A look back at the team that started the best run in Royals history
The Royals were close to doing something special. Since their beginning in 1969, Royals General Manager, Joe Burke, and his predecessor, Cedric Tallis, had been building a winning franchise built on defense, speed, and pitching. They made great trades for players like Amos Otis, Hal McRae, Freddie Patek, and John Mayberry. The Royals also had the Royals Academy, which produced Royals great, Frank White. Finally, they drafted well, drafting the likes of Paul Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, and Hall of Famer George Brett. The Royals were a model for expansion franchises to have success against the likes of the more established franchises.
The only thing the Royals were missing was a postseason berth. In the early 1970s, the Royals were marred by inconsistencies and fact that the Oakland A’s dominated not only the American League West, but, Major League Baseball. Then, in 1975, the Royals fired Jack McKeon and hired Hall of Fame manager, Whitey Herzog, to lead a talented, yet unproven, Royals team. The Royals finished 1975 at 91-71, their first season with over 90 wins. However, they would finish 7 games behind the Oakland A’s in the West.
However, 1976 would be the time everything finally came together. The infield comprised of rising stars Frank White and George Brett coupled with veterans John Mayberry and Freddie Patek. Amos Otis patrolled center field for the Royals and the Royals rotation was led by the hard throwing Dennis Leonard and the finesse lefty Paul Splittorff.
The 1976 Royals boat raced the Western Division, leading or tying the division from May 18th on. They also played to the dimensions of the four-year old Royals Stadium. They didn’t hit a lot of home runs (Amos Otis led the team with 18 and they had only two players hit more than 10), but, they hit a ton of doubles (finishing second in the American League), stole a lot of bases, and finished second in the league in pitching. They put the ball in play as well. Hal McRae finished second in the league in hitting with a .332 average. The only guy to finish ahead of him with a very young third baseman by the name of George Brett, who won his first batting title with a .333 average. Brett also led the league in hits and triples while Amos Otis led the league in doubles. The pitching staff was anchored by emerging ace, Dennis Leonard, who won 17 games. The Royals finished with four pitchers with over 10 wins (Leonard, Al Fitzmorris, Doug Bird, and Paul Splittorff).
The Royals would go onto win the American League Western Division by 2.5 games over the Oakland A’s, earning their first division title and spot in the American League Championship Series, facing the New York Yankees in a best-of-five series.
The Royals played their first postseason game in franchise history on October 9, 1976 in front of 41,077 fans at Royals Stadium in what would be a 4-1 loss. In Game 2, Dennis Leonard struggled early, but, Paul Splittorff would pitch 5.2 scoreless innings and Tom Poquette drove-in two to win, 7-3, and ensure a series split as the series shifted to New York for the final three games.
Game 3 started out fantastic for the Royals, as they scored three in the first. However, they couldn’t hold onto the lead and the Yankees would rally for two in the fourth and three in the sixth as the Royals were pushed to the brink of elimination. In Game 4, with their backs against the wall, Freddie Patek would go 3-4 with three driven in as the Royals set up a decisive Game 5 with a 7-4 win.
Game 5 started out well, with slugger John Mayberry hitting a two-run home run in the first. The Yankees, however, took a 6-3 lead going into the top of the eighth when George Brett stepped up to the plate with two on and nobody out. Brett drove a Grant Jackson pitch into the right field stands to tie the game at 6-6 in what would become the first big moment for George Brett in his storied career. The Royals threatened in the ninth, however, they standed the go-ahead run at second. Unfortunately for Brett and the Royals, they would become victims of one of the most famous moments in postseason history, as Chris Chambliss (who would later play for the Royals) hit one just over the reach of a leaping Hal McRae to send the Yankees to the World Series.
Despite falling after coming so-close to the World Series, 1976 was the beginning of an era. The Royals would make the playoffs in a stretch of seven of the next ten years, winning two American League Pennants and culminating in the 1985 World Series Championship. The young core of players who helped lead the Royals to win the 1976 Western Division played a key role for the organization for years to come.
Frank White would become a five-time All Star and the best defensive second baseman in baseball. He would win the 1980 ALCS Most Valuable Player Award and become one of only two players in Royals history to have his number retired.
Amos Otis would continue his success for the Royals, culminating in his unbelievable performance in the 1980 World Series, hitting .478 with four home runs against the Phillies. Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff would go onto finish numbers one and two in Royals history in wins.
George Brett would become the face of the franchise and continues to be to this day. Brett would finish his career in 1993, having played all his years in Kansas City. Brett finished with 3,154 hits, the most ever by a third baseman. He was the 1985 ALCS Most Valuable Player and helped lead the Royals over the hump against the Yankees in 1980, with a three run home run in Game 3 to finish off New York. He would go on to win batting titles in three different decades, the only player in baseball history to accomplish that feat, with his first one in 1976.
The 1976 Royals really were the beginning of the Golden Age of Royals baseball.