After winning back-to-back World Series in 1977& 1978, the New York Yankees had an off year in 1979, finishing the season with an 89–71 record and failing to reach postseason play. More importantly, their Captain, Thurman Munson, was killed in a plane crash.
The Yankees were determined to get back to the World Series in 1980. Most of their top players from 1979 returned in 1980. Outfielders Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella, and Reggie Jackson. Infielders Buck Dent, Graig Nettles, and Willie Randolph. Pitchers Ed Figueroa, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and Luis Tiant. Relief Pitchers Rich “Goose” Gossage and Ron Davis.
Changes for the Yankees
But there were some changes. Rick Cerone took over at catcher. Pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter retired during the off-season. Nearing the end of his career, Roy White went to play in Japan. First baseman Chris Chambliss went to play for the Atlanta Braves, and outfielder Mickey Rivers joined the Texas Rangers. Perhaps the most significant change was that Dick Howser took over as Manager. The last four and a half seasons saw Billy Martin or Bob Lemon as the Yankee Skipper.
The team got off to a slow start in April, but by June, the Yankees were red hot, at one point winning nine games in a row. By July 19th, they had built a nine and half-game lead for first place in their division.
Bucky Dent, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Tommy John, and Goose Gossage made the All-Star team.
Pitcher Tommy John, acquired from the Dodgers before the 1979 season, was having a great season, as was the always controversial Reggie Jackson. Catcher Rick Cerone was filling in admirably for the late Thurman Munson, while Bob Watson, who took over for Chris Chambliss at first base, was also having a great season.
But as the season progressed, it became apparent that their division rival, the defending American League Champion Baltimore Orioles, was a team to be reckoned with. The Yankees lost seven of the thirteen games they played against the Orioles. It was going to take a lot of work to win the division.
By the end of August, the Bronx Bombers were only 11/2 games ahead of Baltimore. But the Yankees went 25–8 in their final 33 games to finish the season with 103 wins and only 59 losses, their best record since 1963. The Orioles finished in second place with 100 wins.
Pitcher Tommy John won 22 games while losing only nine. Ron Guidry went 17–10, and Goose Gossage had 33 saves on the year.
First baseman Bob Watson led the team in batting average at .307. Reggie Jackson had one of the best seasons of his career, batting .300 with 41 home runs and 111 RBIs. Second baseman Willie Randolph batted .294, while left fielder Lou Piniella hit 287.
Into the Playoffs
It was on to the American League Championship Series to see which team would represent the AL in the World Series. Their opponent was the KC Royals, a team the Yankees had defeated in the ALCS three years in a row, 1976–1978. But the Royals were no slouch, finishing the 1980 season with a 97–65 record, the 3rd best record in the majors. The Royals had beaten the Yankees in eight of the twelve games the teams played against each other in 1980.
Still, the Yankees were favored to win. After Rick Cerone and Lou Piniella hit back-to-back home runs in the second inning of game one, it appeared the Bombers’ playoff dominance over KC would continue. But the Royals scored seven unanswered runs as pitcher Larry Gura silenced the Yankees bats.
In the second game, the Yankees were trailing 3–2 and had a chance to tie it in the eighth inning, but Willie Randolph was thrown out at the plate. The teams would travel to the Bronx for game three at the “House that Ruth built.” Surely, the Royals would fold under the pressure.
The Yankees held a 2–1 lead in the seventh inning of game three when League MVP George Brett belted a three-run home run to give the Royals a 4–2 lead. The Yankees stormed back in the eighth inning, loading the bases with no outs, but came away empty. Just like that, the Yankees’ brilliant season was over.
Despite leading the Yankees to their best regular season record since 1963, Manager Dick Howser was fired. The Yankees would win the AL Pennant in 1981 but not again until 1996.
As we have seen time and again over the years, the team with the best record doesn’t always win the Championship.