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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #12 Ron Guidry

On the Mount Rushmore of Yankee pitchers, the diminutive “Gator” had a spectacular career in pinstripes

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Yankees v Dodgers Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Full Name: Ronald Ames Guidry
Position: Starting Pitcher
Born: August 28, 1950 (Lafayette, LA)
Yankee Years: 1975-88
Primary number: 49
Yankee statistics: 170-91, 2,392 IP, 1,778 K, 3.29 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 323 GS, 95 CG, 26 SHO, 119 ERA+, 49.3 fWAR, 47.9 rWAR

Biography

Ron Guidry. “Louisiana Lightning.” For Yankees fans of a certain age, there is a good chance he was their guy. He broke into the bigs at age 24 in 1975, but it wasn’t until two years later that he locked down a spot in the Yankees rotation. From there, he went on an absolute tear, highlighted by his superhuman 1978 season.

Early in Guidry’s career, he must have thought that playing in the postseason was a given, as the Yankees made one October appearance after another. But for the final seven years of his time in the majors, he never sniffed playoff baseball. After retirement, he made his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1994 and lasted for nine years, never eclipsing 8.8 percent of the vote.

At the end of the day though, Guidry’s name litters the all-time leaderboard of a franchise that has been around for quite a while. Third in strikeouts among Yankee hurlers, fourth in rWAR among pitchers, fifth in wins and games started, Guidry comes in at No. 12 on our list of all-time greatest Yankees.

Early Life

The child who would eventually become one of the pre-eminent Yankee hurlers of all-time was born on August 28, 1950, in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Roland and Mary Grace Guidry. Ron spent time hunting and fishing on the bayous as a youngster, often speaking Cajun French.

His father was a railroad conductor, and his mother was extremely protective of young Ron, preferring he play close to home. One day though, after telling her he was going to visit his grandmother, Ron instead visited a nearby park where other boys were playing baseball. As recounted by Joseph Wancho in Guidry’s SABR biography, a ball got away and rolled towards him, so the youngster hurled it back. The thing is, Guidry chucked the ball so hard that a nearby man who happened to be a Little League coach and a friend of Roland’s sprinted over. “He came running over so fast, I thought I had done something wrong,” Guidry recalled.

Before Ron knew it, he was playing organized baseball. He excelled in baseball and track and field at Northside High School, and as Wancho notes, Guidry’s talent as a sprinter led to many college scholarship offers but he ultimately accepted a baseball scholarship from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). By his sophomore year, he was already hitting the mid-90s on the heater and was attracting eyes.

Road to The Show

The Yankees already had insight that Guidry could be special. Former pitcher Atley Donald had become a scout for them and he offered a promising review:

“At that age, you hope he’ll put on a little weight, but he never has,” the old scout said of Ron Guidry, who was then 20 years old. “I was afraid he was light for a major leaguer, but other little guys have been good pitchers, like Bobby Shantz, the little left‐hander who was with the A’s when they were in Philadelphia and later with the Yankees, but Shantz couldn’t throw as hard as this kid. But even though he was light, he gave you 100 percent. He could play. He was an athlete. When he wasn’t pitching, he was a good center fielder. He could run, throw and hit. But his arm is why I recommended him as high as I did.”

It took New York until the third round of the 1971 MLB Draft to put Donald’s recommendation into action, but they called Guidry’s name with the 67th overall pick. Ron headed to the Appalachian Rookie League that year to begin his minor league career. The good news? Sixty-one K’s in 47 IP. The bad news? Twenty-seven walks in 47 IP.

Control would continue to bedevil Guidry for years, as he struggled with elevated walk rates throughout his time in the minors. But even with National Guard service keeping him busy as well, he continued to progress through the Yankee system, accompanied by the free pass at every step. In ’72, he issues 50 free passes in 66 innings at A-ball. The following year, still at A-ball, he walked 70 in 101 frames. By 1974, the Yankees had moved him almost exclusively to the bullpen.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On Opening Day 1975, he was on the cusp of the majors. He began that season with Syracuse in Triple-A, where he made 42 relief appearances pitching for future Hall of Fame skipper Bobby Cox. Walks were still an issue, but Guidry was able to overcome them and locked down 14 saves.

New York called him up in late July, and on July 27th he made his first appearance during the opening game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox. Over two innings, he surrendered three hits, but kept Boston off the scoreboard.

Gator pitched well for New York for the rest of the ’75 season but that was not enough to keep him on the Opening Day roster the following year. When 1976 rolled around, Guidry was back at Triple-A, where he dominated until his return to the majors on May 20th.

Coming off consecutive appearances in Syracuse and got wiped out by the Red Sox. Per Wancho, Guidry was sure that Yankees skipper Billy Martin had intentionally set him up. “Billy had gotten Coxy’s report. But he was testing me, because he didn’t want me there; he was setting me up for failure,” Guidry said. “I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because I was a rookie and he wanted a more experienced guy. But it was clear he didn’t like me.”

To make things worse, the mercurial George Steinbrenner, Yankees owner, was also skeptical of Guidry. Steinbrenner went so far as to tell Guidry he’d “never be able to pitch in this league.” Guidry sat and stewed in the Yankee bullpen for a couple months before the club sent him back to Syracuse on July 6th.

Inflection points that could have seismically changed the Yankees keep cropping up as I write these pieces. The first one for Guidry happens here. Dispirited, he was ready to walk away. After packing up his car, he and Bonnie hit the road, headed back to Louisiana. During the drive, Bonnie turned to Gator and asked, “Are you sure you want to give up on everything you’ve been working toward for the last 10 years? You’ve never quit on anything you thought you could do in your life. Don’t quit on your own. Let the Yankees tell you you’re no good before you think of quitting.” For want of a nail… thanks, Bonnie.

Gator reported to Triple-A where he pitched very well before the Yanks called him up in early August. He made a handful more appearances that season and found himself on the playoff roster. For that he can thank his sprinter’s speed. He never did pitch in ’76 playoffs. But he did pinch-run against the Royals in Game 4 of the ALCS. (The well-rounded athlete also became a talented defensive player, winning five Gold Gloves on the mound.)

Inflection point number two followed in short order. With 1977 approaching, the front office had its eyes on White Sox shortstop Bucky Dent. Chicago wanted Oscar Gamble and LaMarr Hoyt, both of whom the ChiSox obtained. But they also wanted one more pitching prospect. Martin and Steinbrenner were eager to ride Guidry out of town on a rail but club president Gabe Paul intervened. Guidry would stay in New York, with Bob Polinsky headed to Chicago in his stead.

A (Louisiana) Lightning Storm

On April 13, 1977, Gator entered in relief of Ed Figueroa in the seventh inning of a game against the Royals. He hurled 2.2 frames of scoreless ball. His reward? His first big league win. Sixteen days later, he made his first start. Facing the brand-new Seattle Mariners, Gator dominated with 8.1 innings of shutout ball.

By mid-May he was a rotation staple, and he more than met expectations. When the season came to an end, Guidry finished with a 16-7 record and a 2.82 ERA. Though I’m relatively confident no one knew it at the time, he led the American League in FIP. Moreover, he finished down ballot in both AL Cy Young (7th) and MVP (18th) voting.

He also notched his first World Series title, thanks in no small part to his complete-game victory against the Dodgers in Game 4 of the Fall Classic. All told, he spun two CG’s that fall en route to the Yankees’ championship. Even irascible Billy Martin deigned to say something nice about Gator. “I can’t say enough about him,” Martin opined. “He’s one of the hardest left-handed throwers in baseball. And he’s just as good as a guy can be out there. He had a very bad spring, but there was no question he’d ever come around.”

If 1977 had been the best season of Guidry’s career, that would have been nothing to be ashamed of. But he came out in ’78 and blew the doors off. Most famously, on June 17th he broke a 59-year-old Yankee record when he whiffed 18 Angels hitters. The high-water mark still stands today.

Interestingly, this game is also the origin story of the “Louisiana Lightning” moniker. A fan held up a sign in the stands with that inscribed. Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto noticed, and a legendary nickname was born.

As an aside, I have a friend who was at that game and when you make him choose between that or the 2001 World Series “Mr. November” game as his favorite in-person Yanks game, he narrowly comes down on the side of the latter, only because it’s a playoff game. “He [Guidry] was just setting them and knocking them down. I could watch that whole game right now,” he recalled when I asked him about Guidry’s performance.

But back to Gator’s ’78 season. The black ink on his metaphorical baseball card is spectacular. He led the majors in wins (25), win percentage (.893), ERA (1.74), shutouts (9), ERA+ (208), FIP (2.19), WHIP (.946), and hits per nine innings (6.1). He paced the American League in rWAR (9.6). His 248 strikeouts set a club record that lasted until a fellow named Gerrit Cole broke it over 40 years later. He received every first-place vote for AL Cy Young and finished second in AL MVP voting to Jim Rice. A couple of years ago, Andrés Chávez looked at the five best pitching seasons in club history by fWAR. Louisiana Lightning sits alone at number one.

When the October spotlight put the pressure on, Guidry didn’t miss a beat. The AL East playoff in enemy territory at Fenway Park on three days’ rest? Two-run ball into the seventh, setting the stage for Bucky Dent.

Next up was the ALCS against those pesky Royals. He had to wait until Game 4 to pitch, but he spun eight innings with one run allowed to help clinch the pennant. As for the World Series rematch versus the Dodgers? A complete-game, one-run performance in Game 3. In his first five career playoff starts, Guidry was 4-0, having thrown 37.1 innings, with three complete games sprinkled in. The Yanks were again world champions and Ron Guidry had just authored one of the great seasons in franchise history.

1979 was a season of personal success for Guidry, but unbearable tragedy for the Yankees. Gator eclipsed the 200-inning and 200-strikeout marks, paced the Junior Circuit in ERA, and finished third in Cy Young voting. But batterymate Thurman Munson, another Yankee who’s highly ranked on this list, died in a plane crash on August 2nd.

The 1980 campaign was kinder to the club, though Guidry fought through some struggles that included a sojourn in the bullpen to fix what ailed him. New York went 103-59 and Gator won 17 games. Kansas City greeted him rudely in the ALCS, however. In his only start in the series, which the Yanks lost, gave up four runs in three innings and took his first-ever playoff loss.

1981 was a turbulent season, with an in-season strike eating up 50 days. Guidry was once again magnificent though. He pitched to a 2.76 ERA over 23 appearances and finished seventh in Cy Young voting. When the playoffs rolled around though, he initially got roughed up. His two starts against Milwaukee in the ALDS ended with five earned runs allowed over 8.1 innings.

After New York swept the ALCS though, Gator did his part in the World Series against the Dodgers. First, he took the mound in Game 1 and led the Yanks to victory. He took the ball again in Game 5. He held the Dodgers off the scoreboard through six, but in the seventh, they put two runs on him. Unfortunately, that was enough on a night when LA starter Jerry Reuss hurled a one-run complete game. The Yanks fell to their former neighbors in six. Little could Guidry have imagined it, but that Game 5 loss was his last taste of postseason baseball.

A Decade of Darkness

The rest of Guidry’s tenure with the Yanks saw them fail to return to meaningful fall baseball, though there were some pretty good teams sprinkled in there. Throughout, Guidry was a constant, and in 1986, the Yankees honored him by naming him co-captain alongside Willie Randolph.

Across the back nine of his career, Guidry still won 20 games two more times, including an AL-leading 22 victories in 1985, plus a 1.100 WHIP and a 123 ERA+. New York captured 97 victories as a whole, but fell a couple wins shy of Gator’s old Triple-A skipper Cox and his Toronto Blue Jays for the AL East crown. Guidry would finish second to Bret Saberhagen for the Cy Young Award.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

All told, Guidry won 83 more games for the Yanks over his final seven seasons, throwing just under 1,300 innings.

At the close of the 1984 campaign, he received the Roberto Clemente Award for his work with the Special Olympics. He was the first Yankee ever honored with the prestigious prize. Don Baylor (1985), Derek Jeter (2009), and Aaron Judge (2023) have since joined him on that list.

By 1988, Guidry was almost done. A bone spur drastically curtailed his playing time in ’88 and that off-season he went under the knife. Guidry came to spring training in ’89 but the Yankees opted to send him down to Triple-A, unsure if he had anything left. After going 1-5 in the minors, he decided it was time to hang them up.

Following his retirement, Wendy Lochner, a former New York resident who had moved to Chicago, wrote to the New York Times with a much better tribute to Gator than I could ever craft:

“Ron Guidry’s retirement is particularly poignant to those of us fans who are of his generation. I can still feel the almost hallucinogenic quality on the nights he was pitching: the lights were more spectrally white, the grass translucent and gleaming. A rapture of anticipation attended his every pitch, and the seamless streamline of his form seemed timeless, mystic… I tip my hat to Guidry one last time in appreciation and gratitude for the experiences and the memories. They will be part of my life always.”

Post-Playing Career

After retirement, Guidry headed back to Louisiana to hunt, fish, and spend time with his wife, Bonnie, and the rest of his family. There are much worse ways to spend retirement, honestly.

The Yankees, more than a decade after he hung up his cleats, decided to honor one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history. On August 23, 2003, the Yanks retired Guidry’s number 49 and dedicated a plaque in Monument Park to him. Guidry for his part labored over what to say to the fanbase he’d pitched in front of for his entire career.

“This will probably be my toughest game, trying to tell you how much I appreciate today,” said Guidry. “I spent three hours working on my speech. I don’t think it’s going to do me any good… The only regret I’ve had since I retired in 1988 is that I never had a chance to say goodbye to all the great Yankee fans. I enjoyed pitching for you and I especially loved it when you clapped when there were two strikes on the batter. I just want you to know I heard that.”

Guidry had spent time as a guest instructor with New York in the early ‘90s. Before the ’06 season, Joe Torre hired him as pitching coach, replacing Mel Stottlemyre, who had grown weary of Steinbrenner. He spent two seasons as the club’s pitching coach, departing when Torre did, and continued to spend time as a Yankees spring training instructor (forming a close bond with former skipper Yogi Berra).

This is the second consecutive Yankee I have written about whose Hall of Fame worthiness intrigues me. Unlike Jorge Posada, who only lasted one year on the ballot, Guidry lasted nine years, so it is difficult to complain he did not get consideration. Several years ago, Joe Posnanski of The Athletic wrote about the greatest players not in the Hall. He ranked Guidry at 85, summing him up thusly:

“Guidry only won 170 games in his career which all but disqualified him in the minds of many Hall of Fame voters. But from 1977-85, Guidry was markedly better than many pitchers currently in the Hall of Fame.”

Hall or no Hall, Gator had a heck of a Yankee career, one punctuated by multiple World Series titles and one of the greatest individual seasons on the mound by a Yankee since integration.

Staff rank: 12
Community rank: 12
Stats rank: 12
2013 rank: 13

References

About the Yankees.” The New York Times. July 28, 1975.

Baseball-Reference

Chass, Murray. “Guidry Fans 18 Angels for Yank Mark And Wins No. 11 Without Loss, 4-0.” The New York Times. June 18, 1978.

Chass, Murray. “Guidry Gains First Victory In Majors.” The New York Times. April 14, 1977.

Chávez, Andrés. “The Yankees’ most impressive individual pitching seasons by WAR.” Pinstripe Alley. February 25, 2022.

FanGraphs

Posnanski, Joe. “The Outsiders: The best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame, 90-81.” The Athletic. December 2, 2020.

This day in MLBPA history: The 50-day strike in 1981 ends with compromise.” MLB.com. July 31, 2016.

Wancho, Joseph. “Ron Guidry.” SABR. August 5, 2019.

Previously on the Top 100

13. Bernie Williams
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