The 1976 season began a ten-year run of success for the Kansas City Royals, unmatched before or since. From 1976 to 1985, the Royals would go to the playoffs seven times and win two American League pennants, culminating in the club's first (and, to date, only) World Series championship in 1985. Though few could have predicted this string of excellence, totally unprecedented for an expansion team, it was clear to many going into the 1976 season that the Royals were heading in the right direction.
Kansas City was coming off of the franchise's first 90-win season, and several factors presaged an even better finish in 1976. The previous August, Whitey Herzog had replaced the unpopular Jack McKeon as manager, a move which produced instant results both on the field and in the clubhouse. In addition, the Royals were stocked with exciting young talent; other than shortstop Freddie Patek, no regular position player or rotation starter was over 30 years old. As it turned out, Kansas City would win one fewer game in 1976, but the outcome would be better--the team's first ever playoff appearance.
The Royals started off sluggish in April with a 5-7 record, but soon got hot, going 39-20 over the next two months and finding themselves in first place by 3.5 games at the beginning of July. The team continued to play well through the early part of July, and the Royals' lead stretched to 10.5 games after a home victory against Boston on July 18th. This proved to be enough of a cushion, though Kansas City struggled the rest of the year; a particularly bad 2-9 stretch in late September and early October made the AL West race more interesting than Royals fans would have liked. Despite being swept in three games at home against Minnesota to end the season, however, the Royals limped to the finish line 2.5 games ahead of the second-place Oakland Athletics, who had held a monopoly on West division titles through the first half of the 1970's.
In the ALCS, Kansas City would face the New York Yankees, who had won 97 games and coasted to the AL East title by over ten games. The Royals, playing as bad as they were, seemed to be no match for New York, but the youngsters from Kansas City were determined to make it a series to remember. Though Yankee ace Catfish Hunter silenced the Royal bats in Kansas City in Game One, winning 4-1, five Yankee errors allowed the Royals to even the series, 7-3, the next night. Game 3 saw the Royals on the verge of elimination, as the Yankees won at home, 5-3, but Kansas City took Game 4 on the road, 7-4, to force a deciding Game 5. In one of the best games in playoff history, Kansas City came back from a 6-3 deficit to tie the game 6-6 in the top of the 8th on a George Brett 3-run HR, only to lose in the bottom of the 9th, when Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss blasted a no-out, game-winning home run to right-centerfield off of Royals reliever Mark Littell, ending Kansas City's playoff run.
Despite the bittersweet ending, 1976 was a year to celebrate for Royals fans. The team won its second-straight 90-win season, capped off with its first playoff appearance. 23-year-old third baseman Brett hit .333, becoming the first Royal to ever win an American league batting title, edging out teammate Hal McRae, who hit .332. The race for the batting title between the two teammates came down to the last game, after which McRae accused Minnesota manager Gene Mauch of telling his players to let Brett hit the ball safely so that McRae, a black man, wouldn't win the title. Though McRae's comments cast a sour note, they couldn't diminish the accomplishments of either man, both of whom were essential to the Royals' title run.
Though the Royals were next-to-last in the AL in home runs, they took advantage of Kauffman Stadium's spacious outfield and synthetic turf, using their speed to lead the league in doubles and triples, finish second in stolen bases and batting average, and score the 4th-most runs in the AL. The pitching was even better, finishing 2nd in the AL in ERA behind starting pitchers Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Doug Bird, and Al Fitzmorris, as well as closer Littell.
Perhaps most important to the Royals' success, however, was the guidance of Herzog, who made a number of key, if small, adjustments during the season which may have saved the team from another 2nd-place finish. For example, Herzog was able to juggle his rotation to overcome the loss of young starter Steve Busby (who had won 18 games for the Royals in 1975) to an injury which essentially ended his career, and he improved the team's defense by moving Hal McRae to DH and starting young Frank White at second base.By Matt Defraga
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- 1976 AL Batting Champ Controversy, 1976 ALCS, 1976 Postseason, ALCS, AZL Red Sox/Mariners, Al Fitzmorris, Chris Chambliss, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird, Frank White, Freddie Patek, Gene Mauch, George Brett, Hal McRae, Jack McKeon, Kansas City Royals, Kauffman Stadium, Mark Littell, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Paul Splittorff, Steve Busby, Whitey Herzog