The New York Yankees won three straight American League pennants and two consecutive World Series from 1976-78. The franchise suffered a step back in 1979 on the field, finishing fourth in a competitive AL East, and they lived through tragedy off of it—the death of catcher and team captain Thurman Munson in private plane crash. Nothing could make up for that loss, but the 1980 New York Yankees were able to turn the on-field part of the equation around, winning another AL East title.
George Steinbrenner had a new manager in town. After the combination of Billy Martin and Bob Lemon had overseen the previous four years, Steinbrenner turned to quiet, low-key Dick Howser to run the team in 1980. It was just one part of a lot of changes the Boss made for 1980.
New York traded away sparkplug centerfielder Mickey Rivers in a deal where they got Eric Soderholm. The latter wasn’t a big name and never had a big career, but he was a solid contributor in 1980, with a .353 on-base percentage/.462 slugging percentage.
The Yanks dealt first baseman Chris Chambliss as part of a package where they acquired a young catcher in Rick Cerone and a young pitcher in Tom Underwood. The former became the replacement to Munson, and was functionable, if not a standout. Underwood won 13 games and was the #3 starter on a staff that finished second in the American League in ERA.
Tommy John and Ron Guidry anchored the staff. John, who had been a rival of the Yankees when he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1977 and 1978 World Series, won 22 games in Pinstripes. Guidry won 17. In the bullpen, Rich “Goose” Gossage saved 33 games with a 2.27 ERA. And Howser turned often to a talented young flamethrower in Ron Davis who worked 131 innings and finished with a 2.95 ERA.
Depth was lacking in the Yankee staff, and that made the role Rudy May played all the more important. May made 17 starts, came on in relief 24 more times, and won 15 games with a 2.46 ERA.
Offensively, the Yankees got down years from a number of spots, including Graig Nettles at third base, now 35-years-old. Lou Piniella had a respectable .343 OPB, but not much in the way of power. Ruppert Jones was an inadequate replacement for Rivers in center. Bucky Dent was an offensive liability at shortstop.
Three players stepped up with big years and helped the Yankees still produce the second-best offense in the AL in spite of it all. Bob Watson, the 34-year-old who replaced Chambliss at first, finished with a .368/.456 stat line. Willie Randolph had the best year of his young career at second base, and the 25-year-old finished with a .427 OBP.
No one was better than Reggie Jackson. The rightfielder was now 34-years-old, but produced one of the best seasons of his own career. He batted .300 for the first time and it didn’t come at the expense of his power. Reggie hit 41 home runs and finished with 111 RBIs.
Normally, that would be an MVP year, if not for the fact Kansas City Royals’ third baseman George Brett made a run at .400 and was an easy pick for the award. Reggie finished second in the voting, and was the biggest reason the Yankees thrived in a tough division.
New York was a little slow out of the gate, losing six of the first nine. Then they met the defending AL pennant winners, the Baltimore Orioles, and swept three one-run games in the Bronx. The Yanks won seven of eight after that, and by Memorial Day they had a 3 ½ game lead that seemed larger. The nearest team was the Toronto Blue Jays, who were not a serious contender.
The Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox were 4 ½ back, but neither team would be as good as in previous years. The Orioles were slow out of the gate and were six games out.
New York further opened up the race in the early part of the summer. They won nine in a row against lower-level AL West teams and went to Fenway Park to hang a three-game sweep on the Red Sox. By the All-Star break, the Yanks were in command, with a record of 51-27. The lead in the AL East 7 ½, and it was nine over the Orioles.
The lead peaked at 9 ½ games on July 19. New York started to play a little sluggish, going 5-7 the balance of the month and Baltimore started to gain ground. The Orioles were within 5 ½ games on August 8 when they came to the Bronx for a three-game series.
An opportunity for New York to put the race away instead turned into an opportunity for it to tighten, as consistent late-inning failures led to a Baltimore sweep. The Yanks led the Friday night opener 2-1 in the eighth. Oriole first baseman Eddie Murray homered off Guidry to tie it and Baltimore scored three times off Gossage to win.
The Birds broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth with a pair of runs to win 4-2 on Saturday. In the Sunday finale, John was clinging to a 5-4 lead and was left in the game to try and finish the ninth inning. Baltimore scored twice, completed the sweep and closed to within 2 ½ games.
New York made a return trip to Baltimore just three days later, this time for a five-game series. Even though Jackson hit an early home run in the opener, the losing continued. Steve Stone, the eventual AL Cy Young winner, two-hit the Yanks and Baltimore won 6-1.
The Yankees finally got a couple wins. Jackson hit a two-run homer to key a 4-3 win, and then Gaylord Perry delivered. The veteran, known for his spitball and a career 300-game winner was at the tail end of his career. He only made eight starts for the Yanks in 1980, but none was bigger than the middle game of this series, when he won 4-1.
Perry’s win averted disaster, as Baltimore won the next two games, 1-0 and 6-5 and the lead was still at 2 ½ games. In late August, it would shrink to a half-game and for six tantalizing days, it stayed right here, as the Yankees and Orioles either won or lost in tandem with each other.
There were no more head-to-head matchups between the two heavyweights and it was New York who struck the big blow in early September. A stretch of games against the Oakland A’s—now managed by Martin, the California Angels, Toronto and Boston, provided an opportunity to get wins and the Yanks took full advantage. They went 15-2 and while it didn’t knock the Orioles out, it gave New York some breathing room.
The Yankees led by as many as six games in September, but the Orioles knocked it back down to 2 ½ games with five days left. On the Wednesday of the final week, Reggie and Oscar Gamble each unloaded for a 4 RBI night in Cleveland and the Yankees hung 18 runs on the board. On Thursday, they came home to face Detroit for the final series. Again, Gamble and Reggie homered and Guidry beat Tiger ace Jack Morris.
The Orioles were idle on Thursday, so the lead was three games entering the final weekend—New York needed just one win, or one Baltimore loss, and there was still a one-game playoff in reserve if that didn’t work out. After rain on Friday wiped out games in both cities, the Yankees finished the job on Saturday. Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Reggie hit a three-run shot, May went seven strong innings and the 4-2 win clinched the division.
It was rematch time in the American League Championship Series, as the Yankees met the Kansas City Royals, the team New York had vanquished each from 1976-78. This time, it was Kansas City’s year. The Royals won three straight (the LCS was best-of-five from 1969-84) closing out the finale in Yankee Stadium.
The playoff loss was handled by Steinbrenner as you might expect—he fired Howser, who went on to later manage Kansas City to a World Series title in 1985. It was an unfortunate response to one of the best managerial jobs the franchise has seen. New York won 103 games, more than any of their late 1970s pennant-winning teams. After one more pennant-winning year in ’81, the Yankees disappeared from the radar until the renaissance of the Joe Torre era.