After a decade-plus of vacillating between poor play and mediocrity, the Yankees returned to baseball prominence again in 1976. The team couldn’t overcome the rather large obstacle of the Big Red Machine in the World Series, but a 97-win season followed by an unforgettable victory over the Royals in the ALCS had the Yankees on the precipice of greatness again.
That offseason, the team signed the self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink” to push them over the top, and Reggie Jackson did indeed stir things up in 1977. From a dugout confrontation with manager Billy Martin in June to a historic World Series performance against the Dodgers, we fans saw that not only was Reggie a great player, but he had a proclivity for turning baseball games into spectacles, usually to our benefit.
Entering the 1978 season, expectations were once again sky high for both the team and Reggie. In hindsight, we know that the 1978 season was one of the wildest in team history and it didn’t take long for it to get that way. Forty-four years ago tomorrow, uniform No. 44 in pinstripes was at the center of yet another spectacle in Yankees’ history, and once again, it was to our benefit.
The Yankees started the season on the road and lost four of their first five games, which of course is not anything to push a panic button over – unless the team’s owner is George Steinbrenner. As a result, and as odd as it may sound, there was some pressure for the team to perform up to expectations in their home opener on April 13. To make matters even more intriguing, and to put even more focus on their star right fielder, the Yankees would be debuting the “Reggie!” bar, an insulin-spiking, cavity-creating free snack distributed to all fans who’d be in attendance that day. As luck would have it, a I would be one of the fans to receive a “Reggie!” bar upon entering Yankee Stadium that afternoon.
I just was seven years old, so my disc of caramel, peanut butter, and peanuts covered in milk chocolate was eaten within seconds of receiving it. (This, as you may know, would come into play a little while later.) What my young mind struggled to understand that day was that the opposing starter, Wilbur Wood of the White Sox, was an old and rather un-athletic looking guy whose pitches were very, very slow. My father assured me that Wood was a very good pitcher, and that we were likely to see a well-pitched, competitive game, with Wood facing off with Ron Guidry. Of course, my father was right as Wood had finished in the top five in the Cy Young Award voting three years in a row from 1971-to 1973 and was one of the better knuckleball pitchers in baseball history - but all I saw were very slow pitches.
After a scoreless top of the first, the Yankees started their half of the inning with a leadoff walk from Willie Randolph and an infield single from Mickey Rivers. Thurman Munson struck out for the first out and seemed to mutter something not so under his breath about knuckleballs on his way back to the dugout. This brought Reggie to the plate and created quite a buzz throughout the crowd of 44,667 that day. Imagine, here’s a guy who once said a candy bar would be named after him, and here thousands of fans were holding that candy bar (but not me, anymore) while he stepped into the batter’s box.
In the event anyone forgot, the last time Reggie was in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium, he hit his third of three home runs in three consecutive at-bats in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series to clinch the Yankees’ win (somewhat ironically off knuckleballer Charlie Hough.) Prior to that, he hit a home run off the Dodgers’ Don Sutton in his last at-bat in Game 5, giving him four home runs in his previous four at-bats at the then relatively new Stadium.
It didn’t take long for Reggie to make it five long balls in five consecutive at-bats as he drove a Wood knuckler over the right-center-field wall to give the Yankees a three-run lead. As you likely recall, due to the absolute absurdity of the circumstances, a good number of fans celebrated by throwing their brand new “Reggie!” bars onto the field.
Today In 1978: In a memorable Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, Roger Maris returns to raise the #Yankees World Championship flag with Mickey Mantle - and fans shower the field with "Reggie!" candy bars after Reggie Jackson hits a HR with his first swing of the season! #MLB #History pic.twitter.com/X2FYWGHk3d— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) April 13, 2019
This blew my seven-year-old mind. Why would people throw a perfectly good candy bar onto the field? I mean, it tasted good! No way I would’ve thrown it even if I still had it. As happy as I was about the home run, I was simultaneously befuddled by the behavior of so many Yankees fans as I was standing and applauding. My father could only shrug as if to say “Doesn’t make sense to me either” when I looked at him for an explanation. Turns out as much fun as we fans – both the candy flinging and the rest of us - were having, the White Sox didn’t find it particularly amusing.
“It was just a shame that something like that has to happen,” Wood would say later. “It’s not called for,” added Bob Lemon*, the White Sox’ usually reticent manager, pointing out that someone could have been injured by the flying discs of caramel and peanuts. “Let them throw them when he’s in right field,” Lemon said “See how he feels.” Lemon continued by pointing out “People starving all over the world and 30 billion calories are laying on the field.”
(*In case you were wondering, yes, the same Bob Lemon who would be hired to replace Martin as the Yankees’ manager three months after this game. I used the word “spectacle” earlier and it just isn’t a strong enough word for this era in Yankees history.)
After a brief delay to clear the field of the “Reggie!” bars, the White Sox would score two in the second inning, and then the game did turn into the pitching duel that my father told me to expect. It wasn’t until the bottom of the eighth when Bucky Dent added a sacrifice fly to score Roy White for an insurance run did either team have a player cross the plate. Not that any fans minded the lack of offense – the early charge that Reggie gave us lasted a couple of hours, and those of us who ate our bars instead of throwing them were still riding sugar highs.
Some of that excitement even reached the Yankees radio booth. Many fans had transistor radios, so we were able to hear legendary announcer Frank Messer speculate about which Yankee should have a candy bar named after him next. (Due to the sacrifice fly RBI and the alliteration, Messer decided it should be a “Bucky Bar.”)
That home opener in 1978 foretold much about how the rest of the season would go. Reggie would hit a lot of homers, Guidry would toss plenty of complete-game wins, Bucky wouldn’t get his own candy bar but he would become a big game hero, and the Yankees would win a lot of games. Just as importantly from the standpoint of nostalgia, the spectacle never ended either.