The 1976 Boston Red Sox were a young team with solid veteran leadership, coming off a season that saw them come within one run of a World Series title. By rights, 1976 should have been a big year with another run at what was then an elusive championship for the franchise. Instead, the year was marked by drama off the field and underachievement on it.
Boston had five starters age 24 of younger, and four of those had played key roles in the 1975 pennant drive. Fred Lynn won the American League MVP award in ’75 as a rookie (to this day, the last rookie to do so). Jim Rice was in the mix to do the same before a September hand injury ended his season and probably cost the team the Series.
Rick Burleson was a talented young shortstop, Dwight Evans was a defensive whiz in right field with an emerging bat, and Butch Hobson was at third. All but Hobson had been vital contributors the previous year.
The 1976 Boston Red Sox were more than just the young players. Carlton Fisk had a few years additional experience and was at catcher. The legendary Carl Yastrzemski was at first base, still productive at age 36—he hit 21 home runs with 102 RBIs in 1976. And 35-year-old Luis Tiant was still the ace of the rotation, with 21 wins and a 3.06 ERA.
But it never clicked for Boston. They were contract problems with Lynn and Fisk that overshadowed the team in the early going—this was right at the time that free agency was first becoming an option for large numbers of players and it created a lot of uncertainty and bad blood. The Boston Red Sox front office, even in the glory days of the early 21st century, has always known how to pick fights with players unnecessarily and it was even worse in 1976.
The Red Sox front office did make a bold move when they bought the contracts of outfielder Joe Rudi and relief pitcher Rollie Fingers from the Oakland A’s. Fingers and Rudi were both vital parts of the teams that won three straight World Series from 1972-74, but the sales—for straight cash, no players involved—were voided by commissioner Bowie Kuhn as being contrary to the best interests of baseball. Even when Boston tried to help themselves, it ended up shrouded in drama.
Boston lost on Opening Day in a 1-0 game to the Baltimore Orioles and Jim Palmer. Then from April 29 to May 11 the Red Sox lost ten straight, most to the Texas Rangers, who were far from being an American League power. It put the Sox in an 8.5 game hole. Then they won eight of nine, chipped back to within six games of the front-running New York Yankees and were poised to make a move upon arriving in the Bronx for a four-game set.
The four days in New York couldn’t have gone worse. Perhaps it’s typical of the Red Sox season that it started with a win. Boston took the opener 8-2, but an in-game brawl resulted in an injured shoulder for Bill Lee, who had been the team’s second-best starter in ’75. Lee went to the disabled list.
Then the Red Sox led the second game 5-4 before giving up the lead in the ninth inning. They lost in the 12th after a two-out error by second baseman Denny Doyle, a single and a game-winning hit by no-name bench player Kerry Dineen. The third game saw the Sox drop a 1-0 gutwrencher in 11 innings, with Rice hitting into a big double play in the 10th when Boston was in position to get a run. Even though Boston won the finale, got a split and was still theoretically in the race, they had blown a chance to win at least three and lost one of their best pitchers.
As you can imagine, the music all but died coming out of New York in late May. Boston fell ten games back by June 25. They were 40-40 at the All-Star break. Coming out of the break, the Red Sox played six games in Kansas City, the eventual AL West champ, over a four-day period. Boston lost five of them and fired manager Darrell Johnson.
Don Zimmer took over the managerial reins and Boston had a nice 21-11 spurt in September and October to finish the season over .500 at 83-79, good for third place in the AL East. But they were 15 ½ games behind New York and the fate of the 1976 Boston Red Sox was the first warning sign that the dynasty hopes of the previous October were going to go unfulfilled.