One of my favorite pictures is a framed autographed photo of Chris Chambliss watching his pennant-clinching home run sail into the New York night. It captures Chambliss immediately after his follow-through, standing upright and watching the ball take flight. Behind him, Royals catcher Buck Martinez is also standing upright out of his catcher’s crouch, watching his season helplessly slip away.
That incredible moment happened 40 years ago today, and remains one of the wildest scenes in Yankee Stadium history–old or new. The home run would come in the decisive game five of the ALCS in the bottom of the ninth to send the Yankees to their first World Series since 1964, and sending Yankees fans into a state of delirium as they poured onto the field from the stands, rushing Chambliss as he tried to make his way through the crowd and around the bases.
The series itself was a classic back and forth affair, with each team alternating wins the entire series. The Royals were always a bitter rival to the Yankees in those days, especially with George Brett leading the way for Kansas City.
Brett actually tied the game in the top of the eighth with a three-run home run, but after they were shut down in their half of the ninth, the New York crowd started to sense something special was about to happen, and began hurling toilet paper and other debris onto the field, causing a delay before the bottom of the ninth. Fans were ready to go crazy before the moment even happened, and Chambliss wasted no time in giving the fans their moment, drilling the first pitch from Mark Littell over the right center field wall to lead off the inning. At the time, it was just the second series-ending home run in postseason history.
Chambliss recalled that he was never able to touch home plate due to the crazed mob on the field, including some who tried to steal the helmet off of his head. Shortly after the game ended, Chambliss threw on a jacket to conceal his identity and headed back onto the field with two security guards to finally touch home plate, only to find an empty patch of infield dirt. Home plate had been stolen.
Luckily for Chambliss, his bat was not stolen. Teammate Graig Nettles wisely rushed to grab the bat after seeing the fans begin their charge, and brought it safely into the dugout. Chambliss still has the bat in his possession.
The home run for Chambliss capped off an incredible series in which he batted .524 (11 for 21), still good for the highest Yankees batting average in LCS history. In fact, Chambliss had been a thorn in the side of the Royals the entire year, batting .321 against them in the regular season, his highest average against any team. He finished fifth in the MVP voting, and would receive the only All-Star selection of his career.
The Yankees were ultimately swept away by the Reds in the 1976 World Series, but Chambliss did his part, batting .313 for the series. A number one overall pick with the Indians, he played six seasons with the Yanks, winning two World Series in 1977 and 78. To the surprise of no one, he considers his walk-off heroics in the ‘76 ALCS to be the greatest moment of his baseball career.