#CardCorner: 1976 Topps Dennis Leonard
And though an incredibly heavy workload limited his career to what amounted to nine full seasons, the Kansas City Royals’ ace left an indelible mark in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
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The workhorse of a Royals team that won five American League West titles in six seasons from 1976-81, Leonard was a product of the prolific Kansas City farm system of the early 1970s run by Lou Gorman and John Schuerholz. Born May 8, 1951, in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Leonard enrolled at Iona College and pitched for the Gaels, going 16-8 with 278 strikeouts in 220 innings over three seasons.
Following his junior season, Leonard was selected by the Royals in the second round (42nd overall pick) of the 1972 MLB Draft and sent Kingsport (Tenn.) in the Appalachian League.
The next year, Leonard was 15-9 with 212 strikeouts in 206 innings for Class A San Jose of the California League. Now on the fast track to the big leagues, Leonard went 12-13 with a 3.47 ERA for a Triple-A Omaha Royals team that went 54-82 in 1974.
“He’s aggressive,” Schuerholz told the Kansas City Star about Leonard in the summer of 1974. “His one drawback is that sometimes he tends to come up with his pitches.”
That tendency would remain when Leonard got to the big leagues and manifest itself in home runs from the opposition. But like many good pitchers of his generation, Leonard had the uncanny knack of limiting most of his home runs to solo shots.
Leonard debuted for the Royals on Sept. 4, 1974, and was 0-4 in five appearances in the season’s final month. He would not post another losing season for 11 years.
Gorman stated in the press that he expected Leonard to be a part of the Royals’ rotation in 1975, but Leonard was the team’s last cut in Spring Training and made three starts for Omaha in April, going 0-2 with a 4.26 ERA. But that did not dampen the Royals’ enthusiasm for their young pitcher – and when Lindy McDaniel was placed on the disabled list on May 2, the Royals recalled Leonard.
After a bumpy first few outings that left him with a 2-2 record and 4.42 ERA, Leonard settled in and began posting wins with regularity. Over his final 15 starts of the season, Leonard was 10-2 with four complete games and a 3.30 ERA. He finished the season with a 15-7 mark in 212.1 innings.
More importantly, the Royals had found an ace to go with a talented lineup that featured Amos Otis, Hal McRae and future Hall of Famer George Brett.
He began the season 4-8, but dusted off the slider from his pitching repertoire – a pitch he had not thrown in years due to the pain it caused his elbow – and went 16-4 with a 2.35 ERA over his last 23 starts.
The Royals steamrolled to their second AL West title in as many seasons with a record of 102-60, and this time Leonard pitched well in the postseason – limiting the Yankees to four hits and one earned run over nine innings in a 3-2 win in Game 3. But with the Royals leading 3-2 heading to the ninth inning the decisive Game 5, manager Whitey Herzog turned to Leonard on one day of rest to get the final three outs.
Leonard allowed a single to Paul Blair to start the ninth and then walked Roy White, prompting Herzog to call on Larry Gura in relief. Gura allowed a single to Mickey Rivers to tie the game, and Mark Littell then surrendered a sacrifice fly to Willie Randolph with what proved to be the winning run in the Yankees’ 5-3 victory.
“I was just trying for strikes,” Leonard told the Fort Myers News-Press after being tagged with the loss. “When I was warming up I felt I had good stuff. But what can I say?”
Leonard and the Royals had an off year in 1979, with Leonard going 14-12 with a 4.08 ERA and the Royals finishing three games behind the champion Angels in the AL West. But under new manager Jim Frey in 1980, Kansas City reclaimed its crown – with Leonard going 20-11 in a big league-best 38 starts.
This time, the Royals beat the Yankees in the ALCS, with Leonard winning Game 2 by allowing two runs over eight innings. Advancing to the World Series after sweeping New York, the Royals lost to Philadelphia in six games – with Leonard going 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA. Most of the damage against Leonard came in a Game 1 start where he allowed six runs in 3.2 innings, but he regrouped to permit just two earned runs over seven innings in a Game 4 win.
Another surgery followed and Leonard missed the entire 1984 season and most of 1985, making just two September one-inning relief appearances in a year the Royals eventually won their elusive World Series.
Leonard returned to the Royals rotation in 1986, throwing a three-hit shutout against the Blue Jays in his first start of the season on April 12. He was a respectable 8-13 with a 4.44 ERA in 30 starts that year. But with his contract up, Leonard called it a career.
In 12 seasons, Leonard was 144-106 with 103 complete games, 23 shutouts and a 3.70 ERA. From 1976-80, the 6-foot-1, 190 right-hander averaged 18 wins and 273 innings pitched per season.
With a few different bounces of the ball, the Kansas City team of the late 1970s might have been considered a dynasty. But even without multiple titles, Dennis Leonard and the Royals proved they were indeed champions.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum