Brett, the youngest child of a sports-minded family which included his older brother Ken, a major-league pitcher, was born on May 15, 1953 in Glen Dale, West Virginia. His family moved to the midwest and later to southern California when he was a boy, and Brett grew up hoping to follow in his brother's footsteps as a big-league baseball player. He was drafted by the fledgling Kansas City Royals in the second round of the 1971 baseball draft.
Brett began his professional career as a shortstop, but had trouble going to his right defensively and was soon shifted to third base. As a third baseman, his powerful arm remained an asset, and he remained at that spot for 15 years. The Royals promoted him to the major leagues on August 2, 1973.
He won the starting third-base job a year later, but struggled with the bat until he asked for help from Charlie Lau, the Royals' hitting instructor. Spending the 1974 All-Star break working together, Lau taught Brett how to protect the entire plate and cover up some holes in his swing that experienced big-league pitchers were taking advantage of. Armed with this knowledge, Brett developed rapidly as a hitter.
He topped the .300 mark for the first time in 1975 with a .308 mark, then won his first batting title in 1976 with a .333. The four candidates for the batting title that year were Brett and Royals teammate Hal McRae, and Minnesota Twins teammates Rod Carew and Lyman Bostock. In dramatic fashion, Brett went 2 for 4 in the final game of the season against the Twins, beating out his three rivals, all playing in the same game.
A year later, Brett emerged as a power hitter with 22 home runs, then had an incredible 1979 season in which he was an MVP candidate. He became the first player in league history to have 20 doubles, triples and homers all in one season (42-20-23) and led the league in hits, doubles and triples while batting .329.
That was just a prelude to 1980, when Brett nearly matched Ted Williams' feat of batting .400. He was at or above .400 as late in the season as September 19 before settling at .390, the modern record for the highest average ever by a third baseman. This time, there was no doubt Brett was the league MVP.
In the 1980 postseason, Brett led the Royals to their first pennant, sweeping the playoffs in three games from the rival New York Yankees who had beaten K.C. in the 1976, 1977 and 1978 playoffs. In Game 3, Brett hit a ball into the third deck of Yankee Stadium to beat superstar closer Goose Gossage, a longtime rival. He then hit .375 in the 1980 World Series, but the Royals lost in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Brett had off-and-on injuries for the next four years, during which his most noteworthy achievement was the notorious "Pine Tar Incident." On July 24, 1983, the Royals were playing the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. In the top of the ninth inning, Brett came up to bat against Goose Gossage, his old rival. Brett hit a two-run homer, putting the Royals up 5-4. After Brett rounded the bases, Yankees manager Billy Martin came out of the dugout and used home plate to measure the amount of pine tar on Brett's bat, citing an obscure rule that stated the pine tar on a bat could extend no further than 18 inches. Brett's pine tar extended about 24 inches. The home plate umpire signalled Brett out. The normally mild-mannered Brett charged out of the dugout, enraged. He was immediately ejected. The Royals lost the game 4-3. The Royals protested the game, and the result was overturned by AL president Lee McPhail. The game was replayed, starting after Brett's homer. Billy Martin had one last trick up his sleeve, appealing the play before, saying the umpires had no way of knowing Brett had touched all the bases. The umpires produced affidavits saying he had. The game had virtually no effect on 1983's pennant race, but was in many ways the closing chapter on a heated rivalry.
In 1985, Brett had another brilliant season in which he almost willed the Royals to their second pennant. He batted .335 with 30 home runs and 112 RBI, finishing in the top 10 of the league in 10 different offensive categories. In the final week of the regular season, he went 9-for-20 at the plate with 7 runs, 5 homers, and 9 RBI in six crucial games, five of them victories. He was MVP of the 1985 playoffs against the Toronto Blue Jays, leading K.C. back from a 3-1 deficit in games, and then batted .370 in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, as the Royals again rallied from a 3-1 deficit to become world champions.
In 1988, Brett moved across the diamond to first base in an effort to reduce his chances of injury and had another MVP-calibre season with a .306 average, 24 homers and 103 RBI. But after batting just .290 with 16 homers the next year, it looked like his career might be slowing down.
He got off to a terrible start in 1990 and at one point even considered retirement. But his manager, former teammate John Wathan, encouraged him to stick it out. Finally, in July, the slump ended and Brett batted .386 for the rest of the season. In September, he caught Rickey Henderson for the league lead, and in a battle down to the last day of the season, captured his third batting title with a .329 mark.
Brett played three more seasons for the Royals, mostly as their designated hitter, but occasionally filling in for injured teammates at third base and in the outfield. He passed the 3,000-hit mark in 1992 and retired after the 1993 season. The opposing starting pitcher in Brett's final game against the Texas Rangers was Nolan Ryan, who would be elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame the same year as Brett. In his final at-bat, he hit a single up the middle against Rangers closer Tom Henke and scored on a home run by teammate Gary Gaetti.
His 3,154 career hits are the most by any third baseman in major league history, and 15th all-time. Baseball historian Bill James regards him as the second-best third baseman of all time, trailing only his contemporary, Mike Schmidt.
Brett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999, with the fourth-highest voting percentage in baseball history, receiving a higher percentage of the vote than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, or Joe DiMaggio.