The New York Yankees and Kansas City Royalshad waged a classic battle in the 1976 American League Championship Series, a series not settled until Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss won the decisive game with a ninth-inning walkoff home run. In 1977, the Yankees and Royals each won 100 games, won their respective divisions and in the era when leagues were simply an East & West with only first-place teams advancing, a rematch was set for the 1977 ALCS.
Paul Splittorff got the ball for Game 1. The Royals had blown away the AL West, so the fact that the lefty, and not Leonard, was the Game 1 starter was clearly a sign of Whitey Herzog’s confidence in Splittorff against the Yankees. It proved to be well-justified.
Kansas City got after Don Gullett quickly, scoring two runs in each of the first three innings. Hal McRae, Al Cowens and first baseman John Mayberry all homered. It was an easy Royals’ win, with the Yankees able to take one consolation from the 7-2 drubbing—when Dick Tidrow came on in relief, he was able to get 20 outs for Billy Martin and avoid chewing up the pen—and Cy Young award winner Sparky Lyle—in a lost cause.
Ron Guidry provided an answer for New York the next night, and Kansas City could muster only three hits. But the game was still tied 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth. With one out, Thurman Munson singled. With two outs, there was still only Munson aboard, and Herzog pulled starter Andy Hassler. It was a move that didn’t work.
Lou Piniella, a roving utility player who batted .330 during the season without a full-time position, singled. Cliff Johnson, the DH would be the most consistent Yankee hitter in this series, doubled in Munson. After an intentional walk to Chris Chambliss, George Brett booted a grounder that resulted in two more runs. New York rolled on to a 6-2 series-tying win.
Kansas City could still good about themselves—in spite of Brett having gone 1-for-9 and making a huge error, the Royals had still picked up a win in New York and now had the pennant reduced to a best-of-three with all the games in their backyard.
That backyard was very good to the Royals for Game 3. Dennis Leonard threw a complete-game four-hitter. Although this does beg the question of why Leonard hadn’t pitched the second game. The logic of overlooking him as staff ace for Game 1 made sense, in light of Splittorff’s track record against New York. Overlooking him again in Game 2 seemed to be pushing the point.
In any event, Leonard was dominant, Brett got back on track with a 2-for-4 night, McRae and Darrell Porter each had mult-hit games and the Royals moved to the brink of their first American League pennant with a 6-2 win.
A sunny Saturday afternoon dawned in Kansas City for Game 4 and the offenses on both sides came out blazing. Mickey Rivers got four hits to jump-start the Yankee attack and they led 5-2 in the bottom of the fourth. Then the Royals got consecutive RBI doubles from shortstop Freddie Patek and second baseman Frank White. Brett was coming to the plate with two outs.
Martin managed this at-bat and the rest of the game exactly as he should have—like nothing else mattered. He summoned Lyle. It was a lefty-on-lefty matchup for the Yankees and it also ensured that if the season ended, Martin would go down firing his best shots.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the end of the season and Lyle had the greatest moment of his career. He got Brett, then finished the rest of the game. He allowed only two singles, never allowed the tying run to second base and the Yanks finally got an insurance run in the ninth to win 6-4. It would be winner-take-all on Sunday night for the American League pennant.
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Game 5 could be the subject of an entire book onto its own. Splittorff was pitching for the Royals and of all the Yankees, no one had a more difficult time handling him than Jackson. Martin made the gutsy call to sit Reggie Jackson, with the backing of the players who said Reggie couldn’t Splitorff, “not with a paddle.”
Then the game itself broke into several movements, like the great symphony that it was. After a first-inning single by McRae, Brett ripped an RBI triple. He slid hard into Graig Nettles at third, who responded by kicking his Royal counterpart. The benches cleared and there was real fighting. In a sign of how different baseball was back then, no one was ejected—and lest you think that it was just because of the magnitude of the game, there weren’t any fines after the fact either.
Brett would score on an RBI groundout from Cowens. The Yankees got one back in the third when Rivers singled and stole second with two outs, then scored on a base hit by Munson. The Royals quickly answered that same inning with the same trio of hitters who did it in the first. McRae doubled, Brett moved him to third and Cowens picked up the RBI single.
The 3-1 score held through seven and Splittorff was rolling. Then a leadoff single got him removed. This is another questionable pitching move by Herzog. By today’s standards, it’s perfectly normal. But in the late 1970s, it was still customary to let pitchers finish their business and the lefty was by no means in trouble. The winning run hadn’t even reached base.
What’s more, Martin was now liberated to bring Reggie into the lineup and Jackson delivered an RBI single that cut the lead to 3-2. Herzog turned to Steve Mingori, who got the final two outs of the inning with the tying and lead runs aboard though and it looked like Kansas City might survive.
Leonard opened the ninth for KC and clearly didn’t have it. He gave up a single to Paul Blair and a walk to Roy White. Had Leonard pitched Game 2, he would have been on three days’ rest here (allowing for the travel day) rather than one day rest after pitching Game 3. It’s hard to see how that doesn’t make a difference.
Whitey Herzog was a great manager at this time and he would further prove his greatness in St. Louis through the 1980s. But one big part of this series is that Martin made correct decisions, while Herzog did not.
With the lead runs aboard, Rivers singled to right to tie the game and move White up to third. A sacrifice fly by Willie Randolph gave New York the lead. Brett made another big error, allowing the Yankees to get ahead 5-3.
In the bottom of the ninth, Lyle was on. Frank White hit a one-out single. Freddie Patek was up next, with the trio of McRae-Brett-Cowens behind him. The moment was at hand for more drama. Lyle squelched the moment, inducing a ground ball to Nettles, who started a 5-4-3 double play and the Yankees were going to the World Series.
Kansas City would be back—in fact, the Yankees and Royals were only halfway through a four times-in-five-years run of meetings in the ALCS. But not until 1980 would KC finally break through, and if it was possible for a loss to be more disheartening than the one they experienced in 1976, the ending to the 1977 ALCS was it.
New York would go on to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games and claim their first World Series title since 1962.