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This was a strange year. After coming so close in the World Series, the ballclub seemed to fray apart.

There was a March 10 deadline for mailing new contracts to players. For one reason or another, the contracts to Fisk and Lynn and Rick Burleson didn’t get mailed on time. That meant that their existing contracts were automatically renewed and kicked off a premature option year. It also meant that the team had to work hard to negotiate with the players and their agents during the course of the season, which may well have taken a toll.

The team lost four of their first six, but finally got to 6-5 on April 23. It was the only day they had a winning record until July 6. It took them that long to recover from the sub-par start – and the 10-game losing streak that ran from April 29 to May 11. They were stuck in last place for another week after that. It wasn’t any way to begin a baseball season.

They emerged from last place on May 19, but then lost one of their best pitchers the very next day. It was the first meeting with the Yankees, and it was in New York at the newly-renovated Yankee Stadium, and New York was ahead in the game, 1-0, facing Bill Lee.

Right-fielder Dwight Evans had just cut down the second Yankee trying to score on a ball hit to right field in the bottom of the sixth, but base-runner Lou Piniella tried to upend Fisk at the plate. The two came up swinging – a bit of replay of the 1973 incident between Munson and Fisk. Things seemed to be settling down when Graig Nettles swung at Bill Lee, and the whole thing erupted with greater ferocity. Nettles admitted, “I couldn’t take it any longer. I socked him in the eye, and he hit me.” [The New York Times] Lee later claimed that Nettles had wrenched his arm out of its socket in the melee; he suffered a torn shoulder and some torn ligaments. After hospitalization, Lee missed two months and never regained effectiveness in 1976. The Red Sox scored eight runs over the next three innings and easily won the game, 8-2.

Luis Tiant won 21 games, 21-12, but Lee’s streak of winning 17 for three years in a row was snapped. He finished 5-7. Rick Wise was second in wins with 14 and 11 losses; he threw two one-hitters in June, on the 14th and 29th. Fergie Jenkins was 12-11. Reggie Cleveland, who won the May 20 game in relief of Lee, was 10-9, with a 3.07 ERA. The team leader in earned run average was Jim Willoughby; he allowed 2.82 runs per nine innings, throwing 99 innings, all in relief, but bore a terrible 3-12 record.

On June 15, the Red Sox made a big splash, purchasing both Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers from the A’s for $1 million cash apiece, and when they learned that A’s owner Finley was going to sell Vida Blue to New York, they bought him, too. To make the deal look better, like less of a purely monetary deal, the Sox reportedly were willing to throw in a couple of players, too. It might have been good if Finley had agreed. Some reports have him saying, “Forget about the damn players.” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and scotched the deal, claiming it was “not in the best interest of baseball” to have a team strip itself of its best players.

Tom Yawkey was seriously sick with leukemia at the time. On July 9, the man who’d owned the Red Sox since 1933 passed away.

Despite taking the Sox all the way to the seventh game of the World Series just eight months earlier, it was “what have you done for us lately?” Darrell Johnson was 41-45 in 1976 when he was relieved of his position on July 19 and coach Don Zimmer was handed the reins.

Fred Lynn hit .314 to lead the team in batting average, though he only hit 10 homers and only drove in 65. Yastrzemski knocked in 102, with 21 homers. Jim Rice banged out 25 and ranked second with 85 RBIs. Burleson, contract issues or not, put in his best year at shortstop, hitting .291. Rico Petrocelli’s career wound down at third base, with Butch Hobson taking over at third base. In Hobson’s Fenway Park debut (June 28, against the Orioles), he doubled off the center-field wall and then hit an inside-the-park home run.

The Sox played better under Zimmer and crawled back into third place with an 83-79 season, 15 ½ games behind the Yankees. After the season, they wrapped up the year with another contract move – they signed a million-dollar four-year contract with former Twins reliever Bill Campbell; after baseball’s reserve clause had been ruled invalid, Campbell became the first free agent in baseball to sign with a new team.

By Bill Nowlin
 

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Tagged:
Bill Campbell, Bill Lee, Bowie Kuhn, Butch Hobson, Carlton Fisk, Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer, Dwight Evans, Fergie Jenkins, Fred Lynn, Graig Nettles, Jim Rice, Jim Willoughby, Joe Rudi, Lou Piniella, Luis Tiant, Reggie Cleveland, Rick Burleson, Rick Wise, Rico Petrocelli, Rollie Fingers, Thurman Munson, Tom Yawkey, Vida Blue

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