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Vida Blue’s Yankees debut that never was

Looking back at an eventful June game against the White Sox, way back in 1976.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
Ken Holtzman
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On June 18, 1976, the Yankees played the White Sox in Chicago. The pitcher who was supposed to make his debut for them didn’t make it — he was barred from playing. But two southpaws recently acquired from the Orioles stepped up, and helped lead Billy Martin’s squad to a road victory.

The 1976 New York Yankees were a well-oiled machine. That team won 97 games and took home the AL pennant, defeating the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS during their first playoff appearance in 12 years. A World Series title wasn’t in the cards just yet, as they ran into the juggernaut that was the Big Red Machine in that particular Fall Classic.

That ballclub was an ode to the merits of depth, boasting a deep lineup with six out of its nine hitters carrying an OPS+ of at least 118, and a pitching staff that managed to put up the lowest ERA in the American League despite lacking a true ace. Ed Figueroa put up the best numbers for that rotation, with a 3.02 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP. Catfish Hunter wasn’t really the same, starting to experience a decline from his all-world numbers of years past.

In a flurry of moves, trying to secure the best possible roster to capitalize on a window of contention, Steinbrenner agreed to buy the rights to former MVP and Cy Young Award winner Vida Blue from the once-dynastic Oakland Athletics, taking advantage of the long dispute between Blue and the A’s owner, Charlie Finley.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Finley had previously made an attempt to dump Rollie Fingers’ contract on the Red Sox, a move that was ultimately vetoed by the Commissioner’s office, as was his subsequent attempt to basically sell off Blue. He would even try again later in the offseason, then to the Cincinnati Reds. However, the proximity to that transaction actually happening cannot be lost in history, and for that, we have to look back at that June 18th matchup between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox at old Comiskey Park.

Vida Blue was still supposed to be a Yankee at this time. In fact, manager Billy Martin planned on starting him in that series against the White Sox, and had been complaining about the Commissioner’s office hold-up of the deal, rightfully claiming he was scrambling to figure out his scheduled rotation for that series. With no Blue to take the mound, still stuck back in Oakland, Martin had to turn to another recent acquisition by the Yankees. The southpaw Ken Holtzman, who had just come over from the Baltimore Orioles in a massive 10-player deal, got the nod for his Yankee debut.

Holtzman, who hadn’t pitched in nearly a week and a half, had a crafty and ultimately successful start, avoiding extra-base hits, and pitching in and out of jams, for most of the night. A final line included 7.1 IP with nine hits allowed, but only two earned runs, to go along with one walk and a strikeout.

Holtzman went on to have a solid start to his Yankee career, even tossing back-to-back complete-game shutouts in the month of July, one of those coming at home, against these very same White Sox. He wound up struggling heavily in August and September, however, and declined even further in his subsequent years in the Bronx, before leaving for the Chicago Cubs in 1978 and retiring a year later in ‘79.

The White Sox jumped Holtzman in the eighth, and Billy Martin did what he would almost always do in those situations — turn to Sparky Lyle to put out the fire. The Yankees' premier reliever was making his fourth straight appearance and still managed to keep the White Sox quiet for three and two-thirds, allowing only a couple of hits, and striking out four.

As Lyle left the game during extra innings with the score was still tied up at 2-2, and on came another recent acquisition, also making his Yankee debut, in left-hander Grant Jackson. Jackson was another part of that huge trade with the O’s, and he would go on to show a bit of what was to come, holding the White Sox bats in check for another three innings, before the offense showed up to finish the job.

Jackson’s 1976 season with the Yankees was an absolute masterpiece, as the left-hander allowed 11 earned runs over 58.1 innings with a sub-1.00 WHIP, and even tossed in a complete-game shutout in one of his two starts.

The winning run for that ballgame came in the best-suited way to define the kind of game the Yankees played that night. In the top of the 14th inning with one out, Fred Stanley got aboard on a single to right, Mickey Rivers then laid down a bunt to the pitcher, and got to first safely. Stanley was even able to advance to third on a throwing error. All Roy White needed to do was hit a sac fly to the outfield, and the Yanks took the lead.

Over 14 frames, the Yankees’ lineup had reached base 17 times, and not once a hitter had an extra-base hit — there were 11 singles and six walks. Even the White Sox struggled to slug in that afternoon, with 10 of their 12 hits being singles.

When the Yankees first planned out that day, they hoped to ride their star pitching acquisition to a victory. They didn’t get the star after all, but they did get the win thanks to newcomer contributions just the same.