The New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals had waged epic battles in the American League Championship Series of 1976 and 1977, with the Yankees winning each in the ninth inning of the deciding fifth game (this round was best-of-five from 1969-84). The Yankees and Royals met for a third straight year in the 1978 ALCS. This one didn’t go down to the final inning—or even the final game. But it still had memorable games and a familiar result as the Yankees again advanced to the World Series.
You can read more about the regular season paths the Yankees and Royals took their division titles and about their key contributors at the links below. This article will focus on the games of the 1978 ALCS themselves.
The ALCS opened with two games in Kansas City and would conclude with the balance of the series in New York, in a system where homefield was determined by rotation rather than merit. The Yankees came in with a rotation that was out of whack, as they had just won an epic one-game playoff with the Boston Red Sox for the AL East title on Monday and had to open the ALCS in KC on Tuesday.
It was tailor-made for Kansas City to take control, as they sent staff ace Dennis Leonard to the mound to face a relatively untested Jim Beattie for New York. But the Royals missed their opportunity.
The Yankees got a run in the second when Roy White hit a one-out double, and Bucky Dent—fresh off his heroics at Fenway the previous afternoon—hit a two-out RBI single. The Royals missed a chance in the bottom of the inning, getting two walks with one out, but failing to score.
Reggie Jackson hit a two-out double off Leonard in the third, which was immediately followed by an RBI triple from Graig Nettles. The Yanks got two more in the fifth and chased Leonard, with an RBI single from Chris Chambliss and a two-out RBI single from second baseman Brian Doyle.
Beattie was cruising and only in the sixth did the Royals score, when George Brett doubled and came around on a sac fly. It was still a game at 4-1 in the eighth when Jackson came up with two on and two outs and blasted a three-run shot to ice it. New York had their road win, 7-1.
Larry Gura, the Kansas City left, was originally in the Yankee system and had gone to consistently pitch well against his old team. He got the ball for the Royals in a must-win Game 2 on Wednesday afternoon. This time it was KC who got off to the fast start. Brett hit a leadoff single in the first, moved to third on a one-out base hit by Amos Otis and scored on a sac fly by Darrell Porter.
Kansas City added on in the second. Singles by Clint Hurdle and Al Cowens were followed by a Dent error that let in a run and put runners on second and third. Frank White drove in both runs with a base hit. Another single by Hal McRae set up a two-out RBI hit from Freddie Patek, handing Gura a 5-0 lead.
Gura was rolling and not until the top of the seventh did New York get to him. Chambliss, Roy White, Dent and Mickey Rivers all hit singles, bringing in two runs with one out. With the tying run now at the plate, KC manager Whitey Herzog pulled Gura for Marty Pattin, who got the final two outs—though Lou Piniella did hit one on the screws with two outs, right at Otis in center.
The lead was still 5-2, and Kansas City immediately responded by putting the game away. Pete LaCock doubled, Hurdle tripled, and Patek, a light-hitting shortstop, went deep. It was 8-2, the teams traded two-spots in the eighth and the final was 10-4. The American League pennant was down to a best-of-three starting Friday afternoon in the Bronx.
Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS proved to be one of those special games, fraught with storylines, and on an individual level, Brett started one of them by homering to open the game. Paul Splittorff was on the mound for the Royals and his reputation against the Yankees in general—and Jackson in particular—was so great that Jackson had been benched for the deciding game of the 1977 ALCS when Splittorff was on the mound. Reggie started to take his revenge with a solo home run in the second.
Brett came up in the third and hit another home run. The Yankees came back with a pair in the fourth, as Jackson drove in Thurman Munson with an RBI single, and then later scored on a single by Pinellia and an error by Patek. With the score 3-2 in the top of the fifth, Brett hit another home run. Three home runs in an ALCS game was amazing enough, but Brett had his before the game was even halfway done. Fortunately for New York, no one was on base, so the score was still 3-3.
The story of Reggie’s Revenge continued to run parallel to Brett’s magnificence, as the Yankee rightfielder hit a sac fly following singles by Roy White and Munson. The Yankees clung to a 4-3 lead and manager Bob Lemon went to dominant closer Goose Gossage in the seventh inning.
In the eighth, KC got to the Goose. Otis ripped a leadoff double, and Porter singled to tie the game. Patek followed with another single, sending Porter to third, where he scored on a productive ground ball out from Cowens. At 5-4, Kansas City was six outs from getting the series lead.
1978 hadn’t been a very good year for Munson, the American League MVP in 1976 and Yankee captain. He came to the plate in the eighth to face Doug Bird, just on in relief of Splittorff, after a one-out single. In the late 1970s, the left-centerfield fence at Yankee Stadium was so deep it was called “Death Valley.” Munson crossed the Valley, with a massive two-run shot. Gossage closed the game, and showing that fate can be cruel, it was Brett who made the game’s final out.
It was hard to believe New York could lose the pennant when play resume on Saturday in prime-time. Not after winning a game like they just had, and not with Ron Guidry on the mound. The 25-game winner and Cy Young Award winner was getting his first chance to pitch after having started the one-game playoff with Boston. The Royals needed to be ahead in the series when Guidry got the ball and instead they were facing elimination.
Brett showed it didn’t matter who faced him, as he opened Game 4 with a leadoff triple and scored on a single by McRae. For the next seven innings though, Guidry was in control, as he and Leonard battled in a good pitcher’s duel. Nettles hit a solo shot in the second to tie it, and Roy White homered in the sixth for a 2-1 lead.
The next Kansas City threat didn’t come until the ninth, when Otis led off with a double against Guidry. Gossage was summoned. He promptly struck out Hurdle, meaning Otis could no longer score on productive outs. The Goose then closed the inning, the game and the pennant.
There was no ALCS MVP chosen until 1980 (the National League started choosing one in 1977). The most logical candidate here would have to be Jackson. The Yankee slugger had provided an answer for Brett in Game 3, and had iced Game 1. Jackson was 6-for-13 for the series, hitting two home runs, drawing three walks and driving in six.
A reasonable case could be made for table-setting centerfielder Rivers, who had a .538 on-base percentage in the four games, although Jackson’s mark on the series was much more dramatic. And of course there’s Brett, who finished 7-for-18 and one of the great LCS shows of all time in Game 3, but it’s tough to pick a player on a losing team when there’s a viable alternative on the winner. Reggie was certainly that.
Kansas City would eventually get its moment—two years later, these teams would meet for the fourth time in five years and the Royals finally won. But 1978 was still the Yankee hour. They went on to win their second straight World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.