Big John Mayberry went from Detroit sandlots to major league all-star

John Mayberry

John Mayberry played for Detroit’s Northwestern High and went on to hit 255 home runs in the majors.

This is the first in a monthly series on baseball players born in Michigan.

It was probably lost on most Detroit Tigers fans, even the die hard ones, that one of last spring’s training camp invitees to Lakeland was the son of a prominent native of Detroit. The Tigers brought John Mayberry, Jr. to camp as a non-roster player, giving him the chance to make the team as a backup outfielder. Mayberry remained with the Tigers through the tail-end of spring training, but failed to impress the brass sufficiently in his bid to make the team. Rather than send him out to Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers gave him his release on March 31, just days before the start of the 2016 season.

Mayberry didn’t find work after that, leaving him out of Organized Baseball in 2016. Given his age (32) and the fact that he hit so poorly in his last major league stint with the New York Mets (when he batted .167), it’s likely that Mayberry’s professional career has come to an end. Barring a comeback in the Japanese Leagues or the Mexican League, it appears that Mayberry will close out his career with seven major league seasons, including some solid years in Philadelphia, but a feeling of general disappointment that he never quite lived up to the hype that labeled him one of the Phillies’ top prospects in the mid-2000s.

The career of Mayberry’s father was less disappointing; in fact, at one point the elder Mayberry was regarded as one of the game’s top left-handed power sources. From 1972 to 1980, Mayberry carved out a place as an intimidating slugger, a kind of a poor man’s version of Reggie Jackson or Willie McCovey (whom he had idolized as a youngster during the 1960s). With his patience and power, Mayberry terrorized American League pitchers, particularly right-handed throwers. And then rather suddenly, it all came to an end, amidst a sea of rumors that remains somewhat clouded to this day.

While the younger Mayberry was born in Kansas City, MO, the senior Mayberry traces his roots to Detroit, where he was born in 1949. As a youngster, he played baseball on the sandlots of Detroit, and frequently attended games at Tiger Stadium, where he developed a relationship with one of the team’s stars. “I used to go watch the Tigers play. Willie Horton was my idol,” Mayberry told The Sporting News in 1968. “[Willie] used to give me batting tips and even gave me some of his bats—good ones, not broken ones.”

Aside from their love of baseball, Mayberry and Horton shared another common bond: Northwestern High School. “Willie spends more time there than I do, and he’s willing to help,” Mayberry told Bob Hurt of The Sporting News in a late 1960s interview. “He’s always telling me to be quick with my hands.”

Mayberry starred for four years at Northwestern, playing baseball, basketball, and football. Mayberry’s basketball skills approached his baseball talents, twice earning him a place on the Detroit News’ all-state basketball team. But he enjoyed baseball the most.

In making his college choice, Mayberry remained in-state. He enrolled at Michigan, where he became a star for the Wolverines—both as a hitter and a pitcher—and drew the attention of a gaggle of major league scouts. Among the teams to watch him were the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, New York Mets, and of course, the Tigers.

Mayberry became eligible for the major league draft in 1967. The Tigers would have loved the opportunity to take the local star; he figured to be a logical candidate to replace an aging Norm Cash at some point. But the Tigers’ first-round pick fell late, 15th out of 20 teams. The Tigers ended up drafting a right-handed pitcher named Jim Foor. Nine picks earlier, the Tigers watched the Astros select the 17-year-old Mayberry, making him the No. 6 pick overall in a draft that saw fellow first baseman Ron Blomberg and left-hander Jon Matlack taken in the first five.

It did not take long for Mayberry to become one of the top prospects in the minds of Astros management, which liked him for his considerable talent and even-keeled temperament. Scouts compared him to a young McCovey. That was the good-news development for the young Mayberry. The bad news? The Astros already had a flock of capable first basemen, including Rusty Staub, Bob Watson, and Curt Blefary (followed by Joe Pepitone). Over the course of four straight seasons, the Astros split Mayberry’s season between Houston and their minor league affiliates. He received only sporadic playing time in Houston. When he did play with the Astros, he didn’t hit much. It probably didn’t help matters that Mayberry had to play home games at the Houston Astrodome, a kind of death sentence for high-octane sluggers.

The Astros became so frustrated with Mayberry during the 1971 season, feeling that he was swinging too much for the home run ball, that they tried to shorten his swing and make him a slap hitter. For a player of Mayberry’s size (235 pounds) and prodigious power, that approach made little sense. “They wanted me to cut down on my strikeouts,” Mayberry told Baseball Digest, “but all long ball hitters seem to strike out a lot, don’t they? What happened was that I not only wasn’t cutting down on my strikeouts, but I wasn’t hitting the long ball any more either.”

Thankfully, the Astros decided to part ways with Mayberry that winter, before they had a chance to ruin him as a player. By now, Staub and Blefary had already parted the organization, while Watson had moved to the outfield. But when the Astros acquired Lee May in the Joe Morgan blockbuster with the Cincinnati Reds, they made it clear that they had no more room for Mayberry at first base. Just days later, the Astros traded Mayberry to the Kansas City Royals for the rather inglorious package of pitchers Jim York and Lance Clemons. It would turn out to be one of the most one-sided transactions in major league history.

Desperately needing power, the Royals wisely made “Big John” their starting first baseman. Mayberry rewarded their faith by slugging .507, hitting 25 home runs, and earning some votes in the American League’s 1972 MVP race. Mayberry became one of the first building blocks for the expansion franchise, along with Amos Otis, another shrewd trade acquisition who had come to the Royals from the New York Mets. Soon after came Hal McRae (through a trade with the Cincinnati Reds) and George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson through a fertile farm system.

Mayberry provided an ingredient that the other young Royals could not: raw, left-handed power. Over a span of four seasons in Kansas City, Mayberry twice compiled slugging percentages of better than .500. He also exhibited extraordinary knowledge of the strike zone, rarely swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone and twice leading the American League in walks, with 122 and 119. Mayberry’s power and patience game worked, even at Royals Stadium, where the artificial turf and long outfield dimensions tended to favor players who hit line drives, ran fast, and stole bases. Mayberry also did plenty of damage on the road, where he generally hit more of his home runs during his Royals career.

As well as Mayberry played in his first four seasons with Kansas City, his game began to fall off in 1976. His power abandoned him. The situation worsened in 1977, reaching a crisis point during the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. Mayberry played poorly throughout that series, culminating in the disaster of Game Four. Prior to that game, he showed up late to the ballpark, apparently because he had spent the previous night partying and drinking a bit too hard. Some of the Royals, including manager Whitey Herzog, felt that Mayberry was hungover. At one point in the game, the first baseman dropped an easy pop-up, allowing the Yankees to sustain a rally.

By the end of the fourth inning, Herzog had seen enough. He pulled Mayberry from the game, replacing him with John Wathan. The manager also kept Mayberry out of Game Five, refusing to even use him as a pinch-hitter, as the Royals lost a heartbreaking series to the Yankees.

Mayberry’s antics in the playoffs essentially sealed his fate in Kansas City. The following spring, Herzog convinced the front office to get rid of Mayberry. Publicly, the Royals made it seem that they wanted to move Mayberry out so as to make room for top prospect Clint Hurdle, but Herzog wanted him shipped out as a matter of addition-by-subtraction. The Royals wanted to rid themselves of Mayberry so badly that they accepted cash (and no players) in a transaction with the Toronto Blue Jays.

A fresh start in Toronto helped Mayberry, who found Exhibition Stadium to his liking. Over the next four seasons, Big John put up big numbers, giving the Jays a much-needed power source in the middle of their lineup. His home run output reached 30 in 1980, a sign that Mayberry still had something left at the age of 31.

After the strike-shortened season of 1981, a poor start to 1982 convinced the Jays that Mayberry was showing the effects of age. They began to shop Mayberry, hoping that someone would offer them a player of substance for their veteran first baseman. Much to their delight, they began trade talks with the Yankees, who had decided to abandon their newly formed “Bronx Burners” offense and now wanted to regain their image as the “Bronx Bombers.” The Yankees became so desperate to find power that they offered two top prospects—Jeff Reynolds and Tom Dodd—and veteran first baseman Dave Revering. It was a vast overpay for a past-his-prime slugger who was now 33.

Being a young fan at the time, I didn’t understand any of that. All I could think of was the John Mayberry who had dominated the American League home runs charts for so many years, first with the Royals and then the Blue Jays. In truth, Mayberry had almost nothing left. Over the balance of the season, a sum of over 200 at-bats, he hit only eight home runs for the Yankees. He finished with a slugging percentage of .353, his worst mark since 1976.

In the spring of 1983, the Yankees took another look at Mayberry but did not like what they saw. They released him, forcing into retirement. Just like that, Mayberry’s career was over, but the rumors surrounding him persisted. These were rumors not just of alcohol, but drug abuse. The media never publicly reported Mayberry’s alleged problems with drugs, but the whispers remained. Mayberry has never publicly acknowledged using drugs, but the stigma, perhaps unfair, remained in baseball circles for many years.

Those rumors intensified in 1999, when Mayberry was arrested in Kansas City scuffling with police. During the incident, Mayberry swallowed a plastic bag, which the police believed to be evidence of drug possession.

For the most part, Mayberry became a forgotten figure after his retirement from baseball, despite taking jobs as a coach with both the Blue Jays and Royals organizations. He also did some work in the community affairs department of the Royals. But it was not until a 2009 game on FOX, when Mayberry’s son made his major league debut and the broadcasters incorrectly (and rather comically) misidentified Mayberry in the stands that his name started to generate some attention again. For his part, Mayberry reacted to the incident with good humor.

Mayberry now seems to have found some peace in his life. He’s a well-respected member of the Royals Hall of Fame, his 1977 transgressions having been generally forgotten. And he remains in the pantheon of Detroit’s sporting greats, one of the best pure power hitters the Motor City has ever produced.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.