I will always remember 1976 as the year where the possibilities of life seemed endless. The country was celebrating it’s 200th year in existence and exciting stuff was happening everywhere. A couple of young Steve’s – Jobs and Wozniak, founded a computer company they named Apple. Fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect ten score in gymnastics at the Montreal Olympics while a young American, Bruce Jenner, captured the imagination of the country by winning the decathlon. Jimmy Carter rose from the obscurity of his family peanut farm to win the presidency. The Dow Jones Average closed at 1,004. Son of Sam spent the summer terrorizing New York City. All in the Family, The Jefferson’s and MASH dominated the television, while Rocky was the hit movie of the summer. 1976 was a great year in music, with smash albums Hotel California, Boston, Songs in the Key of Life, Frampton Comes Alive and Night Moves, though disco was rapidly becoming the music of the country.
1976 was also a terrific year in baseball. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, a twenty-two-year-old rookie, caught the baseball world by surprise, winning nineteen games for the Detroit Tigers and the American League Rookie of the Year award. His oddball antics and unfettered joy of the game enamored him to baseball fans everywhere. Hank Aaron retired after the season, his second with the Milwaukee Brewers, capping a twenty-three-year career as baseball’s all-time leader in home runs (755), RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856). Thurman Munson and Joe Morgan won the A.L. and N.L. MVP awards, respectively. Nolan Ryan went 17-18 for the California Angels while striking out 327 batters. Cincinnati repeated as World Series champions, sweeping the New York Yankees.
1976 also marked the year that the Kansas City Royals, in their eighth season, broke through and vanquished their long-time nemesis, the Oakland A’s. It wasn’t easy. Kansas City finished the season at 90-72, two and a half games in front of the A’s. Over the last forty games of the season, the young Royals went 15-25, watching their division lead slip from twelve games to the final margin. 1976 was Whitey Herzog’s first full season as skipper and everything came together early for the Royals. George Brett had a brilliant season, leading the American League with a .333 batting average, 215 hits, 14 triples and 298 total bases while putting up a 7.50 WAR season (compared to 5.3 WAR by MVP Munson – East coast bias perhaps?). Hal McRae played Butch Cassidy to Brett’s Sundance Kid, finishing second in the A.L. in batting with a .332 average, with 175 hits and a .407 OBP. Amos Otis led the league with 40 doubles, while John Mayberry led the team in RBI with 95. Twenty-year-old Willie Wilson made a late season debut and played in twelve games. Herzog played to his team’s strength with seven players stealing twenty or more bases, led by Fred Patek with fifty-one. The team was relatively young, with Patek being the only starter over the age of thirty.
The pitching staff put together a great season, with Dennis Leonard throwing sixteen complete games and posting a 17-10 record. Al Fitzmorris had another solid year, going 15-11 with a 3.06 ERA. Mark “Country” Littell was chosen the Royals Pitcher of the Year after appearing in sixty games, going 8-4 with sixteen saves. Overall, the staff finished second in the American League in ERA.
The two most significant games of the season both occurred in late in the year. The first was a game against Oakland on September 29th. The Royals had been in a tailspin since sweeping a doubleheader from the White Sox on August 6th. That sweep had pushed their A.L. West lead to a season high twelve games, but then the young Royals started feeling the pressure of being in a pennant race and, like it or not, they started choking. On this Wednesday evening, In Oakland Alameda Coliseum, with their lead down to two and a half games (with four to play) the Royals desperately needed a win. Whitey Herzog gave the ball to Larry Gura, who had been acquired from the New York Yankee’s on May 16th, 1976 for catcher Fran Healy, in what would go down as one of General Manager Joe Burke’s greatest trades. Healy had been one of former manager Jack McKeon’s “guys”. McKeon was convinced that Healy could be a star catcher, though the eyeball test and his stats showed otherwise. Gura, however, was just what Kansas City needed. A reliable, left-handed innings eater. He appeared in twenty games for KC in 1976, going 4-0 with a 2.30 ERA. In his ten seasons with the Royals, Gura went 111-78 and was always good for 200 plus innings as he finished his career as a 21 WAR pitcher. Healy would appear in seventy-four games for the Yankee’s before retiring and finding fame as a talk show host. On this night though, with the A’s smelling blood, Gura limited Oakland to four meaningless singles and threw a complete game, 4-0 shutout, clinching the first American League West pennant in Kansas City history. Amos Otis provided the offense with two RBI, including his 18th home run of the season. All told, the Royals lost nine of their last eleven to limp into the playoffs.
The second, and most controversial game of the season, came on the final day, Sunday October 3rd against the Minnesota Twins. With the division already clinched, the Royals were just playing out the string, except for George Brett and Hal McRae. Our Butch and Sundance were locked into an epic battle for the American League batting title. On September 26th, McRae was at .337 and Brett was at .333. To make matters more interesting, a pair of Twins were also in the race for the title: Rod Carew and Lyman Bostock stood in 3rd and 4th place with a chance to catch the Royal stars. Bostock, a rising young star who was tragically murdered a year later, injured his thumb in the opener and missed the final two games of the series, ending the year at .323. Carew, always a fine hitter, went two for four in the finale to finish at .331.
Going into the bottom of the ninth, and the Royals trailing 5-2, Brett hit a high fly ball to left field that the Twins Steve Brye badly misplayed. The ball bounced off of the wall as Brett circled the bases for an inside the park home run to boost his average to .333. McRae, hitting next, only needed a hit to clinch the batting title. Instead, Mac grounded out to shortstop Luis Gomez, which dropped his average to .332. As McRae approached the dugout, Royal fans stood and gave him a standing ovation. McRae doffed his batting helmet, then turned and gave a double bird to the Twins dugout. Twins manager Gene Mauch charged the field, whereupon both benched emptied. Order was restored after a few minutes, but the die had been cast. After the game, McRae said, “Things have been like this a long time. They’re changing gradually. They shouldn’t be this way, but I can accept it. I know what happened. It’s been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose.”
The accusation that race played a role in determining the batting title was met with condemnation on both sides. Mauch said it was the worst thing that had happened to him in his 35 years of baseball, which is saying something, as he was the skipper of the 1964 Phillies team that blew a six-game lead in the final week of the season to lose the pennant. The accusations didn’t fly with Minnesota, as Carew denounced it as “that’s a bunch of crap when they talk about racial stuff.” It didn’t make any sense that the Twins would conspire to allow Brett to back into the title. With Carew and Bostock, both black, sitting at third and fourth, why would Minnesota roll over for Brett? It seems like they would have done everything they could to get the batting title to their teammate Carew. I recall seeing a replay of the hit and this is my take: It was an afternoon game, and by the 9th inning, it would have been around 4:00. The sun most likely would have been hitting the lip of the upper deck. Brye was playing deep and initially broke in the wrong direction. It looked to me like Brye lost the ball in the sun, which is entirely plausible. With most hitters, a misplayed ball like that would be a double or maybe a triple, but Brett always ran like his pants were on fire. Don’t misunderstand me. I love Hal McRae. I believe his hard-nosed style of play changed the way these Royal teams were viewed by others. Nobody who saw it will ever forget the sight of McRae steamrolling Wille Randolph in the ALCS. I can’t recall the last time I saw a Kansas City Chief throw a block like that. McRae was, and still is, one of the greatest Royals of all time. It is a shame he didn’t win the batting title, but he had his chances. On September 26th, McRae was at .337 while Brett stood at .333. Over the final week, Brett collected eight hits in twenty-four at bats (.333) to stay at .333. McRae slumped, only collecting five hits in twenty-three at bats (.217) to finish at .332. The brouhaha garnered national attention and threatened to derail the Royals unity heading into the playoffs. Regardless, it had been a magical summer. The Royals and the city even garnered national attention when National Geographic magazine ran a piece on Kansas City in their July 1976 issue. In that story was a picture of George Brett, surrounded by fans. That picture, in 2013, prompted a New Zealand pop singer named Lourdes to write a hit song called “Royals”.
I only attended two games that summer. The first was on June 12th against the Baltimore Orioles. We were a little late getting to the game and arrived as the Orioles were batting in their half of the first. There were four young men, frat boy types, sitting in our seats, about twenty rows back of first base. My dad asked them to move, but they refused. An usher promptly arrived, and after looking over the tickets, ordered the men out. Once again, the leader of the group refused. The usher calmly gave my father back the tickets, then reached in and grabbed the leader by the back of the pants and the scruff of his neck, swung him into the aisle and hurled him down the stadium steps. I was fifteen at the time and all I could say was “all right!” The other three miscreants immediately stood and left without incident. Can you imagine that happening today?
The Orioles had been a dynastic team in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but in 1976 they were in the midst of a rebuild. Steve Busby was on the mound for the Royals and labored through five innings, leaving with the Royals ahead five to three. Kansas City native Steve Mingori pitched a three clean innings before Baltimore stirred in the ninth. With Kansas City leading seven to three, and the game seemingly in hand, Mingori gave up a single to light hitting Mark Belanger. Belanger was a career .228 hitting, who in his eighteen-year career, hit below .200 five different seasons and below .220 four other seasons. In June of 1976 however, Belanger came into this game sporting a .288 average. The underrated Ken Singleton drew a walk, before Mingori retired Bobby Grich. With two outs, Herzog elected to stay with Mingori, to face Reggie Jackson in a lefty-lefty matchup. Jackson made Herzog pay with a three-run bomb to strait away center field to pull Baltimore to within one. Marty Pattin replaced Mingori and promptly beaned Lee May, who left the field on a stretcher. That was enough to spook the Orioles, as Pattin induced Paul Blair to hit a fly out to left to end the game. Besides Jackson’s titanic home run, there were two other highlights: The first happened with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, in a bit of future karma, John Mayberry blasted a ground ball to first, which took a bad hop and hit future Royal Manager Tony Muser solidly in the cup. Muser went down like he was hit with a deer slug and somehow made the unassisted putout to end the inning. The game was delayed for several minutes as the Oriole trainers gathered up what remained of Muser’s sack, which had been blown off by the bad hop. Muser was eventually helped to the dugout, to perhaps the only polite applause he ever heard at Royals Stadium, his day over. The second came in the bottom of the eighth, in a move made necessary by Muser’s bad fortune. Doug DeCinces moved from third base to first, and the Oriole’s brought in aging Brooks Robinson as a defensive replacement. Robinson would play twenty-four games in 1977 before calling it a career, capping a brilliant twenty-three year run which saw him make fifteen consecutive All-Star games and win the 1964 American League MVP award.
With the win, Kansas City improved to 35-19. Busby picked up the win to improve to three and one. Unfortunately, it would be the last win for Busby in 1976, as he would soon be de-railed by shoulder problems. Busby, who had already won sixty-two career games, would only win eight more games in his Kansas City career, which ended after the 1980 season.
The second game I attended was late in the year, September 5th, against the Texas Rangers. I don’t recall much about this game. The scorebook says Texas won by a score of three to one. Bert Blyleven and Andy Hassler both pitched complete games. Texas scored two in the first on consecutive hits by Toby Harrah, Jim Fregosi, Jeff Burroughs and Tom Grieve. Hassler then settled down, but he was no match for Blyleven, who held Kansas City to four hits. The Royals were not a very good team in August and September, losing twenty-five of their last forty games. This game came right in the middle of that slump.
In the off-season, the draft was barren. The Royals did draft Hubie Brooks in the first round but were unable to sign him. With the advent of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, the Royals lost young star Rupert Jones and Bob Stinson to Seattle and Al Fitzmorris and pitcher Tom Bruno to Toronto, in the expansion draft.
The team did make one significant trade in the offseason, sending Jamie Quirk, Jim Wohlford and Bob McClure to Milwaukee for pitcher Jim Colborn and catcher Darrell Porter.
Next week: The 1976 A.L.C.S.