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The 1976 American League Championship Series: Royals vs. Yankees

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A new rivalry is born

Prelude

Kansas City finally overcame their chief obstacle in the American League West, Oakland, only to find another waiting for them in the New York Yankees. The teams were natural rivals. Many Kansas City fans still harbored resentment over having the Kansas City Athletics viewed as a feeder system to the Yankee’s in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s. Plus, there was the David vs. Goliath thing going on between the two cities. It was the Royals first rodeo, and the Yankees hadn’t been to the World Series in a dozen years and hadn’t won the Series since 1962.

There was also some bad blood between the two teams, which originated with Billy Martin. No surprise there. Martin was a drunkard and a brawler, always running his mouth and itching for a fight. Larry Gura, who had been traded to Kansas City from the Yankees in May of 1976, was miffed about how he was treated by Martin and the Yankees. Martin said, if given the chance, he’d “dump Gura again.”

George Brett also had a beef with Martin over the way Martin and the Yanks had treated his brother Ken, during his brief stay in New York. Understand two things, the Brett brothers were exceptionally close and two, in his day, Ken Brett was Shonei Ohtani. Ken Brett was a sweet swinging centerfielder, with some power and a top-flight pitching prospect. Leading up to the 1966 draft, teams were torn about where to play him. Ken made his major league debut with the Red Sox as a nineteen-year-old pitcher in 1967 and performed admirably for the Sox in the ’67 World Series. Arm injuries eventually derailed his career, which saw Ken play for ten teams in 14 seasons, including a 30 game stint with the Royals in 1980 and 1981, but many around baseball thought Ken Brett was the most talented, and most likely of the Brett boys, to end up in Cooperstown. Ken pitched in 349 career games, ending with an 83-85 record, but also had a career .262 batting average.

The Yankees finished the ’76 season with a record of 97-62. Kansas City won the West with a record of 90-72. The series was televised on ABC with Bob Uecker, Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Reggie Jackson providing play-by-play and color commentary.

Game One

Game One was played in Kansas City on Saturday, October 9th, in front of 41,077 fans. Catfish Hunter took the mound for New York, opposed by Yankee hater Larry Gura. The Yankees drew first blood, scoring two runs in the top of the first as Mickey Rivers beat out a chopper to third, advancing to second on an errant throw by Brett. After Roy White walked, Thurman Munson singled to load the bases. Chris Chambliss hit another grounder to Brett, who got the force at third, but also collected his second error of the inning as his throw to first sailed past John Mayberry. Rivers and Munson both scored, staking the Yankees to a two to nothing lead and that was all Catfish Hunter needed.

One of the biggest plays in the entire series happened in the bottom of the first. Amos Otis led off for Kansas City and dropped a bunt down the third base line. Otis hit the first base bag awkwardly and sprained his ankle, which caused him to miss the remainder of the series. Otis had hit .279 with 18 home runs and 86 RBI and a league leading 40 doubles in 1976. He was also an eight-time Gold Glove winner in center field. The loss, both physical and psychologically, was huge. Al Cowens would shift from right-field to center-field, with Jim Wohlford and Tom Poquette manning left and right, respectively.

The fireworks in the series started early. When Brett came to bat in the bottom of the fourth, Martin stood on the top step if the dugout and screamed, “your brother was shit!” Brett stepped out of the box, momentarily stunned by the outburst. He composed himself, then slapped a single to center field. It happened again in the seventh and again in the ninth. Brett responded with base hits both innings. After the game, Brett said, “That’s really high class, really a tribute to baseball. If I had a grudge against every team that traded my brother, I’d have a grudge against nearly every team in baseball.”

The Royals cut the lead in half in the bottom of the eight as Cowens led off with a triple and scored on a Poquette groundout, but the threat ended with Munson throwing out Freddie Patek trying to steal second. The Yankees tacked on two insurance runs in the ninth and Hunter made it stand up, throwing a complete game, five hitter. Brett, warming up to his future role as Yankee killer, had three of the five hits. In a game that only lasted two hours and nine minutes, Hunter was masterful, not going to a three ball count the entire game while the Yankees pounded out twelve hits against Gura and Mark Littell.

Game Two

Game Two was also played at Royals Stadium, on Sunday October 10th. The Royals extracted some measure of revenge, winning seven to three, helped by five Yankee errors. The Royals scored two in the first, two in the sixth and three in the eighth to ice the game. Neither starting pitcher was effective, as Ed Figueroa gave up six hits and four runs in five and one third innings, while KC starter Dennis Leonard only lasted two and a third innings, giving up three runs on six hits.

The real story of the game was Paul Splittorff and Tom Poquette. Split got the win for Kansas City, pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings, only giving up four hits. Poquette, pressed into duty by the Otis injury, responded with two hits. His single in the first plated Al Cowens to give the Royals an early two nothing lead. After the Royals had fallen behind 3-2, Poquette doubled to left in the sixth to put the Royals back on top with a 4-3 lead. Poquette later walked and scored a run in the eighth. The win was the first in playoff history for Kansas City, much to the delight of the 41,091 in attendance.

Game Three

Game Three can be summed up in two words: missed opportunity. The game was played on Tuesday, October 12th, in newly remodeled Yankee Stadium in front of a standing room only crowd of 56,808 that included New York Mayor Abe Beame and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who were roundly jeered, while Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant received a warm welcome. The Royals sent seven men to the plate in the first inning, battering Yankee starter Dock Ellis for three runs and three hits. Martin stuck with Ellis, he of LSD no-hitter fame, and Dock settled down and to throw seven scoreless innings.

The Yankees chipped away at the early deficit, scoring two in the fourth on a Chris Chambliss home run. Chambliss had been looking fastball from Royals starter Andy Hassler and got a hanging curve instead. The Royals had a chance to extend their lead, getting their leadoff batters on base in the fourth and fifth innings, only to have Munson throw both out trying to steal second (McRae and Patek, respectively).

The wheels finally came off in the bottom of the sixth, with Kansas City clinging to a three to two lead, Roy White worked Hassler for a leadoff walk, then moved to third on a double to left by Munson. Marty Pattin relieved Hassler, only to give Carlos May an intentional pass. Herzog then called on lefty Tom Hall, who induced Chris Chambliss to ground out to Frank White at second. The Royals were unable to turn the double play, as Roy White scored the tying run. Graig Nettles then singled to left, scoring Munson, which ended Halls night.

Herzog brought in Steve Mingori who promptly gave up a double to Elliott Maddox, scoring Chambliss with the third run of the inning. Mark Littell came on to get the final two outs of the inning. Littell worked out of jams in the seventh and eighth innings, but Kansas City could only muster a couple of meaningless walks in their half of the eighth and ninth innings, as Sparky Lyle shut the door on a 5-3 Yankee victory, which pushed New York to within one win of the World Series.

Game Four

Both managers brought back their Game One starters on three days rest for this Wednesday afternoon game. The strategy backfired, as Larry Gura gave up two runs on six hits while only lasting two innings. Catfish Hunter didn’t fare much better, giving up three runs on five hits over three innings of work. The Royals drew first blood, scoring three in the second. Mayberry led off with a walk. Veteran Cookie Rojas, getting a rare start at second base, hit a two out single to center. Freddie Patek then laced a double to right field, scoring Mayberry and Rojas. Buck Martinez followed up with a single to center, plating Patek.

The Yankees got two back in their half of the second, when Graig Nettles blasted a two-run home run off Gura. The Royals tacked on two more in the fourth to finish Hunter and picked up single tallies in the sixth and the eighth. Doug Bird came on in relief of Gura and pitched four and two thirds innings, only giving up one run while getting the win. Steve Mingori pitched the final two and a third innings, with the only blemish being Nettles second home run of the day.

Cookie Rojas went two for three as did Hal McRae, who pounded a double and a triple. Freddie Patek came up big with his best game of the series, going 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBI, all with two outs. The 7-4 win by the Royals set the stage for a winner take all game Give.

Game Five

In a game that will long be remembered as a classic by both team’s fans, though for different reasons, Kansas City and New York met on a cool Thursday evening, October 14th. It was 54 degrees at game time, with both managers bringing back their Game Two starters - Ed Figueroa for New York and Dennis Leonard for the Royals. Kansas City jumped to an early lead with Brett lacing a two-out first inning double to right field and Big John Mayberry following up with a home run into the right field seats.

New York answered in their half of the first, with Mickey Rivers, Mick the quick, leading off with a triple and Roy White singling him home. After a Thurman Munson single, Whitey Herzog decided he’d seen enough and lifted Leonard, in what was surely the shortest outing of his outstanding career, for Paul Splittorff. The Yanks picked up a second run on a Chris Chambliss sacrifice fly. The Royals held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the third when once again, Rivers ignited a rally, leading off with a single to center. Another single by Munson and a ground out by Chambliss brought home two more runs, giving the Yankees a four to three lead.

Rivers got things started again in the sixth, leading off with another single. White sacrificed Rivers to second, before a Munson single scored Rivers. Hal McRae kept the game close by throwing out the plodding Munson trying to stretch the single to a double. Chambliss singled to center, then stole second before coming home on a throwing error by Brett.

With New York leading 6-3 heading into the top of the eighth, things looked bleak for the Royals. Figueroa had been cruising, but after Al Cowens led off with a single, Martin made a trip to the mound. In a curious decision, Martin called on lefty Grant Jackson instead of Royal killer Sparky Lyle. Jim Wohlford greeted Jackson with a single to center, which brought George Brett to the plate. The legend of George Brett was born in this at-bat, as he stunned the crowd of 56,821 by hitting a no-doubt, three-run home run into the right field seats.

Mark Littell shut down the Yankees in order in the bottom of the eighth. The Royals threatened in the top of the ninth. With two outs, Buck Martinez singled to left. Al Cowens then drew a walk off of Yankee pitcher Dick Tidrow.

Then things got interesting. Jim Wohlford bounced a slow grounder to third. Graig Nettles charged and made a nice throw to Randolph at second, but it appeared that Cowens had beaten the throw. Umpire Joe Brinkman, who later would work the pine tar game, called Cowens out. Replay showed that Cowens had beaten the throw and that Randolph got the call by being in the “neighborhood”, which in the pre-replay days was one of baseball’s unwritten rules. Had Brinkman not choked the call, the bases would have been loaded and George Brett would have been the batter. Herzog argued the call, to no avail.

The delay set off the volatile Yankee crowd, and toilet paper and other assorted garbage rained down on the field. The game was delayed more than five minutes as the Yankee ground crew did their best to clear the field. Billy Martin, never one to trust umpires, began to worry that the disruption may force a forfeit to Kansas City. Yankee announcer Bob Shepherd, the “voice of God”, implored fans to behave. Littell tried to stay warm by throwing a few pitches.

Once the field was relatively clear, home plate ump Art Frantz called for the batter, Chris Chambliss. Chambliss came to the plate looking for a fastball. Littell’s first pitch was a high fastball, quite possibly out of the strike zone. Chambliss connected, and the ball carried high over right fielder Hal McRae’s glove and disappeared over the right field wall to send the Yankees to the World Series.

Chambliss had just hit only the second walk off, series ending postseason home run in baseball history (the other being Bill Mazeroski’s home run to win the 1960 World Series). Fans began pouring onto the field. As Chambliss approached second base, a fan made off with the bag, so he slapped it with his hand. Just past second, Chambliss collided with a fan, sending both to the ground. Two of new York’s finest tried to escort Chambliss to where third base used to be, but they were soon engulfed by fans trying to grab the Yankee sluggers’ helmet. Willie Randolph appeared and played lead blocker, as he and Chambliss knocked fans to the ground, trying to make the safety of the Yankee dugout. Graig Nettles stood guard on the top step of the dugout, the Chambliss bat in hand, hitting any fan who dared to swipe a glove or hat. All told, the fans did more than $100,000 in damages, all on national television, burnishing New York’s 1970’s reputation as a city that was out of control.

Chambliss, escorted by two security guards, later emerged from the clubhouse to step on what used to be home plate, which had long since been excavated and hauled off. Whitey Herzog was gracious in defeat and elected not to challenge the outcome of the game, given that Chambliss had not touched all four bases. It’s hard to imagine Billy Martin making the same gesture. Said Herzog, “I’m sorry we couldn’t win, but I’m happy the World Series is back in New York.”

The home run capped a monster series for Chambliss, who hit .524 with two home runs, eight RBI and a 1.452 OPS. The ending also prompted Major League Baseball to adopt rule 4.09, which became known as the Chambliss rule: Rule 4.09(b) Comment: An exception will be if fans rush onto the field and physically prevent the runner from touching home plate or the batter from touching first base. In such cases, the umpires shall award the runner the base because of the obstruction by the fans.

Mickey Rivers, Roy White, Munson and Chambliss were the four horsemen of the apocalypse for the Royals in this game and the entire series. In Game Five they collected all the Yankee hits, in going 11-for-16. For the series, this foursome collected 34 of the Yankees 55 hits, and 15 of their team’s 21 RBI. They slashed .316/.372/.483 for the series. White also drew five of the Yankees sixteen walks and the foursome scored seventeen of the Yankees twenty-three runs. For Kansas City, only Brett, Patek, Rojas and Buck Martinez hit over .300 and only one other player, John Mayberry, hit better than .200. As a team, the Royals only hit .247 and committed four errors, three by Brett. Such is the nature of a short series, where a team (or player) can get hot or cold and that will determine the entire series.

The loss was devastating to Kansas City fans. I recall being sick to my stomach and even crying a little when the gravity of the situation hit me. School was somber the next day, as most teachers and students were Royals fans, except for my buddy Dennis, who for some unknown reason, rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals. The series was an immediate classic and birthed one of the most heated rivalries in baseball history.