It was September 29, 1976, and the city of Kansas City had reason to be nervous. The Royals had arrived in Oakland needing one win in three tries to clinch the AL West title. The first two chances had gone by the boards. The Royals’ lead, at 4.5 games when they arrived in Oakland, was down to 2.5, and there was still a weekend of games left.
The Oakland A’s had been the dominant team in the AL West in the 1970s—they’d won the previous five division titles and won three straight World Series from 1972-74. Kansas City was the team on the rise. The Royals came into existence into 1969 and by 1971 they produced a winning team. They went on a bit of a roller coaster, slipping below .500 in 1972 & 1974, but winning 88 games in 1973 and hitting a high point with 91 wins in ’75.
Kansas City had been managed by some good names—Bob Lemon shepherded the ’71 team to the winning record. Lemon would later win a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1978. And Jack McKeon was manager through much of the ’75 season. But though McKeon would later win a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 2003, he was replaced with the ’75 Royals at 50-46.
The team tapped unknown Whitey Herzog, and they promptly finished on a 41-25 tear. It would be the start of great things for both the franchise and the manager.
Herzog would become legendary in St. Louis in the 1980s for the frequency with which his teams stole bases. It was a style that became evident in Kansas City. The ’76 Royals only had two players who hit more than 10 home runs—John Mayberry at first base and Amos Otis in centerfield. But seven players stole 20 or more bases, led by shortstop Freddie Patek who swiped 51.
The team was also young, with Patek the only starter in the everyday lineup over the age of 30. No starter was younger than the brightest star. Third base was occupied by 23-year-old George Brett, starting a career that would mark him the franchise’s greatest player—indeed one of the great third baseman and pure hitters to ever play. Brett hit .333, and designated hitter Hal McRae hit .332 to key the offense. Mayberry led the team 95 RBIs, and Otis was a complete offensive and defensive player. The Royals finished fourth in the American League in runs scored.
Herzog’s pitching was even better. The staff finished second in the AL in ERA, led by Dennis Leonard, who won 17 games with a 3.51 ERA and logged 259 innings to lead the rotation. The pitchers were as young as the hitters, with only Al Fitzmorris as old as 30, and Fitzmorris won 15 games with a 3.06 ERA. Doug Bird and Paul Splitorff rounded out the staff, combining for 23 wins and each having ERAs under 4.00.
The bullpen was deep, with Mark Litell, Marty Pattin and Steve Migori piling up the innings in the days when roles weren’t as strictly defined as they are today, and all three having sub-3.00 ERAs.
But in spite of all these names, the man who was getting the ball on the crucial September night in Oakland was a lefthander named Larry Gura. He would go on to a career with 126 wins, some big postseason performances and get a reputation as a Yankee-killer, after the Pinstripes were the ones that cut him loose and available to be picked by Kansas City. All that was ahead of him—but in 1976, he’d only appeared in 19 games, just one of them a start, before he took the ball in Oakland.
When the 1976 seasons started, Kansas City had stumbled out of the gate to 5-7, but by May 18 they were at 18-10 and tied for first with the Texas Rangers. The A’s were lagging behind and KC promptly beat them twice in late May. The Royals started to build their lead and pushed it up to five games by June 18, but Oakland was in a deep hole, eleven games out.
The end of the 1976 season was going to be the first year of modern free agency and A’s owner Charlie Finley was focused on dumping his stars—it didn’t work, as commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided his sale of Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace, the outfielder and catcher who’d been key parts of the championship years, but it was a big distraction in the early part of the season.
Kansas City pushed its lead to seven games at the All-Star break and were riding high at plus-twelve on August 6 after they swept a doubleheader in Chicago. Then the veterans in Oakland decided it was time to make a last stand. The Royals lost five of seven after August 6 and then in late August/early September they dropped nine of eleven. Oakland was barreling down their neck, and when they staved off elimination two straight times in the teams’ final head-to-head series, and the untested Gura on the mound for the finale, there was plenty of reason to be nervous.
The best way to stave off nerves is an early lead, and that’s what the Royals got, although even their first run was a mixed blessing. In the top of the second, McRae and Mayberry singled. Then Al Cowens hit a line drive that resulted in a double play. Fortunately, utility man Cookie Rojas saved the inning with a two-out RBI single. It was 1-0, but it could have been more.
More was what the Royals got in the third. Patek doubled and Tom Poquette followed with a single. Otis ripped a double that scored one run and left runners on second and third. Brett didn’t get a hit in this key game, but he pushed a ground ball to the right side to bring in a run and make it 3-0.
The 3-0 lead might have seemed like the same score in a hockey game, because Gura was locked in. The A’s threatened in the third, but the lefty induced speedy centerfielder Bill North to fly out and then veteran shortstop Bert Campaneris lined out to Otis in center.
That line drive out was the last break Gura needed. Oakland mustered only three singles the rest of the game and two were wiped out on the double play ball. Otis homered in the fifth for some insurance. Gura completed the game in appropriate fashion, going straight through key hitters of the Oakland dynasty. Campaneris bounced back to Gura for one out. Rudi flied to right. And when Tenace popped out to Mayberry at first base it was time for the celebration to begin.
Kansas City’s season would end with a crushing loss in the American League Championship Series, losing on a walkoff home run by New York Yankees’ first baseman Chris Chambliss in the decisive game.
But the good times were just starting. KC would win the AL West four times in five years and make it to the World Series in 1980. They won the division again in 1984, and then in ’85 they put it all together and won what remains the franchise’s only World Series title. It all started when a young and hungry team held off a fading dynasty in 1976.