Meeting up in the American League Championship Series was becoming old hat for the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals. When they met in the 1980 ALCS it was the fourth time in five years these two teams had squared off for the pennant. This one had a different outcome—while the Yankees had won each of the previous three meetings, the Royals got this one. And while the previous matchups had been thrillers, this one ended in a sweep.
You can read more about the regular season paths the Yankees and Royals each took to the playoffs, and the years enjoyed by their key players, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1980 ALCS.
New York had won 103 games, while Kansas City won 97. Homefield was determined on a rotation basis at this time, and the series would open with two games in KC, and then end with the balance of the series in the Bronx.
The opening of the series was delayed one day by rain, so Game 1 was in the afternoon, rather than prime-time. The Yankees threw lefty Ron Guidry, while the Royals countered with their own southpaw, Larry Gura.
Willie Randolph doubled to lead off the game, but Gura escaped the inning. One inning later though, Rick Cerone and Lou Piniella hit back-to-back home runs. In a quick 2-0 hole, were Royal fans thinking “here we go again?”
If so, their team rallied quickly. Amos Otis singled and John Wathan drew a walk to start the bottom of the inning. With two outs, a wild pitch moved them up and Frank White tied the game with a double. In the third, with George Brett aboard and two outs, Otis hit a ground-rule double and Willie Mays Aikens knocked both runners in with a single.
Gura was settled in and in the seventh, a Brett home run off Yankee reliever Ron Davis gave some insurance and a 5-2 lead. Gura finished the game, scattering ten hits and Kansas City tacked on a couple more runs in a 7-2 win.
Kansas City came back with 20-game winner Dennis Leonard the following night. New York curiously did not turn to 22-game winner Tommy John, who had won big postseason games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in both 1977 and 1978. It’s not that Rudy May was a bad choice—he won 15 games and had pitched the AL East clincher with two days left in the season, but John was clearly the battle-toughened veteran.
The Royals got to May in the third. With one out, after Darrell Porter and White had singled, Willie Wilson tripled down the rightfield line. Shortstop U.L. Washington followed with a double and it was 3-0.
May settled in though and the Royals never threatened again. Graig Nettles hit an inside-the-park home run in the fifth to get New York on the board. That same inning, Leonard inexplicably walked light-hitting Bobby Brown with two outs and Randolph picked up Brown with an RBI double.
The game stayed 3-2 in the eighth, when the Kansas City defense saved the game. Randolph hit a one-out single. With two outs, Bob Watson doubled into left. Wilson got the ball and fired to Brett, who completed the relay and nailed the speedy Randolph at the plate. In the ninth, Reggie Jackson singled with one out. Kansas City went to closer Dan Quisenberry. Cerone hit a one-out single. Then a ground ball off the bat of Nettles went to White at second base, who started a 4-6-3 double play. Kansas City had the win 3-2, and the series two games to none.
The rain that started the series eliminated the travel day off, so the teams resumed on Friday night in the Bronx, with John on the mound against Paul Splitorff. The game was scoreless through four innings, with the one threat—Kansas City in the second inning—being wiped out on a double play ball off the bat of Clint Hurdle.
White homered in the fifth, but the Yankees countered in the bottom of the sixth. In 1977, Jackson had been held out of the decisive Game 5, because of the widespread belief—backed up by past performance—that he couldn’t hit Splitorff. Properly motivated, Jackson hit Splitorff in the 1978 ALCS, and now Reggie hit a one-out double to start a rally.
Royal manager Jim Frey quickly went to closer Dan Quisenberry—while closers pitched more innings than is the case today, the sixth inning was still a little extreme. The move didn’t work, albeit not at the fault of Quisenberry. An infield hit and an error by White tied the game, and a Cerone single gave New York a 2-1 lead.
In the top of the seventh, with two outs, Wilson doubled. Another closer arrived early, with Yankee flamethrower Rich “Goose” Gossage coming in. Washington beat out an infield hit. Brett was at the plate. Gossage fired a pitch clocked at 98 mph. Brett simply unloaded, blasting a towering shot into the third deck of the old Stadium. The crowd was in stunned silence and the Royals led 4-2.
New York still had a rally left in them. Watson tripled to start the eighth, then Jackson and Gamble walked. Cerone ripped a line drive. But, as if to demonstrate that Kansas City’s time had come, Washington speared the line drive at short and quickly doubled off Jackson at second base. The threat was over and the Yankees did not mount another. At long last, Kansas City was going to the World Series.
The Royals’ run ended in the Fall Classic. The Philadelphia Phillies had been pushed to the brink in the NL East race and then in an epic NLCS battle with the Houston Astros. The Phils got come-from-behind wins in Games 1 & 2 that put the Royals in a hole and the series went to Philly in six games.
Kansas City had still finally made it over the hump and after two more playoff appearances over the next four years, the Royals won it all in 1985. The Yankees made it back to the World Series in 1981 but then entered a long drought that did not end until Joe Torre and Derek Jeter arrived in 1996.