Historic comeback only part of why '78 Yankees were so memorable
Back in January,
In 1978 the Yankees came from 14 games behind Boston to win the AL East, then won their third straight American League pennant and second straight World Series. They were a writer's dream team of great pitching, timely hitting and clashing egos. They had a Machiavellian owner, a mean-spirited manager and a misanthropic captain. The main attraction was the self-described straw that stirs the drink, Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. The rest of the team? Fine fellows and accomplished performers, but not always consumed with riding atop the elephant.
I wrote more Yankee stories from 1976-78 than letters home: 12 overall and seven in '78 alone. In 1976 I
Early in the 1977 season another assignment took me to the altar of Jackson, New York's newly signed free agent superstar. Getting his interest and attention was a little -- no, a lot -- easier. "Reggie. . .," I said to him in the Yankees' clubhouse. He ignored me. "I'm Larry Keith. . ." He ignored me. ". . .of
As long as Billy Martin was the manager, the answer was decidedly no. Their egos couldn't occupy the same airspace. Later in 1977 they had to be restrained from getting at each other in the dugout during a game in Boston. Then on July 17, 1978 another incident occurred that reordered the Yankees universe. In the 10th inning of a game against Kansas City, Jackson petulantly defied Martin by attempting to bunt. Jackson made an out, and the fourth-place Yankees suffered their third straight loss to fall 14 games behind Boston.
The Yankees sent Jackson off on a five-day suspension, and the magazine sent me off to Chicago to assess the fading champions and await the prodigal son's return the following Sunday. I was particularly anxious to speak to Martin, and, despite his sullen and suspicious nature, he was more than obliging, inviting me (well, not me, personally, so much as my
Jackson clearly enjoyed being in the middle of the media tsunami that welcomed his return from Elba. Martin didn't like it at all, and he refused to reinstate him to the lineup. After the Sunday game, I finished my story and sauntered down to the manager's office. He was preparing to leave for the airport, fuming about Jackson and seething over a rumor that earlier in the season the Yankees had talked to the White Sox about a managerial trade for Bob Lemon. Frustrated, hurt and angry, he let loose against the men he considered his biggest antagonists: "They deserve each other. One's a born liar, and the other's convicted." (Steinbrenner had pleaded guilty in 1974 to illegal campaign contributions and obstruction of justice.)
This is where I should have pulled out my cell phone -- well, rushed to a pay phone -- called the magazine, and reprised the classic B movie newspaper line, "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite." But I didn't. I wrongly assumed that Martin's diatribe was off the record, fueled by his dark disposition. He had already told me that publicly criticizing the meddling owner would cost him his job and that he couldn't afford to be fired. He knew I had filed my story, so it was past deadline in his mind. Billy the Kid was just letting off steam to a recent drinking buddy. Or so I thought.
I flew back home to New York feeling very proud of myself, when one of the magazine's assistant managing editors, Jerry Tax, roused me from my well-earned sleep the next morning to report that Martin was going to be fired for something he had said the previous afternoon about Jackson and Steinbrenner to two New York sportswriters at O'Hare airport: "They deserve each other. One's a born liar, and the other's convicted." Funny thing about that quote, Jerry, I began to explain...
I rushed to the office to rework my story and began by calling Martin at the team's Kansas City hotel. He told me that Yankee president Al Rosen was on his way, but that it didn't matter because he had decided to quit. And one other thing: "I didn't say what the newspaper said." When I reminded him that he had given me the same quote on the previous afternoon he insisted, "Well, I didn't say it to
The old Indians Hall of Fame pitcher inherited a team desperate for mental and physical repair. For most of the season, they were dead. Deader than a door nail, as Dickens wrote of Marley. And being dead they didn't have a ghost of a chance. "We were flat out of it," DH/outfielder Lou Piniella would admit to feeling later. "Optimism can only take a team so far."
The first indication that the season might not go exactly as planned occurred on Opening Day in Texas. During the winter, Steinbrenner had signed Goose Gossage, the erstwhile best reliever in the National League, to disenfranchise the best reliever in the American League, reigning Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle. ("Cy Young to sayonara," as
And so the next few months unfolded with low performance and high drama, with injured players and hurt feelings, with contretemps in the newspapers, the clubhouse and on an airplane, as none other than Cap'n Thurman, himself, became one of several malcontents who refused to play out of pique at one time or another. He wanted out altogether, and so did some others.
But when Martin left, the turbulence calmed and the clouds lifted. Under Lemon, the rejuvenated Yankees finished in a 48-20 flourish that included their first four-game sweep at Fenway Park since 1949 that was so thorough it was dubbed the Boston Massacre. Happier, healthier players surely helped, but Lemon wryly noted that the New York newspaper strike that kept the Yankee sniping off the back page of the tabloids "did more for us than if we picked up a 20-game winner." Actually the Yankees already had two,
Where was Mr. October in all of this, you're wondering? In 1978 he was playing shortstop. Even before his heroics in the
As the engraving inside the team's gold and diamond championship rings would attest, the 1978 Yankees had accomplished the GREATEST COMEBACK IN HISTORY. Perfectly appropriate for The Greatest Show on Earth.