Al Hrabosky will never be confused with Al Michaels in broadcasting circles.
Hrabosky, a former relief pitcher known as the “Mad Hungarian,” admits the main reason he’s where he is today--color analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals’ television network--is the color he brought to his 13-year major league career and his popularity among fans.
The former Savanna High and Fullerton College star was a crowd favorite in St. Louis and Kansas City, where he was as much showman as competitor.
Fans loved to see him go behind the mound, turn his back to the plate, work himself into a fury, pound the ball in his mitt, glare at the batter and unleash a 90-m.p.h. fastball.
Of course, considering opponents’ disdain for Hrabosky’s antics, he’s somewhat lucky to be doing anything today.
Seems whenever you turned around, someone was trying to put his fist through Hrabosky’s trademark Fu Manchu mustache, break his Cardinal number in two or kick his Royal you-know-what. Hrabosky fought more often during his prime than Evander Holyfield.
“There were a lot of stories about my lack of sanity,” Hrabosky, 43, recalled last week in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Cardinals were playing the Padres. “Most of them were true.”
Hrabosky’s first major brawl was probably his most memorable. The Cardinals were playing the Cubs in St. Louis in 1974, shortly after Hrabosky adopted what he called his “controlled hate mood” routine.
Bill Madlock was up, and just as Hrabosky was set to pitch, Madlock returned to the on-deck circle to put pine tar on his bat. He came back to the plate smiling, thinking he had upset Hrabosky’s concentration.
When Madlock was ready, Hrabosky walked behind the mound to do his routine again. But when Hrabosky went back to the rubber, Madlock returned to the on-deck circle, bent on winning the battle of wills.
Plate umpire Shag Crawford then ordered Hrabosky to pitch, he fired, and Crawford called Strike 1 with no one in the batter’s box.
That brought Madlock, on-deck hitter Jose Cardenal and Cubs’ Manager Jim Marshall out to argue, with Madlock and Cardenal in each batter’s box and Marshall near the plate.
“My next pitch separated all three of them,” Hrabosky said, grinning. “For some reason that started a fight. And it was a good one.”
So was the 1978 brawl against the Angels in Kansas City. The Angels had hit Hrabosky hard all season, and Carney Lansford had just hit a three-run homer off him when Lyman Bostock came to the plate.
“I wanted to send a message that next season would be a different story,” said Hrabosky, who played eight seasons in St. Louis (1970-77), two in Kansas City (1978-79) and three in Atlanta (1980-82).
Hrabosky sent a pitch right at Bostock’s head, which sent the batter sprawling into the dirt.
Bostock looked toward on-deck batter Don Baylor, and both charged the mound. Hrabosky tackled Bostock, and Baylor tackled Hrabosky, as dozens of players and coaches stormed in.
With the pile separated and order seemingly restored--amazingly, no one was ejected--Bostock continued to scream at Hrabosky. Whitey Herzog, then the Royals’ manager, told Hrabosky he was out of the game, so Hrabosky charged Bostock, sparking Round 2.
“Dave Chalk was on the bottom of the pile, and afterward he asked me, “Who were you whaling on?’ ” said Baylor, now the Cardinals’ batting instructor. “I got in a couple good shots on (Hrabosky’s) back. It was crazy.”
Baylor said he and Hrabosky have laughed about the incident over the years.
But not so funny was a bizarre footnote to the story, which proved Hrabosky had plenty of company in this mad, mad world.
Hrabosky said shortly after the brawl, he went to visit a friend at a nightclub and was introduced to another man Hrabosky described as a bouncer/hitman type.
“He said he was at the game and got so mad during the fight that he wanted to come out and help me,” Hrabosky said. “Then, he said, ‘As a matter of fact, if you want, he (Bostock) is dead.’ I told him to forget about it, that he was blowing it all out of proportion.”
Word of the conversation eventually spread through the Royal clubhouse, and a few days later, as Hrabosky rode the elevator in a Minnesota hotel, he overheard people saying Bostock had been killed.
At the time, Hrabosky was unaware of the circumstances surrounding Bostock’s death--the former Angel was in the back seat of his uncle’s car in Gary, Ind., when he was hit by a shotgun blast apparently intended for the woman seated next to him.
When Hrabosky got to the park that day, Herzog told Hrabosky there were a couple of detectives there who wanted to talk to him. Hrabosky’s jaw dropped.
It was a joke.
“That was some sick humor,” Hrabosky said. “But the bottom line is we were in Yankee Stadium that year for the playoffs, and I got a telegram that said, ‘Wishing you were here, Lyman Bostock,’ a month after his death. There are some weird people out there.”
Of course, Hrabosky wasn’t extremely normal, either.
This was a guy who, when the Royals were struggling early in 1978, brought a real grenade in the clubhouse and declared, “If we don’t start winning, I’m going to blow you guys up.”
Hrabosky, a weapons demolition expert in the Army, kept the grenade in his locker all season, and when the Royals clinched the Western Division championship, a Kansas City bomb squad came and took the grenade apart.
This also was a guy who, when he played in the Mexican League one winter, used to patrol with police officers in the back of a paddy wagon until 4 a.m., just for the fun of it. And he still owns a mercenary school in the Bahamas.
All these experiences and anecdotes must help in the broadcast booth, right?
Well, not quite.
“My biggest concern when I was playing was that people perceived me as being a freak show, and I didn’t want them to think that way of me in the booth,” Hrabosky said. “I play it pretty straight. My time’s over. People tune in to watch these players, not me.”
For as diverse a personality as Hrabosky has, he reached the major leagues with only one pitch, a fastball. Hrabosky didn’t begin pitching until his senior year (1967) at Savanna but developed rapidly at Fullerton College under Coach Mike Sgobba.
He signed with the Cardinals in June, 1969, and within a year, he was in the big leagues. It was in 1974, when the threat of being demoted to the minor leagues arose, that Hrabosky developed the Mad Hungarian persona.
“It was a combination of self-hypnosis, visualization and a pep talk,” Hrabosky said. “It was a controlled aggression. I wanted to kill whoever stood in the batter’s box.”
Hrabosky’s antics rubbed many a batter the wrong way and also caused some problems for broadcasters.
“I had to talk while he was stalling on the mound,” said Jack Buck, long-time Cardinals’ announcer. “He wore me out. He had a good act and a very good fastball.”
Hrabosky had his best season in 1975, going 13-3 with a 1.67 earned-run average and a National League-leading 22 saves. But he fell out of favor with the Cardinals--owner August Busch Jr. didn’t like his long hair, and Manager Vern Rapp instituted a rule barring facial hair in 1977--and was traded to the Royals in 1978.
He saved 20 games for Kansas City in 1978, but a series of leg injuries and an inability to develop other pitches led to his decline. He retired after 1982 with a 64-35 career record, 3.11 ERA and 97 saves, joining the Cardinals’ broadcast team in 1985.
“If you can’t play, this is the next best thing,” Hrabosky said. “And I definitely can’t play anymore.”
Which is too bad, said Jack Buck, long-time Cardinal announcer.
“You know, you don’t see many crazy people in this game anymore,” Buck said, reflecting on Hrabosky’s career. “There’s plenty of room for color.”