Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Photo credit – Associated Press


Baseball has been played for more than a century and a half, in some form or another, and there have been many exciting and riveting games and seasons.  With the 2021 season having wrapped up and captured the attention of fans across the continent, because of the multi-team race for the two Wild Card positions, it called to mind another engrossing pennant race more than a generation ago.

After the 2021 season, as Blue Jays' and Mariners’ fans sit and ponder what might have been had their teams been able to participate in a Game 163 or a Wild Card situation, there are teams who made it up the side of that mountain before being tossed down on to the scrap heap of ignominy.

Baseball fans of a certain vintage will well remember the summer of 1978. For some of us, it feels like just a few minutes ago, but the time flies by so quickly that it’s hard to believe that it is more than four decades in the rear view mirror now.  It was a time when the ‘national pastime’ was still national and baseball was still the sport that captivated the summer for sports fans of all stripes.

Going into that 1978 season, the American League had pretty much been ruled by two teams for the previous few seasons.  Going back to 1975, baseball fans had seen one of the greatest World Series the game had ever produced.  The Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox had gone back and forth in a seven-game hammer -and-tongs, see-saw battle with the Reds coming out on top in the end.  In 1976, the Yankees wanted to push the Red Sox from the top of that American League perch so they went out and made some acquisitions to try to get better.

First off, the team was able to move back into their own ballpark after renovations were completed on Yankee Stadium in time for the 1976 season.  They had spent two years playing at Shea Stadium out in Queens and sharing that venue with the Mets. 

After the 1975 year was completed, they dealt pitcher Pat Dobson to Cleveland for outfielder Oscar Gamble.  They traded pitcher Doc Medich to Pittsburgh for pitchers Dock Ellis and Ken Brett and 21-year-old second baseman Willie Randolph.  They sent outfielder Bobby Bonds (father of Barry) to the Angels for the speedy outfielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.  They also released reliable defensive shortstop Ed Brinkman and outfielder Walt “No-Neck” Williams.  1976 would also be the first full year for manager Billy Martin with this Yankees club.  He had started with the team in the middle of the 1975 season.

The moves paid dividends for the team.  Figueroa led them with 19 wins and posted a starting rotation best earned run average of 3.02.  Mickey Rivers batted .302 and scored 95 runs for New York.  Randolph managed to find a place for himself in the Yankees’ infield playing 125 games and getting himself 500 at bats in his first full major league season.  Dock Ellis became a mainstay in the rotation notching 17 wins, an ERA of 3.19 and making 32 starts.  All told, the Yankees finished 1976 on top of the American League East with 97 wins and 62 losses. 

The participants in the American League Championship Series in 1976 would be New York and the Kansas City Royals.  The Royals would finish atop the AL West with a record of 90-72.  Kansas City was built on their ability to get on base and their speed on those basepaths.  They had a 23-year-old George Brett who cobbled together a batting average of .333.  Shortstop Freddie Patek stole 51 bases.  Six other Royals’ players stole more than twenty bases each. 

Their pitching staff was kind of a by-committee group.  Dennis Leonard led the team in wins with 17.  Al Fitzmorris had an ERA of 3.02 in 33 starts.  Andy Hassler put up an ERA of 2.89 in 19 appearances and 14 starts.  They also had veterans like Larry Gura, Doug Bird and Paul Splittorff.

In the 1976 ALCS, the first two games were played in Kansas City and the final three were played in the Bronx.  The two clubs went back and forth with the teams trading wins through the entire series.  New York took Game 1 by a 4-1 count with Catfish Hunter getting the win and  Larry Gura taking the defeat.  The Royals won Game 2 by a score of 7-3.  Paul Splittorff got the victory and Figueroa was tagged with the loss.

As the series headed back to New York, it swung back in favour of the Yankees in Game 3.  Dock Ellis got the win in that one.  Sparky Lyle nailed down the save.  Hassler took the loss.  The Royals tied the series with a 7-4 result.  Doug Bird was credited with the victory and Steve Mingori got the save.  Hunter was hit with the loss.  It all came down to a one-game, winner-take-all contest on October 14.

Just like this series, this final game was a back and forth affair.  Ed Figueroa started the game for New York and Dennis Leonard was on the mound to begin the game for Kansas City.  Figueroa got the first two Royals’ hitters to start the game.  But then, the third hitter of the game, George Brett hammered a double to right field.  That was followed by a John Mayberry dinger and just like that, it was 2-0 for Kansas City before the Yankees had even come to bat.

Leonard took the hill in the bottom of the first and the Yankees’ lead-off man, Mickey Rivers greeted him by hitting a ball into the left-center field gap and the speedy outfielder raced around the bases ending up at third with a triple.  Roy White followed Rivers and he singled to score the lead-off man.  White then stole second after Thurman Munson stepped in.  Munson then hit a crisp single to left, moving White to third.  Munson took second on the throw to third.  Leonard’s day was done and since it was an all-hands-on-deck day for both teams, Splittorff came on to face Chris Chambliss who promptly hit a fly ball to left that was caught and scored White.

Splittorff then got Carlos May and Graig Nettles to pop up and the inning was over.  After the first inning, the score was tied 2-2. 

Figueroa came back out for the second inning and after retiring designated hitter Jamie Quirk on a fly ball to start the inning, he surrendered a single to center by Cookie Rojas.  Patek stepped in and Rojas stole second before Patek struck out.  But then, catcher Buck Martinez singled and scored Rojas to take back the lead 3-2.  Al Cowens grounded out to end the inning.  Splittorff then got the Yankees in order in the second, as did Figueroa to the Royals in the top of the third.

Mickey Rivers led off the bottom of the third with a single and Roy White worked Splittorff for a walk.  Munson then singled scoring Rivers and sending White over to third.  Chambliss hit into a fielder’s choice forcing Munson out at second, but it allowed White to score.  The Yankees now had a 4-3 lead.  One would think that at this point, Royals’ manager Whitey Herzog would have taken Splittorff out in favour of another pitcher, but he did not.  Splittorff got out of the inning without allowing any further damage in that third inning.

The teams traded zeroes in the fourth and fifth and Figueroa kept the Royals off the board in the top of the sixth.   But in the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees got to Andy Hassler.  Hassler had come into the game to start the Yankees’ fifth.  They loaded the bases on him but they could punch a run home.  It was Mickey Rivers who, once again, got things started for New York in that sixth inning.  He laid down a great bunt toward second and made it to first safely.  Roy White successfully bunted Rivers over to second on the sacrifice. 

Munson then singled Rivers home but was thrown out trying to reach second on the throw home.  Chambliss then singled to center and stole second.  Carlos May then reached on an error to Brett that scored Chambliss.  May was taken out for pinch runner Sandy Alomar.  Alomar was thrown out trying to steal second and that ended the inning but the damage was done and the Yankees now led 6-3.

In the bottom of the seventh, Mark Littell came in to replace Hassler.  He got the Yankees out in that inning and as the Royals came to bat in the top of the eighth, Figueroa was still in the game for New York.  The first batter he faced was Al Cowens.  Cowens singled off of Figueroa and Billy Martin came out and replaced the big man with reliever Grant Jackson.

Jim Wohlford then singled off of Jackson, moving Cowens to second.  The next Royals’ batter was George Brett.  Brett slammed a Jackson pitch out of the park and suddenly, the game was tied 6-6.  Jackson managed to get John Mayberry, Hal McRae and Jamie Quirk.  Littell got the Yankees out 1-2-3 in the bottom of the eighth.

Reliever Dick Tidrow came in for the Yankees in the top of the ninth.  He struggled but got the Royals out in the top of the ninth.  Now, it was up to Littell to get the Royals to extra innings.  Chris Chambliss was the first hitter for the Yankees.  He would be the last.  He parked a Littell pitch into the seats in right-center field giving the Yankees victory in the 1976 ALCS and a berth in the World Series. 

Chambliss couldn’t believe the path of the ball he hit and it took him a brief moment to realize that he had hit it into the seats for the game winning home run.  “I stood at home plate.  The joy didn’t hit me at first.  Then I didn’t believe it.”  His delay was enough for the rowdy Yankee Stadium fans to jump on to the field in celebration.  But their presence also made it difficult for the big man to round the bases.

“I blocked a kid at second”, he told reporters after the game.  He was also forced to touch the base at second with his hand because some fan was trying to walk, or run, away with the bag.  Between second and third, he got knocked over by onrushing fans.  “I was stepping on people”, he said.  It took a while but he finally made it to the dugout but that wasn’t the end of his odyssey around the bases.  “They made me go out with a cop and touch home again”, said Chambliss.

The 1976 World Series was not a memorable one and was actually a letdown, especially given what we saw from the Reds and Red Sox in 1975.  The Reds were once again the National League representative and they were indeed formidable.  They proved too much for this iteration of the New York Yankees and disposed of them in four straight games.  The Bombers did manage to make one of the four games close, losing Game 2 by a score of 4-3.  But Johnny Bench and the rest of the Cincinnati lineup was just too strong for the Yankees.

Bench was the Series Most Valuable Player going 8 for 15 in the four games for a batting average of .533.  He also added a couple of home runs and drove in six runs in the series.  George Foster batted .429 in the series.  Dave Concepcion and Dan Driessen each hit .357.  Joe Morgan hit .333, Tony Perez hit .313 and Cesar Geronimo batted .308.  The Reds, as a team, had a collective batting average of .313.  Cincinnati had a team ERA of 2.00 while the Yankees had a mark of 5.45.  It was like a team of men playing against boys out there in the 1976 World Series.  For Cincinnati, it had been the coronation of the Big Red Machine.  For New York, it was back to the drawing board.

The Yankees felt like they had some unfinished business to attend to after the 1976 season and they vowed to get back to the 1977 World Series.  They appeared dominant in doing just that.  After all, they had won the AL East by winning 100 games.  Three games behind them were the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles.  They would face a familiar foe in the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees were taken to five games again by the AL West winning Kansas City Royals in 1977.  The two teams had split the first two games in the Bronx and the Royals won Game 3 in Kansas City, trouncing New York 6-2.  But Sparky Lyle was the hero for the Bombers in Game 4, pitching 5 1/3 innings of stellar relief as his team held off the Royals 6-4. 

He won Game 5 as well as the Yanks came from behind, erasing a 3-1 deficit with a run in the eighth off Kansas City starter Paul Splittorff, and three runs in the ninth off a trio of Royals’ relievers.  Lyle earned the victory in each of the last two games of the series. 

The last outs of the game came off the bat of Kansas City shortstop Freddie Patek who hit into a 5-4-3 double play.  No one who watched the conclusion of that game will ever forget the sight of Patek sitting alone in the Royals’ dugout after it was all over with tears streaming down his face, pondering what could have been.

The series win may well have saved Yankee manager Billy Martin’s job.  Martin and his prized slugging star Reggie Jackson had been at odds for a lot of the season.  Jackson had been slumping through the League Championship Series, going 1-for-14 through the ALCS and was benched for Game 5, but came through with the pinch hit single that scored the run in the eighth inning.  Jackson felt that the win was illustrative of the backbone of the Yankees.

“This shows the character of our club”, Jackson told reporters after the game.  Martin greeted the win like a miracle from heaven.  “I went in there and cried”, Martin said to while pointing to his office while talking to the media.  “A manager is human.  But it’s worth it though.  If this is the result, then I’ll accept it.”

Inconsolable Freddie Patek after 1977 ALCS – Photo courtesy of Getty Images 

The Yankees took that momentum into the World Series as they took on the National League champion Los  Angeles Dodgers.  Sparky Lyle continued his strong play as he came into Game 1 with the score tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth.  He kept the Dodgers off the score sheet in that ninth inning, into the tenth, the eleventh and the twelfth as well.  He held them off long enough to allow his team to push the winning run across in the bottom of the twelfth and the Yankees drew first blood in the series.

In Game 2, Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter was the starting pitcher for the Yankees against Burt Hooton for the Dodgers.  Hunter had won the Cy Young Award while pitching for the Oakland Athletics in 1974.  He was a 25-game winner for the team that year.  That was the season that the A’s had won their third consecutive World Series title.  The team was great on the field but off the field, they were growing increasingly disenchanted with their owner Charlie O. Finley.  The players, as the championship seasons went by, felt more and more that they all deserved a bigger piece of the cash pie that Finley seemed to be enjoying.

In that 1974 season, Hunter had been paid $100,000.  He was granted free agency at the end of 1974 and that was when George Steinbrenner and the Yankees came a-calling.  They offered Hunter a five-year $3.2 million deal.  ‘Catfish’ said “yes” and became one of the highest paid players in the game at that time.  The deal looked good for the Pinstripes in 1975 as Hunter won 23 games and posted a 2.58 earned run average and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting.  1976 was alright as well but not as good as he won 17 games and posted an ERA in the middle threes. 

By 1977, his star had fallen dramatically and his regular season record of 9-9 made him a shadow of the pitcher he was just a few short seasons before.  In his start in Game 2, he got rocked by the Dodgers.  He lasted just 2 1/3 innings and gave up homers to Ron Cey, Steve Yeager and Reggie Smith.  When Dick Tidrow came in to replace Hunter with one out in the third inning, the Yankees were down 5-0.  Los Angeles won the game 6-1 and tied the series at a game apiece with the teams heading back to the West Coast for the next three matches.

That was when Mike Torrez imposed himself on the series.  The Yankees won Game 3 by a score of 5-3 and Torrez was great in this one.  His only blemish occurred in the bottom of the third when he gave up singles to Reggie Smith and Steve Garvey before allowing Dusty Baker to hit a bomb to tie the game at 3-3 after three innings.  But Torrez cruised the rest of the way and allowed only three singles after the rough third.  He struck out nine including Manny Mota and Davey Lopes to finish the complete game victory.

The teams would trade wins in Games 4 and 5.  The Yankees would win the fourth game to take a stranglehold on the series.  Ron Guidry went all the way in the 4-2 New York victory.  In Game 5, the Dodgers jumped all over Yankees’ starter Don Gullett and by the time the sixth inning was over, they had built a 10-0 lead.  The game finished 10-4 and the teams adjourned back to the Bronx for Game 6.

The travel day allowed the teams a day off between the fifth and sixth games of the series and the Yankees sent Torrez back to the mound on short rest.  There were some concerns as the 31-year-old gave up a pair of Dodgers runs in the top of the first.  Reggie Smith got aboard on a two-out error to Bill Russell.  Ron Cey came up next and worked Torrez for a walk.  Garvey came up next and tripled the two men home.  It was 2-0 Dodgers.

The rest of the game belonged to a man that the Yankees had signed as a free agent back in November of 1976.  Reggie Jackson had made his name while playing for the Oakland A’s in the first half of the 1970s.  He was a big man who could flat-out hit.  His power had helped those A’s teams to consecutive World Series titles in 1972, 1973 and 1974.  In 1975, they had lost the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox.  After that season, Jackson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles as part of Finley’s dismantling of his great team. 

The Yankees were able to get the runs back in the bottom of the second inning.  Jackson worked Burt Hooton for a walk and then Chris Chambliss hammered a Hooton pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats in right-center and the game was tied.  But a Reggie Smith deep ball in the top of the third gave the lead back to the Dodgers. 

If this game was played today, Torrez would likely have been finished for the day.  But this was 1977 and Billy Martin allowed Torrez to continue to work through whatever issues he was dealing with through the first three innings.

In the fourth, Torrez allowed a couple of Dodger singles but he got out of the inning without giving up a run.  Then, in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, he retired the Dodgers in order.  He got fourteen straight Dodger outs from the last out in the fourth to the first out in the ninth!  That allowed his teammates to focus on doing their work at the plate against a group of Los Angeles pitchers.  After Torrez got himself out of the Dodger fourth, the Yankees’ hitters began to get busy. 

Catcher Thurman Munson led off the home half of the fourth with a single.  That brought Reggie Jackson to the plate and he took the first pitch he saw from Burt Hooton and hammered it.  Jackson deposited a line drive to the deep right field seats and the Yankees had a lead they would never relinquish.  That was it for Hooton.  Enter Elias Sosa for the Dodgers.  The first batter to face Sosa was Chambliss.  He hit a double to left.  Graig Nettles then grounded out to the right side to move Chambliss over.  Lou Piniella then hit a fly ball to left that was deep enough to score Chambliss and the fourth inning would eventually end with the home team leading 5-3.

In the bottom of the fifth, Mickey Rivers led off by hitting a single to center off Sosa.  Willie Randolph tried to bunt him over but an alert play by Dodgers’ catcher Yeager allowed him to gun the ball to second to get the force on Rivers.  Thurman Munson then lined out to Rick Monday in center.  It looked like Sosa might be able to wriggle out of this little jam.  But coming to the plate was the man who had homered in the fourth – Reggie Jackson.  Just like he had done to Hooton, he hit a laser beam on Sosa’s first offering into the right field seats to plate a couple more runs.  Sosa’s night was over.

Doug Rau got the third Yankee out and then retired the team in order in the sixth as well before giving way to Charlie Hough in the seventh.  Hough gave up a Yankees’ single in the seventh but that was it and so, going into the bottom of the eighth, the score was 7-3, in favour of the home Yankees.

Hough was still in the game as New York came to the plate in the eighth.  The first batter that the 29-year-old knuckleballer would face was Jackson.  He strolled to the plate to cries of “REG-GIE, REG-GIE” and Jackson didn’t wait long to inflict pain on Hough.  Like he had done in his previous at bats, he swung mightily at the first pitch.  Hough’s knuckler to Jackson didn’t knuckle enough.  Jackson hit a majestic shot to center field and he had collected his third bomb of the night on three consecutive pitches.

The Dodgers added a run in the top of the ninth off Torrez, but that was it.  The Yankees were the 1977 World Series champions.  Jackson, with his five homers, eight runs batted in and his .450 batting average in the Series was easily the Most Valuable Player of that set of games.   For Torrez, that was his last game as a Yankee.  He would become a free agent over the winter and find a new and interesting home.  Fenway Park.

After the game, Jackson didn’t seem to be reveling in his incredible performance.  Instead, it was a simpler emotion.  “Thank God this season is over”, exclaimed the slugger to reporters after the Game 6 Series victory.  “My feelings?  My feelings?  Relief.  That’s it.  There were times it was too much for me.”

At the behest of the media, he then went on to explain how he had hammered three straight first pitches out of the park in that decisive game.  “I kinda knew how they were going to pitch to me.  The first man (Hooton) got me out four times pitching me inside in Game 2.  Well that’s okay, pitch me in, but don’t knock on the door and tell me you’re coming.  It had better be in just the right place.  I was waiting for that fastball there.”

The Dodgers seemed to have a plan for Jackson because when Sosa came in, he threw to nearly the same spot.  “It was the same with more zip.  Just room service”, said Reggie.  When Hough came in, he had a different repertoire but Jackson knew what was coming.  “I definitely was thinking home run there and I was thinking knuckler.” 

That game gave him reason to think back a few years to when he was winning with Oakland.  “I’ve had some big days.  The 1973 World Championship for Oakland was a great thing for me and the team.  But nothing can top this.  This is great because it showed what human beings under stress can do.  We’ve been under stress all season.  But the Bible says a weak man is he who cannot stand adversity.”

Some of that adversity had come from inside the house.  Billy Martin and Jackson had been disparate companions pretty much from the start.  A great example of that was the incident in Boston back on June 18.  It was a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway and it was a national broadcast (as Yankee-Red Sox games were kind of meant to be).  In the bottom of the sixth, the Sox were leading 7-4 and were threatening to add more

Fred Lynn had singled and Jim Rice then got a base hit to right that should have been a single.  Jackson played it somewhat lackadaisically and it turned into a Rice double.  Martin was in the dugout seething.  He began to walk toward the mound to pull starter Mike Torrez and replace him with Sparky Lyle.  But Martin was still occupied with the way that Jackson had played that single into an extra-base hit and when he got back to the dugout, he told outfielder Paul Blair to go out and replace Jackson.

Blair was shocked.  Jackson was shocked.  Fans at the park and watching on television were shocked.  This was simply not done.  As Lyle was talking his warmup tosses, Jackson had been talking to the Yankee relievers in the bullpen when Blair came running out.  The look on his face was of sheer surprise and on the broadcast, you can see him mouthing to Blair “Who?  Me?”

Jackson ran back to the dugout and he and Martin began to get into it right there.  Cameras were able to catch the whole thing and the two got increasingly heated in their discussion to the point where it began to get physical.  The men had to be separated by coach and former Yankee catcher Elston Howard.  They cooled down and as Jackson headed into the tunnel to go to the visiting club house, Martin went after him again.

Martin was grabbed by coaches Dick Howser and Yogi Berra.  It perpetuated the impression that a lot of people had of the Yankees that they were a walking, talking soap opera.  After the game, Martin was questioned about it by reporters.  “If you don’t hustle, I don’t accept it.  If a player shows up the club, I show up the player.”

Many thought it could have been and should have been handled behind closed doors and that was suggested to Martin.  He had an answer for that.  “Because it’s a TV game, I’m not going to wait until next week.  He showed us up all over the country!”

Going into the 1978 season, the American League representative the last three years had been either the Red Sox or the Yankees.  But the Red Sox had not made it in either of the past two seasons.  The Yankees had had to lose the World Series in 1976 and then build up in 1977 in order to win it.  Both teams made some changes to their lineups going into this momentous year.

Mike Torrez had been a workhorse for the Yankees in 1977, he signed as a free agent with the Red Sox on November 23, a few weeks after his Yankees had won the World Series.  The Sox had also traded a pitcher and cash to the California Angels for second baseman Jerry Remy.  In December of 1977, they signed Royals free agent pitcher Dick Drago and at the end of spring training, they traded pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, outfielder Ted Cox and catcher Bo Diaz to Cleveland for pitcher Dennis Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall. 

The biggest acquisition the Yankees made in the offseason was the free agent signing of reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage.  They made a few minor signings but none were as significant as getting Gossage.  They figured they had a pretty good lineup and why shouldn’t they feel that way, they were the reigning World Champions.

But after the first month of the season, neither New York nor Boston were to be seen at the top of the AL East Division.  Instead, it was the Detroit Tigers who found themselves leading the pack on April 30.  The Tigers started the season hot and came out of the gate winning 13 of their first 18 games.  The Red Sox were in second place with a record of 11-9, three games back.  The Yankees were a half-game back of Boston at 10-9.
 AL East Standings, after the games of April 30, 1978 – BaseballReference.com

Things kind of righted themselves by the end of May.  Detroit was still playing okay but the clip they were playing at in April was not sustainable.  By May 31, the Tigers found themselves in third place with a 26-20 mark.  Boston had a great month of May going 23-7 to push them into the top spot in the AL East at 34-16.  New York went 19-8 in May to position themselves in second at 29-17, three games back of the Sox.

 AL East Standings, after the games of May 31, 1978 – BaseballReference.com

Boston must have been eating good beans in June as well.  They went 18-7 in the month and were soaring in the East with a record of 52-23.  They had built up an EIGHT-GAME bulge on the second place Milwaukee Brewers!  The Yankees were in third nine games back of the Sox.  By June 30, the Tigers were under water at 36-38 and in fifth place.  Baltimore had moved past Detroit into fourth at 41-35.

 AL East Standings, after the games of June 30, 1978 – BaseballReference.com

Things were not good in Gotham.  Billy Martin was fighting with his star hitter, Reggie Jackson, again.  It was almost desperation time for the Yankees by mid-July.  On July 17, in a Monday night game in the Bronx against the Kansas City Royals, New York had built a 5-1 lead after the fourth inning.  But the Royals were a good team and came into this contest trailing only the California Angels in the AL West and that was only by a single game. 

They never stopped fighting back and managed to get a couple of runs in the top of the fifth.  Martin feeling the heat, and he brought Gossage in to start the seventh, with a 5-3 lead and with the hope that he would be able to hold the Royals scoreless the rest of the way and get the save.  Gossage blanked them in the seventh, and did the same in the eighth.  But ninth-inning singles by George Brett, John Wathan and Amos Otis resulted in two Royals’ runs and the game was tied.

Martin was stuck though.  He had used Sparky Lyle earlier in the game and so he had to stick with Gossage as long as he could still throw.  Pitch counts were unheard of in 1978 so, basically, it was pitch until your arm falls off.

The Goose got the Royals in the tenth but by the eleventh, he was worn out.  After he walked the lead-off man, U. L. Washington, it was pretty much off to the races for Kansas City.  They got four runs across the plate in the inning and won the game by a score of 9-7.  The loss was bad for the Yankees, but what had happened in the bottom of the tenth was season changing for them. 

In that pivotal inning, Thurman Munson had led off with a single.  Reggie Jackson was the next hitter in a 5-5 tie.  You or I would tell Jackson to hit away, right?  Not Billy Martin.  He ordered his star slugger to bunt and sacrifice to move Munson over.  Jackson had been in a minor slump and so he went along and tried to bunt on the first pitch and was unsuccessful.  Then, Martin tried to get word to third base coach Dick Howser to take off the bunt.  Howser relayed that to Jackson.  Howser thought that Jackson had got the sign and maybe he had.  But by this point, the relationship between Martin and Jackson was beyond repair.

Jackson, having received the signal that he was now to swing away, gave the ultimate finger to his manager and stayed with the original plan.  On the second pitch, he again bunted foul.  On the third pitch, his bunt attempt was popped up and caught by Royals’ catcher Darrel Porter.  Martin was livid!

After Jackson had come back to the bench, Martin sent one of his coaches, Gene Michael, over to tell Jackson that he was out of the game.  The season before, in a game in Boston, Martin and Jackson had engaged in a fight in the dugout and the two men had to be separated by Yankees’ players and coaches.  But, in this game, in July of 1978, Martin was still livid.  According to a Sports Illustrated piece by Larry Keith that came out a couple of weeks later, Martin was quoted as saying “That’s the maddest I’ve ever been in my life!”

For Jackson’s part, he said he didn’t get the sign and he also said that he had told Munson before the inning that if he got on, that Jackson would bunt him over.  He told reporters that he was not trying to defy his manager.  He was just trying to do what was best in that situation.  Regardless, Martin suspended Jackson “indefinitely”, although, it turned out to be for five days or four games.  But the relationship between the two men was not good before this incident and it was not good after it as well.

After the game had ended, Martin flew into a rage.  According to the SI article, Martin threw a soft drink bottle against a wall and threw the clock radio that was in his office out into the hallway.  With force.  Owner George Steinbrenner and team President Al Rosen both backed Martin’s demand for a suspension.  But things for the Yankees and for Martin were probably at the lowest point that they had been since Martin had joined the team in the middle of the 1975 season. 

After that loss to the Royals, the Yankees sat with a record of 47-42 and in fourth place.  They were a game behind Baltimore, five and a half games behind the surging Milwaukee Brewers and FOURTEEN games behind the division leading Red Sox!

 AL East Standings, after the games of July 17, 1978 – BaseballReference.com

There were reports that, earlier in the season, Steinbrenner had promised Martin that his job would be safe for the 1978 season.  But with his relationship with Jackson in a shambles and his relationship with Steinbrenner also apparently strained, there were stories the owner had attempted to make a trade with the Chicago White Sox, offering Martin for Bob Lemon.  Both Steinbrenner and White Sox’ owner Bill Veeck denied that story, but how much truth was underlying the rumour?

Martin was also dealing with his own health issues.  There were plenty of stories detailing that Martin liked to imbibe and that his liver was giving him some real problems.  Keith’s Sports Illustrated piece says that Steinbrenner had offered to give Martin a lucrative offer to resign but that Martin refused.  More than once, he defiantly told reporters “I’m a Yankee!”

With Jackson out of the lineup for the better part of a week, New York did alright.  They swept a two-game series with the Minnesota Twins and then they took two from the Chicago White Sox.  Reggie would be back in the lineup the next day, the Sunday afternoon game at Comiskey Park.   But Jackson’s return to the team signaled a change in Martin’s demeanour and his mood, and not for the better.

The Yankees won the game on Sunday, July 23.  Jackson didn’t play.  They beat the White Sox 3-1.  But comments Martin made about both Jackson and Steinbrenner after the game reverberated far outside the locker room walls.  He wasn’t happy that Jackson was coming back to join the team.  The Yankees had won four games in a row coming into Sunday.  Martin had to know that Jackson’s return to the team would stir up a buzz.  And it did.  Reporters from every New York paper and media outlet wanted an interview with the star hitter.

Martin heard a lot of them and he just stewed.  At O’Hare International Airport, he told one reporter his thoughts as he was hearing some of Jackson’s media hits.  “I’m saying ‘shut up’.  We don’t need some of your stuff.  We’re winning without you.  We don’t need you coming in here and making all these comments.  If he doesn’t shut his mouth, he won’t play and I don’t care what George says.  He can replace me right now if he doesn’t like it.”

Forty-five minutes after that conversation he had a much more infamous interview.  While the team was waiting for their plane to take them to Kansas City on that Sunday night, Martin talked about Jackson and Steinbrenner.  After what ESPN called “a couple of drinks”, the manager apparently told two reporters, “The two of them (Jackson and Steinbrenner) deserve each other.  One’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.”  Martin was allegedly referring to the fact that Steinbrenner was convicted with giving illegal campaign contributions and violating campaign-funding laws and then subsequently trying to cover them up back in 1974.

At this point, Steinbrenner had had enough.  The Boss immediately sent team president Al Rosen and GM Cedric Tallas to Kansas City to meet with Martin to get to the bottom of the matter.  The two men had a talk.  The next day, July 24, Martin gave a tearful resignation speech and apologized for his remarks. 

According to Keith’s SI article, Martin’s contract contained a clause that stated that if he made disparaging remarks about the Yankees’ owner, his contract would be terminated and he would receive no further monies.  But because he apologized, Steinbrenner was said to have been mollified sufficiently to pay Martin out his contract in full.

The important thing for the team was that he was now gone.  Dick Howser became interim manager for a day before the aforementioned Bob Lemon came in to take over the helm of the Yankees for the remainder of the 1978 season.  And what a remainder that would be!

The Yankees made it to Kansas City but Martin was no longer the manager.  His absence was noticeable but it was still not enough to propel the team to victory.  Not on this day, anyway.  Of course, the game was televised nationally on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball.  The Royals defeated the Yankees by a score of 5-2.  Howser’s record as interim manager in 1978 went into the books as 0-1.  The next day Bob Lemon was installed as the dugout boss and the dark cloud that had been hovering over the franchise began to lift.

A week after Martin’s resignation, and two weeks after the Reggie Jackson bunting incident, it would have been safe to say that the mood had been brighter around the Yankees.  At the end of the last day of July, the team had just come off a 15-hit barrage on the Texas Rangers’ starter, and former Yankee,  Doc Medich and his bullpen friends and beat up on them by a score of 6-1.  It was New York’s eleventh win in their last fifteen games since the Jackson suspension was imposed by Billy Martin and the Yankees had gone from being fourteen games behind the division leading Red Sox to now being seven and a half!

 AL East standings, after the games of July 31, 1978 – BaseballReference.com 

But the month of August began with a bit of a bumpy road for New York.  After another win against Texas on the first of the month, they played a quick two-game series with the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.  Boston won both contests.  And then to add insult to injury, on the fourth of August, the Orioles came into The House That Ruth Built and edged the Yankees 2-1.  That seemed to be the kick in the pants the Bronx Bombers needed because they then reeled off a six game win streak against two teams they needed to beat in the standings – the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers.  Their sixth straight victory came on August 11 over the O’s.  On that same day, the Red Sox were losing by a 10-5 score to the Brew Crew. 

Boston manager Don Zimmer gave credit to Milwaukee’s offensive abilities.  “My gosh, they can hit!  We were short in the bullpen though.  But you’ve got to give it to them.  We were down 8-4 and their guys were busting for more runs.”  The game results meant that the Red Sox’ lead in the division was now six and a half games over the Yankees, eight games over Milwaukee and eight and a half over the surging Detroit Tigers.

The presence of Lemon as the Yankees’ skipper not only had a calming influence over the club house but it also gave the team a positive spark that might not have been there under the combative Martin.  The team went 19-8 in the month of August and worked hard to dig themselves out of the hole they had been in in July.  But Boston was grinding it out as well and played to a decent 19-10 record in the month. 

But on the 31st of August, the Red Sox had an off day and the Yankees were at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for a night game against the Orioles.  Dick “Dirt” Tidrow started the game for the Bombers and went 6 2/3 innings to garner a 6-2 win over the Birds.  Sparky Lyle came on in relief and finished the game to get the save.  Former Yankee farmhand Scott McGregor started the game and went into the ninth to take the loss.  Tidrow’s only blemish came in the second when a Kiko Garcia triple scored Doug DeCinces and Billy Smith with a couple of unearned runs.  That was New York’s seventh consecutive victory.  The Red Sox were off that day but their lead over the hated Yankees was steady at six and a half games.

Things would come to a head soon enough.  The month of September would prove to be a tumultuous one for both teams as the season would wind down and the pressure would heat up!

Six days into the month, the Yankees had played a three game set against the Seattle Mariners and a four game series with the Detroit Tigers.  They took two out of three against the M’s and three out of four over Detroit.  But in that same span, the Red Sox were losing two of three to Oakland and doing the same against Baltimore.  Their lead had shrunk to just four games now heading into a crucial four game series with those dreaded Yankees.  At least for Boston, the games would be played at Fenway Park.

In the first game of the Detroit series, the Yankees’ Ron Guidry became the American League’s first 20-game winner of 1978 when his mates rallied for eight runs in the seventh inning of a 9-1 win in the first game of a double header on Monday, September 4.  They dropped the nightcap though.  But they still picked up a half game on Boston after the Orioles dumped the Red Sox 5-3 behind great pitching from Scott McGregor. 

Anyway, back to Fenway Park for the first of those four games between the Red Sox and visiting Yankees.  New York had been peaking at the right time having won 17 of their last 21 going into this series.  The first game was on the first Thursday of September.  The Yankees put the heat on former teammate and now Red Sox starter Mike Torrez early and often.  He lasted one inning.  After three and a half innings, the Bombers were ahead by a 12-0 count.  And at that point, Boston was on their third pitcher of the game. 

The offensive star for the Yankees was their second baseman and second place hitter, Willie Randolph.  He went 3-for-5 with a double and five runs batted in in a complete 15-3 whitewash of the first place Red Stockings.  Thurman Munson went 3-for-3 with an RBI as well, and Roy White also collected three hits for the victors. 

Randolph was ecstatic after the game.  “This was my first five RBI game in the majors.  We’re doing things now we should be doing and we’re putting it all together.  We’re coming in here trying to win them all but to really jump on them like this is an added boost.” 

Red Sox skipper Don Zimmer was hoping this game would serve as a wake-up call.  “We got the crap kicked out of us.  The only good thing about this is that it only counts as one game.  Maybe we tired the SOBs out.  Things will brighten up.  Mark my words.”  The next day, everyone would find out if Zimmer’s words would be prophetic or not.

Uh, they were not. 

Boston started 28-year-old righthander Jim Wright in the Friday night game.  He came in with a record of 8-2.  He would record four outs in the game and by the time he left in the second inning, the Yankees had scored four runs on him and were looking at reliever Tom Burgmeier like he was so much fresh meat.  They scored another four runs off Burgmeier in that second inning and led 8-0 after two.

The Red Sox didn’t help their pitchers much, if at all, committing seven errors in the game.  A story by United Press International after the game outlined the injuries and ailments that many on the Boston roster were dealing with. 

Catcher Carlton Fisk was dealing with a fever and a broken rib.  The usually sure-handed Dwight Evans, who made two errors in the game, was dealing with the after effects of a concussion from a bean ball that he had taken to the head the week before.  After the errors, Evans was taken out of the game.  Butch Hobson had bone chips floating in his elbow and was having trouble throwing across the infield.  First baseman George Scott was suffering defensively while trying to play with a broken finger.  The fading star left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, was 39 and playing with a bad back.

Jim Beattie made the start for New York and was just 3-7 as a starter to that point in the season.  But the ailing and injured Red Sox made Beattie look like the second coming of Don Larsen as he retired eighteen Boston hitters in a row at one point and carried a shutout into the ninth inning.  He gave way to Ron Davis who got the last out of the game in a 13-2 romp for the visitors.  Nobody expected this, least of all the Yankees’ manager, Bob Lemon.

“When we came here, we felt a split would be great”, said Lemon.  “But now, we won’t be satisfied with a split, especially with the way we’re playing and the way Boston is playing.  I’ve never seen them play like that.  They’re just not that kind of ballclub and we probably won’t see it again.”

Fisk was beside himself after the game in discussing how badly the Sox looked out there.  “That was the poorest game we played all year.  That’s kind of a strong statement, but it’s probably true, and I played as poorly as anyone.”  He talked about Evans’ play as well.  “Dwight came out of the game not because he was embarrassed but because he was dizzy.  The guy was seeing double out there.”  All the Red Sox could try to do now was salvage a split.  Their lead over New York was now down to two games. 

That split would not be coming.  Ron Guidry was absolutely masterful in blanking Boston 7-0 in the third game on Saturday afternoon.  He gave up singles to Rick Burleson and Jim Rice in the first inning.  He didn’t allow another Boston hit for the rest of the game.  He struck out five and faced 33 batters in the game. 

The Yankees scored all seven of their runs in the fourth inning off Red Sox’ starter Dennis Eckersley.  Guidry’s record improved to 21-2 on the season.  Eckersley fell to 16-7.  He didn’t make it out of the fourth.  Burgmeier went the rest of the way without giving up a New York run to finish the game for Boston.

The Red Sox put up a little more fight in Sunday’s finale but it was nothing for the Yankees to really be concerned about.  They won 7-4 to sweep the series.  The two teams were now tied atop the American League’s East Division.  New York had won 18 of their last 20 games.  The Red Sox had lost nine of their last eleven.  The fourteen game lead that Boston enjoyed less than two months before had now evaporated.  There were a few weeks left in the season for these two teams to jostle for position.