On September 29, 1976, Kansas City had cause to worry. The Royals had traveled to Oakland needing one win out of three opportunities to win the AL West title; both opportunities they had failed so far, narrowing Kansas City’s advantage from 4.5 games when they first arrived to 2.5 with still several more games left on their schedule. The Royals were a franchise that had never made the playoffs and tensions were high back in Kansas City.
The Oakland A’s were the reigning champs in the AL West during the 70s, winning five division titles and three World Series from 1972-74. Kansas City Royals emerged as an intriguing contender. Since 1969, they had produced winning teams and then dropped below.500 only twice: 1972-74 (slide below 60 wins), 1973 (88), 1975 (91).
Kansas City had been led by some notable managers–Bob Lemon led the ’71 team to a decent record, later winning a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1978; Jack McKeon served for most of 1975 before being replaced due to their 50-46 record in 1975.
Whitey Herzog had recently become an unknown manager when the team hired him and quickly went on a 41-25 win streak that marked both great things for themselves as a franchise and Herzog himself. It would become a landmark moment.
Herzog would become famous in St. Louis in the 1980s for the frequency with which his teams stole bases, something which first showed itself in Kansas City during the 1976 Royals season: only two players hit more than ten homers: first baseman John Mayberry and centerfielder Amos Otis had this feat while seven stole 20+ bases, including shortstop Freddie Patek who swiped 51 bases!
The Royals were a young, up-and-coming team; George Brett (23 at that time) at third base commenced his legendary career and became one of the greatest third baseman and pure hitters ever in MLB history – hitting.333, while designated hitter Hal McRae hit 332, leading their offense. Meanwhile, Mayberry led with 95 RBIs, while Otis provided offensive and defensive stability as his Royals scored the fourth most runs in the American League.
Herzog’s pitching staff was one of the tops in the American League regarding ERA. Dennis Leonard led them with 17 wins at 3.51 with 259 innings pitched – leading the rotation and winning 15 games at an ERA under 3.06; Doug Bird and Paul Splitorff combined for 23 victories with an ERA under 4.00.
Mark Litell, Marty Pattin and Steve Migori were formidable contributors to the bullpen in those days – all three had sub-3.00 ERAs!
But despite all these names, Larry Gura was the pitcher on that fateful September night in Oakland who would take the field. Over his career, he would go on to 126 wins, postseason glory and earn himself the reputation as a Yankee killer after they cut him loose to be picked by Kansas City; all this lay before him, but in 1976, only 19 games had been started by him before taking the mound at Oakland.
Kansas City started the 1976 season slowly at 5-7 before quickly surging to 18-10 and becoming tied for first with the Texas Rangers by May 18. Oakland lagged far behind, so Kansas City promptly beat them twice by late May before expanding their lead up to five games by June 18, while Oakland lagged far behind at 11 games out.
The A’s 1976 campaign would mark the inaugural year of modern free agency. Their owner Charlie Finley attempted to unload Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace, two key components from their championship years, in a move called for by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Still, Bowie Kuhn eventually voided Finley’s sale of these players, but it caused significant disruption early in the season.
Kansas City had opened up an 8-game lead at the All-Star break and were riding high after sweeping Chicago in a doubleheader on August 6. Oakland veterans then began making a statement as Kansas City dropped five of seven after August 6 and nine out of eleven during late August/early September; these drops caused anxiety for Kansas City fans who faced off against Oakland twice more before they finally staved off elimination two straight times with Gura taking the mound for the finale game against them – leaving a lot to be anxious about heading into September versus Kansas City was left bare as Oakland made their move – leaving many anxious.
An early lead can help calm nerves, and that’s exactly what the Royals did – even though their first run wasn’t without controversy. McRae and Mayberry each singled, then Al Cowens hit a line drive into a double play before Utility man Cookie Rojas came through with two out RBI single for an unearned run to keep things scoreless at 1-0 but it could have easily been more.
The Royals scored early and often in the third, as Patek doubled and Tom Poquette singled. Otis hit a double that brought in one run while leaving runners on second and third base. Although Brett didn’t record any hits during this crucial contest, he did push a ground ball right to bring home another run and make it 3-0.
Gura was in complete command, evidenced by his three-run lead against Oakland. They threatened again in the third, but Gura held off by inducing speedy centerfielder Bill North to fly out, followed by veteran shortstop Bert Campaneris lining out to Otis in center.
Gura needed only a line drive out for his victory to come true, with Oakland managing only three singles before two were erased on double play balls. Otis homered in the fifth as insurance. Gura finished off his win by going straight through key hitters of Oakland’s dynasty; Campaneris bounced back to him for one out, Rudi flew out right, and Tenace popped out to Mayberry at first base, sparking celebrations around him.
Kansas City’s season would end with their loss in the American League Championship Series. They fell victim to Chris Chambliss of the New York Yankees with a walk-off home run during game five.
But Kansas City wasn’t done yet: over the next five years they would win four AL West titles in five and reach the World Series in 1980; 1984 brought another divisional title win before 1985 brought their only World Series championship ever – all thanks to a young, hungry team thwarting an aging dynasty with determination!
The 1976 Royals came up one run short of the World Series, but it was the start of something great in Kansas City, culminating in a World Championship in 1985.
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