The New York Yankees were coming off two straight pennants—they returned to the World Series in 1976 for the first time in thirteen years, and then won it in 1977. They made it three straight pennants and two straight championships, but it was anything but easy. The 1978 New York Yankees went through a tale of two seasons, a managerial change and finally won one of the most dramatic baseball games ever played.
Pitching was the foundation on which the success of the late 1970s was built and the ’78 team finished with the best ERA in the American League. Ron Guidry had an amazing season, winning 25 games with a 1.74 ERA and running away with the Cy Young Award. Ed Figueroa won 20 and posted a 2.99 ERA. The depth wasn’t great, but between veteran Catfish Hunter, the versatile Dick Tidrow and young Jim Beattie, the Yanks had plenty of arms.
And if you didn’t beat New York early, you certainly weren’t going to beat them late. Sparky Lyle didn’t repeat his Cy Young campaign of 1977, but the tobacco-chewing lefty still worked 111 innings and had a 3.47 ERA. The Yankees had acquired closer Rich “Goose” Gossage from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Gossage saved 27 games—a good number at the time—with a 2.01 ERA. With a hard, rising fastball, the Goose looked unhittable.
Offensively, New York was led by Graig Nettles at third base and Reggie Jackson in right field. Each hit 27 home runs and were 90-plus in RBIs, and each had solid on-base percentages. Lou Piniella was a regular for the first time and had a .361 OBP/.445 slugging g percentage in left. The Yankees had speedsters in centerfielder Mickey Rivers, fourth outfielder Roy White and notable veterans in catcher Thurman Munson and first baseman Chris Chambliss. But it should be noted that none really had signature years in ’78.
When we call 1978 a year of two seasons, it’s important to emphasize that New York did not necessarily play badly in the first half. They were 29-17 at the end of May, a .630 pace. But the Boston Red Sox were blazing, out to a 34-16 record in the same timeframe, a .680 win percentage. The Yankees struggled along to a 14-15 record in June and fell nine games back of Boston.
July started even worse, as New York was swept on the road by the surprising Milwaukee Brewers and at home by the two-time defending AL West champions Kansas City Royals. The vaunted Yankee staff gave up 34 runs in those six losses.
On the night of July 17, the deficit hit 14 games. Boston was running away with it, with the Brewers in second place. Tensions between manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner were sky-high, with Jackson often being the object of contention.
Martin hated the rightfielder and on a road trip, over drinks, he blurted to a reporter about the two of them “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.” (The latter was a reference to Steinbrenner’s conviction for an illegal campaign contribution to Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972). When word got back to the Boss about the comments, there was really no choice left—Billy was fired.
It was now time to move into the second phase of the Yankee season, as easygoing Bob Lemon, recently canned by the Chicago White Sox, was hired as the replacement. But let’s not forget that Lemon did inherit a team that was starting to play well—the Yankees won their last five games under Martin and the size of their deficit was still much more about Boston playing at an insanely hot level. What if the Red Sox turned human?
That’s what happened, and the worm began to turn. New York chipped away at the lead, knocked it down 7 ½ games by August 25 and then turned on the juice. The Yanks won 12 of 14 and trimmed the lead to four games, just in time for a four-game set in Fenway Park over Labor Day weekend.
It’s become known in Red Sox lore as “The Boston Massacre” and there’s no exaggeration there. The Yankees took a 12-0 lead after four innings in the series opener and won 15-3, beating Mike Torrez, who had left New York for Boston the previous offseason. On Friday night, New York scored eight runs in the first two innings, keyed by a three-run shot from Jackson.
Guidry tossed a complete-game two-hitter on Saturday, supported by seven runs in the first four innings. Sunday was a little closer—New York only scored five times in the first two innings and won 7-4. And talk about consistency in an offense—the Yankees scored those runs on the strength of 18 hits—all singles. The AL East race was a dead heat and to say the momentum was in the Yankees’ corner understated the case.
Five days later the teams reunited in the Bronx and Guidry picked up right where he left off—he threw another complete-game two-hitter, an amazing display of dominance under any circumstances, but especially against the most potent offense of the late 1970s.
The Red Sox finally began to resemble a baseball team again on Saturday afternoon. It’s a game I still remember watching at my grandmother’s house. I was eight years old and was sitting here with an aunt from Chicago, a diehard White Sox fan. We both professed our hatred of the Yankees, and the game went to the ninth inning tied 2-2. Me and Aunt Julia ended up unhappy—Rivers hit a leadoff triple in the ninth and scored on a sac fly by Munson for another New York win. Boston finally won on Sunday, but the Yankees had a 2 ½ game lead.
Boston revived itself and began winning again, and chipped the lead back down to a game by the final week. From Monday thru Saturday, the Yankees and Red Sox kept answering each other with wins. The Red Sox won again on Sunday. New York needed only to win in Cleveland and they sent Hunter to the mound. But the veteran didn’t have it, and the Yankees were in a 6-2 hole by the third inning. Indians’ lefty Rick Waits went the distance for Cleveland—and got a thank you posted on the Fenway Park scoreboard.
The Yankees and Red Sox were the two best teams in baseball, each with a record of 99-63 and would play a one-game playoff to settle the 1978 AL East. That game has taken its place in baseball lore, thanks to light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent lofting a three-run homer into the netting that then sat behind the Green Monster. New York won 5-4 and took home the division crown.
New York went on to the American League Championship Series, and for the third straight year they would face the Kansas City Royals. Unlike the previous two years, this one didn’t go to the ninth inning of Game 5 (the LCS round was best-of-five through 1984). The Yankees won this one in four games, but Games 3 & 4 were still dramatic, as New York clinched in front of the home fans.
The World Series was another rerun, as the Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in a rematch of 1977. It didn’t start well, as the Dodgers took the first two games at home. But New York completed a comeback year in an appropriate way. They became the first team to win four straight games after losing the first two. A historic comeback in the AL East division race was consummated with a historic World Series turnaround and the Yankees were repeat champions in 1978.