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An interview with Chris Chambliss

The original Royal Killer

Yeah, I know. Chris Chambliss never played for the Royals and the mere mention of his name still causes nightmares among older Royals fans. Chambliss was the guest of honor at a recent autograph show in my city and he was gracious enough to spend some time with me. I found him to be very humble, polite, courteous and very willing to share stories of his life in baseball.

Before Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez and Francisco Lindor, Chambliss was the original Royal killer. Every Royal fan of a certain age knows about “The Home Run.” First pitch, bottom of the ninth, solo shot that vanquished the 1976 Royals and propelled the Yankees to the first of three consecutive World Series appearances (all at the expense of Kansas City). Yeah, I know it hurts to read that, but I wanted to find out more about the guy who brought Royal fans so much misery in the mid to late 1970s.

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little about your baseball background.

CC: My father was a pastor in the United States Navy, so we moved a few times. We eventually settled in Oceanside, CA where I played baseball on the Oceanside High School team. From there, I played Junior college baseball at a local college, MiraCosta, then transferred to UCLA. We played in the College World Series my senior season, the first time UCLA made it that far.

Q: Was playing in the Majors a goal of yours?

CC: No, surprisingly it wasn’t. I just started playing, had some success and tried to improve each year. I’d set a goal, reach it, then set another goal, reach it, then set another goal. Next thing you know, I’m drafted and playing in AAA.

Q: Was baseball your only sport in High school?

CC: No, I also played football. Played some tight end and some running back. I was a very good running back!

Q: One of your cousins was basketball great (and Kansas alum) Jo Jo White. Did you ever play ball with Jo Jo?

CC: Never did. Jo Jo was a cousin on my mom’s side of the family and we really didn’t see each other that much. I don’t think I could have stayed on the court with Jo Jo!

Q: What kind of a thrill was it to be drafted #1 overall by the Indians (#1 overall in the 1970 draft)?

CC: It was a great thrill. I was born in Dayton, Ohio, though we moved from there when I was very young. In a way it was kind of a homecoming. I had been selected twice earlier by the Reds (31st round in 1967) and (2nd round in 1968) but didn’t sign either time. Instead I elected to go to UCLA.

Q: The Indians took an unusual approach and started you at AAA Wichita, instead of the usual path of rookie ball, A, AA, AAA. Wichita was a very good town for you, what are some of your memories of Wichita?

CC: Wichita did treat me well. During the summer of 1969 I played for the Anchorage Pilots of the ABL. We went to the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita later that summer and won the title. I was also named MVP of the tournament. After the Indians drafted me, I was assigned to their AAA affiliate, the Wichita Aeros. I batted .342 that summer and led the league in hitting. I spent 13 games in Wichita in 1971 before getting the call up to Cleveland.

Q: Let’s talk about those early Cleveland days.

CC: I had a good first year in Cleveland. Initially I played some outfield because we had Ken Harrelson at first base. When Harrelson retired midway through the season, I took over the first base job. I was selected the American League Rookie of the Year that season.

Chambliss slashed .275/.341/.407 with 9 home runs and 48 RBI to win the award.

We were starting to turn things around in Cleveland. We had a nice nucleus of young talent during my time there, guys like Ray Fosse, Graig Nettles, Sam McDowell, Buddy Bell, Dick Tidrow, Charlie Spikes, George Hendrick and Oscar Gamble. I think if they’d kept us together, we would have won some things.

Q: How did you feel about your trade to the Yankees (In April 1974, Chambliss along with pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw for pitchers Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey and Steve Kline, in a trade that still ranks as one of the worst trades in Cleveland history).

CC: At the time of the trade, getting traded to the Yankees wasn’t like getting traded to the Yankees today. They hadn’t been to the World Series since 1964 and for many of those years after, they were terrible. But playing for George Steinbrenner was an experience. He was committed to winning and that rubbed off on the players. Funny thing about that trade, I was the only position player involved, all the others were pitchers.

Q: You had a 17-year major league career. Who was the best manager you played for?

CC: I was fortunate to play for some excellent managers. Bobby Cox in Atlanta was a terrific manager. Billy was probably my favorite. He was a baseball genius, tactically very strong. The problem with Billy was keeping him out of the bars! Billy, though, was meant to manage the New York Yankees.

Q: Let’s talk about Reggie.

CC: Where to start! Reggie was a great teammate, a great ballplayer. When he came to the Yankees, there was some friction. Billy didn’t like Reggie and didn’t want him, but the boss did. When the game was on the line though, I’d want Reggie at the plate. He was one of the greatest clutch players I ever played with. Reggie was pure New York. It was the best place for him.

Q: Who was the pitcher that was toughest for you to hit and why?

CC: That’s an easy one. Vida Blue. Vida had a windup that kept you from seeing the ball easily. Plus, he was a lefty and threw about 100 MPH. Vida was tough on everyone.

BL note: Chambliss had 65 at bats against Blue and hit .277/.314/.354 against him. The stats would indicate that two other lefties, Bill Lee and Mickey Lolich, gave him more problems. He hit .194 in 62 at-bats against Lee and .146 in 48 at-bats against Lolich.

Q: You played in 28 different stadiums in your career and batted against 25 different teams. You had the highest batting average against any team in your career against Kansas City (.321) and of the stadiums you played in, you had the highest batting average in Royals Stadium (.350). Did you have something against Kansas City?

CC: (Laughs!) No, I wasn’t even aware of those numbers. Seriously? I had the highest average against Kansas City? I didn’t realize. Those were great teams and we had a great rivalry with the Royals. Every game was a battle. They had some good pitchers too, Busby, Gura, Leonard, Splittorff. I just went out and did the best I could do. I was more of a line drive hitter, so Royals Stadium must have fit my swing.

Q: Let’s talk about the home run.

CC: I haven’t talked about that for awhile (laughs!). That was a great series. The inning before (8th), Brett had hit a big three run home run to tie the game and deflate the crowd. Then the fans started getting rowdy and throwing stuff on the field. The game was delayed for some time, so I spent the time in the on-deck circle concentrating on my approach and chatting with Sandy Alomar, who would be batting behind me.

It was a chilly night and that probably had some effect on Littell. I had hit a single off Littell in game three, so I figured in this situation, he’d want to get ahead in the count, so I was looking for a fastball. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, I was just trying to get on base. It was a cold night and I was surprised the ball carried like it did. He threw the fastball, it was high, but I got the fat part of the bat on it.

As I rounded first, Elston Howard (our first base coach) was waiting to shake my hand. That was a big thrill for me. Elston was a terrific role model for me and many of my teammates. I barely got to second before someone swiped the bag, then all hell broke loose. Two police officers tried to escort me to third, but fans were swiping at my helmet. I slipped coming around second and was afraid of being trampled by the crowd. I completely missed third base and by then was just trying to make it to the dugout. Willie Randolph appeared, and we hightailed it toward the dugout. I used my running back skills to get there! Thankfully Graig Nettles had the presence of mind to grab my bat. He was using it to keep people out of the dugout. I still have the bat today.

About ten minutes after the game, Nettles said I should go back out and touch home plate. I dressed in a windbreaker and pulled a hat low over my head and two security guards escorted me to where home plate used to be. It was missing. The home plate umpire, Art Frantz, was still there and witnessed me touching where home plate used to be. Due to that, MLB changed the rule, the new rule called the “Chambliss Rule”.

All three of those series (1976-78) were tough, hard fought games.

Chambliss went 11 for 21 (.524) in the 1976 series and hit .340 over the three American League Championship Series with the Royals. In today's age of advanced analytics, one has to wonder if someone would have said to Herzog, “Skip, this guy is hitting .500 against us. We should walk him and take our chances with Alomar.” Or more likely, Herzog would have brought in a left-hander to face Chambliss. Had that happened, the outcome of the game might have been different. But it was what it was, and it provided one of the more dramatic and exciting endings to a playoff game ever.

Q: What do you see as the biggest difference between the game you played and today’s game?

CC: In my time, batters were more concerned with making contact, getting on base. It seems like the game today is geared toward home runs, and consequently, strike outs. In my day it was embarrassing to strike out. Today, players think nothing of it.

Q: You were hitting coach with the Yankees from 1996 to 2000, during which they won four World Series titles. Tell us a little about that experience.

CC: It was great. George always treated me well and welcomed me back to the Yankee family after my playing days with Atlanta ended. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about being a hitting coach. We had guys on that team like Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry. Guys that could really hit. I mean, what am I going to tell Wade Boggs about hitting? They took me under their wing and taught me a lot. Many times, they’d have me watch their swing and ask, “Am I opening up too early?” or “how are my hips?”, stuff like that. So, I learned on the job. We had some great teams in those years.

Q: You had a lot of success managing in the minors (Manager of the Tigers AA London Tigers, who won the Eastern League Title in 1990). You were minor league manager of the year in 1990. Any regrets that you were not given a chance to manage in the Majors?

CC: Absolutely. That was a goal of mine and I thought I had the resume to support it, but it wasn’t to be, I guess.

Chris, thank you for the time today.

CC: You’re welcome.

Looking back over Chris Chambliss’ career a couple of things jump out at me. The first is consistency. For his 17-year career, he slashed .279/.334/.415 with 185 home runs and 972 RBI. You could take it to the bank that every year, he’d be good for .280 to .300 with 15-20 home runs and 70-90 RBI. The guy could flat out hit the ball. The second is, he was a winner. Starting with the NBC championship, the A.L. Rookie of the Year and player or coach on six World Series winning teams. He even helped lead the Atlanta Braves back to the playoffs, in 1982 (after a 13-year hiatus). It’s a shame the Royals didn’t take a hard look at him during their managerial walk across the desert (Boone, Muser, Pena, Bell, Hillman). He was enjoyable to talk with and was very respectful and complimentary to his Royal rivals.