Name: Richard Gossage
Born: July 5, 1951 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Yankee Years: 1978-83, 1989
Primary number: 54
Yankee statistics: 42-28, 2.14 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 319 G, 533 IP, 512 K, 151 SV, 55 ERA-, 67 FIP-, 18.8 rWAR, 15.2 fWAR
It is not every day that the Yankees sign someone who for many years had an argument as the best player at his position in baseball history. Yet that's what happened on November 22, 1977. That was the day that Rich "Goose" Gossage, perhaps the greatest of his generation of relievers, joined the Yankees to become their closer.
No one in the game could throw the ball harder than Gossage, and often, that was all he needed to overpower hitters. Gossage was a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the best seasons of the righty's career came in pinstripes. Until Aroldis Chapman this year (coincidentally, also #54), the Yankees never had a pitcher who dominated with pure velocity quite like Goose.
"Come on, Dad, throw the ball."
Richard Michael Gossage was never called "Goose" or even "Rich" by his family. He was born on July 5, 1951 in Colorado Springs to landscaper Jake and Sue Gossage as the fifth of their six children. His father had tried to make it big prospecting gold out in the Centennial State, but it never really worked out, so his family never really had a lot of money growing up. They lived in a one-bedroom house close to the mountains, and simply found ways to get by.
Through it all, Jake Gossage developed a very close bond with his son, and baseball was pivotal to their relationship. They had a tradition of playing catch before dinner, with his father regaling him with tales of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and more almost every night. The neighborhood boys could not touch his gradually increasing velocity.
The Gossage family was struck a painful blow when Rick was a senior. Jake Gossage died suddenly late during Rick's time in high school, putting even more financial strain on them. Now, Gossage tried to find ways to chip in and help his family. He found one solution after his senior year at Wasson High School, but there was even more good news on the horizon:
"On June 4, 1970, the eighteen-year-old Gossage ran home from a job interview to announce to his mother, 'Mom, I've got a job working as a counselor at the summer camp!' His mother told him that something else had come up; they had a visitor, a representative of the Chicago White Sox, who had just drafted Gossage in the ninth round... Fresh from high school graduation, [he] was so overwhelmed that he bolted from the house, ran into the mountains behind his house, and broke down in tears." - Bradley, p. 74
Now dubbed "Rich" by scout Bill Kimball, Gossage reported to the Gulf Coast League, where he posted a startling 11.8 K/9 in 16 innings, quickly earning a promotion to the Appleton Foxes of the Midwest League. The rest of the 1970 season did not go as smoothly, but in '71, he had a 1.83 ERA, a 1.021 WHIP, 149 strikeouts, 15 complete games, and seven shutouts in 187 innings.
In Appleton, Gossage became close friends with reliever Terry Forster and shortstop Bucky Dent. They lived together in an apartment near a graveyard, shared a green '60s Chevy, and they were also all talented enough to end up on the White Sox in succession. Forster debuted in '71. Dent debuted in '73. Gossage was so impressive that he earned an invitation to spring training in '72. Before long, he made such an impact on manager Chuck Tanner that he found himself on Chicago's Opening Day roster.
A 22-year career had begun. As recounted in his SABR bio, he had a new nickname too, courtesy of teammate Tom Bradley:
During the first days of that 1972 spring training, Gossage was amazed how his roommate, Tom Bradley, took the mound with sunglasses and pitched very comfortably. One evening, Gossage asked Bradley about the sunglasses and Bradley responded by saying how he thought Gossage’s neck stuck out while looking for the sign from the catcher. It reminded him of the movement of a goose. That comment was published by the Chicago media and so "Goose" Gossage was christened.
Gossage was just 20 years old in his rookie season, and the inexperience showed. Although he was in the major league bullpen all year long and ended up with a FIP better than league average (3.10), he posted an ugly 5.0 BB/9 accompanied by a 1.450 WHIP in 80 innings. It was in Chicago however that he learned the secret to his success on the mound, as both Tanner and MVP teammate Dick Allen urged him to throw inside and not be afraid to knock hitters off the plate with his velocity.
More importantly to Gossage, he earned $12,500, enough to make a real difference in the lives of the rest of his family. Unfortunately, it took Gossage a little time to grow enough to be a useful pitcher. He was even worse in his next two years, as he was demoted on a couple occasions while battling ineffectiveness, marred by a 7.43 ERA in '73. He had been going to spring training every year as a starter despite ending up in the bullpen, but going into '75, Tanner decided that it would be better for him to just prepare for camp as their closer.
In those days, being a closer meant much longer appearances than even 1990, let alone 2016. The best closers, like Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle, often pitched two or three innings to finish the job, and their workload leaned closer to 100 innings. If the game went extra innings, Gossage could sometimes go six or seven innings on occasion. It was a different era, and Gossage soon became the master of these long saves.
The move ended up paying dividends, as Gossage was phenomenal this time having improved his pitches beyond the fastball, like the slurve. He led the league in saves with 26 while posting a 1.84 ERA in 141 2/3 innings, even earning a sixth place finish for MVP. Gossage posted an absurd 8.2 WAR, still the all-time record for a reliever. The White Sox as a club fared poorly though, and Tanner was fired. New skipper Paul Richards thought it was worth it to try Gossage's repertoire one more time in the rotation in '76, but it just didn't take. He made the All-Star team and threw 15 complete games and 224 innings, but by the end of the season, his ERA and FIP were both worse than league average.
Before the start of the next season, Gossage was reunited with Tanner, as he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates in December. That moved Gossage back to the bullpen for good, and he rewarded Tanner with another All-Star campaign. While it was brief, Gossage loved his time in the Steel City. He was a free agent at the end of the season and was devastated when Pirates management declined to make a competitive offer.
Fortunately, Gossage did not have to wait long to get a contract that satisfied him. The man who made it all possible was Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Bad to the Bone
Steinbrenner's interest in Gossage absolutely baffled outsiders. The Yankees were the defending World Series champions, and slider-chucking southpaw Lyle (another Top 100 Yankee) had just won the Cy Young Award out of the bullpen. The downside was that Lyle was 34, and although he had capably served as the team's closer since the early '70s, he had thrown almost 260 innings for manager Billy Martin over the past two years, including the postseason.
There were no obvious star Reggie Jackson types on the free agent market after '77, and the Yankees front office agreed that Gossage was the best player out there. So Steinbrenner went ahead and signed Gossage to a six-year, $3.6 million contract on November 22, 1977. Lyle had been given a raise and a bonus, but he obviously wasn't happy being displaced as closer after his excellent season, and Martin immediately had to settle the tension as he threatened to sit out the '78 campaign. Asking Gossage to drill Rangers infielder Billy Sample did not help, as Gossage refused; he had no grudge against Sample and he thought his fastball could badly hurt him. The animosity between Gossage and Martin never really dissipated.
Gossage compounded matters early on by allowing three homers and blowing three games in his first four appearances of '78. Outfielder Mickey Rivers attempted to lighten the mood by jumping on the bullpen car to try to stop Gossage from coming in. Thankfully for Gossage, his true potential won out and he soon began to pitch terrific ball. He had a 1.90 ERA from his fifth game onward, earning his fourth straight All-Star appearance, an AL-best 27 saves, and a fifth place finish in AL Cy Young voting behind teammate Ron Guidry.
Along the way, the Yankees recovered from a sluggish start as well and came roaring up on the tail of the red-hot Red Sox. After Martin resigned amid drama midseason, Bob Lemon took over as manager and the team got healthy. They made up a 14 game deficit to force a one-game playoff with Boston at the end of the season at Fenway Park. His good friend Dent gave them the lead with a shocking three-run homer. In the seventh inning, he relieved Guidry with a 4-2 lead, and though he ran into a few jams while surrendering a couple runs, he made it to Carl Yastrzemski for the final out.
It was the most pressure Gossage had ever felt, and his legs were shaking. He was soon calmed by reminding himself that even if the worst possible outcome occurred, he would be home in Colorado with his family regardless. So on his final pitch, he threw one of his hardest fastballs ever, and Yaz popped it up:
The AL East race was over, and Gossage threw 10 innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts in five games to ice the Yankees' second straight World Series title over the Dodgers. It was Gossage on the mound in Game 6 of the World Series, as Ron Cey popped out to end the Fall Classic:
As exciting as the '78 season was, '79 only brought disappointment. The Yankees stumbled to fourth place, Lemon was fired not long after his son died in a car accident, and captain Thurman Munson was tragically killed in a plane crash. Gossage didn't help the situation. In late April, he fought with teammate Cliff Johnson in the clubhouse, and he tore ligaments in his thumb in the process, missing almost three months.
Gossage shook off the poor season and rebounded as strong as ever in 1980 under manager Dick Howser, leading the league with 33 saves and striking out over 100 batters in 99 innings. The Yankees recaptured the AL East with 103 victories, and Gossage earned a third-place finish in both Cy Young and MVP voting. After losing to the Yankees in the ALCS three times in the '80s though, the AL West-winning Royals were out to rebound too, and they forced them to the brink of elimination in the 1980 ALCS by taking the first two games. In Game 3, the Yankees led and called on Gossage, but he gave up a monster three-run homer to Hall of Famer George Brett, sealing the Royals' sweep.
Undeterred, Gossage had one of the best years of his career in 1981. With his anger growing toward the outspoken Steinbrenner, he grew the Fu Manchu mustache to protest his facial hair policy, and the menacing look became synonymous with him, as did his entrance music, George Thorogood and the Destroyers' "Bad to the Bone." His work was limited due to the midseason strike, but in 46 2/3 innings, he ended up with a sterling 0.77 ERA and a 9.9 K/9 ratio, garnering more Cy Young and MVP votes. Gossage continued his awesome work in the playoffs, throwing 14 1/3 innings of scoreless ball with 15 strikeouts as the Yankees won the AL pennant but fell short in the World Series.
The '81 Fall Classic turned out to be the last time that Gossage pitched in the playoffs in pinstripes. His numbers remained excellent and he made his third straight All-Star team in '82, but the team declined around him. His sniping at Steinbrenner continued, as he referred to him as "the fat man," and that "he has made being here unbearable." Nonetheless, he wanted Gossage back after '83, even replacing the disliked Martin with Yogi Berra for the '84 season. Steinbrenner sent assistants Gene Michael and Jeff Torborg out to Gossage's home to appeal to him with a big contract offer.
Gossage appreciated the gesture, but he simply no longer wanted to deal with Steinbrenner's antics, as he told them, "I'm really sorry you guys had to come all the way out here for this, but there's nothing you can say thats going to change my mind. I'll be honest; I've just had enough of all the bullshit that goes on there."
It didn't matter to him that he didn't have much interest at his price on the market. He just needed to get out of New York. Steinbrenner's meddling had cost the team once again.
Rounding out a Hall of Fame career
Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Two weeks after dismissing the Yankees, Gossage found a good contract anyway. Ray Kroc and the San Diego Padres inked him to a five-year, $25 million deal on January 6, 1984, reuniting him with third baseman Graig Nettles. It was the McDonald's magnate's final big move as team owner before passing away a couple weeks later.
Gossage made the two final All-Star appearances of his career in San Diego, and his 102 1/3 superb innings of 2.90 ERA ball for the Padres in '84 led them to the first NL West title and pennant in franchise history. He helped change the culture in that clubhouse, and Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams appreciated having such an intimidating presence in the bullpen. Infamously refusing to intentionally walk Kirk Gibson in Game 4 of the World Series cost him though, as the Tigers slugger slammed a three-run homer that effectively iced Detroit's Fall Classic victory.
In '86 though, Gossage was the same age Lyle was when he began to decline in '78--thirty-four. Sure enough, Gossage's velocity dipped and he was never as good again. To his credit, he survived nine more years with solid results, pitching pretty much everywhere, with the Padres, Cubs, and Giants, the Yankees again briefly in '89, and the Rangers, Athletics, and Mariners. He even pitched a year in Japan with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in 1990 before returning to the majors.
When Gossage threw his last pitch for Seattle on August 8, 1994, he ended his 22-year career with 310 saves, fourth all-time back then, and a 2.14 ERA in pinstripes, still the best in franchise history among qualified pitchers. It took him nine years to reach Cooperstown, but after his support grew from 33.3% in 2000 to 85.8% in 2008, he finally earned induction.
Gossage happily entered the Hall of Fame with a Yankees cap on his head, as the ice between him and Steinbrenner had long since dissipated. He was a regular at Old-Timers' Day and took part in the ceremonies that closed out Yankee Stadium both at the 2008 All-Star Game and the final home game on September 21, 2008. In the new stadium, the Yankees honored Gossage with a plaque in Monument Park at Old-Timers' Day 2014:
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
It was an overdue honor and one entirely deserved. Few relievers have ever fared better in pinstripes than the man known as "Goose."
Andrew's rank: 59
Tanya's rank: 68
Community rank: 48.8
WAR rank: 75.5
|NYY (7 yrs)||42||28||2.14||2.60||319||272||151||533||390||150||127||31||185||27||512||6||0||15||55||67||18.8||15.2|
Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Bradley, Richard. The Greatest Game: The Day That Bucky, Yaz, Reggie, Pudge, and Company Played the Most Memorable Game in Baseball's Most Intense Rivalry. New York: Simon & Schuster: 2008.
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.