By Mike Whiteman 11/10/2020
The 1978 Season was among the most remarkable in the storied history of the New York Yankees. George Steinbrenner’s team had celebrated the World Series championship of 1977, and being the Steinbrenner Yankees of the 1970s, they reloaded again, adding a first baseman they didn’t need (Jim Spencer) in trade and signing and another relief ace (Goose Gossage) which effectively made the 1977 Cy Young winner Sparky Lye a setup reliever. The also took a flier on one of the really good pitchers of the 70s, Andy Messersmith, coming off an injury filled 1977 season.
Despite the additions, the Yankees fell behind the Boston Red Sox early in the season, and as we know, the Yankees of the 70s always seemed to be on edge, even in good times. These were rough times, and the team seemed to wilt under the weight of the huge expectations and the toxic relationship between Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin, and star right fielder Reggie Jackson. Things came to a head between Jackson and Martin during a July 17th game, when the slugger was ordered to bunt by Martin, then to swing away, only to see Jackson still attempt to bunt.
The Jackson confrontation resulted in his suspension by Martin. Afterwards the Yankee skipper heard rumors that Steinbrenner had earlier explored a managerial trade with the Chicago White Sox for Bob Lemon, which prompted the memorable “They deserve each other. One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” quote that finally crossed the line and eventually led to his resignation July 24th. At that point, the Yanks were 52-42, ten games behind the Red Sox, which was actually an improvement from the fourteen-game deficit of the previous week. After the Yanks were managed by coach Dick Howser in a loss that evening he was replaced by the 1977 AL Manager of the year Lemon, who was recently fired by the Chisox after a slow 1978 start.
The change in approaches from Martin to Lemon was just what the 1978 Yankees needed, and they responded to the new manager’s calm, laid back approach. They picked up steam just as Boston was hampered by pitching struggles and injuries. The culmination of the journey back to the top was the “Boston Massacre” series in September where the Yanks swept a four game set by the combined score 42-9, and the left Boston tied in the AL East standings.
What is sometimes forgotten about 1978 is that the Yanks built a 3.5 game lead later in September, but Boston fought back valiantly, and on the morning of October 1, the last day of the regular season, they were only a game behind. Luis Tiant shut out Toronto for the Bosox, and the Yanks were whipped by Cleveland 9-2.
After 162 games New York and Boston had identical 99-63 records.
American league rules mandated a one game playoff for the division title. The winners move on to play AL West Division winners Kansas City, losers go home. A coin toss made Fenway Park the destination for this contest.
The Game: The Yankees sent out Ron Guidry; who was completing a season for the ages. The lefty was 24-3, with a 1.72 ERA on the year. He would be going on three days rest for the third start in a row after not doing this at all during most of the season.
“Gator” was good, but Boston was able to scratch out a 2-0 lead on a Carl Yastrzemski homer and Jim Rice run-scoring single. In the meantime, the Yanks couldn’t get anywhere with Boston starter Mike Torrez, a season after winning the 1977 World Series clinching Game Six for the Yanks.
In the seventh, singles by Chris Chambliss and Roy White put Bucky Dent at the plate with two outs. This situation previously could have prompted a pinch hitter for the weak hitting shortstop, but Lemon had just pinch hit Spencer for second baseman Brian Doyle, who was playing for the injured Willie Randolph. As reserve infielder Fred Stanley would need to take Doyle’s spot at second, there would be no replacement available for Dent, so he would have to bat.
Dent responded with the home run that to this day evokes strongly emotional responses by Boston fans.
While the Dent homer is what is remembered about the contest, the score was 3-2 with still plenty of game to play. Batting next, Mickey Rivers walked and stole second base. Thurman Munson drove him home with a double.
In the bottom of the seventh, Gossage came on for Guidry after a George Scott single and got out of the inning with the 4-2 lead intact. Jackson’s solo homer in the top of the eighth gave the Yanks a 5-2 lead. With the dominating “Goose” on the mound, that sure looked like a safe lead.
Boston refused to give in. Jerry Remy doubled and was drove in by a Yastrzemski single. Fred Lynn drove in Yaz with a single of his own. The score was now 5-4. In the ninth, Rick Burleson walked, bringing up Remy again. Remy lofted a flyball to right field, where Lou Piniella totally lost the ball in the sun. It dropped and he grabbed it up before it could bounce past him and quickly fired it back to the infield, holding Burleson at second. In a great heads-up play, Piniella didn’t show that he had lost the ball, keeping Burleson close to first and not allowing him to advance to third when it did fall in. The significance of that play was revealed when Jim Rice flew out to Piniella and Burleson advanced to third.
With two outs, Yastrzemski again came to the plate, and this time fouled out to third baseman Graig Nettles.
Ballgame over. The Yankees rode a 41-16 August and September to the AL East division title.
Stat of the Day: Four of the Yanks five runs came with two outs.
Early in his career Guidry did not have a reputation as a workhorse, and it was thought by some that the bullpen was his ultimate destination. His last three starts in 1978, all on three days’ rest: 3-0, 1.11 ERA, two complete games. Big time pitching. He would unanimously win the Cy Young award and finish second in MVP voting.
Reggie Jackson particularly picked up his play upon the hiring of Lemon, slashing .292/.387/.511 with thirteen homers in 62 games after the July switch.
Gossage was definitely a good pickup as his 2.01 ERA and 27 saves garnered Cy Young and MVP votes after the season. As the games got important, he got better: in August/September he had a 1.96 ERA and 12 saves. Perhaps his most impressive outing was a blown save on August 2nd, when he hurled seven innings of two-hit relief in a loss to Boston. Why it Mattered? The win gave the Yanks the division title and propelled them to the postseason. They beat Kansas City in the American League Championship Series for the third season in a row and again topped Los Angeles in the World Series, four games to two.
Other Thoughts: The success of the team upon the change of managers almost certainly influenced Steinbrenner’s actions in the future, as he made in-season skipper changes three of the next four seasons, but without the success of 1978.
They Said It:
“I think they can do it if I stay out of their way” – Bob Lemon on the Yankees chances after his hire as manager.
“I didn’t know it cleared the wall until I was past first base” – Bucky Dent on his home run.
Final Takeaway: I’ve generally enjoyed expended playoffs, but one thing you lose with modern postseasons is the epic division races between heavyweights.
Want more? I’d reccomend picking up the book Pennant Races: Baseball at It’s Best by Dave Anderson.