The New York Yankees were riding high in the late 1970s, even amidst a circus. They won an American League pennant in 1976. In 1977, the Yanks took the next step and won it all. They went back-to-back in 1978, and did it all with flair, plenty of internal drama and two different managers, Billy Martin and Bob Lemon. The 1979 New York Yankees still offered the drama and two different managers. And they were still a pretty good baseball team. But it never quite came together on the field and their season is ultimately remembered for the tragedy that happened off of it.
The problems started offensively. The Bronx Bombers fell silent in ’79 and only ranked 10th in the 14-team American League for runs scored. Reggie Jackson was his reliable self in rightfield, hitting 29 home runs and posting an on-base percentage of .382. Willie Randolph’s OBP was .374 and he stole 33 bases. Graig Nettles hit 20 home runs, Lou Pinella flirted with a .300 batting average and Chris Chambliss hit .280 with 18 home runs.
On the surface, you might be wondering what the problem was. Quite a bit actually. Nettles’ 20 home runs came with a mediocre stat line of .325 OBP/.401 slugging percentage. If Graig wasn’t going deep, he wasn’t doing anything. Pinella’s OBP was similarly meager at .320 due to a lack of patience at the plate.
The lineup could have survived Bucky Dent’s bad year at the plate, but the fact centerfielder and ignitor Mickey Rivers also fell off was too big a blow. And at catcher Thurman Munson, who summoned up all his veteran will to deliver some big hits the previous October, saw shoulder injuries take their toll and his power continued to collapse.
Some of the key pitchers of the previous seasons were also fading. Catfish Hunter made 19 starts, and the 5.31 ERA that resulted was the indicator that the eventual Hall of Famer was finished. Ed Figueroa, a 20-game winner in ’78, also saw the functional end of his career arrive. Jim Beattie, a young pitcher who won big games down the stretch and in the postseason of 1978, struggled to a 5.21 ERA. Dick Tidrow, valuable as a reliever and a starter, was terrible in 1979 and eventually traded to the Cubs.
It probably isn’t fair to lump Ron Guidry’s season in with those mentioned above. Guidry won 18 games and his ERA was 2.78. But in 1978, Guidry had one of the great pitching seasons of all-time in winning the Cy Young Award. His “failure” to repeat a year where he won 25 games with a 1.74 ERA was another decline for the staff as a whole.
But in the end, pitching wouldn’t be the problem, thanks to big contributions from newcomers. Ron Davis, a hard-throwing 23-year-old reliever, won 14 games, saved 9 and posted a 2.85 ERA. Veteran free agents were added to the rotation. Tommy John came over from the Dodgers and promptly won 21 games in Pinstripes. Luis Tiant, formerly a Red Sox, made 30 starts and while his 3.91 ERA wasn’t spectacular, Tiant was a reliable #3 starter. These additions are the reason the Yanks’ staff ERA was still second-best in the American League.
The latter part of April provided the first indicator of how rough the season would be. Goose Gossage, New York’s Hall of Fame closer, got into a clubhouse fight with designated hitter Cliff Johnson. Gossage ended up with torn ligaments in his thumb and missed two months. The missing time is the reason he only finished with 18 saves on the year and those two months deprived the Yanks of a 1-2 punch with Goose and Davis. Johnson ended up getting shipped out of town.
The Yankees were only 24-21 and in fourth place on Memorial Day, but they were still very much in the hunt. The Baltimore Orioles were setting the pace in the AL East and were five games up on New York. The Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers were nestled in between.
In the first part of June, New York struggled through a mediocre road trip to Kansas City, Minnesota and Texas, losing five of nine games. With a record of 34-31 and Baltimore starting to heat up, owner George Steinbrenner took action. He fired Lemon, who had just been hired the previous July and brought back Martin.
But it was going to be tough hill to climb. The MLB format prior to 1994 had each league split into just an East and West and only the first-place teams went to the postseason. The AL East was by far the toughest division in baseball. New York’s record of 49-43 at the All-Star break wasn’t bad, if mildly disappointing. But it stuck them eleven games back of the Orioles. In any other division, the Yanks (along with the Red Sox and Brewers, an American League team prior to 1998) would have been squarely in the race.
No one in baseball would write off this team though. Not when they had rallied from 14 games back in July of 1978 to catch Boston. That was the deficit the Yanks faced when they got set to host the Orioles for a four-game set to open the month of August. This would be their last stand.
But tragedy overshadowed all else. Munson, who owned a private plane, was flying to his home in Ohio on an off-day before the series began. The plane crashed and Munson died. A horrific tragedy under any circumstance, Munson was also the team captain, a favorite of Martin and his blue-collar play made him a hero to countless Yankee fans. A pall was cast over not only the Yankee season, but all of baseball.
New York played well under Martin, going 55-40 after he took over and they finished with 89 wins. It was the fourth-best record in the American League and playoff-caliber by the standards of today. And the Yankees would bounce back, win the AL East again in 1980 and 1981.
But in 1979, they were well off the pace of the 102-win Orioles. And after the tragedy of early August, the on-field results seemed not to matter much.