The 1976 baseball season saw the New York Yankees return to prominence, winning the AL East for the first time since the divisional split took place in 1969. The Kansas City Royals were a completely fresh face on the postseason stage, capturing the AL West and ending the Oakland A’s dynastic run of the early-to-mid 1970s.
You can read more about the regular season paths taken by the Yankees & Royals and the seasons enjoyed by their key players at the links below. This article will focus squarely on the games of the 1976 ALCS.
The League Championship Series round was best-of-five in 1976, and used a 2-3 homefield format that rotated between the divisions without regard to regular season record. The series opened in Kansas City and concluded in the Bronx.
New York came out on the attack in Game 1, and Brett had defensive problems in his first inning of postseason play. Rivers had an infield hit and Brett’s throwing error put the speedy runner on second. He came on to score and another Brett error would make it 2-0 before the inning was over.
Yankee starter Catfish Hunter was in command and not until the eighth would the Royals get on the board. Royals’ pitcher Larry Gura kept the Yanks under control, but in the ninth the Pinstripes added two insurance runs. Ninth-place hitter Fred Stanley got the last of his three hits to start the rally, Rivers singled and White doubled them both in.
New York had at least earned a split and now enormous pressure shifted to Kansas City for Game 2. The Royals answered the bell immediately with a pair of singles setting up a Brett sacrifice fly, then a stolen base and throwing error by Munson setting up a two-out RBI single by Tom Poquette.
17-game winner Dennis Leonard was on the mound for Kansas City, but he could not hold the lead. In the top of the third, with the lead down to 2-1, White and Munson both doubled. Then first baseman Chris Chambliss hit an RBI single. Leonard was removed for lefty Paul Splittorff, but now the Royals trailed 3-2.
Splittorff would earn a reputation as a Yankee-killer and he saved the day here, throwing 5 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. Brett tripled to leadoff the bottom of the sixth and scored the tying run. After a John Mayberry single, Poquette got another big hit with a double to put the Royals up 4-3.
In the bottom of the eighth, Poquette again got things started, drawing a walk to lead off an inning where the Royals would score three times and break the game open. It ended 7-4 and the American League pennant was now down to a best-of-three settled from Tuesday through Thursday in the Bronx.
If Kansas City was intimidated by the bright lights of Broadway, they didn’t show it. A single and stolen base in the first inning set up Brett for an RBI single. The jitters of Game 1’s first inning were well past the third baseman and he was on his way to a big series. He later scored on a sac fly by Hal McRae, and Poquette showed up again with a two-out RBI double.
New York starter Dock Ellis settled down though, and the Royals wouldn’t score again. New York went to work on that 3-0 deficit in the fourth. Lou Piniella hit a two-out double and then Chambliss, in a moment that would prove to be foreshadowing, homered to right-center. The Yankees chased Royal starter Andy Hassler with three runs in sixth, Chambliss again picking up an RBI.
The 5-3 Yankee win had them in position to play for the pennant in late afternoon start for Game 4 on Wednesday. They sent Hunter, a veteran of the Oakland dynasty, to try and clinch it, but the Royals got to him early. With two on and two out in the second inning, it was the bottom of the Kansas City lineup that did the damage. Freddie Patek hit a two-run double and then Buck Martinez singled Patek home.
Chambliss got the Yankees going with a leadoff single in the bottom of the inning, and Nettles homered, but starting pitcher Larry Gura was quickly removed for Doug Bird, with Kansas City still ahead 3-2. The Royals opened it up with two runs in the fourth, with other unknown, Jamie Quirk, hitting a big triple. Quirk later added a sac fly and with the 7-4 win, it was down to one game for a trip to the World Series.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE 1976 MLB SEASON
The most consequential teams and each postseason series
Game 5 of the 1976 American League Championship Series would earn its place on the list of the best games ever played. Both offenses came out on the attack. Brett hit a two-out double and McRae homered to stake KC to a 2-0 first inning lead. Rivers answered with a leadoff triple. White drove him in and promptly stole second. Chambliss would pick up White with a sac fly.
Kansas City manager Whitey Herzog didn’t hesitate to pull starter Dennis Leonard in the first inning and gave the ball to Splittorff. The lefty pitched well, but not quite as dominant as in Game 2. Kansas City was able to get a 3-2 lead in the second when Martinez hit a two-out RBI single, but the Yankees came grinding back.
Rivers, White and Munson came up to lead off the third and produced the tying run and runners on first and third. Chambliss again was in the middle of things with an RBI single to put New York up 4-3. In the sixth, Rivers singled, took second on a sac bunt and scored on a RBI base hit by Munson. Lest we forget Chambliss, he drove in another run. Now it was 6-3, and when it stayed that way going to the eighth, it looked all but over.
Ed Figueroa had settled down as the New York starter, but was removed after an Al Cowens singled. New York manager Billy Martin summoned lefty Grant Jackson.
I don’t understand the logic behind Martin ignoring Sparky Lyle. The latter was his closer, and though that role wasn’t defined as precisely as it is today, that’s even more of an argument for bringing Lyle in. He had a 2.26 ERA and like Jackson, was a lefthander who could face Brett, now in the on-deck circle with a man aboard. Nor was there an injury factor—Lyle had pitched in this series and would resume normal duty in the World Series.
After another single, Brett showed why we second-guess Martin’s bullpen decisions. The third baseman unloaded a home run that tied the game and stunned the crowd. It was 6-6, and the Yankees did not answer in the eighth.
The Royals couldn’t score in the ninth, and Mark Littell, who’d had a solid year was on the mound. Chambliss was the leadoff hitter. In a fitting climax to his postseason performance, Chambliss homered into right-center and in the days before crowd control was a priority, had to make his way through a mob to stomp home plate and secure the pennant.
One of the great games, great series and great moments was now in the books. LCS MVP honors were not given in 1976, but with a .524 batting average, eight RBIs, seemingly all of them at big moments and a walkoff home run to win the pennant, it seems safe to say Chambliss deserves the honor retroactively.
The Yankee run ended with this dramatic win. New York ran into Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and were swept out of the World Series.
But the 1976 ALCS was a true laying-of-the-groundwork series. The Yankees won the World Series in both 1977 and 1978. Both years they defeated the Royals in the ALCS. Kansas City finally broke through against New York in 1980. A great rivalry was born in 1976.