After finishing a distant third in the American League East the previous season, 12 full games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox, the Yankees eagerly anticipated returning to their longtime home in the Bronx in 1976. However, awaiting them was a refurbished and remodeled Yankee Stadium that included a 138-foot smokestack shaped like a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, a pair of brand new scoreboards, and an area beyond the left-centerfield wall that eventually became known as Monument Park.
Before the Yankees took the field for the first time, though, the front office revamped the team’s roster by making two major trades on the same day. In the first deal, New York traded star outfielder Bobby Bonds to the California Angels for centerfielder Mickey Rivers and starting pitcher Ed Figueroa. The speedy Rivers batted .284 and hit just one home run for the Angels in 1975, but he led the American League with 13 triples and 70 stolen bases. Meanwhile, Figueroa won 16 games for California, completed 16 of his starts, and compiled a 2.91 ERA.
The Yankees made their other deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, trading away pitcher George Medich for a package of three players that included right-hander Dock Ellis and promising young second baseman Willie Randolph. Ellis was once considered to be a top starter, winning as many as 19 games for the Pirates in 1971. However, he had recently fallen out of favor in Pittsburgh due to his outspoken manner and drug-related problems. The 21-year-old Randolph had only 30 games of major league experience under his belt, but he was considered to be a “can’t miss” prospect.
Once the season got underway, the Yankees unveiled a new, more aggressive brand of baseball under Billy Martin. After stealing only 102 bases as a team the previous year, New York compiled a total of 163 steals under Martin – the third-highest total in the American League. The Yankees also finished second in the league with 730 runs scored, while topping the circuit with a team ERA of 3.19. The Yankees’ outstanding team balance enabled them to run away with the A.L. East, finishing 10 ½ games ahead of the second-place Orioles, with a record of 97-62.
New York’s deep starting rotation featured three pitchers who posted at least 17 victories. Catfish Hunter finished 17-15, with a team-leading 21 complete games and 299 innings pitched. Dock Ellis compiled a record of 17-8 and a 3.19 ERA. Ed Figueroa led the staff with a record of 19-10 and a 3.02 ERA. Meanwhile, Sparky Lyle excelled in relief, compiling a 2.26 ERA and leading the league with 23 saves.
Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph symbolized the team’s aggressive approach on offense. Rivers led New York with 43 stolen bases and a .312 batting average, and he also finished second on the team with 95 runs scored. Randolph placed second to Rivers on the club with 37 steals. Veteran left-fielder Roy White batted .286 and led the league with 104 runs scored. Chris Chambliss hit 17 homers, drove in 96 runs, and batted .293. Graig Nettles supplied much of the power, leading the league with 32 home runs, while also knocking in 93 runs and scoring 88 others. Thurman Munson had his second consecutive stand-out season, hitting 17 home runs, driving in 105 runs, and batting .302, en route to earning A.L. MVP honors. Rivers placed third in the balloting, while
Chambliss finished fifth.
The Yankees placed six players on the American League All-Star Team, with Munson, Chambliss, Rivers, Randolph, Hunter, and Lyle all making the squad. Munson, Chambliss, and Rivers earned spots on The Sporting News All-Star Team as well.
The Yankees subsequently faced the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS for the first of three consecutive times. New York held a 6-3 lead heading into the top of the eighth inning in the decisive fifth contest, before George Brett tied the game with a three-run homer off Grant Jackson. The scored remained tied heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, when Chris Chambliss sent the Yankees to the World Series by leading off the frame with a pennant-winning homer off Kansas City reliever Mark Littell.
However, the Yankees turned out to be no match for the powerful Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, losing the Fall Classic in four straight games. New York’s lone bright spot was Thurman Munson, who collected nine hits in 17 times at bat against Cincinnati, for a .529 batting average.By Bob_Cohen
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- Billy Martin, Bobby Bonds, Catfish Hunter, Chris Chambliss, Cincinnati Reds, Doc Medich, Dock Ellis, Ed Figueroa, George Brett, Graig Nettles, Grant Jackson, Kansas City Royals, Mark Littell, Mickey Rivers, New Yankee Stadium, New York Yankees, Roy White, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph