The 1979 Yankees and the Hall of Fame
by Lincoln Mitchell
July , 2023
For any Yankees fan who is either old enough to remember the 1970s or has read up on that decade, 1979 is only associated with one thing-the death of Thurman Munson. That was the year the Yankees captain and star catcher, who was in many ways the heart and soul of the team that won three pennants and two World Series between 1976 and 1978, died in a plane crash on August 2nd.
The Yankees stumbled through the rest of the season finishing in fouth place, 13.5 games behind the division winning Orioles. The Yankees won the division again in 1980 and 1981, so between 1976 and 1981 the only year they missed the playoffs in those pre-wild card days was 1979.
Munson’s tragic death remains the story of the 1979 Yankees, but they were an intriguing team in other ways as well. After their extraordinary comeback in 1978 when the Bronx Bombers went from 14 games back in the AL East to winning the World Series, the Yankees added to an already strong team by picking up free agent pitchers Tommy John and Luis Tiant. This led to an unusual roster, one that raises a lot of interesting questions about the Hall of Fame.
In general I don't care much about the Hall of Fame. Harold Baines is in Barry Bonds is out. That's kind of all you need to know. The Hall of Fame is not so much a collection of the greatest players ever, although obviously many of the greatest players are in, but in recent years it has also become a way to see how Major League Baseball and the BBWAA want baseball to be remembered and understood. This brings us back to that 1979 Yankees roster.
Four players on that team are enshrined in Cooperstown. At the time if you had asked fans which players on the Yankees would end up in the Hall of Fame, most would have come up with one of the right answers relatively easily. By 1979 it was apparent that Reggie Jackson was going to be a Hall of Famer. Reggie had been one of the best players in the game for a decade and was still hitting home runs.
Another player on that team who is now in the Hall of Fame was Goose Gossage. The Goose hadn't quite put quite put up the numbers yet. However, in due time Gossage, one of the the greatest relievers in the period between Hoyt Wilhelm’s retirement and the emergence of Mariano Rivera, was also elected to the Hall of Fame.
Some fans might have looked at the pitching and believed that veterans Tiant or John, or Ron Guidry coming off an historically good year were putting together Hall of Fame careers. Others might have known that Catfish Hunter, who was viewed as the best American League pitcher for the first half of the decade, was Cooperstown bound.
In addition to Reggie, Catfish and the Goose, there was a fourth Hall of Famer on that Yankees roster, but I suspect even intense fans of the team and that era might struggle to remember who that was. To make it a little fun, I am going to summarize the credentials of eight players, five pitchers and three position players, and you can guess which one ended up in Cooperstown.
The three best pitchers of that group are clearly A,C and E. Although B made it to a few more All-Star Games, A seems like the pitcher with the best peak. He has the highest ERA+ and four top five Cy Young Award finishes in a shorter career. His 47.8 WAR is also more impressive given the length of his career. C and D were clearly accumulators, but C was better according to every indicator. E appears to have had a very good peak, and perhaps the best overall career of the group.
It may be difficult to figure out who each of the pitchers are, but anybody familiar with the Yankees of the 1970s, knows that the position players are Munson, Willie Randolph and Graig Nettles. Randolph and Nettles have Hall of Fame cases that are at least as strong as most of the pitchers. Munson, despite his lower WAR has the strongest case of any of these players. He was one of the greatest catchers ever whose career was cut short because of his tragic death This meant that Munson was unable to accumulate a for WAR as his skills declined but he was better than, for example, Ted Simmons, another catcher of that era who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The only players from this group who are in the Hall of Fame are pitchers B, Catfish Hunter and D, Jim Kaat. The other pitchers were Ron Guidry (A) Tommy John (D) and Luis Tiant (E). My point here is not to start a Hall of Fame debate, but in part to note how unusual this team was in that is had so many solid Hall of Fame candidates.
Additionally, despite the view that the baseball media has an east coast or New York bias, the Yankees of that era have been generally treated poorly by Hall of Fame voters. Munson, Nettles, Randolph, Guidry and Tommy John all have very strong Hall of Fame cases and spent either all or a significant portion of their careers with the Yankees. However, the most support any of them got from Hall of Fame voters was John who got around 30% of the vote a few times. After that Munson peaked at 15.5% while neither Guidry nor Nettles ever made it double digits in their two and four respective years on the ballot. Randolph fell off the ballot after one year. That is very unusual for players who with their accomplishments and statistics, especially given the positions they played and the championships they won.
Despite my criticisms of the Hall of Fame, I recognize it is important because it is a primary way many fans learn baseball history. For example, Tony Perez is a borderline Hall of Famer, but because he is in younger fans may know the Big Red Machine had three Hall of Fames in their starting lineup. The other two were Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, while a third Pete Rose, would be in if not for his gambling problems. The Yankees of that era, who also won two consecutive World Series are remembered more for controversies than for being a great team, but Munson, Nettles and Randolph have Hall of Fame cases that are at least as strong as that of Perez.
A more dire of this is Jim Kaat, whose selection to the Hall of Fame through the newest iteration of the Veteran’s Committee is a triumph of cronyism over recognizing players for excellent play or extraordinary contribution to the game.
The chart above shows clearly that John (C) was a better player than Kaat (D). If you expand that chart to include other metrics, the evidence only becomes stronger in favor of John. It is true that Kaat was a very good player who also was an announcer for many years, but Tommy John changed the game in a very meaningful way. The surgery that bears his name has not simply saved many pitchers’ careers but helped usher in the strikeout oriented game we see today. When John had that surgery it was not the standard practice for many young pitchers, but indeed was quite experimental. John’s presence in the Hall of Fame would be a reminder to young fans that Tommy John is more than just a surgery or an underwear brand, but that he was an excellent pitcher worthy of the game’s highest honor.
I admit that for somebody who claims not to care a lot about who gets into the Hall of Fame, I have just spilled a lot of digital ink on the topic. This is partially because I have long been interested in how the Guidry-Munson-Randolph-Nettles quartet has been treated so poorly by Hall of Fame voters, but also in how baseball memories are crafted. The Hall of Fame voters play an important role in that and by elevating Ted Simmons and Jim Kaat, both fine players, over Thurman Munson and Tommy John, they push those memories in different and somewhat inexplicable direction.