Baseball in the Bronx was on hard times in the early-to-mid 1970s. At least hard times by the lofty standards the New York Yankees had set in winning 20 World Series titles coming into the 1976 season. But it had been 1964 since the Yanks were last even in the Fall Classic, 1962 since they won it, between 1965-75, they broke the 90-win barrier just once.
George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973 and towards the end of the 1975 season, he hired Billy Martin as manager. The 1976 New York Yankees would be George & Billy’s first run together, and they returned this proud franchise to prominence.
In the late 1970s, Steinbrenner’s Yankees become synonymous with the phrase “The Best Team Money Can Buy”, for their use of the financial wealth generated by the New York market to overcome poor decisions in player development, a trend that continues this day. But it would not be fair to put that tag on the 1976 team. A series of smart trades took a decent team and made it into the American League’s best.
New York dealt pitcher Doc Medich, a good, but not great starter, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for three players—they got back starting pitcher Dock Ellis in return, who won 17 games with 3.19 ERA for the Yanks in 1976. New York also got Willie Randolph, who would become a fixture at second base, reliable defensive, a base stealer and consistently on base.
A bigger move came when the Yanks shipped out Bobby Bonds (father of the infamous slugger Barry) to California and got Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers back. Figueroa won 19 games in ’76 and was Martin’s best starter. Rivers, a speedy centerfielder, hit .312 and stole 43 bases. New York also made a modest move to add rightfielder Oscar Gamble and beef up the lineup, with Gamble’s 17 home runs.
Not every trade made proved to be inspired—a nine-player deal with the Baltimore Orioles in June, got the Yanks starting pitcher Ken Holtzman, a young Doyle Alexander and lefty reliever Grant Jackson. But Holtzman, an excellent starter on the Oakland A’s championship teams from 1972-74, made only 21 starts and had a 4.17 ERA. And Alexander would be moved out of town before fulfilling his potential.
The Yankees gave up starting pitcher Scott McGregor, catcher Rick Dempsey and relief pitcher Tippy Martinez, all of whom would be instrumental for the Orioles in coming years. And another June deal got the Yankees a backup catcher in Fran Healy in exchange for lefty Larry Gura…who was shipped to the Kansas City Royals, ended up pitching the game that clinched his new team the AL West, became their #2 starter, and developed a reputation as a Yankee killer.
But when make you a lot of moves, some will blow up on you. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture makes it plain that whatever missteps were made, New York still made themselves better for 1976.
Figueroa and Ellis were the best starting pitchers, though Catfish Hunter was the nominal ace, winning 17 games with a 3.53 ERA. Sparky Lyle anchored the bullpen, saving 23 games with a 2.26 ERA, and Dick Tidrow was a reliable #2 reliever, ten saves and a 2.63 ERA. Yankee pitching was the best in the American League in 1976.
The offense was almost as good, ranking second in the AL in runs scored, and effective at all facets of offensive play. New York was second in batting average, second in steals, second in slugging percentage and second in home runs. The only thing the Yanks didn’t do was take walks, where they ranked near the bottom of the league. But they hit so well, that it didn’t affect the final team on-base percentage, which was still second in the league.
Martin liked to play aggressively, and Randolph, Rivers and left fielder Roy White combined to steal 111 bases. Graig Nettles cleaned up, hitting 32 home runs. First baseman Chris Chambliss popped 17 home runs and had 96 RBIs. Carlos May, the designated hitter, had a solid .358 on-base percentage.
Then there was the catcher—Thurman Munson was the Yankee captain, and he batted .302 and drove in 105 runs. His offense, along with his leadership and work behind the plate got Thurman the American League MVP award.
New York started fast, winning 10 of their first 13. This included taking two straight in Baltimore behind Hunter and Ellis, and knocking around Jim Palmer—who had won the Cy Young Award in 1975 and would do so again in 1976.
The Yanks only led the AL East by a half-game, but that margin was on the Milwaukee Brewers—a lowly team that no one took seriously as a contender, and who would quickly live down to expectations. The real contenders—the Orioles, and the defending AL champs, the Boston Red Sox, were slow out of the gate and below .500 at the end of April.
New York went 16-12 in the month of May, capping it by taking two of three from the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Boston was now eight back and would never recover, in a season filled with underachievement. Baltimore was in striking range, five games out, but New York was simply too consistent.
There was no signature win streak, no singular dominating stretch for the 1976 New York Yankees. They just kept grinding away. A seven-game string at the end of June was able to nudge the lead out to nine games, they were 10 ½ up at the All-Star break, and the race never got closer than 8 ½ the rest of the way. New York finished the season 97-62, a healthy 10 ½ games up on Baltimore.
October marked the first appearance for the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, instituted in 1969, after expansion resulted in the leagues splitting into two divisions apiece. The Yanks and Royals played an outstanding ALCS that wasn’t settled until Chambliss broke a 6-6 tie in the decisive game by hitting a ninth-inning walkoff shot and sending the Bronx into pandemonium.
The World Series was a different story. The Big Red Machine of Cincinnati was at the peak of its power, led by Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose (well, at least Rose is a Hall of Famer in terms of baseball merit). New York was only marginally competitive in the Series, and the Reds completed a perfect October, by sweeping the World Series.
Even though the season ended in a disappointing fashion, and Steinbrenner responded in a predictable way, lashing out in Martin, even though the manager had completely turned the team around, the message had been sent loud and clear—the New York Yankees were back in business. And there were championships in their immediate future, in both 1977 and 1978.