Forty-six years ago, baseball saw the beginning of free agency for MLB players who were without a contract and had six years of experience in the league. Given some of the big names the Yankees acquired over the next three years and given their success over that stretch — after not having been to a World Series since 1964 — the big market, big-spending teams buying their way to success tropes that we still hear today trace their origins to that Yankees dynasty.
Yet anyone who would go beyond just a cursory glance at those great Yankees teams would see that characterization is painted with strokes that are a little too broad, to put it mildly. If we’re being blunt, claiming George Steinbrenner and the Yankees bought their way to championships in the 1970s is simplistic. The reality is that the Yankees' success in the ‘70s had far less to do with free agent signings than many fans realize. Rather, the key driver to their winning ways was a string of moves that can only be described as trades in the loosest sense of the word, as they more resembled robberies. To that end, let’s take a closer look at what exactly turned the Yankees from also rans in the early 1970s into a dynasty by the late ‘70s.
Prior to 1972, the Yankees acquired Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry through the MLB draft and had Roy White on the roster from a signing that pre-dated the draft. Starting in the spring of 1972, general manager Lee MacPhail and his successors, Tal Smith and Gabe Paul, would orchestrate a series of trades that would turn the franchise from chumps to champs.
Although the Yankees weren’t overly successful on the field in 1972 and 1973, big pieces of their World Series puzzle were acquired when during that span, the team traded for Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, and Lou Piniella in three separate maneuvers. Through the 1978 season, Nettles would play in four All-Star games and finish in the top six in the American League MVP voting twice, while also winning two Gold Gloves. Piniella would receive MVP votes in two seasons and Lyle would make three All-Star teams, record two top-six MVP finishes, and win a Cy Young award. In exchange for the three, the Yankees parted with Danny Cater, Mario Guererro, John Ellis, Jerry Kenney, Charlie Spikes, Rusty Torres, Dan Challis, and Lindy McDaniel. I swear I only made up one of those names.
The Yankees continued the pattern of pickpocketing other teams as the 1974 season started by acquiring Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow in the same deal in April of ’74. From then through 1978, Chambliss would make an All-Star team, win a Gold Glove and receive MVP votes in two seasons, finishing as high as fifth in 1976 — the same season he also won the AL pennant with a powerful swing:
Tidrow became a valuable swingman, making 63 starts and 138 relief appearances through ’78, posting a better-than-league average ERA and FIP over that stretch. In exchange for the duo, the Yankees sent Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, Steve Kline, and Fritz Peterson on their way to Cleveland.
The team had improved, but the front office wasn’t done with their thieveries yet. After the 1975 season, the Yankees had themselves a day on December 11th, pulling off two separate trades that would have a huge future impact. Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa would arrive from California while Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis would arrive from Pittsburgh (along with George Brett’s brother). In Figueroa, the Yankees received a front end of the rotation starter who would have two top-seven finishes in Cy Young voting, an All-Star center fielder in Rivers who’d receive MVP votes each season from ’76 through ’78 (finishing as high as third in ’76) and the AL’s best second baseman by bWAR from ’76 through ’78 in Randolph. In exchange for the trio that would produce 40.1 bWAR over the next three years, the Yankees sent away Bobby Bonds and Doc Medich, who would produce 13.0 bWAR over the next three seasons combined.
In fact, by the time the 1976 season started, the Yankees had acquired via trade three of the AL’s top six bWAR producers from 1976 through 1978 in Nettles, Randolph, and Rivers. (The other three – Rod Carew, George Brett, and Carlton Fisk, would end up in Cooperstown.) They would join former draft picks Munson who was number 12 in the AL in bWAR from ’76 through ’78, adding an MVP award in 1976, and Guidry, the AL’s best pitcher per bWAR from ’77-’78.
All of the firepower was on display throughout the 1976 season, as the Yankees won 97 games and the AL East by 10.5. They’d win the ALCS in thrilling fashion over Kansas City before falling to the Big Red Machine in the World Series – which needless to say, there’s no shame in.
Then, in November of 1976, not wanting to take any chances with their newfound role of being the team to beat, the Yankees signed “the straw that stirs the drink”, inking free agent Reggie Jackson to a five-year contract. Yet despite the big splash in the free agent pool, the Yankees’ front office wasn’t done wheeling and dealing, as they added shortstop Bucky Dent just prior to Opening Day 1977. Although the Yankees certainly gave up value in the deal in Oscar Gamble and LaMarr Hoyt, Jackson’s presence rendered Gamble superfluous and Hoyt was still only in Double-A at the time. The Yankees, as good as they were in 1976, were in serious need of an upgrade at shortstop, and Dent certainly gave that to them.
Despite a sometimes tumultuous environment, the team would win 100 games in 1977, and once again would get past Kansas City in the ALCS. This time, however, they would win the World Series – the team’s first in 15 years – four games to two over the Dodgers. In the process, as I’m sure you remember, Reggie earned himself a new nickname.
The Yankees would make another big offseason splash in November of 1977 with the signing of free agent closer Rich “Goose” Gossage. Although Lyle and Tidrow formed a dominant one-two punch out of the bullpen in ’77, they combined for an astronomical 288 combined innings on the season, so adding Gossage wasn’t so much a case of an embarrassment of riches as it was being pragmatic.
After another season with numerous outside the lines issues, the Yankees would win 100 games again in 1978, winning the AL East in dramatic fashion over Boston in game number 163. Again, I’m sure you remember, Bucky Dent joined Reggie in getting a new nickname, albeit a more colorful one. The team would go on to beat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series, once again as well.
After a three year run that included three consecutive World Series appearances and back-to-back World Series wins, it’s hard to understate the impact the trades the Yankees’ front office pulled off had on the team’s success. Of the top 12 bWAR producers on the ’77 champs, eight were acquired via trade, while three (White, Munson, and Guidry) were “original” Yankees. Reggie was the only free agent to crack the team’s top 12 coming in at sixth with 4.5 bWAR.
In 1978, nine of the top 11 bWAR producers were trade acquisitions or original Yankees, with free agents Reggie (seventh, 3.5 bWAR) and Gossage (tenth, 3.2 bWAR) the only outliers. As much as the era is painted as the beginning of wild spending free agency and as much as George Steinbrenner is credited with the strategy of “buying championships” neither is really based in reality. At best, those are vast oversimplifications.
Let me be clear: The signings of Jackson and Gossage were great moves, and though they both had very good regular seasons for the Yankees, their impact in the postseasons alone made them worth every penny. If one wants to claim that free agents got the Yankees “over” the top, that’s certainly a justifiable position. Yet that’s not what got them “to” the top, and saying otherwise is doing a disservice to the Yankees front office at the time and the players who got them to the top.
Additionally, if you’ll allow me a moment to climb up on my high horse, it’s also helping feed a 46-year-old, largely false narrative about “rich teams” that still harms baseball discourse, labor negotiations, and ultimately our collective fandom, today.