Kansas City Royals Manager Jim Frey was fired yesterday and replaced by Dick Howser, once manager of the New York Yankees.

Joe Burke, the Royals' general manager and vice president, said he fired Frey because he had failed to motivate the players. Last year, Frey's first as manager, Kansas City won the American League pennant. The Royals were 30-40 this year, 10-10 in the poststrike second season. Overall, Frey had a 127-105 record.

"I think it was a case of an excellent manager at the wrong club," Burke said in a telephone interview, calling the hiring of Frey a "mistake. He was the type of manager the players here just didn't respond to.

"I don't think they were responding to him last season, either, but it wasn't evident because all the players were having such remarkable seasons."

Frey, 50, was the hitting coach of the Baltimore Orioles in 1980 when the Royals hired him to replace popular Whitey Herzog, who had been dropped at the end of the 1979 season.

Frey began his baseball career as an outfielder, playing in the minor leagues for 14 years before retiring to join the Orioles. In 15 years with Baltimore, Frey served as a minor league manager, scout and coach.

Frey, whose off-season home is in Timonium, Md., spoke briefly in an interview with KMBC-TV in Kansas City. "The only thing that Joe Burke told me was that the ball club was not responding to my managing," Frey said.

Howser, 45, has been in professional baseball 22 years, eight as a player in the major leagues. He managed the 1980 East Division champion Yankees to a 103-59 regular-season record, but Yankee owner George Steinbrenner replaced him with Gene Michael.

Howser had one year remaining on his contract to manage the Yankees and had another year to go on his contract as a scout for Steinbrenner's organization.

Howser declined to say what changes he might make with the Royals. But Frey had been criticized widely for not taking full advantage of the team's base-running speed.

"Your style depends on your club and your personality," Howser said. "I just try to do the best I can. It wouldn't be fair for me to say what's wrong with the Royals because I haven't been around them. I think one thing this club has to do to win is run. I like their speed."

Asked yesterday what he considered the most important element in managing, Howser said, "Winning -- but sometimes that's not enough."

Burke said he had long admired Howser's leadership: "He has all the good things Jim Frey had, plus he can handle the ballclub."

Burke said he told Frey of the decision yesterday morning in a brief meeting in the general manager's office. "Jim came to my office . . . and we had about a five-minute conversation. He was a gentleman about it. He left the way he came, with class."

Burke said the firing, with just two months left on Frey's contract, was one of the most difficult things he has done. "I love Jim Frey as I would a brother," said Burke, who has fired three managers since he came to the Royals in 1974. "I don't like to fire people. I'm chicken-hearted. But I had to do what was best for the club. It has been apparent during much of the season that the winning combination has not been present."

Although Burke said he had not received any direct complaints about Frey from the players, some players said they were pleased with the change.

"I never enjoyed playing for him and I won't miss him," said pitcher Paul Splittorff. "It's been a good experience for me, in that he's the first manager I really haven't cared for."

"This might be the fire the team needs," pitcher Dan Quisenberry said.