Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like Ruth, Mantle and Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Today we will be looking at one of the heroes of the Bronx Zoo era, Chris Chambliss!
Chambliss was born in Dayton, Ohio to Carroll and Christene Chambliss. His father was a chaplain in the US Navy, so the Chambliss family moved around the country before settling in Oceanside, Calif. Chris played football in addition to baseball and enrolled at MiraCosta Community College. He was drafted by the Reds in 1967 (31st round) and again in 1968 (2nd round) but ultimately decided to transfer to UCLA. With the Bruins, Chambliss would hit 15 home runs and would be invited to play in the Alaska Baseball League during the summer.
In his one season with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Chambliss hit .538 and won the league’s MVP award while the Pilots won the championship. Due to his Alaskan heroics, Chambliss’ stock was on the rise. In the 1970 draft, the Cleveland Indians selected him with the first overall pick. That spring, expectations were high for Chambliss and he was assigned to AAA Wichita. Despite having no professional experience, he led the league with a .342 batting average.
Career in Cleveland and Trade to New York
Chambliss’ career would start off with a bang as he won the 1971 American League Rookie of the Year. He quickly developed a knack for clutch hitting as he split his time between first and left field. However, Cleveland struggled and in 1974 they found themselves in the market for pitching. Meanwhile, the Yankees were also struggling under CBS ownership, but a 1973 sale saw George Steinbrenner arrive in the Bronx.
Wanting to change the narrative that surrounded the Yankees, Steinbrenner wanted to bring in players that he believed to be winners, and in 1974 he sent four pitchers to Cleveland in exchange for Chambliss. The trade was criticized as many thought the Yankees overspent and failed to address their biggest needs. However, Chambliss quickly proved them wrong.
A Yankees Legend
1976 saw a revival from the New York Yankees. Led by Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles and managed by Billy Martin, the Yankees were finally relevant again. However, a pesky Kansas City team stood between them and their first AL Pennant since 1964. In the deciding Game 5, the Yankees found themselves ahead 6-3 in the top of the eighth when George Brett came up to bat. Brett, always a thorn in the Yankees side, tied the game with a home run.
The bottom of the ninth saw Chris Chambliss enter Yankees’ lore. Kansas City had turned to Mark Littell after a delay to work around the Yankees first baseman. Earlier in the series, Chambliss roped a hard hit single and later said that he figured Littell would want to “get ahead in the count” and was sitting on a fastball. Sure enough, Chambliss got his fastball and deposited it into the Bronx night. While the Yankees would lose the World Series, a new era of Yankees baseball was starting
To this day, watching Chambliss as he is swarmed by Yankees fans is one of the all time best Yankees’ moments.
Yankees’ Success and Later Career
Chambliss remained a fixture in the Yankees lineup through the 1979 season. 1976 was his only All-Star appearance and in 1978 he won his only Gold Glove. In 1977 and 1978, the Yankees would finally return to the top of the baseball world with Chambliss playing a big role in both years. However, the Yankees traded Chambliss following the 1979 season. They instead turned to Bob Watson while Don Mattingly developed in the minors.
Chambliss would play for seven more seasons as a member of the Atlanta Braves where he continued to be a productive player. He rejined the Yankees in 1988 as a coach and actually had one at-bat with the Yankees who were desperate for a late season pinch hitter.
Chambliss again rejoined the Yankees as their hitting coach from 1996 through 2000. Under his coaching, the Yankees won four more World Series championships.
While Chambliss was not quite the player that a guy like Reggie Jackson was, his home run in 1976 was iconic and it will go down as one of the biggest swings in franchise history.