1970s New York Yankees World Series Hangover

From 1976 to 1978, the New York Yankees won three American League Pennants and two World Series. They got back to the Series in 1981 but wouldn’t return until 1996.

 But 1979 didn’t go as planned for the defending champions. The Yankees traded relief pitcher Sparky Lyle during the off-season, an exchange they soon regretted. The other reliever, Rich “Goose” Gossage, broke the thumb on his pitching hand while fighting with teammate Cliff Johnson and missed the first two months of the season.

1979 Mid-Season

After 65 games, the team’s record stood at 34-31, and owner George Steinbrenner fired Manager Bob Lemon, replacing him with former manager Billy Martin. The Yankees turned things around, going 55-40 under Martin and finishing the season with an 89-71 record, but it wasn’t good enough. The Yanks finished the year 13 ½ games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles.

Tommy John, who signed during the off-season, led the pitching staff with 21 wins. John, along with Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, and Graig Nettles, made the All-Star team.

While not reaching the post-season was disappointing, it paled in comparison to the team’s sadness about losing their teammate Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash in August.

1980s New York Yankees

By the start of the 1980 season, many of the players on the World Championship squads of 1977 and 1978 were no longer with the team, including Munson, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, Roy White, Catfish Hunter, and Sparky Lyle. The Yankees also had a new manager in Dick Howser.

Despite all the changes, the Yankees finished the season with the best record in the Major Leagues, posting a 103-59 record. Tommy John, Goose Gossage, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Reggie Jackson, and Graig Nettles made the All-Star team. But the team didn’t play up to expectations in the AL Championship Series and were swept by the Kansas City Royals.

1981 New York Yankees

The Yankees bolstered the team during the off-season by signing All-Star Dave Winfield. Once again, the Yankees had a new manager in Gene Michael, but Michael didn’t last the season and former field boss Bob Lemon took over in early September.

The Bronx Bombers got off to a good start in 1981 with a 34-22 record. But a players’ strike began on June 12, resulting in canceling 50 games. The season resumed on August 10th, but the Yankees struggled, winning only 25 of the remaining 51 games. Winfield proved his worth by hitting .294 with 13 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Those were solid numbers considering he only played 105 games. Winfield and Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage, and Ron Davis made the All-Star team.

Due to the strike-shortened season, four teams from each league qualified for post-season play instead of the usual two teams. The Yankees barely qualified, finishing the year with a .551 winning percentage, one percentage point ahead of the Detroit Tigers. They faced the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the playoffs and won a tough five-game series, three games to two.

Next up was the Oakland A’s, managed by former Yankee skipper Billy Martin. It was no contest as New York swept Oakland, outscoring the A’s 20 to 4. The victory earned the Yankees their fourth American League pennant in six years.

By advancing, the Yankees met a familiar foe, the LA Dodgers, a team they played in three of the five previous Series. The Yankees had a history of defeating the Dodgers in World Series play, going back to 1941. The two teams had met each other ten times in the World Series, with the Yankees winning eight times.

It looked like history would repeat itself when the Yankees took the first two games, holding LA to just three runs total. But the Dodgers came roaring back to win the next four games and claim the World Championship. Owner George Steinbrenner heavily criticized Dave Winfield for his 1 for 22 performance in the series.

With opportunity lost, the Yankees wouldn’t be regular attendees in the October classic for many years, and the Bronx Bombers didn’t make it back until 1996. But that’s a story for another time.

How about those 1977 New York Yankees? or some stories from the Yankees in the 1960s?

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network
Photo Courtesy: Mark Morthier

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