1976 was a monumental year in the history of the United States. It was the bicentennial – the 200th anniversary of the country declaring independence from Great Britain. November saw the first presidential election since Richard Nixon resigned from office two years earlier. In the New York Metropolitan area, the Yankees reopened Yankee Stadium following two years spent at Shea Stadium due to renovations,and the team won their first pennant in 12 years. It was also the first taste of winning under principal owner George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” led a group that purchased the Yankees in 1973 after Steinbrenner failed in his attempt to acquire his home-state Cleveland Indians.
The Yankees of the early to mid-1970s were slowly starting to climb their way out of the lower half of the American League. By 1976, Steinbrenner and team President and GM Gabe Paul had worked aggressively to put together a roster that could take the team back to the Fall Classic. It was an opportunity the Yankees hadn’t had since they lost a seven-game series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964.
One of the key moves for Steinbrenner was to find the right manager for the team; someone who was a fiery combatant and a winner. Steinbrenner found that person in Billy Martin. The 1975 season had begun the chaotic cycle of hiring and firing Martin. That also meant that Steinbrenner had to fire his first managerial hire, Bill Virdon. The move came on the heels of a three-game winning streak that still left the Yankees 10 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.
“Billy the Kid” had already managed with some success in Minnesota, Detroit and Texas. Of course, Martin carried plenty of baggage with him wherever he went. He was only available in 1975 because the Rangers had fired him after a 44-51 start. For Martin, it was like a reprieve from God. He finally got back to the organization that he never wanted to leave. It was as if he had been in exile for 18 years after he was traded away from the Yankees in 1957.
As for the team itself, the Indians, ironically, would play a large role in helping the Yankees out. To fill the corner positions, the Yankees made two significant trades with the Tribe. On November 27, 1972, prior to Steinbrenner’s arrival, the Yankees dealt for third baseman Graig Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses. In return, catcher John Ellis, infielder Jerry Kenney, and outfielders Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres were dispatched to Cleveland. Less than two years later, on April 26, 1974, the Yankees swung a deal that brought them first baseman Chris Chambliss, swingman Dick Tidrow and pitcher Cecil Upshaw for Fritz Peterson, Tom Buskey, Fred Beene, and Steve Kline. Both deals became major victories for the Yankees.
Nettles went on to a near-Hall of Fame career with 390 HR, over 1,300 RBI, and was one of the best defensive third baseman – he won two Gold Glove Awards – in the game. Chambliss was an underrated defensive first baseman and a clutch hitter. He was a model of consistency with a .282/.323/.417 slash line in his six full seasons in pinstripes.
The starting rotation was built around 1974 AL Cy Young winner, All-Star and future Hall of Fame member Catfish Hunter. The right-hander was MLB’s first free agent after winning a grievance filed against Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley in 1974. Hunter signed with the Yankees that New Year’s Eve and won 25 games for the 1975 team.
Closer Sparky Lyle joined the Yankees in another pre-Steinbrenner steal of a deal, in 1972. The Yankees sent first baseman Danny Cater and infielder Mario Guerrero to Boston for the future (1977) AL Cy Young winner.
The team didn’t have to do anything at the catching position. The fourth overall pick in the 1968 MLB Amateur draft, Thurman Munson was the 1970 AL Rookie of the Year, a three-time Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star. He won the 1976 AL MVP Award after hitting .302 with 18 HR and 105 RBI. Equally as important, Munson was masterful at handling the Yankees pitching staff and threw out 35% of would-be base stealers despite a thumb injury that had altered his throwing motion.
It took two years and two deals to obtain the team’s center fielder and lead-off man for the ’76 squad. Prior to the 1975 season, the Yankees dealt fan-favorite and All-Star Bobby Murcer to the San Francisco Giants for fan-favorite and All-Star Bobby Bonds. One year later, the Yankees shipped Bonds to the Anaheim Angeles for Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.
Rivers walked like an old man, but ran like Secretariat. Coming off a season in which he had stolen 70 bases, Rivers finished third in the ’76 AL MVP voting after he posted a .312 average, .760 OPS, 95 runs scored, 43 stolen bases, 184 hits and 31 doubles. Figueroa won 16 games, with a 2.91 ERA, for the Angels in 1975 and was a big key to the Yankees’ three straight division titles from 1976-1978. In the Yankees great ’78 comeback season, Figueroa became the first Puerto Rican-born pitcher to win 20 games.
The Yankees and their fans owe a debt of gratitude to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ second baseman, Rennie Stennett. If not for the stellar play of Stennett, the Pirates would not have been open to trading second base prospect Willie Randolph. A native of Brooklyn, Randolph was acquired, along with pitchers Dock Ellis and Ken Brett, in December, 1975. Pitcher Doc Medich was sent to Pittsburgh to complete the deal. Randolph became a fan favorite in his 13 seasons with the Yankees and later returned as a coach. (He also managed the crosstown New York Mets for 3 1/2 seasons.) Randolph primarily batted eighth in his rookie year, but later provided the second part of a formidable one-two punch with Rivers at the top of the Yankees lineup. The two combined for 80 stolen bases in 1976.
Joining Rivers in the outfield were Roy White, Oscar Gamble, and on an occasional basis,Lou Piniella, a “professional” hitter. The switch-hitting White was a clutch hitter and despite a weak throwing arm, was a defensive stalwart. He was particularly outstanding since playing left field in Yankee Stadium was one of the hardest jobs in baseball.
Gamble, he of the giant Afro and powerful left-handed swing, was acquired from Cleveland prior to the season, for pitcher Pat Dobson. Piniella and his smooth-batting stroke was brought in from Kansas City after the 1973 season, with pitcher Lindy McDaniel sent to the Royals. It proved to be another great deal for the Yankees. Piniella spent 11 seasons as a Yankees player, managed the team on two different occasions, and also served as GM.
Veteran left-hander Rudy May rounded out the starting rotation, while Lyle and Tidrow were joined in the pen by tough left-hander Tippy Martinez.
The season opened on the road in Milwaukee and the second game of the three-game series with the Brewers proved to be an omen for the crazy times ahead in the Steinbrenner-Martin era. The Yankees trailed 6-0 after Figueroa got knocked around in his Yankees’ debut, but chipped away with four runs in the 7th inning. In the 9th, Chambliss (2), Piniella (1), backup catcher Rick Dempsey (1) and Randolph combined to drive in five runs to give the Yankees a 9-6 lead. But the game was far from over.
With the aid of an error, the Brewers loaded the bases with no one out against Lyle and Dave Pagan. That brought Don Money to the plate and he was on the money with a game-winning grand slam. Or so everyone thought. But a moment before Pagan delivered a meatball to Money, first base umpire George Mahoney had granted Chambliss’ request for a time out. The home run was wiped off the board and the Yankees went on to a 9-7 win.
The following week, the Yankees christened the new “old” Yankee Stadium with an 11-4 victory. Yankee greats Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford and many other dignitaries saw the Twins’ “Disco” Dan Ford hit the first home run in the renovated Stadium and saw Tidrow toss five shutout innings in relief for the win. From the third game of the year through the remainder of the season, the Yankees were either tied or in sole possession of first place in the American League East.
Sensing on opportunity to win a championship, Steinbrenner decided to pull off a make-or-break deal. Perhaps it was in reaction to a two-game losing streak that saw the Yankees lead go from six games to four and one-half. No matter the reason, on June 15, the Yankees dealt Martinez, left-handed starter Scott McGregor (14th overall pick in the ’72 draft), Dempsey, May and Pagan to the Orioles for starters Doyle Alexander and Ken Holtzman, veteran catcher Elrod Hendricks, lefty reliever Grant Jackson and minor leaguer Jimmy Freeman. It was one of the many deals the Yankees made over the next two decades that sent prospects/young players for veterans. It didn’t take long after the ’76 season to realize the deal was a mistake. While McGregor became one of the best pitchers in the AL, Alexander left as a free agent after the season, Holtzman was a disaster, Hendricks rarely played, Jackson was lost in the 1977 expansion draft, and Freeman was quickly out of baseball.
The Yankees went 66-40 (.623) from June 15 on, and captured their first division title by 10 games. The Yankees met the Royals in what would be the first of three straight League Championship Series. The series was tied at two games apiece, with the fifth and final game set for Yankee Stadium. It was a classic. The Yankees led 6-3 in the 8th inning, but George Brett unloaded a three-run home run off of Jackson to tie the game. Then in the bottom of the 9th, Chambliss smacked reliever Mark Littell’s first pitch over the right field fence to win the pennant for the Yankees. Unlike the sedate celebrations of earlier decades, the fans poured onto the field with an excitement rarely seen before in Yankee Stadium. Chambliss looked like a fullback blocking his way through the line as he rounded the bases. By the time he got to home plate, the the actual plate was gone. (Chambliss later came back out of the clubhouse with a police escort to step on the area where the plate had been.)
The World Series, unfortunately, brought no celebrations to New York. The Cincinnati Reds swept the Yankees in four straight games to win their second championship in as many years. While the Yankees’ fans were upset, they still felt joy for the return to baseball’s biggest stage. But inside the Yankees clubhouse, (according to the movie “The Bronx is Burning”), there was a much different scene. Martin openly wept in his office, only to be interrupted and berated by Steinbrenner. He told Martin that things were going to change the next season and change they did. 1977 saw the signing of free agent Reggie Jackson and all that brought with it, increased friction between Martin and Steinbrenner, new friction between Martin and Jackson, and the first World Series championship won by the Yankees in 15 years.
But none of that would have happened without the magical 1976 season.