The Yankees’ hard-fought six-game win over the pesky Angels has me thinking: this is the franchise’s second most satisfying American League pennant of my lifetime. Now I’m sure that a few Yankee fans will point to the 1996 Championship Series, which ended a 15-year World Series drought, or the 2003 pennant, capped off by the unlikely home run from a slumping Aaron Boone against the dreaded Red Sox. Without question, those two watershed postseason moments rate very near the top of the list, but in my mind, the 2009 pennant victory over the Angels ranks as second only to the satisfaction that came in the fall of 1976.
As a Yankee fan who was born during the winter of 1965, I had known only of mediocre baseball in New York, brief moments of unsustainable success, and a string of perennial also-ran finishes, a period of frustration that lasted through the end of the 1975 season. My early years as a baseball fan exposed me to the decline and retirement of Mickey Mantle, the unfulfilled promise of Johnny Ellis, the torn rotator cuff of Mel Stottlemyre, and the all-too-frequent domination by the rival Baltimore Orioles. By the summer of 1976, when I turned 11 years old, I was ready for some newfound success and an end to the nostalgic pining for the glory days of the early 1960s.
The bicentennial year brought not only a yearlong celebration of the country’s independence, but also the best Yankee team of my young life. Guided by a brilliant Billy Martin, who was in his vintage years as a manager, the Yankees won the American League East despite the lack of a legitimate cleanup man. A nice fellow named Chris Chambliss, a solid figure of a first baseman and a voice of reason in a chaotic clubhouse, occupied the cleanup role in caretaker fashion. He would serve the Yankees respectably as the No. 4 hitter (or the fifth-place hitter against left-handers), but fell several rungs short of stardom and was really only buying time in the middle of the order until the Yankees could acquire someone of more Ruthian quality. Or Jacksonian quality, as the case would be.
After a below-average season in 1975, Chambliss improved his power output significantly in 1976, accumulating 17 home runs and 96 RBIs, albeit with a rather pedestrian .441 slugging percentage. In an ideal world, Chambliss would have batted sixth or seventh in the Yankee lineup, but his ability to combine decent power with a high batting average made him, from Martin’s perspective, the best choice to bat cleanup. Though hardly a star, Chambliss was a huge improvement over Yankee first basemen of recent campaigns, a list that included one-dimensional players like Mike Hegan (a great fielder), Ron Blomberg (a dangerous platoon bat against right-handed pitching) and Bill Sudakis (a switch hitter who hit the occasional home run).
From the first game of the American League Championship Series on, Chambliss made the opposition Kansas City Royals feel like they were dealing with a more significant presence, as if Johnny Mize or Moose Skowron had come back for one more fling in pinstripes. Batting fifth against left-hander Larry Gura in Game One, Chambliss collected two hits and an RBI in four at-bats, contributing to a 4-1 victory. As the cleanup hitter in Game Two, Chambliss rapped out three more hits, but couldn’t prevent a 7-3 loss on the tartan turf of Royals Stadium.
Chambliss continued his rampage in Game Three, adding a touch of power to his collection of singles (and one triple). Chambliss’ touched up Andy Hassler, a deceptive left-hander, for a two-run homer, cutting an early Yankee deficit to one run and setting up a 5-3 victory at the Stadium.
After an inconsequential 1-for-4 in Game Four, which turned into a Yankee loss, Chambliss put forth the game of his life in the ALCS finale. In his first at-bat, Chambliss scored Roy White with a sacrifice fly, a crucial part of an early comeback that saw the Yankees erase a 2-0 deficit. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Chambliss singled, stole second, and scored, as the Yankees expanded a one-run lead to a 6-3 margin.
With home field advantage and a deep bullpen in their favor, the game seemed well in hand—at least until the top of the eighth inning. Veteran southpaw Grant Jackson, the lefty specialist in Martin’s pen, faced George Brett with two men on and no one out. Virtually infallible against left-handed batters throughout the regular season, Jackson found himself flashing forward to one of Goose Gossage’s infamous matchups against Brett. Leaving a fastball over the middle of the plate, Jackson allowed a monstrous home run to Brett, who didn’t need the advantage provided by the short porch at the Stadium. Within the blink of Brett’s eye, the Royals had tied the game at 6-6.
A deadlocked score, with extra innings beckoning, left the game in a position where one misplay, or simply a momentary piece of bad luck, could ruin the Yankees’ bid for the pennant. As I considered the possibility that the Yankees’ season could end so quickly on a moment’s notice—a crushing thought given their three-run lead—the team gave me little reason for hope in the bottom of the eighth. Facing Royals relief ace Mark Littell, the top of the Yankee order fell 1-2-3 on a fly out, groundout, and strikeout.
Like all Yankee fans, I held my breath in the top of the ninth. Dick Tidrow, replacing Jackson, retired the first two Royals batters. Then came a single by Buck Martinez (yes, the current announcer for TBS) and a walk to Al Cowens (who rarely drew walks), putting the pennant-winning run in scoring position. Luckily for the Yankees, the light-hitting Jim Wohlford was scheduled to bat next. Better known for his defensive prowess, Wohlford chopped a groundball to Graig Nettles, who opted for the shorter throw to Willie Randolph at second base and an inning-ending forceout.
As with most closers of the 1970s, Littell remained in the game for his third inning of work in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the Yankees’ three scheduled batters being Chambliss, Sandy Alomar, and Nettles, I didn’t feel very optimistic. I figured that if Chambliss didn’t get something done, the Yankee inning would be doomed. Littell would probably handle Alomar with ease, then pitch around Nettles, and perhaps take his chances against a hit-or-miss swinger like Oscar Gamble. Littell didn’t figure to make too many mistakes to any of the Yankees’ left-handed sluggers; he had allowed only one home run during the regular season.
I began to think about extra innings—and the chance that the game would go long into the night. Since this was a Thursday night, which meant a school night, I considered the very real possibility that I would have to go to bed without knowing the final result of the most important game of my young fandom.
As it turned out, I would only need to see one pitch. Littell delivered his first offering of the ninth, Chambliss responding with an uppercut swing that popped the ball high into the right field sky. As the ball rose and then fell, nearing the top of the padded wall at the Stadium, right fielder Hal McRae leapt high, suspending himself with his right arm over the top of the fence. I lost sight of the ball, and immediately thought the worst—McRae had somehow caught the ball! But the words of ABC broadcasters Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell told me something very different. They had a better view, aided by their actual presence within the Stadium. They obviously saw the ball elude McRae’s grasp—but I still doubted that reality. Only when McRae failed to gesture that he had secured the ball in his glove, then and only then did I know that Jackson and Cosell were right. And I didn’t care that Chambliss could not touch home plate, as he was driven off the field by swarms of rabid, crazed Yankee fans.
For the first 11 years of my life, the Yankees had achieved nothing higher than second place. Now, for the first time, they had won something tangible—an American League pennant. Even with all of the pennants and world championships that have come since, no postseason hero has completely taken the place of a good guy named Chris Chambliss.
Bruce Markusen, a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.