The late sixties and early seventies were a miserable time to be a Yankees fan. The once-great franchise floundered in mediocrity under CBS ownership, beginning an 11-year playoff-less stretch. In stepped George Steinbrenner, whose purchase of the team would usher in a period of drama and controversy, but also a return to their status as the Evil Empire of MLB.
The resurgence was not immediate, requiring a few years and several key additions to the team. The Yankees added Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson to a roster centered around team talisman Thurman Munson, as well as bringing back former player Billy Martin to man the helm. Then prior to the 1976 season, New York completed a trade with the Pirates, who in desperate need of pitching acquired the Yankees’ third-best starter of the first-half of the seventies in Doc Medich for a trio of players. Among those three was a young second baseman by the name of Willie Randolph
1976 Statistics: 125 games, 500 plate appearances, .267/.356/.328, 115 hits, 63 walks, one home run, 40 RBI, 37 stolen bases, 107 wRC+, 5.0 bWAR, 4.6 fWAR
Born William Larry Randolph on July 6, 1954 in Holly Hill, South Carolina, his family moved to the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn later that year. He grew up in the Tilden Housing Projects on Dumont Avenue, and Randolph credits baseball for keeping him safe in that dangerous environment. He also attributed his quick hands to the treacherous playing surface at the local Betsy Head Park as well as his disciplined mindset to the harsh conditions in which he came of age.
After a lackluster debut season that saw him turn in a measly .164/.246/.180 batting line (22 wRC+) in 30 games, Randolph was seemingly an afterthought in the swap with Pittsburgh. However, after a strong spring training that saw him win the Yankees’ James P. Dawson Award for best rookie performance in spring, Randolph was awarded the starting second base role and rewarded the Yankees for their belief in him.
Though he had to wait four games for his first hit in pinstripes, he delivered it in emphatic fashion — a fourth-inning leadoff home run off future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in a 7-1 Yankees victory over the Orioles on April 13th. This blast kickstarted a strong first-half that saw Randolph post a .273/.373/.335 triple slash and 114 wRC+ en route to the first of his six career All-Star Game appearances.
While certainly never a power threat throughout his career, the Yankees could always count on Randolph to get on base at a healthy clip, his 11.6 percent walk rate in 1976 finishing almost four points higher than his strikeout rate. He also finished the season with the eighth-most stolen bases in the AL, his speed an ever-present weapon for the offense. And of course, he provided elite up-the-middle defense, his 19 total zone runs the fifth-highest mark in baseball in 1976.
His contributions propelled the Yankees to their first postseason appearance in almost a dozen years, and while he would fare poorly going 2-for-17 in the ALCS against the Royals, the series would provide one of the most memorable moments in Yankees history.
Randolph would again struggle in the World Series, going 1-for-14 as the Yankees got swept by the Big Red Machine, however simply appearing in the World Series for the first time since the franchise’s 1964 loss gave the team renewed belief that would surely play a role in them winning the next two Fall Classics.
That 1976 season also precipitated a stretch that would make Randolph a household fixture. From 1976 through 1980, Randolph was the fifth-most valuable player in baseball (25.8 fWAR) thanks to his on-base threat and defensive prowess. He held down the infield fort as the Yankees’ starting baseman for 13 straight seasons, and was an integral member on the coaching staff of the Yankees turn-of-the-millennium dynasty teams, earning a plaque in Monument Park and cementing himself as one of the most beloved Yankees of all time.