Chris Chambliss recalls Yankees bedlam 40 years after ALCS homer

A few moments after Chris Chambliss slammed his famous pennant-winning home run, he was safely back in the Yankee clubhouse, having traversed a scene on the field that he describes now as “bedlam.”

More tailback than slugger for a little while, Chambliss had dodged a mob — with a little help from a lead blocker named Willie Randolph — as he rounded the bases through a wild Bronx celebration. But, even though he’d finally found sanctuary, one nagging question remained: Did he touch home plate?

“The true story is,” Chambliss says, “I put a jacket on and a couple of security guys and I went back out and made our way through the crowd, back to the plate. It had been pulled out of the ground.

“There was nothing there but the outline of the plate. I put my foot on that and we went back inside. I heard rumors that the umpires saw it, but they had to be gone by then. I was later told by some of the umpires that, under those circumstances, they wouldn’t have reversed it because of all of that. I know they came up with a rule later.

“I get jealous today, the way it happens now — they don’t let anybody on the field and meeting my teammates at the plate, jumping into that pile, that would’ve been great.”

Friday is the 40th anniversary of the biggest swing of Chambliss’ baseball life, his walk-off homer off Royals reliever Mark Littell that gave the Yankees a 7-6 victory in Game 5 of the AL Championship and propelled Chambliss, who’s now 67, into baseball lore. It also put the Yanks into their first World Series in 12 years.

It’s also a cornerstone of the Yanks’ mid-70s revival. They ultimately lost the ’76 World Series, getting swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. But the Yanks won the next two titles. Baseball’s traditional powerhouse was back.

“That kickstarted us,” recalls Randolph, who was a 21-year-old star in the making. “We needed that to bring the magic back, get the history going again. Chris was the right guy at the right time. The confidence, the swag, he brought that back even though he wasn’t a guy who exuded that.”

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Chris Chambliss is chased by adoring fans after his pennant-winning homer at Yankee Stadium.

(Kappock, Gene)

It’s also one of the biggest hits in baseball history — at the time, it was only the second postseason series-ending homer in baseball history, joining Bill Mazeroski’s blast that lifted the Pirates over the Yankees in 1960.

Including Aaron Boone’s 2003 ALCS clinching homer and one by Edwin Encarnacion in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game, there have been only four walk-off home runs in a winner-take-all postseason game in big-league history.

***

That 1976 season was huge for the 27-year-old Chambliss. He and his teammates were overjoyed to be back at the refurbished Yankee Stadium after a two-year Shea exile. The first baseman enjoyed what he calls his best season, batting .293 with 17 home runs and a career-best 96 RBI. He made the All-Star team for the only time in his career and finished tied for fifth in MVP voting with Rod Carew. Chambliss’ teammate, Thurman Munson, won the award.

“I call him a mild-mannered Doberman,” Randolph says of Chambliss. “He was a guy people maybe took for granted because he wasn’t a big home-run hitter, a big bopper. But he did it very quietly. He was my first roommate and I learned a lot from him, how to stay even keel.”

The Yanks won their first AL East title of the divisional era, three years after George Steinbrenner led a group that bought the club, and headed into an ALCS showdown with a team that would become a fierce rival, the Royals.

The clubs split the first four games, setting up a winner-take-all Game 5 in the Bronx. Chambliss, the Yanks’ cleanup hitter, enjoyed a monster series, batting .524 with a 1.452 OPS, two homers and eight RBI.

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Chambliss held on to his helmet as he charged through a throng of fans.

(Gene Kappock)

On a chilly night — the gametime temperature was 54 degrees — the Yankees took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning. Chambliss drove in two of the runs. But George Brett — who else? — hit a three-run homer off Grant Jackson to tie the score.

“For us, that was just, ‘Here we go again,'” Chambliss says of the Yankee killer’s blast. “These things happened all year long. We went back and forth. It did quiet the Stadium, though. We had the lead and this great hitter bombs one and ties it. That quieted everybody down. But coming back up in the ninth got them excited again.

Maybe too excited. And that might have helped turn the game.

Some in the crowd of 56,821 were so wound up, Chambliss recalls, they began throwing things on the field. “There was a long delay, because of the anticipation,” Chambliss says. “Fans threw a bunch of junk, toilet paper, and the grounds crew had to pick it up.

“It was really cold that night — Littell had to be cold. He was trying to throw pitches to keep warm.”

Chambliss, the way Randolph remembers it, remained cool, as usual.

“Chris just sat there, leaning against his bat, like, when you’re ready to play ball, I’ll be ready,” Randolph says. “The first pitch, he totally ambushed (Littell).”

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Chambliss jumps for joy before moments before being stormed by a mob of fans on the field.

(Riehl, Vincent)

Littell, a 23-year-old righty, was coming off a terrific season in which he had a 2.08 ERA in 104 innings. He had retired five Yankees in a row entering the ninth, but the high fastball he threw to Chambliss at 11:43 p.m. sent him tumbling into Kansas City infamy and gave the Yanks the club’s 30th pennant.

“I swung and hit it over the fence,” Chambliss says. “I wasn’t really trying to hit a homer — I never had success trying to hit a home run. I was just trying for a good swing.”

Up in the broadcast booth, Phil Rizzuto saw it like this: “He hits one deep to right center field, that ball is outta here! The Yankees win the pennant! Holy cow, Chris Chambliss on one swing and the Yankees win the American League pennant. Unbelievable, what a finish! As dramatic a finish as you wanna see!”

The ball landed between the fence in right-center and the seats, so the Yankees were able to grab the ball, which Chambliss had for awhile and later sold. He started around the bases as fans streamed onto the field hunting souvenirs of their own.

When Rizzuto saw what was happening below, he remarked, “The safest place to be here is up in the booth.”

PA announcer Bob Sheppard asked the fans to be calm, but, as Chambliss started around the bases, a flood of people came. “I was able to touch first and second. I’ve seen video where once I touch first, a fan comes up and picks up the base and it’s gone,” he says.

“After hitting second, I tripped to one knee and was really worried about being trampled at that point. There’s a great picture of a guy trying to reach for my helmet, which he never got, by the way. I pulled my helmet down and kind of carried it like a football.

The New York Daily News published this article on Oct. 15, 1976

The New York Daily News published this article on Oct. 15, 1976

(New York Daily News)

“I went around third and went, straight shot, to our dugout on the first-base side. Later, I found out how much Willie had done, running interference for me. It was pretty surreal.”

Randolph jokes that he felt like “a pulling guard, knocking people out of the way.” Still, it was frightening, too, Randolph says.

“At first you’re just reacting, all this adrenaline flowing through your body,” Randolph adds. “Someone grabbed my hat. I had an Afro going at the time, so he grabbed a chunk of my hair. I lost my cool for a second and went after the guy, then I figured I had to go back to Chris. It was total pandemonium.”

When Randolph got to the dugout, he saw a policeman holding his father, who had tried to get on the field in all the excitement. “He had him in a chokehold and I said, ‘It’s my dad!’ and it was so loud and he couldn’t hear me,” Randolph says. “Finally, he realized what I was saying and let him go.”

Meanwhile, Chambliss says, Graig Nettles grabbed the bat shortly after Chambliss had raised his arms in celebration en route to first. “He brought it back to the dugout and used it to protect all our equipment,” Chambliss says. “There was no screen on the dugout steps then, we had our gloves, hats, easy pickings for the fans. But Graig protected it.”

Chambliss still has the bat and plans to display it at his Atlanta-area home. “I need to put together a nice case for it,” Chambliss says.

Another treasured memory: A handshake with Yankee great Elston Howard, the first-base coach, on his way around the bases, before the craziness started. “I looked up to him quite a bit,” Chambliss recalls. “He was a strong influence on me, his demeanor, his sense of humor. He was really a great coach for all of us.”

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The Yankee Stadium spirits soared with the crack of the bat when Chambliss hit the game-winning homer.

(Vincent Riehl)

The next morning, the cover of the Daily News blared: “It’s About Time! Yanks In Series.” The caption of a picture of Chambliss’ swing read, “THE Shot Heard ‘Round the Bronx”.

Baseball later added something to Rule 4.09 (b), allowing umpires to award a base “because of obstruction by the fans.” Popularly, it’s known as the “Chris Chambliss Rule.”

That night, Chambliss says, “I don’t think I got any sleep.” Who could, after hitting a pennant-winning homer that still resonates 40 years later?

“I was on the Today Show, all these other shows, in the morning,” Chambliss says.

A day later, he was on the field against the Reds, playing in the World Series. The Yankees, exhausted from their series with the Royals, got swept by one of the best teams in baseball history.

But Chambliss, who played 17 years in the majors and was a hitting coach for the Yankees, Mets and three other clubs, had done something wonderful. And, Randolph stresses, helped start a new Yankee era that continued with two World Championships.

“It was, obviously, the proudest, biggest moment of my career,” Chambliss says of his homer.

Tags:
mlb
new york yankees
mlb playoffs
chris chambliss
willie randolph

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