After the Yankees won their first World Series in 15 years in 1977, all the pieces were in place heading into the 1978 season for a repeat performance. All of the team’s top 12 producers in WAR from the ‘77 team would be returning, and three-time All-Star closer Rich “Goose” Gossage was added to a bullpen that already boasted the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Yankee fans were pretty confident that by season’s end the only question would be “How does this latest Yankees’ dynasty stack up against previous Yankee dynasties?” Possible answers quickly became a bit complicated, as we were all about to learn rollercoaster rides didn’t have anything on the 1978 Yankees.
Regular-season record: 100-63
Manager(s): Billy Martin (52-42), Dick Howser (0-1), Bob Lemon (48-20)
Top hitter by WAR: Willie Randolph (5.8)
Top pitcher by WAR: Ron Guidry (9.6)
World Series result: Yankees defeat Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2
It didn’t take long for tensions to rise in the Bronx in 1978, as the reigning champs looked and played like anything but. Whether it was due to a World Series hangover, several players with nagging injuries, constant public bickering between players, management and ownership, or the Boston Red Sox simply being very good — the Yankees found themselves 14 games out of first place on July 17th. Not only were they 14 games behind first-place Boston, there were two other teams ahead of them in the standings between them and the Red Sox as well. Keep in mind, this is pre-Wild Card era: 14 games back and fourth place on July 17, 1978 meant you already had a fork put in your back.
As if being in that position in baseball terms wasn’t bad enough, the non-baseball aspect of the Bronx Zoo — specifically the love/hate triangle of Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, and George Steinbrenner — also came to a head on July 17th. A Venn diagram is needed to comprehensively cover the next sequence of events, but the short version is this: In the 10th inning of a tie game with Jackson batting, there was some difference of opinion about whether or not Jackson should bunt – Martin didn’t want him to, but Jackson did anyway and popped out. Martin felt Jackson did it on purpose to show Martin up for not playing Jackson every day. For what it’s worth, Thurman Munson said Jackson told him he was going to bunt when they were both in the on-deck circle, and third-base coach Dick Howser gave Jackson the sign verbally, so there was no miscommunication.
Billy wanted Reggie suspended indefinitely, but Steinbrenner would only agree to five games. Martin made no secret of the fact he felt Jackson was overrated and wasn’t a team player and the perceived lack of backing from the Boss pushed Martin to the edge. (Persistent rumors of a trade of managers with Chicago for Bob Lemon already had Martin at DEFCON 1.) After being verbally combative with everybody around him for five days, Martin decided he’d resign before getting fired. Before doing so, however, he famously said of Jackson and Steinbrenner “They deserve each other. One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.” Then he pointed out the team had won five in a row without Reggie and resigned.
Regardless, Howser managed the next evening, and Lemon did take over Martin’s position on July 25th. Non-baseball issues were clearly set aside as the Yankees also became healthier and went 52-20 over their last 72 games. The highlight of the stretch was when the Yankees went into Fenway Park for a four-game series in early September with the lead cut to four games. Four Yankee wins by a combined score of 42-9 embarrassed the Red Sox, but more importantly, tied the teams for the division lead.
On the season’s last day, and now with a one-game lead, all the Yankees had to do to complete the legendary comeback was to win at home against a Cleveland team that was 31 games under .500. Not only did they fail in their attempt, but Boston won their game in Fenway and posted “Thanks Rick Waits!” (Cleveland’s starting pitcher that day) on the Fenway scoreboard.
What happened in the 163rd game of the season and how Bucky Dent acquired his new name has been well documented, and we all have Bill White’s call in our memories.
There was an important sequence in that game, however, that is typically overlooked:
In the bottom of the sixth inning with Boston leading 1-0, Rick Burleson led off with a double. The Red Sox had nobody out, a runner on second base, with Jerry Remy, Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and Fred Lynn due up. In a situation that had game-ending, huge inning written all over it, Boston manager Don Zimmer had Remy bunt Burleson to third. Rice followed with a single, driving in what would be their only run that inning. I’m sure you remember what happened next — the Yankees scored three the next inning, Dent entered tortured Boston lore, New York won by one run, and the rest is history. I never got to meet Zimmer, but if I had, the first round would’ve been on me for that sequence alone.
After exchanging blowout wins in the first two games of the ALCS, the Yankees and Royals took the series to the Bronx for Game 3. In the bottom of the eighth with Kansas City leading 5-4 in large part due to three home runs from George Brett, Thurman Munson came to the plate with the tying run on first base. The Captain hit a ball into the monuments in left-center field, which if you don’t recall, in Yankee Stadium II was far enough away that Giancarlo Stanton would be proud to hit one that far.
After Munson’s clutch home run, Gossage got the Royals in order in the ninth, including Brett for once. Then in Game 4, the Yankees closed out the Series on the strength of homers from Graig Nettles and Roy White, and an eight-inning, one-run performance from Ron Guidry, who was coming off the heels of an incredible 1.74 ERA season with an all-time Yankees best 248 strikeouts (including 18 in one night), winning the Cy Young Award. Once again, the Dodgers would be the last team standing between the Yankees and another championship.
The Yankees immediately created concern for themselves and their fans by losing the first two games in Los Angeles. Back in the Bronx, the Yankees won Game 3, and a cursory look in hindsight would suggest that a dominant performance from Guidry was the reason, as “Gator” threw a complete game, allowing only one run.
Guidry was good to be sure, but he and the Yankees were saved by Nettles’ glove in the fifth and sixth innings. In both instances, the Dodgers had the bases loaded with two out and their batter (Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes respectively) smoke a ball down the line that easily would have scored two, possibly three runs in both cases. Yet both times, Nettles made a highlight-reel grab and threw to second for a force-out to end the threat.
The Yankees, with a clutch game-tying eighth-inning double from Munson, and a walk-off single in the 12th inning from Lou Piniella, tied the Series in Game 4. They followed that with a blowout win in Game 5, sending the Series back to Los Angeles with the Yankees having a chance to end it in Game 6.
With future Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Don Sutton squaring off in Game 6, the Yankees took a 3-2 into the sixth inning, when unlikely Series batting stars Dent and Brian Doyle expanded the lead to 5-2 with a sacrifice fly and an RBI single, respectively. In the seventh, Reggie put the game out of reach against his nemesis* Bob Welch with a two-run home run.
*Welch had fanned Reggie with the tying run on second base to end the game in Game 2.
When Gossage closed out the game with a perfect ninth inning, the Yankees had completed an unforgettable season with their second World Series win in a row.
In the Series, Reggie had 26 plate appearances, reached base 13 times, hit a pair of home runs, and drove in eight. Doyle, filling in for the injured Willie Randolph etched himself in Yankees folklore by going 7-for-16 and scoring 4 runs. Yet Dent, the glove-first shortstop who had already stunned everybody with his bat in Boston, was the star of the Series. Dent’s ten hits, seven RBI, and three runs scored earned him the Series MVP.
The Yankees have won 27 World Series in their history, and it would be hard to argue that any were won in a crazier fashion over the course of the season than their ‘78 title. They went from can’t miss, no doubt about it favorites to having no chance whatsoever within three months. By October, absolutely nobody knew what to expect from that group, but we all knew it wouldn’t be boring – not on the field, and certainly not off it.