Although there is a bit too much blue in this photograph, Al Hrabosky’s 1980 Topps card ranks as one of the most iconic for its ability to capture a player at a most appropriate moment. With his shoulders hunched forward and his facial expression bordering on an animal ferocity, Hrabosky is seen on the verge of thrusting the ball into his glove as he stomps his feet on the mound in anticipation of delivering his next pitch to an astounded hitter.
After making a splash as a hard-throwing rookie reliever with the Cardinals in 1970, Hrabosky added his curious on-field routine to his list of personal habits in 1974. Whenever faced with a run-scoring rally by the opposing team, Hrabosky walked behind the mound, put his head down, and began to meditate. After several seconds of contemplation, Hrabosky took a visibly deep breath, pounded the ball into his glove, spun completely around, and stormed back onto the mound. More often than not, Hrabosky followed his on-field “psych up” by extricating himself from his latest pitching predicament.
The unusual routine prompted a nickname from the Cardinals’ front office. The team’s public relations director, Jerry Lovelace, began calling Hrabosky “The Mad Hungarian.” The name, which accurately reflected his heritage, caught on with writers, broadcasters and fans, giving Hrabosky one of the most identifiable alter egos of his time, or any other for that matter.
It was also during his early days with the Cardinals that Hrabosky decided to alter his physical appearance. With Richie Allen and Reggie Jackson having broken the game’s longstanding unwritten policy against facial hair in the early 1970s, major league players finally felt free to grow mustaches and beards. Hrabosky joined in the facial fun by sporting a mustache, but added an unconventional twist by growing it in the Fu Manchu style, which gave him a far more frightening appearance. He also grew his hair long and wild, seemingly uncombed beneath his cap. The new look of menacing intimidation fit the routine perfectly—and vice versa.
Hrabosky played up his newfound image in his responses to reporters. When a writer asked Hrabosky what he thought about as he made his way from the bullpen to the mound, he provided an explanation that delighted the media. “I just think about hating people,” Hrabosky told the Associated Press. “I get myself psyched up. I keep telling myself I’m the best pitcher in baseball. I do anything to get myself motivated.”
Hrabosky wasn’t the best pitcher in the game, but from 1973 to 1976, he forged an excellent four-year run as he moved from middle relief into the fireman’s role. Hrabosky used a simple approach: He pumped hard fastball after fastball, challenging hitters with his No. 1 pitch 90 per cent of the time. Hrabosky’s performance peaked in 1975, when he posted a 1.66 ERA with 13 wins and a league-leading 22 saves as the last line of defense in Red Schoendienst’s bullpen.
In 1977, Hrabosky ran into a roadblock. A 180-degree turn from the docile Schoendienst, Vern Rapp became the Cardinals’ manager and immediately installed a disciplinary regime in St. Louis. Rapp banned all facial hair on the Cardinals, making no exceptions for Hrabosky or any of the veteran players. The Mad Hungarian reluctantly complied, shaving off the mustache and trimming his long hair, but made clear his displeasure. “How can I intimidate batters if I look like a goddamn golf pro?” Hrabosky asked a member of the media who was likely sympathetic to his cause.
With a wedge driven between Hrabosky and management, the Cardinals traded their lefty relief ace after the season, sending him to the Royals for righty reliever Mark Littell and good-field, no-hit catcher Buck Martinez. Hrabosky re-grew his Fu Manchu, retained his maniacal mound histrionics, and gave the Royals a bonafide power fireman, helping them win their third consecutive West Division title in 1978.
After an off-season in 1979, Hrabosky cashed in on free agency, signing a multi-year deal with the Braves. Hrabosky sandwiched two mediocre seasons around a good one in 1981, when he put up a 1.07 ERA despite being limited to 24 games because of arm trouble.
Just as in St. Louis, the media in Kansas City and Atlanta came to realize that Hrabosky’s Mad Hungarian persona belied his real personality. Off the field, reporters took note of his amiable demeanor, his high level of intelligence, and his ability to handle himself well in a variety of interview settings. Hrabosky translated those strengths into part-time work as a sports anchorman for KPLR in St. Louis, setting the stage for a smooth transition to the Cardinals’ broadcast booth after playing stints with the Royals and Braves.
He remains in the broadcast booth to this day, without the dark Fu Manchu, without the long hair, and without the histrionics of intimidation. But fans in St. Louis still know him lovingly as The Mad Hungarian.