Full Name: Carroll Christopher “Chris” Chambliss
Position: First base
Born: December 26, 1948 (Dayton, OH)
Yankee Years: 1974-79, 1988
Primary number: 10
Yankee statistics: 885 games, .282/.323/.417, 79 HR, 171 2B, 25 3B, 454 RBI, 108 OPS+, 15.4 rWAR, 13.7 fWAR
The Yankees have no shortage of options when it comes to the best and most important home runs in franchise history. Whether it’s Bucky Dent’s in the 1978 AL East one-game playoff, Aaron Boone’s in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, or countless others, there are many that you could conceivably pick as your personal favorite. Undoubtedly somewhere on that list is Chris Chambliss’ walk-off to win the 1976 ALCS, and usher in a new era of Yankees’ postseason success. He was no one-hit wonder either, as he turned in a stellar career in the Bronx.
Early Years and No. 1 Draft Pick (Sorta)
The son of a Navy chaplain, Chambliss was born in 1948 in Dayton, Ohio, but moved around a lot as a child as part of his father’s work. The Chambliss family lived in Ohio, St. Louis, and Chicago, before they finally settled in Oceanside, not far from San Diego. It was there that Chambliss started to get on the baseball radar, first at Oceanside High School and then at Mira Costa Junior College.
At Mira Costa, Chambliss impressed enough to be selected in both the 1967 and ‘68 MLB Drafts. In both instances, he was selected by the Cincinnati Reds, and he went in the second round in the latter year. However, each time he chose not to sign and instead enrolled at UCLA for the 1969 college baseball season. He hit 15 home runs for the Bruins that season and then played summer ball for Anchorage Glacier Pilots, helping them win a national championship. That run led to Chambliss getting selected first overall in the 1970 MLB Draft ... the January Draft.
Back in the day, MLB held multiple drafts for incoming college and high school players. One was held in June, and was the normal draft, which is still held today. One happened in January, which was held for selected college and high school players that graduated in the winter. That was apparently the case for Chambliss, and he was selected first overall by Cleveland in 1970.
Cleveland assigned Chambliss to the Wichita Aeros of the American Association, and he quickly impressed, OPSing .895, winning the batting title, and taking home the league’s Rookie of the Year honor. He was good enough to get an invite to major league spring training the next year, where there was a thought that he could beat out Ken “Hawk” Harrelson — later of White Sox announcing fame — for the first-base job. But Chambliss suffered a leg injury, leading to a return to Wichita to begin 1971.
While he dealt with the injury some more there, Chambliss again put up good numbers in Wichita. That eventually led to his call up by Cleveland in May.
Chambliss made his MLB debut on May 28th, grounding out after coming up as a pinch-hitter. The next day, he was given the start at first base, and recorded his first major league hit: a fifth-inning double that also drove in two runs in Cleveland’s 2-1 win over the White Sox. He would quickly ascend to regular status at first base, a struggling Harrelson decided to retire in June.
Chambliss grabbed this opportunity and never looked back. A 104 OPS+ with 33 extra-base hits and solid defense at first in 111 games saw him voted as AL Rookie of the Year for 1971, earning 11 of the 24 votes to beat out a so-so class.
Despite missing some time with injury, Chambliss followed that up with an even better 1972. Between him, Gaylord Perry coming off a Cy Young season, and some other interesting young talent, Cleveland had some hope going into 1973. However some ill-conceived trades — including one that sent Graig Nettles to the Yankees — saw Cleveland fall to last place in the AL East in ‘73, despite another solid year from Chambliss.
After a so-so start to the 1974 season, Cleveland decided to make a trade to shore up their rotation, acquiring pitcher Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, and two others from the Yankees. Among those going the other way was Cleveland’s former Rookie of the Year in Chambliss.
Winning Over New York
When you look at the names exchanged in retrospect, you might say that the deal was a no-brainer for the Yankees. At the time, though, the trade did not go over very well. The anger at losing Peterson and Kline, and at trading of four pitchers from a team that was seemingly rounding into form after the nadir of the CBS ownership years, was received poorly by the fans and players. The trade was dubbed “The Friday Night Massacre” while several active Yankees openly derided it.
Despite all the anger at the trade, the Yankees played well on the field. Chambliss didn’t have the best of years at the plate in 1974. His 86 OPS+ would be the second worst of his career. However, he rated well with his glove at first base, and the Yankees finished just two games back of first in the AL East.
New York fell back as a team the next year in ‘75, but Chambliss found his bat, putting up a .304 batting average, which was the best of his major league career to that point. Even more so, he began to win over the Yankees fans who were angered over the 1974 trade, thanks to his offense and his still quality defense. Beyond that, there were some other moves made that began to change the vibes around the franchise.
The Home Run
As the Yankees were struggling a bit in 1975, they made a change at manager, bringing in Billy Martin in place of Bill Virdon. That wasn’t enough to change the team’s fortunes for 1975, but it did set the stage for what was ahead.
Among the changes Martin put in place was making Chambliss his cleanup hitter, a move which paid serious dividends. In 1976, Chambliss produced arguably the best offensive season of his career, slugging 17 home runs to go along with a 124 OPS+. He was named an All-Star for the first and only time in his career, and tied for fifth in AL MVP voting. And his biggest moment of the year was still yet to come.
Besides Chambliss, the rest of the Yankees’ roster finally started to reach their full potential. Two Yankees — winner Thurman Munson and third-place Mickey Rivers — actually finished ahead of Chambliss for AL MVP, and New York won the AL East by 10.5 games over the Orioles, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1964. There, they would have to deal with something new for the first time in franchise history: a round before the World Series. The Yankees were set to be matched up against the Kansas City Royals, who took the AL West by 2.5 games over the Oakland Athletics.
The ALCS started out in Kansas City, with the two teams splitting the first two games. Chambliss recorded two hits and an RBI in a 4-1 win in Game 1, and had three hits in a losing effort in Game 2.
The series shifted to New York after that, where again Chambliss came up big. In Game 3, the Royals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, but the Yankees eventually reeled them back in thanks to a three-RBI game from Chambliss.
Chambliss’ two-run homer in the fourth inning got the Yankees on the board, and his run-scoring groundout tied the game in the sixth in an eventual 5-3 win. He picked up another hit in Game 4, but the Royals got Catfish Hunter for five runs in three innings, sending the series to a winner-take-all Game 5.
Game 5 in the Bronx would back a back-and-forth battle that went down to the last at-bat. Kansas City jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, only for the Yankees to answer back in the bottom half, with Chambliss driving home a run on a sacrifice fly. After the Royals scored again in the second, the Yankees took the lead with two runs in the third, Chambliss again plating one via groundout. He singled in the sixth, scoring as the Yankees picked up two more runs to go up 6-3 and get within nine outs of a trip to the World Series.
After seven solid innings, Yankees starter Ed Figueroa was replaced after allowing a lead-off single in the eighth. Reliever Grant Jackson allowed another single, before giving up a game-tying, three-run homer to future Hall of Famer George Brett. In just a couple pitches, the Yankees went from the verge of a World Series to the verge of collapse. After a scoreless bottom of the eighth, Dick Tidrow worked around a couple runners to keep the Royals off the board in the ninth, setting the scene for Chambliss.
The crowd had been a rowdy one all night long, with the game having been delayed multiple times due to fans throwing things on the field. Another came before the bottom of the ninth as Royals’ reliever Mark Littell attempted to warm up. When the situation finally calmed down and play began, Chambliss sent the crowd right back into a frenzy with a home run that just cleared the wall in right field, winning the game and sending the Yankees to the World Series.
The scene in the Bronx quickly became wild, with fans storming the field and getting in Chambliss’ way as he ran the bases. Things on the field were so chaotic that Chambliss returned to the field after it had been cleared to touch home plate (or at least the spot where home plate had been), as he had been unsure if he had done it during the chaos.
In the series, Chambliss went 11-for-21 with two home runs and eight RBI. The NL didn’t give out a LCS MVP until the next year, with the AL following suit in 1980. Had there been an MVP award for the 1976 ALCS, Chambliss no doubt would’ve been the pick.
The Yankees couldn’t continue the run after that, as they were swept by the “Big Red Machine” Cincinnati Reds. Chambliss was a rare bright spot in the series, going 5-for-16, with only Munson recording more Yankee hits.
World Series Titles and Departure
Chambliss never quite matched the individual highs of his 1976 season, but was an integral part of the Yankees’ roster as they continued their late ‘70s run. With some key additions including the likes of Reggie Jackson, the Yankees returned to the Fall Classic in 1977, this time coming out on top, beating the Dodgers in six games. Chambliss’ big moment came in Game 6, as he hit a game-tying home run in the second inning before Jackson’s famous heroics after that.
In 1978, Chambliss’ glovework was rewarded as he was named the AL’s Gold Glove winner at first base. As that was happening, the Yankees famously rallied from a 14-game deficit in the AL East to overtake the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. Chambliss was one of the men on base for Bucky Dent’s legendary home run, having singled a couple batters prior.
In the World Series, Chambliss was limited to just three games after suffering a broken hand. He still came away with a second ring as the Yankees again beat the Dodgers in six games.
Chambliss was solid in 1979, but he and the team fell to fourth in the AL East. All that was overshadowed by the tragic death of Thurman Munson in a plane crash in August. While it’s far from the most tragic consequence of that accident, it also partly led to Chambliss’ departure.
After that season, the Yankees were looking for someone to find a catcher to replace Munson, and landed on Rick Cerone of the Toronto Blue Jays. They traded for him, sending Chambliss and others the other way in November 1979.
Atlanta Years and a Random New York Reunion
Chambliss didn’t last for long in Toronto, as just a month later, they shipped him to the Atlanta Braves. He would spend the next seven seasons in Atlanta, putting up solid numbers and helping turn the franchise around. While the Braves had finished in last in the NL West the year prior to Chambliss’ arrival, he hit 20 homers with a 112 OPS+, helping them to a division title under manager Joe Torre in 1982.
Atlanta fell to St. Louis in an NLCS sweep though, and it turned out to be the Braves’ only playoff appearance between 1970 and 1990.
Chambliss continued playing through the 1986 season, before retiring ... or so he thought. In 1987, he returned to the Bronx as the Yankees hired him as hitting coach. In his second season in that gig, he got to retire as a Yankee player, in the weirdest possible way.
In 1988, Yankee first baseman José Cruz had to go on the injured list with a knee issue in early May. In a move steeped in peak George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin craziness, the Yankees decided the best course of action was to add Chambliss, having not played in nearly a year and half, to the roster. They did, and he made one appearance, striking out as a pinch-hitter on May 8th.
After that cameo, Chambliss would return to the coaching ranks, and stay there for good this time. He spent many years after that as a minor league manager or as hitting coach for various major league teams.
One of those tenures included a return to the Bronx, when his old skipper Torre took up the post as Yankees manager. Chambliss had served as his hitting coach in St. Louis, and he continued with Torre in New York. From 1996-2000, Chambliss was on the job as the dynastic team won four World Series titles in five years.
The Yankees let Chambliss’ contract expire after 2000 since several star players were already consulting with others instructors rather than the actual coach. But Chambliss had a couple other stops after that, and was most recently hitting coach of the Mariners from 2011-12. In recent years, he’s been a regular Old-Timers’ Day attendee, and always gets a nice hand.
In addition to being a good player for a good long time for the Yankees, he hit arguably the most important home run in a crucial era in franchise history. That’s a pretty nice thing to have on your résumé.
Staff Rank: 85
Community Rank: 72
Stats Rank: 72
2013 Rank: 86
Baseball Almanac, MLB Draft History
Wancho, Joseph. SABR bio