Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
This week’s entry is a natural follow-up to last week’s. After 70-plus years of being a minor-league city, 13 seasons of the Athletics losing, a year without professional baseball, and seven seasons of building, at last, Kansas City would experience the major-league postseason (this, of course, is not meant to discount the Monarchs’ Negro Leagues success, but unfortunately in 1976 that wouldn’t have been considered in the same light).
For some reason, MLB scheduled both the ALCS and NLCS to start nearly a full week after the end of the regular season. Given the long wait Kansas City fans had already endured, that seemed like a drop in the bucket. Still, a Kansas City-record crowd of 41,077 jammed into Royals Stadium for the Saturday afternoon game.
But Royals fans could have been forgiven for wondering if it was worth the wait. The New York Yankees scored two runs in the first inning. Mickey Rivers led off with a grounder down the third-base line. George Brett snared it but hesitated on his throw to first, then made a poor throw to first. Rivers ended up on second with an infield single. Royals starter Larry Gura walked Roy White, then gave up a single to Thurman Munson that loaded the bases. Gura struck out Lou Piniella, and it looked like he might escape the inning altogether when Chris Chambliss hit a grounder to Brett, who stepped on third for a forceout and fired to first. But this time, his throw bounced. First baseman John Mayberry, allowing Rivers and Munson to score.
Incredibly, things got worse in the bottom of the inning. Manager Whitey Herzog had decided to use center fielder Amos Otis, who hit 18 of the Royals’ 65 home runs on the season (yes, it was a different time), in the leadoff spot rather than his customary position as the second hitter. Otis stepped to the plate against New York’s Catfish Hunter and tried to start a rally with a bunt. But he was thrown out at first and also badly sprained his left ankle. No one knew it at the time, but he would not play in the rest of the series.
Hunter proceeded to retire the first 10 KC hitters, a streak that was snapped when Brett singled. But he was promptly thrown out trying to steal second. Hunter retired the next eight hitters in a row, with Brett again singling to end the run. But two popups later, the inning was over and the Yankees still held a 2-0 lead.
Royals fans finally got something to cheer about when Al Cowens began the eighth with a triple. Tom Poquette’s grounder brought Cowens in with the Royals’ first run. With two outs, Freddie Patek singled, but he was thrown out trying to steal second and the inning was over with the Yankees still on top.
Gura had matched Hunter zero for zero since the first inning, despite allowing seven hits in that span. This game was quite personal for Gura, as Yankees manager Billy Martin had clashed with the lefthander when he was a Yankee. In fact, Gura had been with the Yankees from Opening Day of the 1976 season until the Royals acquired him in mid-May without appearing in a single game.
“When the season started, he said I’d be used as a spot starter or in long relief, but every time a situation came up, he’d use someone else. Finally he told me on a Friday that I would start the following Wednesday. I told him I’d like to get in an inning or two before that if the opportunity came up. That night Catfish Hunter got knocked out in the second inning. That was the perfect spot for me, but he brought in Tippy Martinez. I asked him why and he said Martinez hadn’t pitched in two weeks. I told him that I hadn’t pitched in four.”–Gura, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, October 23, 1976
Gura retired the first two hitters in the ninth, but the Yankees had one more rally in them. Fred Stanley singled and Rivers collected another infield hit. White doubled to drive in both runners for a 4-1 lead. Despite another single from Brett, Hunter finished out the game with a scoreless ninth.
Much of the drama came after the game. Brett and Gura said that Martin had been screaming at both of them for most of the game. The Yankees had dealt Ken Brett away just two days after they traded Gura, although George maintained Martin had promised his older brother he would not be traded.
“You can’t print most of the stuff he was yelling at me. Things like “Your brother stinks” but not exactly those words, if you know what I mean.”–Brett, quoted by the Associated Press, October 10, 1976
“I have come to expect things like that from Billy Martin. You can’t print what he was saying. When a guy is willing to win at any costs, even demeaning himself in front of his own players like that, you just have to ignore it.He was quiet when I was going good. It’s when I got in trouble that he started insulting me, saying I was a lousy pitcher.”–Gura, quoted by the Associated Press, October 10, 1976
Martin said he didn’t yell at Brett but admitted to giving Gura an earful.
“I didn’t swear at the kid. I was a little hot at Gura. He’s been taking some cheap shots at me.”–Martin, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, October 23, 1976
As if all that wasn’t enough, someone called in a bomb threat at the stadium, claiming an explosive device would detonate unless a payment of $250,000 was made. Police searched the stadium but didn’t find anything.
And finally, a controversy erupted when someone called the Kansas City Star’s sports desk and reported overhearing a phone conversation in which Yankees vice-president Cedric Tallis (at one time the Royals’ GM) discussed putting scouts with walkie-talkies in the press box booth of New York TV station WPIX. The scouts were in contact with the Yankee bench. The Yankees (and some other teams) had been doing this for a while as a way to position outfielders. But normally the scouts were posted in the stands. The Royals, understandably, were concerned about the scouts stealing the catcher’s signs off the TV monitors. AL president Lee MacPhail said there was no rule against it, however, and allowed the Yankees to continue the practice.
This set the stage for a minor controversy in the World Series, when MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn told the Yankees during Game One that they could not use the devices (this time, the scouts were camped out in a CBS radio booth with a TV monitor). The Yankees and Cincinnati Reds had agreed to allow the practice, but Kuhn apparently changed his mind. After some discussion, the commissioner relented before Game Two.
So, while the first postseason game in Royals Stadium was perhaps not the most memorable on the field, the off-the-field drama and its place in Kansas City’s baseball history earn it a spot on this list.