From 1923 through 1962, 40 World Series were played and the Yankees won 20 of them. For anyone born after World War I, there was never a time in which the Yankees weren’t great. Then from 1965 through 1975, not only were the Yankees not great, they weren’t particularly good either. The Mickey Mantles and Whitey Fords of the team aged out, and the new-look Yankees weren’t particularly inspiring.
Then in 1976, due in large part to a roster born from a slew of smart moves (nine of the top 11 WAR producers were acquired via trade), the team won 97 games, and a dramatic ALCS over Kansas City. Ending their 12-year AL pennant drought was huge news of course, but the season ended with a whimper at the hands of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine — which, quite obviously, is nothing of which to be ashamed.
Knowing that all key players would be returning in 1977, and expecting the starting rotation to get a boost from rookie phenom Ron Guidry, it was no secret that the 1977 Yankees were going to be very good. The question was, “Would they be good enough?” To address that question, the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent in November of 1976, and the plot of the ‘77 Yankees season thickened, to say the least. The ‘77 Yankees are a story of the sport’s preeminent franchise returning to glory with their new star pushing them over the top, and becoming a legend himself in the process.
Regular-season record: 100-62
Manager: Billy Martin
Top hitter by WAR: Graig Nettles (5.5)
Top pitcher by WAR: Ron Guidry (4.8)
World Series result: Yankees defeat Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2
The Yankees came out of the gate slowly in 1977, losing eight of their first 10. Even after righting the ship, they were still only 21-18 on May 23rd, which created some tension as everyone knew both Boston and Baltimore were loaded and weren’t going to just fade away. (Additionally, as we’d come to learn, with Billy Martin as a manger and George Steinbrenner as an owner, there was always going to be tension.)
By June 17th, the Yankees had scratched their way to the top of the AL East and held a half-game lead over Boston as they took the field in Fenway that day. After getting pummeled by the Red Sox and losing their hold on first place, the Yankees were on the wrong end of another beating at the hands of their rivals on June 18th.
The Yanks trailed 7-4 with Boston batting with one on and one out in the bottom of the sixth when Jim Rice hit a ball to right field that resulted in a double. Martin didn’t like the pitch and didn’t like the manner in which his right fielder played the ball so after returning to the dugout following a pitching change, he sent Paul Blair to right field to replace Jackson in the middle of the inning. That’s when this happened:
Billy Martin famously pulled Reggie Jackson from a game mid-inning on this day in 1977.pic.twitter.com/vsUksndXfP— YES Network (@YESNetwork) June 18, 2020
Fortunately for Martin, coach Elston Howard was a large man and stayed between the two. When Reggie calmly took his glasses off and placed them on the bench then turned to face Martin, many fans thought we were going to witness the literal end of Billy Martin right there on national TV. (“Oh my God, he’s going to kill him…” was a direct quote from my father who I was watching the game with.)
However, it never got to that and the focus was returned to baseball. Still, seven weeks later, the Yankees were only 59-49 and were five games out of first place. It took a torrid 41-13 stretch to close out the season and win the AL East. Considering that Boston and Baltimore both won 97 games, the Yankees needed to be that hot to ensure the division win.
For the season, the Yankees won 100 games and did it in a way that somewhat foreshadowed the dynasty that would come two decades later. There were no Ruths or Mantles putting up double-digit seasons in WAR — it was simply a team that was incredibly deep with very good players. For some perspective, the team boasted six players who produced between 5.5 and 4.5 WAR, and closer Sparky Lyle — who would win the Cy Young award that season — wasn’t one of them.
The work was far from over though as they’d face the 102-win Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, and in typical Yankees fashion of the day, it wouldn’t bore anyone. After falling behind two games to one in the five-game series, the Yankees led Game 4, 5-4 in the fourth inning. However, with two runners on base and two outs, Billy Martin wasn’t going to take any chances and summoned Sparky Lyle, his Cy Young award-winning closer to get out of the jam – in the fourth inning. Not only did Lyle get the team out of the jam, but he would close out the game, pitching 5.1 scoreless innings in relief.
That wouldn’t be the last time in the series that Martin’s unconventional ways would come into play. In the decisive fifth game, with the Yankees trailing 3-1 in the eighth and with a runner in scoring position, Martin sent Jackson up to pinch-hit for Cliff Johnson. Yes, you read that correctly, Martin did not want his future Hall of Famer with the 150 OPS+ in 1977 to start against the Royals’ tough lefty, Paul Splittorff.
If you’re curious, Reggie posted a .351/.538 OBP/SLG line against left-handed pitchers in 1977 with 13 homers in 223 at-bats. But before you go too crazy laughing at Martin’s expense, Johnson posted a ridiculous .466/.701 OBP/SLG line with 13 homers in 144 at-bats versus southpaws in 1977. With Johnson as the designated hitter, Martin could also start defensive whiz Paul Blair in the expansive carpet-covered right field in Kansas City.
Martin’s enormous roll of the dice worked, as Johnson doubled and walked in three plate appearances, and Reggie came through with an RBI single in that pinch-hitting appearance to cut the lead to one. Then in the ninth, the Yankees would score three runs on two hits, a walk, and a costly George Brett error. Lyle closed out the game yet again, and the Yankees had won the series 3-2. They were off to the Fall Classic for the second year in a row, this time to face the Dodgers.
After taking a two games to one lead in the World Series with the help of a Blair walk-off hit in the opener, the Yanks put the Dodgers on the brink with a Game 4 win, led by a complete game from young ace Ron Guidry and a home run from Jackson. Yet despite another home run from Jackson, the Yankees conceded Game 5 to the Dodgers and the series returned to the Bronx with the Yankees leading, three games to two. What we didn’t know at the time is that we were about to witness one of, if not the greatest, individual performances in World Series history, and with it, the bestowment of one of the sport’s most iconic nicknames.
Despite Jackson drawing a second-inning walk and scoring on a Chris Chambliss home run, the Yankees found themselves trailing 3-2, in the bottom of the fourth inning. That’s when Thurman Munson led off the inning with a single, and Jackson followed by hitting the first pitch he saw from Burt Hooton into the seats, giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead, sending Hooton to the showers in the process.
Soon thereafter, in the bottom of the fifth inning and the Yankees now leading 5-3, Reggie hit the first pitch he saw from Dodgers’ reliever Elias Sosa into the seats. This scored Mickey Rivers, who had led off the inning with a single, and gave the Yankees a 7-3 lead — it also sent Sosa to the showers.
Later in the eighth inning with the light fading on the Dodgers’ hopes, Reggie laid to rest any positive thoughts the Dodgers may have still had. Reggie took the first pitch he saw from Charlie Hough and sent it into the storied black section of the center field bleachers in Yankee Stadium. When it landed the Yankees had an 8-3 lead, and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda likely realized that his pitchers weren’t bad, it was that Mr. October was born — and thus he passed on the pitching change this time.
The Yankees would close out the game and the series for their first championship in 15 years — eons in Yankee time. For his part, Reggie went to the plate 24 times in the series, reached base 13 times, hit five home runs, scored 10, and drove in eight. In addition to his new nickname, he was named World Series MVP to no one’s surprise.
The 1977 season took place at a turbulent time in New York City, and during a turning point in Yankees franchise history. It had many crazy moments with many individuals who were entertaining both on and off the field. Yet ultimately, it was a story about the “straw that stirs the drink” and the rise of Mr. October.