Chris Chambliss was a very good Yankee. Not good enough to get his number retired, or a Monument Park plaque or anything, but he was an important player during a significant stretch in team history. His walk-off home run to win the 1976 ALCS has a good case to be a top-ten highlight in Yankees’ history.
The Yankees traded him after the 1979 season. While they got a decent season out of Rick Cerone, one of the primary pieces they got back, Chambliss performed better than anyone the Yankees received in return. Don Mattingly’s emergence would have made Chambliss less necessary as the 80s went on, but he almost certainly could have been a useful piece on some of those teams that were good, but not good enough.
Chambliss wrapped up his MLB career after 1986.. At least, that’s what it seemed would happen. After the 1986 season, he did what a lot of retired baseball players do: become a coach/instructor for a major league team. He was working for the Yankees in 1988 when he unexpectedly made a return to the majors.
On May 8, 1988, the Yankees placed Jose Cruz on the disabled list. Cruz, who was in the midst of what would be the final season of his 19-year career, had primarily been used as a DH/pinch-hitter for the Yankees that season.
The typical action a team might take in that situation is call someone up from the minors. The Yankees in that era could not be described as normal. Billy Martin, in his fifth and final stint as manager, had been in a bar fight the previous night.
Instead of making a standard move, the Yankees did something only a team steeped in craziness would think of: activate the 39-year old coach. George Steinbrenner reportedly told Chambliss that he would hit as well as Cruz could. Considering that Cruz finished the season with a 52 OPS+, that might have been true. Still, Chambliss had not played a game of any sort in over 19 months.
With the Yankees losing 10-8, Chambliss was sent up as a pinch-hitter for shortstop Rafael Santana. The Rangers’ Dale Mohorcic, who would actually get traded to the Yankees later that season, struck him out to end the eighth inning. Bob Meachem was then put in at shortstop, ending Chambliss’ day there. The Yankees went on to lose 10-8.
Two days and zero more at-bats later, Chambliss was released. His final career at-bat was a strikeout in a random May game two seasons after he had last played. Chambliss would go on to have a long career as a coach, including helping the Yankees to four championships as hitting coach from 1996-2000.
In some respects, it’s a compliment that people thought that Chris Chambliss could come in cold and play in the major leagues. In the end, it’s still incredibly strange.