"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: The 1976 Pennant


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.

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1 williamnyy23   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:19 am

One interesting note about the Chambliss AB was it was preceded by a considerable delay because fans had begun to throw objects on the field. After an announcement by Sheppard and righteous condemnation by Cosell, the game resumed and Chambliss quickly ended it.

Another interesting note about the game was Reggie Jackson was in the booth. When Chambliss waited for his AB to resume, I think Jackson said something about Chambliss looking like he was “in heat”. With the top button of his jersey undone, I guess you could say he was feeling a little hot under the collar. Also in that broadcast, Cosell talked about how George Steinbrenner had taken Mickey Rivers to task for lackluster play, and by doing so had inspired him to play better. Reggie commented about how it was funny that a man with no playing experience could instruct Rivers on how to play the game; talk about foreshadowing some of the fun that would take place over the next 5 years.

2 Yankee Mama   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:21 am

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I always felt short-changed with respect to Mantle as I too, was born in the 60s. My brother, ten years my senior had real Yankee heroes with Mantle at the helm, whereas I had envy.

That year,1976, I felt the beginnings of hope and I adored Chris Chambliss. He seemed like such a nice guy and I was happy when good things happened to him, like not being able to step on homeplate from a well-timed shot to right field.

3 williamnyy23   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:25 am

The 1976 victory was before my time as a fan, but I obviously knew a lot about it from the moment I started following the team. During the barren decade of the 1980s, that game was like a beacon. I always dreamed what it would be like for the Yankees to make the World Series. Even though they had won it in 1977-78, the Chambliss HR was still the signature moment because it was getting there that remained so elusive.

For that reason, the 1996 ALCS should rank as my top ALCS, but the 2003 has it beat. That series was so intense, and the games so nerve wracking, that I can’t imagine anything topping it. Having said that, this ALCS isn’t far behind, and probably on the same level as 1996. For many reasons, this year was about more than just advancing to the World Series…there were a lot of side stories and ghosts that had to be overcome, not the least of which was the 2004 ALCS collapse. Even though a lot is still riding on the outcome of this World Series, it’s almost like making it back to the World Series has erased a lot of the doubt that had begun to creep into the mindset.

4 Joel   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:32 am

I remember my dad saying "he caught it" (referring to McRae--I thought it was Al Cowens), but when I saw the fans leaping out of the bleachers and then heard Cosell say "Chris Chambliss has won the American League Pennant..."

What a moment. Must be something about "new" Yankee Stadiums.

5 Rich   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:33 am

Watching Chambliss's HR on TV remains a memorable moment, but the way the Reds annihilated the Yankees in the WS that year did diminish the excitement somewhat.

6 BuckFoston   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:38 am

Lohud reporting Hinske for Guzman as expected, but Cervelli left off and Bruney added as well.

7 Just Fair   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:47 am

This is by far the most satisying pennant for me. I grew with the the shitty teams of the 80's on WPIX. During the playoff years of the mid 90's I was stuck in Pittsburgh as a college kid yelling at the TV by myself. The great teams of the 90's I was in Colorado, pretty far removed from the baseball scene. I watched all the playoff games, but hardly ever saw a regular season game. The early noughts I was stuck in Maryland listening to a static filled radio on the floor.
I moved back to New York in 03 and it's been bad news since. So yeah, I'm pretty gd excited this time around. : D So that's my life in a blogshell.

8 Joel   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:48 am

[5] I remember watching the player intros and thinking, "Boy the Reds are good." I always thought the Yanks were psyched out in that Series.

9 Rich   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:52 am

[8] And then Sparky Anderson added insult to injury following the series.

From Wikipedia:

In the 1976 World Series, Munson batted .529 and collected six consecutive hits to tie a World Series record set by Goose Goslin of the Washington Senators in 1925 (also in a losing effort). After this hitting performance, which included a 4-for-4 night in the final game at Yankee Stadium, Reds manager Sparky Anderson was asked by a reporter to compare Munson with his catcher, Johnny Bench. Anderson's comment at the post-World Series press conference, "You don't compare anyone to Johnny Bench. You don't want to embarrass anybody", may have been a tribute to his great player, but it angered Munson.[1]

10 Joel   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:52 am

Joe Morgan was .320/.444/.576/1.020 with a 187 OPS+ in 1976.

11 Joel   ~  Oct 28, 2009 10:58 am

[9] Thurm was in his prime, winning the MVP that year. And oddly enough, Bench had an off year in '76.

12 MichiganYankee   ~  Oct 28, 2009 6:52 pm

You were born in 1965 and you remember Mantle's decline and retirement? You must have been a prodigy! I was born in 1963, and I vaguely remember Mantle's retirement but certainly not his decline.

Your memorize and emotions pretty much match up with mine. A couple of additional points:
- 1974 was a bit of a heartbreak, chasing the Orioles through September and falling just short.
- 1976 was the only season that I recall as being a "success" without a World Championship. One or two wins against the Reds would have been nice, but the sweep did not dampen the luster of the pennant.

On a personal note, my grandparents had promised my brothers and me tickets to "a ballgame of our choice." We were considering requesting tickets to an Olympic event in Montreal, but we decided instead to wait for the ALCS. Postseason tickets were sold in blocks back then (i.e. you had to purchase a seat for all three home games), and we could only keep one of the three. I knew in my gut that the series would go 5 games, but we still decided to "play it safe" and keep the ticket to Game 3.

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