Friday, October 2, 2009

In Search of Number 27

This is a new series I have started for Baseball Digest that will take a look at the Yankees past Octobers.

Shades of October: 1976

As the Yankees begin the hunt for their 27th World Championship, it’s time to reflect on some of their past successes, and failures.

Any New York Yankees fan born in the early 1960’s was too late for the amazing run of 12 pennants in 14 seasons. The Yankees made the World Series series every season from 1960 through 1964, winning twice (’61,’62), but those fans like myself were too young to remember. Then then “Declinasty” began in 1965.

The team had become full of aging veterans that were well past their prime. Future Hall of Fame members Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were shells of their former selves. Ownership fired manager Yogi Berra after the ‘64 season, despite leading the team to the World Series. The team’s majority stake was sold to CBS, beginning a near of decade of hands off ownership.

Good players were few and far between – Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Mel Stottelmyre, and Roy White came up through the ranks, but the Yankees always fell short of being in top tier in the American League. Then came the sale of the Yankees to George Steinbrenner, a shipping magnate who was a self confessed “football guy”. Steinbrenner started shaking things up and the team started to improve.

The culmination came in 1976 when the Yankees, helmed by former player Billy Martin, won their title since division play began in 1969. They would be returning to the post-season for the first time in 12 years, the first in which they would have to win a playoff series to reach the World Series.

The AL championship series with the Kansas City Royals was tied at two games apiece, with the fifth and final game played on October 14, 1976 at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx landmark had reopened six months earlier after a two year renovation. Nearly 57,000 people packed the “House that Ruth Built” to see Ed Figueroa square off against Dennis Leonard. Figueroa, who two years later would become the first Puerto Rican born pitcher to win 20 games, had won 19 games in his first year in Pinstripes.

The Yankees were up 6-3 in the 8th inning and appeared set to celebrate their first pennant in over a decade. But George Brett had other plans. With two men aboard and left-hander Grant Jackson on the mound, Brett unloaded a game tying 3-run home run into the right field seats. A loud, mass groan reverberated throughout the Stadium.

Royals reliever Mark Littell had retired all five Yankees he had faced in the 7th and 8th innings, and took the mound to start the 9th. Littell had been good throughout the series, allowing just three hits and one walk in 4 2-3 innings. Yankees 1st baseman Chris Chambliss stepped up to the plate having already driven a pair of runs with a sacrifice fly and a ground out. Yankees radio announcer Bill White told his listeners that Chambliss had the big hits for the Yankees all season long. He was clairvoyant. Chambliss turned on the first pitch and hit it deep to right-center field. Right fielder Hal McRae got to the wall, but leaped in vein as Chambliss’ ball was well out of reach.

Instant pandemonium struck the Bronx- fans stormed the field as Chambliss rounded the bases, barreling through and over anyone who got in his way. Chambliss was never sure if he touched home plate, so eventually he got a police escort from the dugout to where home plate had been. He stepped firmly on the dirt to ensure the Yankees first trip to the World Series in what seemed like forever.

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