By Marty Appel
For Yankee fans, there was no lower point than the team’s entry into the 1970s.
Long accustomed to winning regularly, the fans had now been forced to accept mediocrity as the norm. The 1969 team was 80-81, fifth out of sixth in the A.L. East, while – horrors! – the crosstown Mets had become America’s darlings with their miracle 1969 World Championship!
Since the bubble had burst and the dynasty had ceased after the 1964 pennant, the Yankees had gone 382-424 with only one season over .500. True, the pre-1921 teams were worse, but the expectations were so much lower. These were no longer the storied Yankees of Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-Mantle. Now the team photo was filled with journeymen who were just passing through on their way to retirement.
Yankee Stadium was crumbling (Bat Day would produce pieces of falling concrete when the kids tapped their bats for a rally), and CBS ownership had not shown the same ability to produce a winner as it had with Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart. In fact, people would rather watch Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart than the Yankees, who wound up having to pay to get their games broadcast, not the other way around.
Annual attendance was barely cracking a million, and after Mickey Mantle’s retirement in spring training of ’69, the glamour was pretty much drained from the organization. The team still drew well on the road, but as Jerry Seinfeld would later say, “it was like rooting for laundry.” The Yankee uniform.
Poor Ralph Houk, who had won three straight pennants in the ‘60s, was now the manager of this doom and gloom, and the fans were not happy about it. Fans especially didn’t like the second baseman, the beleaguered Horace Clarke, whose major flaw seemed to be longevity. It wasn’t his fault that no one better came along, and he was a better player than the fans gave him credit for. But because he was out there, year after year, he came to stand for this disappointing run by the club.
But things were happening. The team, year by year, was improving. It was a slow process – one position at a time – but it was genuinely happening, and astute baseball men could see it coming.
Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre and Bobby Murcer were talented players, and in 1970, Thurman Munson won the Rookie of the Year award, with Houk was Manager of the Year, as the team won 93 games. Although they were still 15 behind Baltimore, 93 victories was nothing to sneeze at, and in fact, ten more than the defending champion Mets would win (not that anyone was especially noticing).
But just when things were looking up, the team fell back to 82-80 in 1971, the bullpen recorded 12 saves for the entire season, and only Murcer’s breakthrough year of .331 made anyone notice. Mediocrity was back.
In ’72, deprived of four home games due to an April player’s strike, the team fell under a million in attendance for the only time to this day in the last 57 years. In a tight division race involving Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and New York, the Yankees had no experienced guns to take them through September. They got as close as ½ game out on September 2, but never, not for a day, did they ever grab a share of the lead, and in the end, losing six out of six to last place Milwaukee in the final weeks, they finished fourth, 6 ½ games out. It was a gallant effort, but it was seen more a collapse than a triumph. The big addition in 1972 was reliever Sparky Lyle, obtained from Boston, who registered an A.L. record of 35 saves and had the fans on their feet with his dramatic entrances into the games to the organ music of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
The fortunes of the team did turned positive in 1973. There was the addition of Graig Nettles at third base, and the entrance of a new young owner from Cleveland, one George M. Steinbrenner III, who was determined to halt the team’s losing habits and restore the former majesty of the storied franchise. Few thought at the time that he could do it as quickly as he did, or that he would go on to own the team longer than anyone in history. He and his partners bought the club from CBS for $10 million, concluded negotiations on a major two-year renovation of Yankee Stadium, and showed they were ready to back their promises with hard cash.
With the Yanks in first place as the June trading deadline approached, the club purchased two quality starting pitchers to bolster the team – Sam McDowell and Pat Dobson. “We only have ourselves to blame if we don’t win now,” said Murcer, and indeed, the team held onto first until August 1 when the Orioles began to pull away. For a couple of months, the Yankees were the talk of baseball – Murcer and Ron Blomberg (hitting over .400), on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Lyle the dashing bullpen hero, and Munson, now showing veteran leadership in the final year of old Yankee Stadium.
But another summer collapse – an 8-game losing streak at the end of August, turned September into an ugly month, the fans booing each appearance by Houk on the field, and a meager crowd of 6,674 turning out for a night game on September 6 to show how much had gotten away from this club.
Houk resigned after the ’73 season, and general manager Lee MacPhail moved on to become American League President. Steinbrenner put Gabe Paul in charge, and the veteran general manager showed what he could do with a little operating revenue in his budget, to compliment his good eye for talent.
The Yankees would play at Shea Stadium in 1974 and 1975, with Bill Virdon named to succeed Houk after a failed attempt to sign Dick Williams. And 1974 would bring with it Lou Piniella to play right field, Elliott Maddox to play center – they would hit .305 and .303 respectively – and the Yankees almost won it all, finishing just two behind Baltimore. A 10-inning, 3-2 loss in Milwaukee in the 161st game finally eliminated them after a courageous run, in which Virdon earned Manager of the Year honors and Yankee fans learned to say “Loooooo” when Piniella batted.
In the winter of 1974-75, having come so close to a title, the Yankees took the dramatic step of trading Bobby Murcer for Bobby Bonds, (Barry’s father), and then signing free agent Catfish Hunter, whose contract had been breached by Oakland. The Murcer-Bonds trade was about the biggest one-for-one in baseball history and brought the Yankees one of the five best players in baseball. Bonds would become the franchise’s first “30-30” man in ’75, despite playing hurt for much of the year, while Hunter, suddenly the game’s best known player through his $3 million contract, won 23 games and completed 30 of 39 starts, numbers unimaginable today. He also brought with him a certain presence, the stature of a winner, a leader. Although he never again approached his ’75 stats, he was, said many, the man who “taught the Yankees how to win.”
In April, just as the season had begun, the Yankees traded four of their eight pitchers to Cleveland in a deal bringing Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow to New York. Chambliss would hit .304, but despite the infusion of the new talent, the team underachieved and fell out of the race, barely above .500. On Old Timer’s Day, August 2, Virdon was dismissed and Billy Martin was hired to succeed him.
Billy had spent 18 years in Yankee exile, since, while a player, he had been traded in 1957 after a birthday brawl at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. His heart had always remained with the Yankees, and the opportunity to return, this time as a manager, brought tears to his sentimental eyes. He had been “Casey’s Boy” while playing for Stengel; now, he hung a photo of Casey in his office and put on his old uniform number one.
There was no sudden rebound in the closing weeks of ’75, and 1976 spring training was delayed over labor wars, but the new Yankee Stadium opened on time on April 15, and a new Yankee era was born. Gabe Paul had swung two brilliant and shocking trades at the Winter Meetings – obtaining Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis from Pittsburgh, and Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa from the Angels, the latter, in exchange for Bonds. The team, whose building started with White in ’67, had added Munson in ’70, Lyle in ’72, Nettles in ’73, Piniella in ’74, Chambliss and Hunter in ’75, and Randolph, Ellis, Rivers and Figueroa in ’76. Munson was named the team’s first captain since Lou Gehrig, (he would go on to win the MVP award), and suddenly – it hardly felt like a 12-year wait – the team went wire-to-wire in first place, drew two million fans, and won the division by 10 ½ games. When Chambliss hit a last-of-the-ninth home run in the final game of the ALCS against Kansas City, the Yankees were back in the World Series. Happy days were here again!
The thud of a 4-game loss in the Series to Cincinnati hurt, and one more piece was needed. That would come in the form of Reggie Jackson, the most coveted of the first class of free agents. He would add needed power to the lineup and do it in dramatic fashion. The 1977 Yankees repeated as AL champs, but this time, captured their first world championship since 1962 with Reggie, in game six against the Dodgers, hitting three home runs into the night at Yankee Stadium to forever become “Mr. October.”
1977 was also Munson’s third consecutive season of 100 RBIs and a .300 average, a feat which hadn’t been done in the A.L. in a quarter century (Al Rosen).
The 1978 campaign seemed destined for also-ran status despite the addition of Goose Gossage in the bullpen. The Red Sox seemed invincible – some thought they had put together one of the best teams in history. The Yanks were 14 games out on July 19, but then they started to win, and Boston started to lose. 14 games shrunk to 8 by July 27, but it was still 7 ½ as late as August 29.
But the Yankees closed the regular season winning 31 of 40, including a 4-game sweep of Boston in Fenway September 7-10, by a combined 42-9 score. Don Zimmer’s Sox still battled back and the two ancient rivals tied for first at season’s end. A one-game playoff was needed, and in the bright sunlight on a Monday afternoon in Fenway Park, shortstop Bucky Dent, who had hit 5 home runs in the regular season, homered off Mike Torrez to give the Yankees a third consecutive pennant with one of the most memorable blasts in baseball history. Dent went on to earn World Series MVP honors in another Series triumph against the Dodgers, the Yanks’ 22nd world championship. (It would, alas, prove to be the team’s last for another 18 years).
1978 would also be remembered as the remarkable season of “Louisiana Lightning,” Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA and a team-record 248 strikeouts. On June 17, he fanned 18 Angels in Yankee Stadium, creating a tradition which still lives to this day – the stand and cheer after two strikes by the hometown fans.
1978 was also a year in which turmoil was a frequent visitor to the Yankee scene, with personality conflicts rampant. The explosive Billy Martin departed for the even-keeled Bob Lemon, which helped right the ship and bring home the title. But could there have been a more dramatic moment than on Old Timers Day in ’78, days after Martin’s departure, when he was brought out of the dugout and announced as a “future” manager, with Lemon to become GM? The fans loved it, and the coming and going of Billy as manager (he would serve five different terms), was now well underway.
The decade would end in sadness. As the ‘60s had concluded with the arrival of Thurman Munson, who would be the heart and soul of the club throughout the next ten years, the ‘70s would essentially end on August 2, when Thurman’s private jet crashed in Canton. He was dead at 32, and it would be a long time before that kind of leadership returned to the Yankee clubhouse. That the team finished 4th in 1979 hardly mattered.
The ‘70s was the decade of revival for the Yankees. They were back to contending form, had a beautifully remodeled stadium to show off, and the pride and tradition of American sports was again most evident in the Yankee mystique.