‘The Bronx Zoo’ and The 1978 Yankees

Thurman Munson greets Sparky Lyle. (photo, FritzPeterson.org — WordPress.com)

In 1978, Yankees’ fans were still basking in the glow of the 1977 World Series victory–the team’s first since 1962. Fifteen years is a long wait for Yankees’ fans, who are spoiled by many past championships.

Well, the drought was finally over and the Yankees were back on top … where they belonged. With things back to normal, fans expected to win again in 1978 … and for many years to come, too.

But 1978 didn’t go as smoothly as expected. For one thing, there was conflict. The Yankees added relief pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage to the roster, a move that didn’t sit well with Sparky Lyle, who had been the top relief man.

The team struggled right from the start. By mid-July, the Yankees had fallen 14½ games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.

And the conflict continued. Some said there were too many big egos on the team. Others either blamed owner George Steinbrenner for meddling or manager Billy Martin for not being able to control his temper.

Things finally came to a head on July 17. With Reggie Jackson at the plate and Thurman Munson on first base, Billy Martin gave Jackson the bunt sign. But Martin changed his mind after the first pitch almost hit Jackson. Jackson was given the hit-away sign, but he ignored it and kept bunting. Eventually, Jackson hit a pop up to the catcher for an easy out. Martin was livid and suspended Jackson for insubordination.

It was not the first time Jackson and Martin had clashed. The previous year Martin had pulled Jackson out of a game for not hustling. The two almost exchanged blows in the dugout.

This time Martin wouldn’t last. He was fired a week later.

Things had gotten out of control in Yankee Land, so much so that third baseman Graig Nettles was quoted as saying: “When I was a kid I wanted to be either a ballplayer or work in a circus. Now I get to do both!”

The New York media began referring to the team as “The Bronx Zoo.”

The Yankees then hired Bob Lemon as their new manager. Lemon had just been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame two years earlier. But he seemed an odd choice because he hadn’t done well in previous managerial stints–either with the KC Royals or with the Chicago White Sox. As it turned out, though, he was just what the Yankees needed.

Courtesy: Baseball Almanac

Lemon’s personality was the opposite of Martin’s. Martin was fiery and hot-tempered. Lemon was calm and rarely raised his voice. He told the team to forget about what had happened during the first half of the season: “Let’s put all of that turmoil behind us and just play baseball.”

Under his leadership–and with outstanding pitching from Ron Guidry (25–3) and 20-game winner Ed Figueroa–the team went 48–20 the rest of the way.

The highlight came in early September when the Yankees played Boston in a four-game series at Fenway Park. NY won by a combined score of 42–9 in a series that became known as “The Boston Massacre.”

By season’s end, the Yanks had erased Boston’s 14½-game lead and the two teams finished in a tie. Next up was a one-game playoff to decide who would move on to play in the AL Championship.

The Sox struck first, taking a 2–0 lead after 6. But Yankees’ shortstop Bucky Dent–a player who had hit only 5 home runs all season–gave NY the lead by blasting a three-run shot over Fenway’s “Big Green Monster.” The Yankees held on to win, 5–4.

Graig Nettles -Courtesy: Baseball Reflections

The KC Royals were up next–for the third straight year–to decide who would go on to the World Series. The Yankees won the series 3–1 and would now take on the Dodgers in The World Series for the second straight year and the 10th time overall.

After falling behind two games to none, the Yankees took Game Three behind Ron Guidry’s complete game. But the big hero was Yankees’ third baseman, Graig Nettles. He saved at least four runs with a brilliant defensive performance.

The Yankees tied the series two games apiece with a controversial Game Four win. In the 6th inning Dodgers’ second baseman Bill Russell hit Reggie Jackson on the hip in a throw to first. The Dodgers claimed that Jackson interfered by turning his hip towards the ball. During the confusion, Yankees’ catcher Thurman Munson alertly ran from second base all the way home. The Yankees won the game, 4–3.

The Yankees won the next two games to take their 22nd World Series. Bucky Dent was named series MVP.

All was well in Yankee land…at least for the moment….

Sixty-five games into the 1979 season Billy Martin was back as Yankees’ manager. There wasn’t any magic this time, though. NY finished 89–71 and didn’t make the postseason. And team captain, Thurman Munson, was killed in a plane crash in August. The Yankee’s stalwart, who had been with the team for 11 years, was just 32 years old.

Courtesy: NY Daily News

The Yankees came back strong in 1980 with a 103–59 record–the team’s best since 1963–but lost to the KC Royals 3–0 in the ALCS. Then, in 1981–Reggie’s last year–the Yankees made it back to the World Series but lost in six to LA.

It would be 15 more years before the Yankees would play in another World Series. But that’s a story for another time.

I grew up in Northern NJ. I grew up in the 1970s. I was always a big sports fan. I enjoy writing about old school sports and weightlifting.