The New York Yankees had returned to the October stage for the first time in 13 years when they won the American League pennant in 1976. It was the first time in the World Series for the franchise under the ownership of George Steinbrenner. The subsequent sweep at the hands of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine left the Boss agitated and demanding that his team take the final step. The 1977 New York Yankees, under the leadership of manager Billy Martin, brought the World Series trophy back to the Bronx.
Steinbrenner had, unsurprisingly, made the biggest splash on that winter’s free agent market, when he signed rightfielder Reggie Jackson, giving the team star power and one who would been a vital contributor to the Oakland A’s dynasty in the early 1970s. The Yanks also signed Don Gullet, the ace of the Reds’ rotation to bolster what was already a strong staff in New York.
Jackson hit 32 home runs and drove in 110 runs, joining with third baseman Graig Nettles (37/107) as the power leaders on the team. Thurman Munson, the catcher and team captain, was another 100-RBI man and hit .308 in the process. Chris Chambliss, the first baseman and hero of the 1976 ALCS, hit 17 home runs and 33-year-old Lou Piniella played everywhere, and produced a .365 on-base percentage/.510 slugging percentage.
What helped the Yankees separate from their AL East rivals, the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, was the balance in their lineup that was defined by speed. Mickey Rivers played center and batted leadoff, with a .350 OBP. Roy White in left field and Willie Randolph at second base were similarly effective at getting on base and keeping pitchers anxious.
The combination of speed and power helped the Yankees finish in the top three in the American League in every significant offense category. While the power-laden Red Sox were boom or bust, the Yankees could always find a way to manufacture runs if the bats were quiet.
And if New York couldn’t manufacture runs, they had excellent pitching, third in the American League in ERA. It was a top-heavy staff, built around three workhorse starters and one outstanding reliever.
Ed Figueroa won 16 games with 3.57 ERA. Mike Torrez, acquired in an early season deal with Oakland, won 14 more at 3.82 and 26-year-old Ron Guidry posted a 16-7 record and 2.82 ERA. All three worked over 200 innings. Gullet was effective, at 14-4 with a 3.58 ERA, but he only made 22 starts. Arm problems would eventually end his career. And the career of veteran righthander Catfish Hunter was already looking over, as he struggled to a 4.71 ERA in his nine starts.
But if the rotation failed. Martin had options in the bullpen and they started with Sparky Lyle. The tobacco-chewing lefty won 13 games, saved 26 more and finished with a 2.17 ERA. He worked 137 inning and won the Cy Young Award. Lyle was aided in relief by Dick Tidrow, who took on an even bigger workload, logging over 150 innings with a 3.16 ERA.
On the surface, the first four months of the season were fairly pedestrian. New York was good, but not great—a 58-45 record at the end of July, and a game back in the division. But this Yankee team was remembered for things being anything but boring.
The flamboyant Jackson was not well-liked by his teammates, and the landscape was cast as being about Jackson or Munson, and the need to pick a side. It would be reminiscent of a later rift this franchise would have between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
Normally you look for the manager to be a diplomatic leader who pulls everything together. For all of Martin’s many strengths as a manager, this wasn’t one of them. His hatred of Jackson was more obvious than that of the players and it all boiled over for a national TV audience in Fenway Park.
A June trip to Boston went poorly on the field—the Red Sox won three straight, scored thirty runs and bashed 12 home runs in the process. During Saturday’s NBC telecast, Martin felt Jackson loafed on a flyball. The manager removed Reggie in the middle of the inning to show him up. The two came to blows in the dugout, with the TV cameras on them.
The ESPN movie The Bronx Is Burning goes into detail about the soap opera that followed this team around. What’s less well-remembered is that on the field, the Yankees calmly waited until the Red Sox showed up in the Bronx a week later and won three in a row of their own. There was no on-field drama, but New York twice beat Boston’s own high-priced free agent, closer Bill Campbell.
In August, the comprehensive balance the ’77 Yankees had in all phases of the game began to shine forth, and they ripped off a 22-7 month, building a four-game lead on both the Red Sox and Orioles. Neither rival went quietly in September, but New York was able to keep answering.
On September 13, a Tuesday night, that began a three-game Yankees-Red Sox series in New York, the Yanks began to salt it away. Rivers hit a two-run homer and Guidry threw a complete game to key a 4-2 win. One night later, Figueroa locked up in a scoreless duel with Reggie Cleveland. Munson led off the ninth inning with a single and Jackson did something to endear himself to the fans—who preferred the captain and the manager—when he homered to win the game.
New York carried a three-game lead into the final weekend on both rivals, and the Red Sox and Orioles had to play each other. Even though the Yanks lost on Friday and Saturday to a bad Detroit Tigers team, the Sox and Orioles split and knocked each other out in the process. After all the tumult, New York was returning to the postseason.
The Yankees met up with the Royals in the 1977 ALCS. The two teams had played an epic League Championship Series in 1976, not settled until Chambliss hit a walkoff home run in the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 (LCS play was best-of-five from 1969-84). This year’s series was even better—it again went to the ninth inning, and this time, instead of breaking a tie, the Yankees turned defeat into victory.
No World Series rivalry is more storied than that of Yankees-Dodgers, most of it taking place when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Since the move west, the teams had met in the Series, back in 1963. They got together again in 1977. Yankee pitching kept them in control through five games and New York brought a 3-2 series lead back to the Bronx. Jackson then took over Game 6, with a memorable 3-HR game that brought the Yankees to the top of the baseball world again, and for the first time since 1962.