by Howie Mooney

The other man, with whom Jackson’s name would become inextricably linked over the next couple of years, was the Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin. Martin was combative, but there were others on the team now that saw the money and recognition that Jackson was getting with this signing, and they wanted their piece of that pie too.

Catcher Thurman Munson looked at what Jackson had signed for and immediately went to George Steinbrenner and demanded a reworking of his deal. He and ‘Big Stein’ got their “misunderstanding” resolved. But how many other members of the club had maybe been feeling the same way. Two months after the Yankees signed their big free agent, Jackson, their manager, Billy Martin still had not contacted him to welcome him to the group.

Graig Nettles was the Yankees’ third baseman and the 1976 home run leader. He was also a player who wanted to be appreciated for his defensive abilities – which were considerable – but also his abilities as a hitter. In 1976, his 32 homers had led the American League. Dave Anderson of the New York Times referred to him in a column as “the home run champion that nobody knows”.

Also, don’t forget, the Yankees had signed Don Gullett around the same time they landed Jackson. Gullett had been the ace lefthander of the Cincinnati Reds when the Reds swept the Yanks in the 1976 World Series. How would he be used? How would he adjust to the hitting in the American League? How would he mesh with the personalities in the Yankees’ clubhouse? These were all questions that had yet to be answered.

Speaking of the Reds, Greg Boeck of Gannett News Services followed Billy Martin to a sports dinner in January of 1977 near Rochester, N.Y. where the skipper had a few choice words for the World Champion Reds and Pete Rose in particular. “I made a New Year’s resolution. I want the Reds to win the pennant, ‘cause we’re gonna win ours. I just don’t want any team in the National League. I want the Reds. I want to take Pete Rose’s ugly face and stick it in the mud. And when we win, we’re going to pop off like they did.”

Rose, upon hearing this, laughed. “That’s good, that’s good. I hope they win. I hope we win too. I’ve never tried to tell anybody I wasn’t ugly. It’s his prerogative to say it. I’ll be there at third base. I think we have a better chance of getting there than he does.”

Robert Ward wrote one of the definitive pieces from early in Jackson’s time with the Yankees in 1977. It appeared in the June, 1977 edition of Sport Magazine, and it spelled out a lot of what the great slugger meant to the other members of the team and to Jackson himself. He seemed to take the city by storm and yet there was always this underlying sense that he had a serious need to be liked, appreciated or thought well of.

This was the legendary piece in which Jackson proclaimed himself as the most important player on the Yankees’ club, even though the team had a captain and leader in their catcher, Thurman Munson. “I’m not merely a baseball player,” Jackson told Ward. “I am a black man who has done what he wants, gotten what he wanted and will continue to get it. Now what I want to do is develop my intellect.”

Jackson continued, “You see, on the field, I am a surgeon. I put on my glove and this hat. And I put on these shoes, and I go out on the field, and I cut up the other team. I am a surgeon. No one can quite do it the way I do. But off the field…I try to forget all about it. You know, you can get very narrow being a superstar. I mean being a superstar…can make life very difficult, difficult to grow.”

“So, I like to visit with my friends, listen to some fine music, drink some good wine, perhaps take a ride in the country in a fine car, or…just walk along the beach. Nature is extremely important to me. Which may be just about the only trouble I’ll have in New York. I’ll miss the trees.”

The piece moved from Jackson’s ‘surgical’ abilities to what he meant to the team.

“You know, this team…it all flows from me. I’ve got to keep it all going. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson…but really, he doesn’t enter into it. He’s being so damned insecure about the whole thing. I’ve overheard him talking about me. I’ll hear him telling some other writer that he wants it to be known that he’s the captain of the team, that he knows what’s best. Stuff like that. And when anybody knocks me, he’ll laugh real loud so I can hear it…”

“I’m a leader and I can’t lie down…but ‘leader’ isn’t the right word…it’s a matter of PRESENCE… Let me put it this way: no team I am on will ever be humiliated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That’s why Munson can’t intimidate me. Nobody can. You can’t psych me. You take me one-on-one in the pit, and I’ll whip you…”

This piece came out close to the end of May of 1977, but the interviews for it were conducted around the beginning of the season in April. Jackson and Munson never really hit it off or were even casual friends. They just mostly avoided each other. Their animosity was unspoken but was noticeable to anyone that entered the Yankees’ club house. An Associated Press story that went to print around the end of May of 1977 discussed the situation.

While Billy Martin defended Jackson saying, “Reggie isn’t the cause,” he also added “Reggie is an emotional type of guy. He’s very sensitive and a lot of little things bother him.” Munson never said a word to anyone about the Sport Magazine piece, but he had been known to say that “anyone who thinks I’m jealous of him is ignorant and an imbecile.”

Munson told the Associated Press’ Will Grimsley that “I have things in life which Reggie can only hope to have – a stable family life with a wife and three great children, a secure private business life which has kept my head in the real world and provided lifetime security for my family, genuine friends, maintained from my years in Canton.”

“Reggie’s whole life is based on the unreal world of baseball. He has no stable family, no great business knowledge. His friends are those who tell him how great he is, and if they’re celebrities, all the better. He wants badly to be the guy people look up to, but they do for one reason only – he’s a baseball star.”

While the two men simply tried to avoid each other as much as was practically possible, the friction between Jackson and his manager would soon come to a head.

On June 18, the Yankees were at Fenway Park for a Saturday afternoon NBC Game of the Week appearance against the Red Sox. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Jim Rice, a strong right-handed hitter was at the plate and Jackson was in right field shading the Boston hitter toward right-centre field. He figured that if he hit the ball, he would pull it. Rice ended up hitting the ball the other way on a check swing, and it landed in shallow right field down toward the foul line.

Jackson didn’t run hard for the ball. He explained after the game that he thought second baseman Willie Randolph would get the ball. In any case, Billy Martin was incensed with what he saw as a lack of effort on the part of his right fielder. Rice turned the bloop hit into a double. As Martin went out to take his starter Mike Torrez out and replace him with Sparky Lyle, he also instructed Paul Blair to replace Jackson in right. Jackson was shocked and Blair didn’t know what to tell his teammate.

When Jackson got to the dugout, he asked Martin why he was pulled. Television cameras showed that Martin was apoplectic. As Jackson and Martin appear to be talking, coach Elston Howard stood between the two men. As they moved along in the dugout, Howard was preventing Martin from getting at Jackson. The manager looked angry and frustrated. It’s all visible on the broadcast.

Martin was fighting his players at the same time as he was fighting for his job as the season progressed. As 1977 went from spring to summer toward the fall, the papers were filled with columns and articles that talked about the ongoing war between the manager and the owner. So, you had an insecure manager and an insecure star – and a clubhouse that walked around them both as if they were all walking on eggshells.


On August 7, 1977, the Yankees dumped the Seattle Mariners 7-1. The first place Red Sox also won that day. They had defeated the Oakland Athletics 5-2. The Baltimore Orioles had lost to the California Angels 6-3. Boston sat atop the American League East at 64-43. The Orioles fell to 3 ½ games behind them while the Yankees held their spot in third, five games behind the Bosox.

At this point, Billy Martin made the decision to move Reggie Jackson from where he had been hitting – in the sixth spot in the batting order – to the clean-up spot. In the next game, Jackson went 2-for-4 with a run batted in and a run scored in a 6-3 win over Oakland at Yankee Stadium. That win moved the Yankees up to 61-49 after 110 games.

Eleven days later, on August 21, 1977, the Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1. It was their twelfth victory in thirteen games. The Yankees now had a record of 72-50. They sat a half-game back of the Red Sox. On August 31, they got by the Mariners 5-4. Boston was losing to Cleveland 4-3. For the Red Sox, it was their tenth loss in their last fourteen contests. With a month left to play, the Yankees sat on top of the AL East by four games over the Orioles and the Sox.

The season ended on October 1. The Yankees ended up in first place two games ahead of each of Baltimore and Boston. Since Reggie Jackson had moved into the fourth spot of the batting order on August 10 – over his last 51 games – he hit thirteen home runs, he drove in 49 runs, and he hit .286. When the Yankees signed Jackson before the season, Thurman Munson said that he was the type of player who could carry a team for a month.

More than seven weeks after Billy Martin moved Jackson into the clean-up hole in the order, Reggie had carried the Yankees into the American League Championship Series. The wave he had been riding over the final month and a half of the season continued into the postseason – although it did take a brief break during the American League Championship Series. And it wasn’t exactly easy for the Yankees either.

The Yankees opponent in the 1977 ALCS was the Kansas City Royals. The visitors took the first game by a score of 7-2 at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks took the second game 6-2 but the Royals got the split they wanted in the Bronx. In the third game of the best-of-five series, the Royals’ Dennis Leonard allowed just four New York hits in a 6-2 complete game Kansas City victory. The win at Royals Stadium gave them a commanding 2-1 series lead.

The Yankees’ backs were to the wall, and they came out and played the fourth game like they knew it. They started the game with a double by Mickey Rivers and a single by Graig Nettles. Rivers came home on a ground out by Thurman Munson and the Yanks grabbed the early lead. They added two more runs in the second and another in the third to take an early 4-0 lead. They added another run in the fourth, but the Royals sent seven men to the plate in each of the third and fourth innings and after that it was 5-4 for the visitors.

Sparky Lyle came in to pitch for the Yankees to start the fifth in a one-run game. He was incredible. He threw seven pitches in that inning to retire the Royals in order. His worst inning was the bottom of the sixth. He allowed a Freddie Patek single. Patek was the only baserunner Lyle allowed Kansas City to have in his entire appearance. He finished the game by getting the last eleven Royals’ hitters out. Meanwhile, his teammates scored a run in the top of the ninth to make it a 6-4 game. That was the final score, and it was down to a single game the next day in Kansas City.

The big news before this game was that Reggie Jackson was not in the starting lineup. Paul Splittorff was pitching for Kansas City and Jackson was struggling in this series. He had just one hit in fourteen at-bats so far. The fact that he did not hit well against Splittorff made the decision easy for Billy Martin. That didn’t mean that the team’s owner, George Steinbrenner, liked it.

At breakfast, in the team’s hotel, Martin told Steinbrenner of his thoughts. “Jackson’s not playing tonight,” Martin said. “Oh, yes he is,” replied Big Stein. “No, he’s not. Have a look at these stats. He can’t hit Splittorff.” At that moment, Catfish Hunter walked by. “Hey, Cat,” shouted Martin. “How does Reggie hit Splittorff?” Hunter shot back, “He can’t hit him with a f***ing paddle.” Catfish never broke stride.

Cliff Johnson was the designated hitter for the Yankees in this one and Paul Blair was stationed in right field. He was a superior defensive outfielder anyway. But, this time, it was the Royals who jumped out to the early lead. Hal McRae got on base courtesy of a one-out infield hit. He was then tripled home by George Brett. Brett scored when Al Cowens grounded out. After that first inning it was 2-0 for the home team.

Neither team could push a run across in the second inning but in the top of the third, it was the Yankees who sent six men up. After a Rivers single and a Willie Randolph walk, Munson managed a two-out single that brought Rivers home to make it a one-run game. But in the bottom of that inning, Hal McRae led the proceedings with a double off Ron Guidry. He scored when Al Cowens swung at Guidry’s first pitch and singled. That was it for the ‘Louisiana Lightning’. It was all-hands-on-deck time for both teams. Mike Torrez took over and got the Royals out of the inning. But the home side was now up 3-1.

Over the course of the next four innings, both Splittorff and Torrez bent but neither man broke. And each put up all zeroes. It was still 3-1 for Kansas City after seven innings. The Yankees were running out of time and innings in which to try to get back in this game. Splittorff came out for the eighth inning and promptly gave up a single to Willie Randolph. Split’s night was over.

In, now, to pitch for the Royals was Doug Bird. The first man he faced was Munson. Four pitches later, Munson was walking back to his dugout, the victim of a swing and a miss on strike three. The next man up was the Yankees’ hottest hitter at this point – Lou Piniella. He had doubled earlier in the game and led his team with six hits in the series so far. He singled, moving Randolph to third. Johnson was the next scheduled hitter for New York.

But Billy Martin had the wheels turning in his head and, with Splittorff now out of the game, he sent the struggling Reggie Jackson up to bat for Johnson. Jackson got behind on Bird with a count of one ball and two strikes. Jackson hacked the next Bird offering into centre field for a single to score Randolph and bring the Yankees to within a run. Whitey Herzog had seen enough of Bird, and he brought Steve Mingori in to try to get out of this inning.

Mingori got Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss out on a couple of hard-hit balls to maintain the 3-2 lead. Now it was up to Torrez to keep the game there. It would not be easy. The first man up for the Royals was George Brett. He grounded out to Bucky Dent at shortstop. Then Al Cowens hit a hard liner to centre that Rivers was able to snag for the second out. But then Torrez walked Amos Otis. On the first pitch to Pete LaCock, Otis stole second. A moment later, LaCock was on first, the beneficiary of a base on balls.

Torrez had emptied his tank and Martin was going to bring Sparky Lyle in to try to hold this one where it was. Lyle got Cookie Rojas out on strikes and whatever threat the Royals had offered was averted.

The Yankees were down to their last three outs and Whitey Herzog was trying to survive this last inning. He brought Dennis Leonard in to pitch to Paul Blair. Blair was primarily a defensive specialist, but he had been a top-of-the-order man when he played on those juggernaut Baltimore Orioles teams in the early 1970s. Blair worked the count to two balls and two strikes before he knocked a single out to centre field to start things off in the ninth.

Bucky Dent was the next man in the order to face Leonard. But Martin was going to play percentages here and he sent the veteran Roy White in to pinch hit for Dent. White battled and worked the count full before earning a walk from Leonard. Herzog had seen enough and elected to bring Larry Gura in to face Mickey Rivers. Rivers slashed a 2-2 pitch to right for a single that scored Blair and sent White to third. The game was tied 3-3 and there was no one out for the Yankees.

Herzog came out and pulled Gura. He brought Mark Littell out of the bullpen to pitch to Willie Randolph. Littell struggled. The count went to 3-1. He had to come in with a strike. Randolph hit the ball hard to centre. Otis caught it but it was deep enough to score White from third on the sacrifice fly. Rivers smartly tagged up and moved to second on the play. The Yankees had come back to lead this game. There was still just one out though.

Next man up was Thurman Munson. He grounded out to Patek at shortstop, allowing Rivers to move over to third. Lou Piniella was the next hitter. He hit a ball to Brett at third that the great player mishandled for an error. Rivers scored on the play. It was now 5-3 for New York. That was how the inning and the game ended. Sparky Lyle came back out and got the Royals in order on just seven pitches. He picked up the win. It was his second victory in two games.

His performance in the series was the difference, especially in that fourth game in which he threw five innings while his teammates found their bats. He appeared in four games out of the five. He threw 9 1/3 innings and allowed just a single earned run for an earned run average of 0.96. The American League did not have an award for the Most Valuable Player in a Championship Series yet, but if they did, Lyle would certainly been one of the top candidates for it.


After the game, the most obvious point of contention for the press was the fact that Jackson was out of the lineup when the game started. There were questions for Martin and Steinbrenner both before the game and afterward.

Two hours before the first pitch, Martin was sitting on the top step of the dugout with a gaggle of reporters around him. Why Blair in right over Jackson? “If I played him (Jackson) and he dropped a ball that cost us the game, I wouldn’t forgive myself for the rest of my life. I don’t like to do this bastard thing, but if I didn’t do what’s best for the club, I shouldn’t be the manager.”

The moves he made eventually all worked out for the best, even though it wasn’t exactly the way he thought they might. Blair had historically hit well off Paul Splittorff, but in the fifth game, Blair didn’t get his first hit until the Royals’ starter had left the game. “As it worked out, Blair didn’t get a hit off the lefty,” Martin said after the game, “but he did get a hit off the righty. Goes to show you how smart managers are.”

The atmosphere in the Yankees’ clubhouse was one of both relief and joy. George Steinbrenner made his way down there after it was all over, and he got the requisite champagne shower. He smiled through the victory dousing and then found a mirror in which to re-comb his hair. Once he was finished, Martin had snuck up behind him to pour more champagne on him.

“That’s for trying to fire me,” Martin shouted. “What do you mean, trying?” replied the Yankees’ owner.

Blair was the man who got the hit in the ninth that got the rally started. He expressed relief at being in the game in order to participate in the big inning. “He stayed with me. I’m so glad I was able to come through.”

For his part, Jackson wasn’t thrilled to be sitting on the bench when the game started. But he did give Martin kudos for “showing some guts by taking me out of the lineup.” Jackson made an odd remark about his feelings trying to downplay the whole act of sitting him. “There are 800 million people in China who don’t give a damn. ‘Yourself’ doesn’t really mean anything. God hates pride.”

His single in the eighth inning did give him some relief and satisfaction but he balked at expressing anything more than that. “If I have to keep proving myself every time I go to the plate, I shouldn’t be in the game. I have more trouble proving myself as a good human being than as a ballplayer.”

The Yankees would head home to New York and would get a day off before starting the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in four games.

*     *     *

Howie’s latest book MORE Crazy Days & Wild Nights, eleven new stories of outlandish and wild events that occurred in sports over the last fifty years,is available on Amazon. It’s the follow-up to his first book of 2023, Crazy Days & Wild Nights! If you love sports and sports history, you need these books!

You can hear Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne talk sports history on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio and Google Podcasts and at firedupnetwork.ca on 212 different platforms. Check out The Sports Lunatics Show on YouTube too! Please like and subscribe so others can find their shows more easily after you. And check out all their great content at thesportslunatics.com.

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