The 1976 MLB season ushered in a new era for baseball—the era of free agency, which had previously appeared only in snippets, but now loomed over the entire sport. But before the new era could begin, the old order had to get a fitting conclusion, and so it was the Big Red Machine, the great Cincinnati Reds teams rolled to a second World Series title.
Cincinnati won 102 games and coasted to the NL West title, and then swept through October—quite literally, going 7-0 in what was then a two-tiered playoff format with a best-of-five League Championship Series.
The Reds weren’t without occasional challenges, but they never became life-threatening and were always turned back, with MVP second baseman Joe Morgan leading the way in the regular season, then Pete Rose and Johnny Bench coming up as postseason heroes.
Three fresh faces joined Cincinnati on the postseason stage. Before you raised an eyebrow at the New York Yankees being a fresh face, remember that everything is relative. The Yankees had yet to make the postseason in the era of two divisions per league—the 1964 pennant was their last October appearance.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals would become postseason fixtures over the next several years, and they each won their first division titles of the expansion era. Kansas City and New York then staged a dramatic American League Championship Series that provided baseball its October excitement, going the full five games and being settled by Chris Chambliss’ walkoff home run in the ninth inning for the Yanks.
But for the re-emergence of the Yankees and MVP catcher Thurman Munson, and the arrival of the Phillies and Royals, the 1976 MLB campaign was ultimately the celebration of the Big Red Machine and the closing down of an era in 1970s baseball.
The complete stories of the four division winners, and game-by-game narratives of both the classic ALCS and the Reds’ sweeps of both postseason series are all available for download on Amazon.
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.
The Philadelphia Phillies were a proud franchise, but they were on hard times. They had not seen the World Series since 1950. Even a winning season had been elusive since 1967. Danny Ozark took the managerial reins in 1973, and by ’75, the Phils finally won more than they lost. Now the question was if the 1976 Philadelphia Phillies could overtake the Pittsburgh Pirates, the traditional power in what used to be the National League East.
Philadelphia would have the second-best offense in the National League in 1976, second only to the Reds, and the Phils were balanced—second in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Mike Schmidt, a 26-year-old third baseman beginning a Hall of Fame career, posted a stat line of .376 OBP/.524 slugging and hit 38 home runs. Greg Luzinski, their 25-year-old leftfielder put up a .369/.478 season with 21 home runs.
The Phils had players who could get on base. Centerfielder Garry Maddox hit .330 and played impeccable defense. Rightfielder Jay Johnstone had an excellent year, at .373/.457 and set the stage for his finest hour, a cameo appearance in the 1989 police comedy, The Naked Gun. Bob Boone, a 28-year-old catcher who would send his kids, Aaron and Bret, on to good big-league careers, had a .348 OBP.
Then you mixed in the veterans. Dick Allen was 34-years-old and no longer the power threat of his heyday, but he hit 15 dingers. Larry Bowa, age 30 at shortstop, providing defense and a feisty sparkplug to the line.
Steve Carlton was the anchor of the pitching staff, and the lefty ace with the nasty slider won 20 games in 1976. Jim Lonborg won 18, and the Phils backed them up with a solid veteran bullpen. Ron Reed, Tug McGraw and Gene Garber were all reliable, battle-tested relievers.
One more starting pitcher was realistically needed, and Philadelphia hit the trade market in the offseason. The acquired 37-year-old Jim Kaat from the Chicago White Sox. Despite his age, Kaat had two straight seasons of 20-plus wins and his arrival looked to make this team complete. Now they just had to do it on the field.
If the Phils were looking at their opening two-game set at home with the Pirates as a chance to make a statement, it couldn’t have gone much worse. In spite of seven good innings from Kaat on Opening Day, and a three-run rally take a 4-3 lead in the eighth, McGraw surrendered the lead in the ninth and Pittsburgh won in the 11th. Carlton was hit hard the next day in an 8-3 loss.
No one really jumped out strong in the NL East though, and by the end of April, Philadelphia’s 8-6 record had them a game up on the Pirates and only two back of the first-place New York Mets. It was the end of April, where Philly really started to send some warning signals to the rest of the division.
The Reds, fresh off their World Series title of 1975, came into old Veterans Stadium in Philly. In the series opener, light-hitting Phillie second baseman Dave Cash had four hits, Schmidt homered twice and the Phils won 10-9. After the Reds grabbed the middle game, Boone hit a three-run shot to key a 7-6 win in the rubber match. Philadelphia took the momentum from this series win and promptly won five more in succession, getting their first taste of the division’s top spot on May 5.
May 14 was the date the Phils took first place for good. They won consecutive games over the Mets in Shea Stadium, including roughing up staff ace and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. The Mets soon paid a return visit for a four-game set. The Phils again knocked Seaver around, with Johnstone touching him for four hits and a home run. Philadelphia took three of the four, Carlton mixed in a shutout, and New York was pushed 6 ½ games off the pace, with Pittsburgh five back.
Another series victory over the Big Red Machine awaited over June 18-20. Allen and Schmidt homered to lead the way in the opener and even with Carlton losing the middle game, the pitching combo of Kaat, Reed and Garber was enough in closing out the 6-1 win in the finale.
Philadelphia’s lead ballooned to eight games by the time they paid a visit to Pittsburgh for a four-game set over Fourth of July weekend. This was the chance for the Pirates to get back in the race, with single games Friday and Saturday and then a doubleheader on Sunday the Fourth.
When Pittsburgh took the opener 10-9, in spite of a late Phils’ rally to force extras, there was reason for the young frontrunner to be nervous. The Saturday game was tied 2-2 in the ninth, when Cash singled and moved up to second with two outs.
Schmidt showed the kind of clutch player he was already becoming, with an RBI single to give his team a win they needed. Philly came out Sunday and gave Carlton ten runs in the first game, and even though the Pirates took the nightcap, the split clearly favored Philadelphia. All was good in the City of Brotherly Love when they hosted the All-Star Game, with Luzinski starting and Schmidt, Boone, Cash and Bowa on hand as reserves.
In late July, Philadelphia appeared to put the fork in Pittsburgh when the Phils took four of five from the Pirates in the Vet. The lead was eleven games and got as high as fifteen. But a trip to Cincinnati on August 26 began the last anxious spell of the regular season.
Cincinnati took three of four, which by itself was not all that disturbing. But the Phils lost 10 of the next 15, and Pittsburgh turned on the afterburners in a last desperate push. They cut the lead to six games with 21 still to play, and then hosted the Phils for two games on September 15-16.
The two-game set didn’t go as anyone in Philly had hoped. Kaat was chase din the third inning of the opener and the Phils lost 7-2. The Pirates took the second game 7-6, and now the lead was down to four games. Philadelphia lost two of three to the lowly Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, but Pittsburgh didn’t take advantage and the four-game margin held.
It was a home series with another NL East doormat that really finished the job. St. Louis was in town, and Allen delivered three hits and a home run to win the opener 5-1. Then in the second game, trailing 4-1 in the eighth, the Phils managed to score eight runs without a single extra –base hit! Carlton gave eight good innings in the finale to close the sweep and it was all but over.
The Phils formally clinched in Montreal, when they won the first game of a doubleheader 4-1 thanks to a three-run homer by Luzinski and a complete game win from Lonborg.
Furthermore, both Games 2 & 3 were in Philadelphia’s grasp. But the next step wasn’t meant to be—at least not until 1980.
The 1976 Philadelphia Phillies still deserve a place in baseball history and that of their proud franchise. They put baseball back on the radar in Philadelphia and were the only team that ever had even a puncher’s chance of stopping the steamroller that came out of Cincinnati.
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.
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 1977and 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.