Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #387, Yankees Team Card (Article 72)
by Paul Semendinger
(Continuing a series…)
The 1977 Yankees.
I was eight, and then nine-years-old, during the summer of 1977, the season when the Yankees would eventually become the World Champions.
I fell in love, that summer, with the game of baseball.
I fell in love with the players as individuals and their team.
They were all superheroes. Every last one. How could they not be? They were the New York Yankees!
We are, in many ways, the end result of our collective experiences. In many ways, our initial experiences help form the judgements and perspectives we take into the rest of our lives. It is difficult to change our views, ideas, and perspectives.
It’s why we must always keep an open mind.
Things are not always as we see or perceive them. They just aren’t.
But the impact of those early perceptions, the early lessons we learn, they stay with us. They help us make sense of the world. They cloud our judgment and also provide clarity.
All of that is definitely true of the way the 1977 Yankees helped to shape my view of how great baseball teams should be built and run. And, while there are other ways to run a team, and win, in many ways (but not all) this team did do it right.
Forgive me if my memories are somewhat rose colored. I cannot help (for the most part) but look back fondly on this team and these players. I am long past the point where I think baseball players are heroes. They aren’t.
Well, these players still are.
And they always will be.
I don’t know when I first heard the name “Steinbrenner,” or when I understood that George Steinbrenner was the boss, but once I figured that out, I formed an idea of what the boss could be like. I did learn that the guy who runs the Yankees cared, passionately, about winning. He wanted his team to win. I did too. (Still do.)
I recall that the manager yelled a lot. (I didn’t like that.) But I did hear, time and again, everywhere I looked, that this manager. Billy Martin, was brilliant, that he was a difference maker, and that no one could out-manage him. Billy Martin, I was told, was always steps ahead, innings, if not games ahead, of the manager in the other dugout. I learned early on that a great manager sets the tone for the team and could be a huge difference maker in a team’s success. All of that was true of Billy Martin. He was brilliant.
As I got older, the more I learned about Billy Martin, the person, the less I appreciated him. The constant hiring and firing by George Steinbrenner would drive me crazy. It became a joke and then a mockery. But in 1977, in my eyes, and from what I heard from the announcers and read in the baseball magazines I was getting to fuel my insatiable desire to learn and understand the game, Billy Martin was a genius and he would be a big reason why the Yankees could, and would, win. And he was.
In 1977, I didn’t understand that baseball players on the same team couldn’t be friends. They were on the same team – all working for the same purpose. They had to be friends, I reasoned. I didn’t understand the adult talk about the fighting and arguing. I didn’t know anything about the “straw that stirs the drink” until years later. As far as I was concerned, they were Yankees and I loved them all. (On the Super Friends, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Flash were all friends. I thought it was like that with any collection of heroes and greats.)
It was in 1977 that I learned that the Yankees were baseball’s greatest team, ever, and that they always seemed to have the greatest of the great players. The larger-than-life heroes of the game, I found, all wore pinstripes. I learned that Babe Ruth was a Yankee. Lou Gehrig. Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle… All the greats wore pinstripes. (I my house, Ted Williams was also a God. I’m not sure how I reconciled any of that with the Yankees. It was very clear to me that the greatest of the great were Yankees. I didn’t know how Ted (and Yaz also) fit into that perception.) I did know that REGGIE was a star. A huge star. The Yankees were great. The Yankees were amazing. They were all superheroes. But REGGIE was Superman. Among the greatest of the great, he was the king.
From those early days on, I always wanted Superman to be a Yankee. (That will never change.) All of the Supermen should always wear pinstripes.
I knew that Thurman Munson was also a star. I kept hearing about the importance of the #3 hitter and that a .300 bating average was important. As were 100 runs batted in. I learned that Thurman did those things with regularity. He did them as much as Joe DiMaggio did. (That’s probably I learned who Joe D. even was.) Munson was DiMaggio as much as DiMaggio was Munson.
I didn’t know about dWAR, Range Factor, FIP, WHIP, or any of that (no one did, of course, they weren’t invented yet), but I did know that the Yankees played great defense. Graig Nettles (who would become my favorite) caught everything. (And, like Superman, he, too, could fly.) Mickey Rivers was the fastest man on the planet. Willie Randolph, Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent, and Roy White were also great defensively. I never saw them make an error. I learned that great teams catch the ball. These Yankees did just that.
I also learned, and brought with me, the idea that winners play hard, that they are scrappy, that they take the extra base… I learned that winners go for it. Always. Those Yankees, the ones that formed my earliest perceptions and understandings of the game, were a rough and tumble bunch. They never hung their heads low. They battled. There were in every game. They were never down or ever out. The slid hard. They played hard. They all had dirty uniforms.
Was there anyone tougher than Thurman Munson? Would you want to get into an argument with Lou Piniella? I never grew up to be tough like those guys, but boy I admired their guts. I did learn to play hard. Real hard. And I still do. I give every game everything I have.
I learned, in all of that, that players, through hard work, determination, and focus, could do better than their talent level and, conversely, that some talented people didn’t work hard enough, and didn’t win. I wanted to always be a winner. I learned that it took a lot to win – hard work. A ton of hard work. I bring that to every task set before me. No one will outwork me. No way.
I don’t recall a lot about the pitchers on that team except that Catfish Hunter was revered. I recall the announcers always feeling sorry for “ol’ Cat.” He didn’t have what he once did. But he was still great.
I don’t recall anything about Don Gullett. My love for Ron Guidry would come the next year. My appreciation for Ed Figueroa too.
But there was Dick Tidrow, nicknamed “Dirt.” Yeah, he’d get dirty to win. Teams needed guys like him. He’d pitch in any spot whenever he was needed. Tidrow started, relieved, and pitched in seemingly every game. I admired that.
And then there was Sparky. I had a poster of him on my wall. (I had only two of those old Sports Illustrated posters of Yankees – Sparky Lyle and Thurman Munson.) He too would pitch whenever necessary. He was a “fireman.” He was also the best. I may not have yet known that Cy Young was anything other than the name of an award, but I knew that Sparky deserved that award (and that he’d get it). Even today, as I approach 53-years-old, I sometimes stuff my mouth with bubblegum before I pitch like Lyle did with a wad of tobacco. Having a big chaw – I learned that from Sparky.
These were the 1977 Yankees.
Oh, how I loved them all.
This was a team that defeated more talented teams and more talented players to become the World Champions. These were the players that set records and did the impossible, but it didn’t seem impossible to me.
Oh, how I loved them.