimes he said a plane was flying overhead and he'd think, 'I wonder where that plane is going.'"
As an 18-year-old, Ken blew through the Minor Leagues. He threw so hard and seemed so mature that the Red Sox called him to the big leagues to make an appearance just nine days after his 19th birthday. And then the craziest thing happened -- that was the year of the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox, the year Yaz led them to the World Series. And just before the Series began, lefty Bill Landis went into the Army -- this was during the Vietnam War -- and another lefty, Sparky Lyle, got hurt. Boston got a special exemption to allow Ken Brett to be added to the postseason roster.
He came in to pitch in Game 4, throwing a scoreless inning in a loss. That made him the youngest pitcher in World Series history (he remains that, as well as the youngest to pitch in any postseason game). And he left an impression.
"He throws as hard as anyone I've ever caught," Elston Howard told reporters.
"With the kind of stuff he showed us, you wonder why he isn't starting the Series," Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said.
"Right now," Kemer added, "the only things that interest me are baseball and girls."

What a talent. That year, 1967, another 19-year-old phenom named Gary Nolan came up for the Reds and was terrific, going 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA and leading the National League in strikeouts per nine innings. The Red Sox made it clear they liked Ken Brett better. Others agreed. Brett was limitless.
Two weeks after the World Series ended, Brett was called up for a six-month stint in the Army. Shortly after getting out, he badly hurt his elbow.
"The worst curse in life," Kemer would say many years later, "is unlimited potential."
* * *
In 1970, Ken Brett had enough pop left in his elbow to strike out 155 batters in 139 innings. He became just the fifth pitcher to pitch 100 innings and average 10 strikeouts per nine innings. But he was wild and home-run prone, and his days as a power pitcher were numbered.
It was a common story then -- Nolan had more success but found himself pitching through agonizing pain. The Reds told him that the pain was in his head, at one point sending him to see a dentist (yes, a dentist) who claimed he could fix Nolan's problem with a tooth extraction.
Both would have to find their way as pitchers after they lost their fastballs. Brett would have to do it on the move. In 1971, the Red Sox traded Kemer to Milwaukee, the first trade of Brett's career. A year later, on Halloween Day, the Brewers traded him to Philadelphia. It was there where Ken achieved perhaps the greatest professional achievement of his career.
And he did it as a hitter.

What did George call him? Right: A guy who could "frickin' hit." With the Red Sox, Ken Brett hit .295/.338/.508 -- a 125 OPS+. Yes, it was only 69 plate appearances but the point remains. In 1973, with the Phillies, Brett took it to another level -- this was the time he did something even Babe Ruth never did.
On June 9, he started against the Padres and pitched well, going 7 1/3 innings and allowing just one run. And in the bottom of the fifth inning, with the score tied 1-1, he homered against Bill Greif. That's one.
Four days later, he started again, this time against the Dodgers. It was a 16-3 blowout for the Phillies; Brett threw a complete-game five-hitter. And in the fifth inning, Brett homered off of knuckleballer Charlie Hough. That's two.
On June 18, he started against the Mets and pitched a complete game -- he struck out Willie Mays twice. It ended up being his third win in a row ... and in the fourth inning, with the Phillies down by two, he homered off fellow lefty Ray Sadecki. That's three.
It was now becoming a story. "He makes it look so easy," Phillies manager Danny Ozark said.
"I really don't expect the hitting to continue," Kemer said. "I'm going to see a lot more breaking balls once the word gets around the league."
On June 23, Ken Brett started in Montreal. He won his fourth straight game, throwing another complete game. And in the seventh inning, with the Phillies up 3-0, he homered again, this time off Tom Walker. It was his fourth consecutive start with a homer, a Major League record that might never be broken. Babe Ruth didn't do it. Maybe Shohei Ohtani will someday.
But here's the best part of all -- it should have been FIVE straight starts with a homer. On June 3 -- the start before the streak began -- Kemer faced the Giants at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. In the sixth inning, he hit a long fly ball to right-center against starter Jim Barr. The ball appeared to go over the fence. Dick Stello, the second-base umpire, thought it bounced over the fence and called it a ground-rule double.
To be blunt: Dick Stello totally blew the call. Garry Maddox was playing center for the Giants that day. He yelled at right fielder Bobby Bonds, "How come Brett stopped at second?" Both had watched the ball go over the fence.
After Brett hit his homer in the fourth consecutive game, Brett was asked about the home run that was taken away from him.
He smiled.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "If I ever get to 713 home runs [one shy of Babe Ruth], I'm going to be really ticked off at that umpire."

Brett had a good career. He played 14 years in the big leagues. He made an All-Star team. He took a couple of no-hitters into the ninth inning. He hit 10 big league home runs, which is top 50 all-time among pitchers and more than all but 10 Hall of Fame pitchers. He was so often compared to Sandy Koufax -- well, he did hit five times as many home runs as Koufax.
The question is: How do you deal with what could have been?
"When I watch someone with the talent of Kenny," Stone says, "when I see someone who was that talented, that extraordinary, and then your body betrays you, it's a real frustration. I have no doubt in my mind that if Ken had not gotten hurt, he could have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. If he had been given the chance, he might have been a Hall of Fame center fielder, too."
Ken joked about what a good hitter he would have been. In 1980, when George was going for the .400 batting average, Ken famously said: "If it hadn't been for the DH rule, I'd have been the first in the family to hit .400." He might have been. But the thing that struck everyone who knew Ken Brett was how uninterested he was in the whole issue of "What might have been." He was too busy loving the life of a baseball player.
"I remember the first game they brought him in," George says of Ken's first appearance with Kansas City in 1980. "Jim Frey was our manager, he calls in to bring in the lefty. My brother runs in from the right-field bullpen in Kansas City, and he was like an airplane, running like this [with his arms in the air, like wings] and doing all this crap, and you know I'm thinking, 'That's why he got traded nine times.'"
George is joking, of course, but the story is descriptive nonetheless: Ken Brett had a blast playing baseball. He had an absolute blast. Yes, he gave it all on the field. He was proud of the way he taught himself how to pitch -- how to survive -- after the injuries wore him down and he could no longer throw the hard fastball.
"When nature and attrition took away the talent that made him destined to be a star," Stone says, "well, a lot of people would have hung their head and said, 'Oh, woe is me.' But Ken said, 'OK, let's see what I have left, what I can do to be successful. I'm a different guy now. I can't blow it by everybody. But I've still got it. I have it inside. I know what it takes to win, even without my amazing gifts.'"
He kept finding clubs to help ... a lot of clubs. That was another record he set -- most clubs for a pitcher. That's since been broken. Anyway, Ken didn't see the journeyman life as a curse.
"My dad used to say he was happy for George, happy that he got to play for one team, Kansas City, his whole career," Casey says. "But then my dad would say he knew a good restaurant in every single city, because he lived and played and interacted with so with many cities. He would say, "I love the fact that George got to have the special relationship with Bret Saberhagen, but I have friends all through baseball. I know everybody in baseball. I can joke with anybody in baseball.'"

Yes, the jokes. Few people have ever made so many jokes … or pulled quite so many practical jokes. Everywhere Casey Brett goes he hears about another one. Like this: Once in Sarasota, Fla., Kemer was hanging out with George and Stone, this was probably 1977, just as George was becoming as star. The check comes, it's around $36, and George feels like a big man and says he will pick it up. The waitress comes over and George holds out a $100 bill.
As she leans over, Ken whispers in her ear: "Keep the change."
Well, she walks off ... and George keeps waiting for her to come back with the change. This goes on for a while until finally he goes looking for her, and he says, 'Hey, I gave you a $100 bill.'" Ballplayers were making an average $50,000 in 1977; few of them could throw around $100 bills. The waitress told him the gentleman had told her to keep the change. He said, "Keep the change? Who gives out tips like that?"
And then he figured out it was Kemer.
It was always Kemer. He was the guy passing gas in a crowded elevator and then blaming everyone else. He was the guy starting arguments for no reason. Once, Stone remembers, White Sox announcer Harry Caray walked up to Kemer in a bar and in no uncertain terms said, "Hey, how come you were so good last year and so [lousy] this year?"
Without missing a beat, Kemer said, "Harry, it's nice to see you. Thanks for stopping by."
"He had fun," George says. "I don't think anybody had more fun playing the game than he did. I tried. But I don't think I had as much fun as him."
* * *
Ken Brett died in 2003 of brain cancer. He was just 55 years old. In his last days, when friends called him, they found him to be be as optimistic as he had ever been. That was just Ken Brett's nature.
But this isn't a sad story, so it's back to the Miller Lite commercial. Casey loves that commercial. When I ask him his two favorite things about his father's wonderful career, he mentions the record for youngest pitcher in the World Series. And he mentions the Miller Lite commercial.
"That commercial," Casey says, "it kind of represented my dad perfectly. It hit the nail on the head. He was the journeyman ballplayer. And he loved it. He just loved it. I'll bet if you get any journeyman ballplayer who played 12 or 13 years for a bunch of teams, he'd probably have some great stories. He might even have a record or two, though maybe not one as cool as being the youngest pitcher in the World Series.
"But that was my dad. That's what I loved about that commercial so much; he represented all those guys, all those journeymen who loved the game just like he did."
Here is the part you probably didn't know: Ken Brett did not get a check for doing that commercial. He did not get paid a commission.
He got paid in beer -- a lifetime supply of Miller Lite.
"Every week, the beer distribution truck would stop by our house," Casey says. "And they would leave behind a ridiculous amount of beer. I mean a ridiculous amount. Every week."
Ken couldn't drink all that beer ... he was really more of a scotch man, anyway. So he started gifting free beer. Everybody who Ken Brett knew would at some point be given some Miller Lite. One year -- probably because of the commercial -- he managed the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League. He would set up contests with the winners getting a 30-rack of Miller Lite.
Point is, the beer kept coming. And Ken Brett, for the rest of his life, just kept giving it away.