Sunday, February 7, 2010

10 Days Until Spring Training: Chris Chambliss

Yankee history has more than its share of historic and memorable home runs: Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius in the 2001 World Series, Bucky Dent in '78, Reggie's three bombs in Game Six in '77, Roger Maris' 61st in '61, Mantle's shot off the facade, Gehrig's four in one game in '32, the Babe's disputed called shot in the World Series that same year. But perhaps no home run in Yankee history was more momentous than the one hit by Chris Chambliss on October 14, 1976.

Chambliss was selected out of UCLA by the Cleveland Indians with the first overall pick in the 1970 draft. Placed immediately into AAA, Chambliss made his Major League debut in late May 1971 and went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year. Chambliss posted good, but not great, numbers through his first three seasons. Then, less than a month into the 1974 season, he was traded to the Yankees in a blockbuster deal.

The Yankees shipped pitchers Fritz Peterson, Steve Kline, Tom Buskey, and Fred Beene to the Indians for Chambliss and pitcher Dick Tidrow. The trade was initially heavily criticized. Not only had the Yankees traded away nearly half their pitching staff, it was yet another trade with Cleveland. The Yankees were in their second year of ownership under Cleveland native George Steinbrenner, and general manager Gabe Paul formerly held the same post with the Indians. The Chambliss deal was the fourth trade the Yankees and Indians made since the end of the 1972 season.

Despite the initial reactions, the Yankees got a steal of a deal. Beene and Kline were essentially finished by the end of the '74 season, and the remainder of Buskey's and Peterson's careers were unspectacular. But in Chambliss and Tidrow the Yankees had two key pieces to three pennant winning and two World Series winning ball clubs for the remainder of the decade.

When Chambliss stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth inning of the tied fifth and final game of the 1976 ALCS, he was coming off his best season to date, and perhaps the best of his entire career. He batted .293/.323/.441 (123 OPS+) with 17 HR and a career high 96 RBI, that would earn him a fifth place finish in the MVP balloting. Facing Royals relief ace Mark Littell, Chambliss launched the first pitch over the fence in right center field, giving the Yankees their first pennant in twelve years.

By the time he reached second base the field was mobbed with celebrating fans, and the bag had already been swiped. Chambliss was forced to tag it with his hand as the thief fled the scene. By the time he reached third he had removed his batting helmet so that the revelers couldn't steal it off his head. By the time he reached home plate the throng was so thick that no one could really tell if touched the plate. Later, after the commotion died down, Yankee manager Billy Martin ensured that Chambliss returned to the field with an umpire to tag the plate. By then the plate too had been stolen, leaving Chambliss to step on a hole in the ground.

Chambliss remained the Yankee first baseman through 1979, picking up two World Series rings and Gold Glove. Following the 1979 season, with the team in need of a catcher after the death of Thurman Munson, Chambliss was traded to Toronto as part of a six player deal that saw Rick Cerone come to the Bronx as the new Yankee catcher. Cerone inherited Chambliss' number ten, and finished seventh in the 1980 MVP voting. Cerone never came close to duplicating the success of his 1980 season, but he remained with the club through the 1984 season and was the last player to wear number 10 before it was retired in honor of Phil Rizzuto in 1985.

As for Chambliss, he never played a game for Toronto as they flipped him to Atlanta a month after the trade with the Yankees. He would spend the final seven seasons of his career with the Braves, playing three of them under manager Joe Torre. Chambliss retired after the 1986 season, spent 1987 as a minor league hitting instructor for the Yankees and joined the Major League staff as hitting coach for 1988. He briefly came out of retirement in early May, striking out in a lone pinch hitting appearance for the last plate appearance of his career.

Chambliss left the Yankees following that season, managing in the minors for the Tigers and Braves, but later resurfaced as Torre's hitting coach with the Cardinals in the early nineties. When Torre took the Yankees job prior to the 1996 season, he brought Chambliss along with him. Chambliss served as the Yankees' hitting coach through 2000, picking up four more World Series rings in the process. His son Russ played in the Yankees' minor leeague system during that time. Chris spent last year as the manager of the White Sox AAA affiliate.


For a look at another notable Yankee number ten, check out this post on Tony Kubek from when he was honored with the Ford Frick Award during Hall of Fame weekend last summer.

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