U.L. Washington, who helped Kansas City Royals to first pennant, dead at 70

U.L. Washington

U.L. Washington, an infielder known for the toothpick hanging from his mouth and clutch play that helped the Kansas City Royals to their first pennant in 1980, died Sunday. He was 70.

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No cause of death was given, but Washington was reportedly battling cancer, ESPN reported.

Washington, who played 11 seasons in the major leagues from 1977 to 1987, spent eight of them with the Royals, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

His base hits set up two of teammate George Brett’s biggest moments, The Kansas City Star reported. In Game 3 of the 1980 American League Championship Series, Washington’s two-out single in the seventh inning led to Brett’s three-run home run. The blast sent the Royals to their first World Series, where they would lose to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Washington batted .364 during the ALCS, according to the Star.

On July 24, 1983, Washington had a two-out single against Goose Gossage as the Royals trailed the New York Yankees 4-3, the Star reported. Brett followed with a homer that set up the infamous “Pine Tar” incident, when the future Hall of Famer was called out for having too much pine tar -- a sticky substance that helped hitters get a better grip -- on his bat.

The decision was eventually overruled and the game was resumed later in the season.

“So sorry to hear my friend my team mate UL Washington has died of cancer,” Brett wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “He was a great player I will always be thankful of our time together with the Royals.”

Washington was born Oct. 27, 1953, in Stringtown, Oklahoma, according to Baseball-Reference.com. His initials did not stand for anything, and a relative shared the same name, according to the website.

Washington batted .251 with 27 home runs, 255 RBIs and 132 stolen bases during 907 career games with the Royals, Montreal Expos (1985) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1986-87), ESPN reported.

According to the Hall of Fame, Washington heard about an open tryout for the Royals from his brother in the summer of 1972. He was the only candidate out of 275 players to be signed.

But his distinguishing feature was the toothpick he kept in his mouth.

“I’d much rather be remembered as a pretty good player, but I realize most people will remember me as the guy with the toothpick,” Washington told The Oklahoman in 1988. “I feel I’ve had a pretty good career, especially looking back at how I got into professional baseball.”

Washington got rid of the toothpick before the 1981 season but his average fell to .227, the Star reported. He went back to the toothpick in 1982 and had career highs in batting average (.286), home runs (10) and RBI (60), according to Baseball-Reference.com.

“If you hit .273 with it and .227 without it, what would you do?” Washington told a reporter, according to his biography on the Society for American Baseball Research website.

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