April 8, 1978 marked an inauspicious beginning to New York’s title defense. Newly signed free agent Rich “Goose” Gossage coughed up a walk-off home run to the first batter he faced as a Yankee, wasting a fine start from Ron Guidry. Thus began a season-long roller coaster ride that would culminate in the storied franchise’s 22nd World Series championship. That 1978 campaign has long been remembered as one of the most thrilling in Yankees history.
The previous October, New York had finally broken its 14-year championship drought by defeating the Dodgers four games to two in the Fall Classic. The Bombers won in epic fashion, with Reggie Jackson belting three home runs on consecutive pitches off a trio of pitchers in the decisive Game 6. Built around a solid core group of players, the club was keen to repeat as champions heading into the 1978 season.
Two notable changes occurred. Mike Torrez — the soft-tosser who solidified the rotation following an early-season trade and ended up earning the complete game win in the World Series clincher — defected to the rival Red Sox. Gossage signed on as the club’s new closer. This, despite the incumbent Sparky Lyle just winning the Cy Young Award. The issue became just one of many sources of friction the Yankees would proceed to overcome.
Manager Billy Martin frequently fought with both Jackson and owner George Steinnbrenner, often over Reggie’s usage. Things came to a head on July 17th against Kansas City. With the score tied at five, Thurman Munson led off the bottom of the 10th with a single. Martin put on the bunt sign when Jackson came to the plate, but then removed it following a first-pitch foul ball. Jackson continued trying to bunt, eventually popping out. Martin subsequently pinch-hit for Jackson with a runner on and the Yankees trailing by two in the 11th inning. When Cliff Johnson flied out to end the game, the Yankees hit rock bottom, 14 games out of first place.
Following the game, Martin tried to suspend Jackson for the remainder of the season for ignoring the sign — which Reggie denied doing. The front office reduced the punishment to five games, but Martin still fumed. When asked about Jackson and Steinbrenner at a press conference, he said, “one’s a born liar and the other is convicted.” With his firing imminent, Martin tearfully resigned on the 24th. Ironically, the team had a five-game winning streak going and had reduced their AL East deficit to ten games.
After third-base coach Dick Howser managed one game on an interim basis, the club announced Bob Lemon as Martin’s replacement. The soft-spoken Lemon represented the antithesis of the fiery Martin. Under Lemon, the team continued its historic comeback, going 48-20 (.706) the rest of the way.
The drama didn’t end, though. The fan base revolted against Martin’s ouster. A mere days after Lemon took over, at the annual Old Timer’s Day, the team announced that Martin would return as Yankees manager in 1980. The carefully scripted and orchestrated piece of theater was something you had to witness to believe. A parade of legends including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford each made his entrance to a standing ovation. Then came Martin, bringing down the house to thunderous, unrelenting applause — like a conquering Caesar returning to Rome. The fans loved it.
The team still had a big hole to dig themselves out of if they wanted to make the playoffs. Remember, there was no Wild Card back then. You either won the seven-team AL East or you went home.
The Yankees finally found themselves within striking distance as they traveled to Boston for an early-September four-game series. They were only four games behind the first-place Red Sox, but a sweep at the hands of their bitter rivals would have essentially put the division title out of reach. With the schedule dwindling, even garnering a split would have severely hurt their chances. No, New York needed to get it done at Fenway Park.
That’s precisely what the Yankees did. The Bombers outscored their arch-nemesis 42-9, sweeping the series. With 20 games to play, the AL East was in a dead heat.
New York played well down the stretch, but so did Boston. The Yankees rode a six-game winning streak into the final day of the season with a chance to win the East outright, but dropped Game 162 to the sixth-place Indians. This defeat set up the now famous single-game winner-take-all match with the Red Sox. Having lost the coin toss, the Yankees would have to win one more game in Beantown if they were to earn an opportunity to defend their title.
Ron Guidry, the team ace with 24 wins, got the start for New York. Former ace Torrez took the hill for Boston. The pitching dual was as anticipated, with the Yankees trailing 2-0 in the seventh inning when Bucky Dent came up with two on. His three-run home run would forever etch the light-hitting shortstop into Yankee lore. It didn’t win the game, though. Munson’s RBI-double gave New York a 4-2 lead, with Reggie providing the game-winning solo homer in the eighth.
With the tying run on, future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski popped out to Graig Nettles in foul territory to seal the win and the division title for New York. After the game, Nettles quipped to Gossage, “I told you to pop him up, but not to me!”
The Bombers went on to defeat the Royals for the third straight year in the ALCS, this time in four games. They met the Dodgers in the World Series once again, winning in six games for the second year in a row. Game 163 hero Bucky Dent hit .417, claiming MVP honors. He also won the Babe Ruth Award for most outstanding player in the postseason.
Guidry finished 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, winning the Cy Young Award unanimously. The Southpaw also finished second in the MVP voting behind Boston’s Jim Rice. Nettles, Gossage, Jackson, Lou Piniella, Munson, Mickey Rivers, and Willie Randolph also received MVP votes for their strong campaigns. Righty starter Ed Figueroa notched his 20th victory of the year in the last weekend of the season. He remains the only player born in Puerto Rico to accomplish the feat.
The team sometimes got a bad rap for in-fighting and selfishness, but these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. They had a lot of fun playing together. Gossage recalled getting into the bullpen car that ferried relievers to the dugout. Rivers jumped on the hood, screaming, “Don’t let him in the game!” Another time Munson greeted him on the mound, asking, “How you gonna lose this one?”
This was a close-knit bunch, who were very competitive and always came together, on and off the field. Years later, Lyle and Gossage remain close. Lyle traveled to Cooperstown to see his friend inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. Hall of Fame inductee Jackson also praised his friend Munson as one of the greatest clutch hitters ever. We’ll get to see at least some of the teammates reunited on Monday when Rivers and Dent throw out the ceremonial pitches before the home opener.
For more about the 1978 Yankees, pick up a copy of “The Bronx Zoo” by Sparky Lyle. It’s one of my favorite baseball books — a fun insider view of one of the most exciting teams I’ve seen play our beloved game.