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What They Said At the Time… Major League Baseball 1976

I used to love to collect baseball preview magazines and books. I devoured the written words and learned a great deal about the game by reading the words of the various experts in the field. I also learned early on that the experts weren’t always correct.

This book was published before the 1976 baseball season. In 1975, the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds battled in an epic World Series, eventually won by the Reds. Most experts didn’t expect all that much from the 1976 Yankees. The former greatest franchise of all hadn’t finished in first place since 1964 and hadn’t won a World Series since 1962, but all of that was about to change over the next few years.

This paperback, written by Fred Down, and published through Ballantine Books, predicted a third-place finish for the Yankees, who would actually finish in first place and head to the World Series against the Reds.

Let’s see how Major League Baseball 1976 shaped up the Yankees prior to that season:

The American League’s Eastern Division will be divided into three parts this year: a first flight composed of the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, a second echelon composed of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Milwaukee Brewers and, all by themselves in last, the Detroit Tigers.

No team in the second group is capable of challenging the Red Sox or Orioles. Each of the runners-up has at least one vital weakness.

The prediction here si that the Yankees will head this second group. It isn’t that the New Yorkers look all that good-because they don’t. It’s just that they have Jim Hunter, who probably can do more for the Yankees than any two pitchers on either the Cleveland or Milwaukee rosters.

It is difficult to follow the Yankees’ reasoning over the last two seasons. Forget Doc medich, Pat Dobson, Dock Ellis, Ken Brett and Ed Figueroa. The last three essentially replaced the first two. What the Yankees really did in the last two years was trade Bobby Murcer and Bobby Bonds, two $100,000 mini-Mantles, for rookie second baseman Willie Randolph and centerfielder Mickey Rivers.

There isn’t a player on the 1976 roster who hit more than 21 homers, and four men who could play important roles in 1976-Randoplh, Ed Brinkman, Jim Mason and Lou Piniella-batted less than .200 in the majors last season.

“It’s not home runs that count,” says team President Gabe Paul. “It’s run production that counts. I think we’ll score more runs than we did last season. We were seventh in runs scored. That’s not good enough.”

“Rivers could steal 100 bases for us,” chortled Manager Billy Martin, referring to the centerfielder acquired from the California Angels along with Figueroa. “And we’ll have Randolph, Elliott Maddox and maybe Roy White going too. We could have the most aggressive running club in the league.”

Or, of course, the Yankees of 1976 could be the California Angels of 1975.

Yankee pitching should be superior to both Cleveland’s and Milwaukee’s because of Hunter. Figueroa and Rudy May figure to work about 800 innings and Brett and Ellis are capable major leaguers. Hunter, 23-14 with a 2.58 earned run average in 1975, is establishing himself as one of the greats of the game. Figueroa has had a checkered 10-year career in organized baseballbut was outstanding with a 16-13 record and 2.90 for the last place Angels in 1975. May’s 14-12 and 3.06 performance establishes him as a reliable No. 3 starter.

Brett, frequently sidelined with arm trouble, was 9-5 and 3.36 for the Pirates, while Ellis, who has a knack for getting into trouble with management, was 8-9 and 3.79.

Rounding out a good staff headed by a great pitcher are Larry Gura (7-8 and 3.52), Dave Pagan (0-0 and 4.06), Dick Tidrow (6-3 and 3.13), Sparkly Lyle (5-7 and 3.13) and Tippy Martinez (1-2 and 2.68).

Randolph, heralded by Yankee scouts as “perhaps the next great infielder in the majors,” batted .339 for Charleston, is rated an outstanding defensive player and can fly on the basepaths. He batted only .164 in 30 games for the Pirates but will take over as the Yankee second baseman until he plays himself out of a job.

Brinkman, a .169-hitter last season stands a good chance to be the Yankees’ shortstop. Granting the improved defense, the new alignment could ask a lot of power from first baseman Chris Chambliss (.304-9-72) and Graig Nettles (.267-21-91), not to mention designated hitter Ron Blomberg (.255-4-17 in 34 games).

The Yankee outfield should be excellent on defense with Maddox (.307-1-23 in 55 games), Rivers (.285-1-53 and 70 stolen bases) and either White (.290-12-59) or Piniella (.196-0-22 in 74 games) slated for front-line duty and Oscar Gamble (.261-15-45), Terry Whitfield (.272-0-7 in 28 games) and Walt Williams (.281-5-16) in reserve.

Yankee catching is in outstanding hands with Thurman Munson (.318-12-102) right up there alongside Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox as the best in the league, and with Rick Dempsey (.262-1-11) in reserve. Munson is the man to watch on this team. He’s one of those “do or die guys” who could be an MVP in any given year.

Just how a team can expect to improve by trading away two stars like Murcer and Bonds during a span of about 12 months isn’t easily understandable, and the Yankees can’t be seriously rated as threats to the Red Sox and Orioles. At the same time, Paul is an outstanding baseball executive, moved with considerable daring to correct the defensive weaknesses of the club and may get better results than most experts anticipate.


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