Braves first baseman Chris Chambliss (middle) sits next to team owner Ted Turner (left) at a press conference. AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo

Whatever happened to: Chris Chambliss

He has lived in Atlanta for years and was one of the more popular Braves of the 1980s, but the night first baseman Chris Chambliss will remember most was a date at Yankee Stadium in 1976 against Kansas City in the fifth and deciding game of the American League Championship Series. Royals Hall of Famer George Brett had tied the score at 6-6 in the top of the eighth on a three-run home run and up stepped Chambliss to open New York’s ninth.

A clutch hitter his entire career, Chambliss drove the first pitch over the right-field wall, unleashing such pandemonium among Yankees fans that he never made it to home plate.

“I couldn’t even get to third,’’ he said. “I just ran straight to the dugout and into the clubhouse.’’

But since he had never touched home, Chambliss was brought back out of the clubhouse only to find the plate had been dug up by the fans.

Royals manager Whitey Herzog protested, but home-plate umpire Art Frantz would have nothing of it and it led to what today is known as “The Chris Chambliss Rule’’ which allows an umpire to award any base that a runner or the batter cannot reach because of fans rushing the field.

Chambliss, meanwhile, always seemed to be in the spotlight as he moved around a lot during his childhood when his father was a U.S. Navy chaplain. A fantastic athlete, he went to high school in Oceanside, Calif., and then MiraCosta College for two years.

He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1967 and ’68, but transferred to UCLA, where he played one year. He had 15 home runs and 45 RBIs for the Bruins as scouts crowded to games to see him play. He then tore up the Alaska Baseball League in the summer, dropped out of UCLA so he would be eligible to be taken in the January draft, going No. 1 to the Cleveland Indians.

He played one season at Triple-A Wichita before making the major league club in 1971 and was named AL Rookie of the Year in 1971, hitting .275 with nine homers and 48 RBIs in 111 games.

He was traded to the Yankees in April 1974 in a deal that included seven players. He spent six seasons in the Bronx, his power numbers improving and he played in the All-Star game in 1976 (.293, 17 homers, 96 RBIs) and then won world championships the next two seasons.

In 1979, after the tragic death of catcher Thurman Munson, Chambliss was traded to Toronto in a deal which included Blue Jays catcher Rick Cerone. But Chambliss never played in Toronto, getting dealt to Atlanta.

He joined a young Braves team, which included Dale Murphy and two years later helped lead Atlanta to an NL West crown, hitting a career high 20 homers. The Braves would get swept by St. Louis in three games though Chambliss gave the Braves an early 1-0 lead in Game 1 that knuckleballer Phil Niekro was dominating before was called because of rain.

Chambliss, known for his big hits in Atlanta, stayed with the Braves until he retired in 1986 though he did get one more at-bat when he was a coach with the Yankees two years later. He spent many seasons as a coach and minor league manager, his most successful years in New York with Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre and it all started when the Yankees came back and knocked off the Braves in the 1996 World Series. It was the first of four world titles in five years.

Where he lives: Chambliss, now 67, calls Alpharetta home and has been married to Audry for 42 years. He has one son, Russell, who lives in New Jersey.

What he does: Chambliss would like to get back into coaching, possibly at the college level. He continues to play in golf tournaments and only last week was at a reunion in New York at Yankee Stadium of the 1996 championship team.

On being traded to the Yankees: “Cleveland was looking for pitching, and the New York general manager knew me. The funny thing about that deal is that of the seven players that were in it, I was the only position player.’’

On his relationship with Torre: “What he has done is amazing. He made the difference in New York. The way he has worked with people over the years is very impressive. I first was with him when he was managing the Braves and we have stayed very close since. He puts a lot of responsibility on the players, but he knows how to handle the guys.’’

On what he remembers on his home run in the ’76 ALCS: “It was scary actually. We had a great rivalry with the Royals, and they won a couple of games and we won a couple of games. George Brett hit that big homer, and I just came up looking for a good pitch to hit and I got it. After that, everything just is a blur. I actually was scared when I was running around the bases because it seemed like everyone had come out on the field.‘’

On his time with the Braves: “It was a lot of fun. I got the chance to see Dale Murphy turn into a great player and I really like the players that were on the team. We had something pretty special in 1982.”

On the ’82 NLCS loss to the Cardinals: “I like to tell the story that I had the RBI single that put us up 1-0, but then the rains came, and it rained and it rained and it rained. And after that, we couldn’t do anything. But you have to wonder what would have happened if that first game wasn’t called off.’’

On the end of his career in Atlanta: “I still wanted to play and tried other clubs but no one was interested. The Braves back in 1984 started using both Gerald Perry and myself at first and then came the bomb squad with Ted Simmons a few years later.’’

On his one at-bat in 1988: “I was a roving minor league instructor for the Yankees then and in the middle of the summer Jose Cruz was our pinch hitter and he hurt his knee and (owner) George Steinbrenner came up to me and said I could hit the ball as well as Cruz. Well, they had brought Billy Martin and they activated me for a game and I struck out. They then released me after the game as a player, but I spent the rest of the season as the hitting instructor.’’

On being clutch: “It goes back to the days when I played in my backyard. I learned to hit through the ball and always make contact with it. Once I learned the strike zone, I became selective and with the fact that I could put my bat on the ball, I learned how to make good solid swings in tough situations.’

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