Michigan Made features Major League Baseball products with roots in the state of Michigan.
Tony LaRussa once called him a “genius.” Lou Piniella referred to him as the “greatest batting instructor of them all.” Very high praise for a .255 career hitter. Despite an 11-year career that produced pedestrian statistics, Charlie Lau had an undeniable influence on some of the game’s greatest hitters.
Lau built his legacy in the major leagues not by forging an all-star playing career of his own, but rather by influencing Hall of Fame talent. His name is synonymous with elite hitters like George Brett, Carlton Fisk and Harold Baines. Yet, what you may not know is that Lau is Michigan Made.
Detroit area schools have produced a fair amount of big league talent over the years. Willie Horton and John Mayberry from Detroit Northwestern, Kirk Gibson from Waterford Kettering and Fraser High’s Pat Hentgen
Lau was born in Romulus, MI, and attended Romulus High School. He is the only major league player produced by the school. Signed by the Tigers as a free agent prior to the 1952 season, Lau played one year in the minor leagues before serving in the military in 1953 and 1954. Lau would only play in 35 games in parts of three years for the Tigers before he was shipped to the Milwaukee Braves following the 1959 season.
Brief stints in Baltimore, Atlanta and Kansas City followed before Lau embarked on a coaching career that would become legendary. While Lau worked as a hitting instructor with several big league clubs, it was his work with the Kansas City Royals that garnered attention in the ’70’s. Lau served as the Royals hitting coach from 1971 to 1978 with the exception of a brief time in 1985. He is often mentioned as the instructor that made George Brett a Hall of Fame hitter.
Brett would echo that sentiment many times over his career. As a rookie, Brett struggled find his footing in the big leagues until Lau got ahold of him.
Lau encouraged hitters to begin an at-bat by shifting their weight back in order to go forward. He also emphasized the bottom hand in the swing as opposed to hitting with the top hand dominant. Brett was a textbook pupil. With Lau’s tutelage, Brett would go on to hit over .300 eleven times in his career. 1980 was the pinnacle of Brett’s career, when he challenged .400 before settling for a .390 batting average, winning the second of his three batting titles.
While Lau is most closely attached to Brett’s success, he had an impact on other great hitters in his career. Later in his career as a hitting instructor for the Chicago White Sox, Lau worked with Carlton Fisk and Harold Baines. Fisk was what Lau referred to as a “top hand hitter,” but when Fisk began to emphasize the bottom hand, his numbers took off.
A sure indicator that an instructor is well respected is when players from other clubs seek your advice. Over his career, Lau was consulted countless times by opposing hitters. While Lau may not have had a distinguished career as a player, his ability to analyze a swing and to teach, separated him from most others.
Lau passed away after a battle with Cancer in 1984, and thirty two years after he toiled on the baseball field at Romulus High School, it was renamed the Charlie Lau Memorial Baseball Field.