The New York Yankees entered the 1977 season on a mission to win the World Series. The team had failed to accomplish this goal in each of the previous 12 seasons. At the time, it was the longest such drought for the storied franchise since Babe Ruth led the Bombers to their first World Series title in 1923.
The team had ended another franchise-record drought the previous season. A Chris Chambliss home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series had catapulted the Yankees past the Royals and into the World Series for the first time since 1964. Heartbreak quickly ensued as the Yankees were swept by the Cincinnati Reds. Keen to get back to the World Series and win it, the Yankees made key moves in the off-season in order to accomplish this goal.
The Yankees entered the 2017 season also hoping to end a couple of bad streaks. It's been seven years since the Yankees last won a World Series Championship, the fourth longest drought since 1923. The seven seasons since their last World Series appearance is the third longest such streak since the club won their first AL Pennant in 1921.
In reminiscing about the 1977 Championship season, I couldn't help but notice similarities between that team and the current team, particularly in the way the two rosters were constructed. We're going to explore some of those similarities today.
Thurman Munson was selected by the Yankees in the 1st round (4th pick) of the 1968 amateur draft. Munson was promoted to the Yankees in 1969 after playing only 99 minor league games. He became their starting catcher in 1970, hitting .302 and winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Munson was named an All-Star and received MVP votes in four of his first six seasons, winning the Gold Glove Award three times.
Munson was named Yankee captain prior to the start of the 1976 season, the first player since Lou Gehrig to receive that honor. He finally won the AL MVP award that year, hitting .302 with 17 home runs and 105 RBI.
Munson was 29 years old entering the 1977 season, a veteran leader but still a young player in his prime. He hit .308 with 18 home runs and 100 RBI, leading the team back to World Series Championship glory. Munson was named the 14th greatest catcher in Major League Baseball history in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract published in 2001.
Gary Sanchez signed with the Yankees as an international free agent in 2009. After playing seven seasons in the minors, he was finally promoted to the Yankees for good in August 2016. He promptly hit .299 with 20 home runs and 42 RBI, finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. It was the greatest late-season start to a career since Willie McCovey hit .354 with 13 home runs and 38 RBI in winning the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Sanchez earned praise for his catching abilities, and wowed fans with his ability to gun out runners trying to steal. Sanchez is poised to help lead the Bombers to a championship.
Chris Chambliss was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 1st round (1st) in 1970 and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1971. He was acquired by the Yankees via trade early in the 1974 season and quickly became one of the team's top run producers. He was an All-Star and finished fifth in the MVP voting in 1976. He had a successful follow-up campaign in 1977, hitting .287 with 17 home runs and 90 RBI batting fourth or fifth in the Yankee lineup as the team won the World Series.
Greg Bird was drafted by the New York Yankees in the fifth round in 2011. After spending parts of five seasons in the minors, he was promoted to the big league roster to replace an injured Mark Teixeira at first base in August 2015. Bird made an impression right off the bat, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 31 runs in 46 games. Following an injury that saw him miss the entire 2016 season, Bird began this year as the starting first baseman. A lefty who is a natural fit for Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have high hopes for him. Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman once stated that Bird was the best hitter in the organization.
A part-time player who only appeared in 30 career Major League Baseball games for the Pirates in 1975, Willie Randolph was acquired by the Yankees prior to the 1976 season. He was quickly named starting second baseman and became an All-Star in each of his first two seasons. Hitting second in the Yankee lineup, Randolph was an important table setter on the team. He became a team leader, ultimately being named co-captain in 1986.
Like Randolph, Starlin Castro was also acquired via trade. Once a top prospect with the Cubs, Castro was a three-time All-Star prior to joining the Yankees before the 2016 season. He also finished fifth in the 2010 Rookie of the Year voting and received MVP votes in 2011. A streaky hitter, Castro reached career highs with 21 home runs and 70 RBI in his first season with the Yankees.
Bucky Dent was one of the key players acquired by the Yankees prior to the 1977 season. A former first round pick, Dent arrived from the Chicago White Sox six days before Opening Day and became the starting shortstop. Although he achieved legendary status for a home run he hit in 1978, Dent's defense was his biggest contribution to the team and was the reason he was obtained. Dent had finished second in the 1974 ROY voting and was a three-time All-Star in his career.
Didi Gregorius is another young, talented player acquired via trade by the Yankees. A part-time player in three seasons with the Reds and Diamondbacks, Gregorius was brought in to be the Yankee starting shortstop prior to the 2015 season. Being asked to replace pinstripe legend Derek Jeter could not have been easy for the then 26-year-old. Despite this and concerns about his ability to hit left-handed pitchers, Didi overcame a slow start and finished strong. His sophomore campaign with the Yankees was even better, as he hit 20 home runs and 70 RBI in 2016. Gregorius is currently rehabbing from an injury sustained during the World Baseball Classic, and Yankee fans are anxious for his return.
The Yankees acquired Graig Nettles from the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of the 1973 season. A six-time All-Star in his career, Nettles quickly became the top run producer for the Bombers. He received MVP votes in leading the AL with 32 home runs in 1976. He topped that with an even better season in 1977, hitting 37 home runs and driving in 107 runs while finishing fifth in the AL MVP voting. Nettles was a defensive standout, being overshadowed in his day only by the legendary Brooks Robinson. Nettles also became a team leader with the Yankees, being named captain in 1984.
Chase Headley arrived via trade from the San Diego Padres during the 2014 season. He quickly made a splash, leading the Yankees to a win with a walk-off RBI single in the 14th inning after joining his new team mid-game. The Yankees re-signed Headley after the 2014 season, hoping he'd be a top a run producer while taking over for Alex Rodriguez at the hot corner. Following mediocre production in 2015 and 2016, Headley is off to a fast start this season. The Yankees and their fans hope it continues.
Outfield and DH
Reggie Jackson was the big hitter on the A's teams that won three consecutive World Series Championships from 1972 to 1974. Reggie won both the AL MVP award and the World Series MVP award in 1973.
Jackson signed a five-year contract with the Yankees prior to the 1977 season. At his introductory press conference, Jackson matter-of-factly stated, "I didn't come to New York to be a star, I brought my star with me." Jackson was signed as a free agent specifically to help the Yankees return to the championship glory that had eluded the team in 1976.
Reggie did not disappoint. He hit 32 home runs and led the team with 110 RBI in 1977, finishing eighth in the AL MVP voting. His three home runs on three consecutive pitches off three different pitchers in the clinching Game 6 of the 1977 World Series remains one of the most spectacular achievements in baseball history.
Aaron Judge was drafted by the Yankees in the 1st round (32nd) in 2013. The monster home run he hit at Yankee Stadium last season in his first career MLB at-bat made fans feel very optimistic about his future with the team. His 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances, not so much. So far this season, Judge has produced great results. He has driven in 13 runs and hit six home runs, while striking out only 16 times in 63 plate appearances. Fans hope Judge can continue at that pace, or even increase his production. The sky seems to be the limit with Aaron Judge.
Although Judge plays the position previously manned by Mr. October, Matt Holliday is the closest thing to Reggie Jackson in terms of a veteran bat and presence brought in to help lead a group of mostly youngsters. Signed as a free agent before the season to be the team’s primary designated hitter, Holliday brings with him a resume which includes seven All-Star appearances and eight seasons for which he earned MVP votes. Holliday led the St. Louis Cardinals to two National League Pennants and one World Series Championship prior to joining the Yankees.
Mickey Rivers, Roy White, and Lou Piniella rounded out the outfield for the 1977 Yankees. Roy White was drafted by the Yankees, while Mickey Rivers and Lou Piniella (another former ROY winner) were acquired via trade. Rivers served as a reliable leadoff man for the team and provided great defense in center field. Piniella and White formed a left field platoon.
The Yankees and their fans hope that Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury can get on base ahead of the big bats this season and maybe even create some havoc on the base paths. They are both expected to continue playing solid defense, Gardner having won the AL Gold Glove Award last season.
The Yankees scored 831 runs in 1977, fourth in the AL. They hit 184 home runs, good for third in the league. With all the talented, young power hitters on the team, this year’s squad has the potential to do even better. We can only hope that this season ends the same way as the 1977 season did, with a World Series Championship.