A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 12)
by Paul Semendinger
In this article, we continue to look at how each of the Yankees’ championship teams were assembled. This article, focusing on the 1977-78 teams is part twelve the series.
The statistics I will share in this exercise are the typical counting stats of the time - batting average/home runs/runs batted in (and for pitchers, wins, losses, ERA). These will serve as a quick guide to see how that player performed over those years. (I used Baseball-Reference.com to determine all these stats and the transaction data. Some other information came from the SABR Biography Project.)
Please note that this is not an exhaustive study, it is only a start. More and deeper research is welcome.
The 1977-78 Yankees
After reaching the World Series in 1976, and losing in four games to the Cincinnati Reds (a team known as “The Big Red Machine”), the 1977 Yankees were looking for their first World Series Championship since 1962.
We are now entering the era when there is no doubt that the Yankees built their teams around free agents and trades. The 1977-78 Yankees were the first two World Series championship teams during George Steinbrenner’s time as the owner of the Yankees. These teams were filled with big time players, much controversy, and general chaos. These were the Bronx Zoo Yankees.
The 1977 Yankees played to a 100-62 record. They finished games 2.5 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. They then defeated the Kansas City Royals five games in the American League Championship Series before defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series.
The 1978 Yankees also won exactly 100 games (100-63), but they played one more regular season game as the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in the epic one game playoff to determine the winner of the American League East. The Yankees again defeated the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series (four games) and the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series.
Catcher - The catcher on these clubs was their Captain, the 1970 Rookie-of-the-Year and the 1976 Most Valuable Player, Thurman Munson. Munson was the Yankees’ first pick in the 1968 Amateur Draft. A true home grown hero, Munson was a fan favorite. 1977 was Munson’s last great year (.308/18/100). In 1978, he started breaking down from a career of hard play (.297/6/71) as his power was disappearing. Tragedy struck in 1979 when Munson died in a plane crash.
First Base - Chris Chambliss was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in April 1974 in a trade that also brought the Yankees Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. The Yankees sent four players to the Indians for Chambliss and the others highlighted by Frtiz Peterson. Over these two seasons, Chambliss hit a combined .280/29/180.
Second Base - Willie Randolph, a future Yankee captain, was acquired prior to the 1976 season in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates (the Yankees sent Doc Medich to the Pittsburgh for Randolph Ken Brett, and Dock Ellis). Randolph was an up-and-coming star who hit .276/7/82 combined over the two seasons.
Shortstop - The Yankees acquired Bucky Dent to shore up the shortstop position just prior to the 1977 season. In order to get Dent, the Yankees sent Oscar Gamble, LaMarr Hoyt, and a minor leaguer to the White Sox. Dent would play steady shortstop to solidify the infield until the early 1980’s. He also hit one of the most famous home runs in Yankees history in that 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox. Over the two seasons of 1977 and 1978, Dent batted .245/13/89. (Most people would be surprised to know that Bucky Dent hit that many homers over that two-year period thinking that he never hit for power except for that one swing in Boston.)
Third Base - Another future Yankees captain, Graig Nettles, was a gritty, hard-nosed player and leader. The American League home run champ in 1976, Nettles batted .265/64/200 over these two seasons. He was acquired in a six-player trade with the Cleveland Indians in November 1972.
Left Field - Left field was a position mostly split between Roy White, a long time Yankees player (his first season with the Yankees was 1965) and Lou Piniella (who the Yankees acquired from the Kansas City Royals in December 1973). White played 133 games in left field in 1977 and 74 games in left field 1978. White batted .268/22/95 over the two seasons. Lou Piniella shared time in right field as well during those seasons. In 1978, he played 80 games in left field which was the most of any player. Piniella batted .321/18/114 over the two seasons.
Center Field - The speedy Mickey Rivers patrolled center field for the 1977-78 Yankees. Rivers was acquired (along with pitcher Ed Figueroa) from the California Angels in December 1975 in exchange for Bobby Bonds. He hit .295/23/117 for these two seasons.
Right Field - Acquired as a Free Agent prior to the 1977 season, the Yankees’ biggest superstar was Reggie Jackson. Reggie was bigger than life (and his legend has only grown from there). Reggie hit .280/59/207 for the two years. Of course, he also hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series helping to cement glory for the Yankees and himself forever.
Main Starting Pitchers:
Jim “Catfish” Hunter - Prior to the Yankees acquiring Reggie Jackson, their biggest superstar free agent signing was Catfish Hunter who the Yankees signed before the 1975 season. Hunter’s career was winding down but he still managed 42 starts over these two seasons going 21-15.
Ed Figueroa - Many people don’t know that Ed Figueroa actually led the Yankees in starts over this period taking the rubber 67 times. Figueroa won 36 games over the two years including 20 in 1978. He had been acquired from the Angels in the trade that also brought Mickey Rivers to the Yankees.
Ron Guidry - Yet another future Yankees captain, Guidry’s superstardom shone at it’s brightest in this period. He went 16-7, 2.82 in 1977 and 25-3, 1.74 in 1978 (as he won the Cy Young Award). Guidry was a home-grown superstar.
Don Gullett - Gullet had been a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 1976, the team that defeated the Yankees in the World Series (Gullett has actually pitched and won Game 1 of that series). He went 14-4, 3.58 in 1977 after the Yankees had signed him as a free agent. An injury limited Gullett to only eight games in 1978. He’d never pitch again.
Mike Torrez - A long-time veteran, Torrez had been pitching in the big leagues since 1967. The Yankees acquired Torrez in a trade with the Oakland A’s in April 1977. He would make 31 starts for the Yankees (14-12, 3.82) in 1977 before he left for the Red Sox via free agency. Torrez was on the mound when the Yankees won the 1977 World Series and is also famous for giving up Bucky Dent’s homer in the 1978 playoff game with the Red Sox.
Jim Beattie - A homegrown player, Beattle made 25 starts for the 1978 Yankees going 6-9, 3.73.
Main Relief Pitchers:
Sparky Lyle - The 1977 American League Cy Young Award winner, Sparky Lyle (the closer in 1977) was acquired in a trade with the Boston Red Sox in March 1972. The Red Sox got Danny Cater in this deal and regretted it ever since.
Rich Gossage - Never having enough, the Yankees signed free agent Gossage before the 1978 season even though their current closer Sparky Lyle has just won the Cy Young Award.
Dick Tidrow - A right-handed pitcher, “Dirt,” appeared in 80 games over the two seasons (32 starts) and was an anchor on the pitching staff. He was acquired from the Indians in the trade that also brought the Yankees Chris Chambliss.
Conclusion - The only home-grown players on these teams were Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, and Roy White. These teams were built through big (huge) free-agent signings (Reggie Jackson, Jim Hunter, Goose Gossage, and Don Gullett) and a ton of brilliant trades that brought them their core players (Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, Lou Piniella, Ed Figueroa, Dick Tidrow, and others).
They called this era team “The Best Team that Money Could Buy.” They were right.