Classic Yankees: Chris Chambliss

chris-chamblissSometimes, a Yankee hero is someone that the fans never wanted when that player was acquired.

Previously, in my profile of Red Ruffing, I mentioned that Ruffing was 39-96 when the Yanks traded for him in 1930. Ruffing went on to a HOF career.

Early in 1974, the Yankees made a trade that was very unpopular at the time. They traded four pitchers, Fritz Peterson (punishment not only for an 8-15 1973 season but also the off-the-field wife-swapping incident?), Fred Beene (6-0, 1.68 in 1973), Tom Buskey and Steve Kline (4-7 in 1973 in half a year, after going 16-9, 2.40 in 1972). Coming to the Yanks along with Chris Chambliss were Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.

The Yankee players weren’t happy about losing four players from their pitching staff.  It wasn’t exactly a great welcome. But Tidrow and Chambliss would contribute to three pennants and two World Championships from 1976-1978.

Chambliss would struggle in 1974 for the Yankees. But on the evening of October 14, 1976, Chambliss would become a Yankees legend.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Chris Chambliss was born the son of a Navy chaplain. Therefore as a child, he had to move around a bit.

In 1971, Chambliss was the ROY in the American League. He hit .275-9-48 for the Indians, OPS+ 104. He followed that with seasons of .292-6-44, OPS+ 112 in 1972 and .273-11-53 in 1973, OPS+ 104.

Although a first baseman, Chambliss didn’t hit for a lot of power. His career high would be 20 late in his career for the Braves. Those who remember the old Stadium in Atlanta may recall its reputation as a launching pad.

Chambliss heard a lot of boos at Shea Stadium (the Yanks’ home in 1974 and 1975 while Yankee Stadium was being remodeled). It wasn’t only about the trade, but also because Chambliss didn’t adjust well. He started 1974 .328-0-7 for the Indians but only hit .243-6-43 (OPS+ 80) for the Yankees as they finished 2nd in the AL East, just two games out. For the season, Chambliss hit .255-6-50, OPS+ just 86 in an off-year for Chambliss. Needless to say, Yankee fans weren’t used to seeing a first baseman with such little power. Even in the dark days of CBS ownership, there was still Joe Pepitone, and then Mickey Mantle when Mantle’s knees forced him to 1B in his final two seasons. Granted Danny Cater didn’t have much power in 1970, but at least Cater hit .301.

Chambliss showed an inkling of what was to come in 1975, hitting .304. It was the only time in his career as a full-time player that Chambliss would hit .300 or better in a season (he did it at the end of his career as a bench player). The power was still down, 9 HR, but he did drive in 72 runs and have an OPS+ of 118.

Then came 1976, when Chambliss helped lead the Yanks to their first pennant in twelve years. He hit .293, and the move into the rebuilt Yankee Stadium helped Chambliss’ power a bit. While never a power guy, Chambliss did hit 17 HR, and drove in 96 runs hitting cleanup in the Yanks’ lineup. His OPS+ was 123 and he finished 5th in MVP voting and made his only All-Star team.

Then came the epic ALCS of 1976. It’s too bad that there was no ALCS MVP until 1980 (NLCS 1977), for Chambliss would have won it easily. Back then, the series was a best of five, and Chambliss took apart the Royals.  He was 11 for 21 in the five games, one double, one triple, and two HR, with 8 RBI. Chambliss, who only stole 40 bases in his whole career, stole two in this series.

He was 2 for 4 with an RBI in Game 1, with a single and triple. Game 2 was a Yankees loss, but Chambliss went 3 for 5 with an RBI. In the 4th inning of Game 3, with the Yanks down 3-0, Chambliss hit a 2-run HR to get them back into the game. He later drove in the tying run with a groundout. 2 for 4, 3 RBI in what became a 5-3 Yankees win. He went 1-4 in Game 4, a Yankees loss.

Then came the fifth and deciding game of the 1976 ALCS on October 14, 1976. One game to decide the 1976 AL pennant. Chambliss went 3 for 4 with 3 RBI. Down 2-0 before they came to bat, the Yanks tied it in the first, Chambliss’ SF tying the game. In the third, Chambliss got an RBI groundout to put the Yanks up 4-3. In the sixth, Chambliss singled, stole second (!) and scored when George Brett made an error on a ground ball hit by Carlos May. His run made the score 6-3.

The game progressed, and the Yanks had that 6-3 lead in the 8th. But George Brett tied it with a 3-Run HR.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chambliss led off. He hit the first pitch he saw for a pennant-winning home run. For the first time in twelve years, the Yankees were going to the World Series. That moment will never be forgotten for all who saw it. As Chambliss was rounding the bases, the fans poured onto the field. Chambliss was knocked down, and by the time he got to third, the base was gone. He made a beeline to the dugout, basically running for his life. He came back later to touch the area where home plate had been. I remember screaming in joy when the ball cleared the fence, then screaming “Get off the field! Let him score!” when the fans went berserk.

Although the Yanks got swept in the 1976 Series, Chambliss, along with Munson (the 1976 MVP while Chambliss finished 5th) had a good series. Chambliss hit .313, going 5 for 16 with 1 RBI.

In 1977, the Bronx Zoo commenced. 1976 was calm compared to what would happen in 1977 and 1978 when Reggie arrived. Through it all, Chambliss was a man of quiet dignity. While others may have gotten into the headlines with various antics, Chambliss was one of those who you hardly knew he was there. He just went out and did his job.

1977 was the middle year of a three-year stretch in which Chambliss drove in 90 or more runs each year (1976-1978). He hit .287-17-90, OPS+ 112, and finished 29th in MVP voting.

The Royals got a bit of revenge on Chambliss in the 1977 ALCS, as Chambliss went just 1 for 17.

How many of you remember that in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, the “Reggie” game in which Jackson hit three home runs, that another Yankee had a HR in that game? That would be Chambliss, who homered in the second. His HR tied the game at the time. Chambliss went 7 for 24 in the Series, with two doubles, that HR, and 4 RBI.

Chambliss hit .274-12-90, OPS+ 100 in 1978, and he won his only Gold Glove that year. He went 6 for 15 with 2 RBI vs. KC in the ALCS, but then got hurt in the World Series. He played in only three of the six games vs. the Dodgers, going 2 for 11. Earlier, in Game 163 (the Bucky Dent game) vs. Boston, it was Chambliss who was on second when Bucky hit his three-run HR.

Although Chambliss hit .280 with 18 HR in 1979, his RBI’s dropped to 63. The OPS+ was 106.  That offseason, Chambliss was traded to Toronto with Damaso Garcia (2B) and Paul Mirabella (P) for Catcher Rick Cerone, Tommy Underwood (who died not too long ago), and Ted Wilborn.

The move was necessitated by the death of Thurman Munson in his plane accident on August 2, 1979. The Yanks needed a catcher. A week after the trade of Chambliss, the Yanks filled Chambliss’ 1B position by signing free agent Bob Watson.

Chambliss never played for Toronto, for a month after the deal with the Yankees, Chambliss was dealt to Atlanta.

Chambliss was with the Braves from 1980 to 1986. In 1980, he hit .282-18-72, OPS+ 114. 1981 saw the players’ strike take away 1/3 of the season. .272-8-51, OPS+ 110.

In 1982, Chambliss helped to get the Braves (managed by Joe Torre) into the postseason for the first time since 1969. He finished 23rd in MVP voting after a .270-20-86 season, OPS+ 112. In the NLCS vs. St. Louis, Chambliss went 0 for 10.

In postseason play, Chambliss hit .281-3-15 in 30 games, with one HR never to be forgotten by Yankees’ fans.

Chambliss matched his career high of 20 HR in 1983, hitting .280-20-78, OPS+ 126. The day after Christmas, he turned 35 and his career started to go downhill.

1984 saw .257-9-44, OPS+ 96. 1985 saw Chambliss relegated to a bench role. He hit .235-3-21; OPS+ 75, in 170 AB. 1986 saw more of the same. .311-2-14 in 122 at bats, OPS+ 119.

Chambliss then retired, but came out of retirement in 1988 for the Yankees to get one last at bat. He struck out.

Chambliss had a career line of .279 with 189 HR. His average 162 g. season would be something like .279-14-72, OPS+ 109. He had over 2000 hits, finishing with 2109.

Chambliss wore #10 (since retired for Phil Rizzuto) while with the Yankees in the 1970s. For his last AB in 1988, he wore #50.

After 1986, Chambliss served as a coach and a minor league manager for different organizations. He was the Yankees’ hitting coach in 1988 when he came out of retirement for that one game. After managing in the minors from 1989-1992, he became the Cardinals’ hitting coach from 1993 to 1995, serving under manager Joe Torre. Torre brought Chambliss to NY in 1996, and Chambliss got four more World Championship rings serving as Torre’s hitting coach from 1996-2000.

Chambliss is one of two men to wear the Yankees uniform as a player or coach for the Yankees’ six World Series championships from 1977 to 2000, the other being Willie Randolph.

After 2000, Chambliss spent time minor league managing, as well as being the hitting coach for the Mets (2002) and the Reds (2004-2006). He’s still looking for someone to give him a major league managerial shot. Chambliss, 62, was hired by the Seattle Mariners last November to serve as their hitting coach.

Carroll Christopher Chambliss. From unwanted in an unpopular trade in 1974 to author of one of the franchise’s greatest moments in 1976, not to mention owner of six Yankees WS Championship rings as player and coach.

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4 Responses to Classic Yankees: Chris Chambliss

  1. Kevin Ocala, Fl says:

    Great article! I've always believed that the trading of Chambliss marked the beginning of "The Boss"s reign of being the de facto GM. I remember that George didn't like Chambliss because of his lack of power, and according to some Yankee players autobiographies George was constantly looking to un-load him. If I'm not mistaken, 1980 was the year of the "running Yankee team", players that could run but couldn't play. It took 18 years for the "Juggernaut Yankees with all that money" to "buy" another tittle. "When confronted with a choice between myth or fact, print the myth."

  2. Mike S. says:

    Actually, in 1980 the Yanks won 103 games but were swept by the Royals in the ALCS. I always felt that the dumping of Howser after that was a bad move. As for Howser, a man who died far too young.

    The year you are thinking of is 1982. After losing the 1981 WS (and flushing a 2-0 lead in doing so), the Yanks went out and signed Ken Griffey, Sr. and Dave Collins. Collins had 79 SB for the 1980 Reds. He hit .253 with just 13 SB for the 1982 Yanks, no power (3 HR, 25 RBI) OPS+ 80 and was traded to Toronto after the year in one of the worst trades the Yanks ever made. It wasn't the getting rid of Collins that made the trade bad. For the Yankees got Tom Dodd and Dale Murray for Collins, Mike Morgan, and FRED MCGRIFF.

    As for that running game? Jerry Mumphrey had 11 SB, Collins 13, Randolph 16, Ken Griffey, Sr. 10. As a team, the 1982 Yanks had 69 SB, 9th in the league. Colossal failure. They let Reggie go after a poor 1981, and Jackson had his last really great year in 1982. .275-39-101, OPS+ 147. Led the majors in HR (and whiffs, of course). 6th in MVP voting. Without Jackson, the Yanks finished 5th in the league in HR. Winfield (37 HR) became one of the few righty-hitting Yankees to top 30 in a season (and it was still 430 to LCF in the 1982 ballpark). Roy Smalley had 20; Nettles and Gamble 18 each. No one else topped 10 HR. Guidry led the team with 14 wins. Tommy John was traded to the Angels in midseason. The team went 79-83 and went through three managers in Lemon II, Michael II and Clyde King.

    Although the Yanks put up 90 or more wins in 1983, 1985 and 1986, that 1981 postseason would be their last until 1995.

    • Kevin Ocala, Fl says:

      Thanks for the corrections, I was pretty groggy at 2:00 am. But I still believe that George became GM when Chambliss was traded.

  3. Franco Kotos says:

    I was at game 5 of the 1976 ALCS. We had seats in the Lodge. By the time we made it down onto the field, huge pieces of the infield were cut up, there was no home plate and I believe the pitchers mound was missing as well. Good times!