Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Day in Yankee History (White HR Saves Martin’s Job, Bomber Season)

June 24, 1977—The box score for the New York Yankees 6-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox shows that the two-run, two-out home run by Roy White only sent the game tied into extra innings, where someone else decided matters. But that just goes to show how deceptive mere numbers—minus the delicate psyche of teams—can be.

When the 12-year veteran yanked the pitch off Bosox reliever Bill Campbell into the right-field seats, he enabled his team—woozy from a three-game, record-setting home run barrage by their American League Eastern Division archrivals the prior week, feuding with each other, and fading before the season was half over—to get off the ropes. Without it, the Bronx Bombers would have slipped to 4 ½ games out of first place in the AL East, in an era before the wild card gave second-place teams a fighting chance to make the playoffs. It saved the job of Billy Martin—the diamond-savvy, feisty, hard-drinking Yankee skipper—from completely losing control of his team and his job.  It launched them on their way to a 100-62 regular-season record, and their first World Series triumph in 15 years.

In short--for myself, jumping off the couch at home when the ball landed in the stands, as well as for the hoping-against-hope 55,000 in attendance that Friday night—it was nothing less than a miracle.

Televised retrospectives of baseball seasons and careers inevitably highlight postseason triumphs or individual season accomplishments. (Think Reggie Jackson’s three-homer barrage in the deciding game of the ’77 World Series, or Ron Guidry’s 18-strikeout game against the California Angels the following season). Less often are turning points within season recalled visually. Yet the diehard fan can’t live without these diamond Gettysburgs. They know that in the ebb and flow of a long season, these possess a drama all their own, and they remember them for the rest of their lives.

The next time, then, that the YES Network runs one of those “Yankee Classic” (they should be called, more appropriately, “Rainout Theater”) contests, make sure they air this one. Young Yankee fans deserve to see games like this that left people like myself hoarse from cheering half a lifetime ago.

The Yankees were a tinder box as the summer started. Over the winter, to put in place the last piece that had prevented them from winning the World Series the prior year from the Cincinnati Reds, principal owner George Steinbrenner had signed a legitimate cleanup hitter in Reggie Jackson.

Two people did not approve of the signing, however. One was catcher Thurman Munson, who was annoyed that Jackson's salary exceeded his own, then was alienated from his teammate when the following Jackson quote appeared in the media": "I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.”

The second person was Billy Martin. On July 18, at Fenway Park, it all came to a head on Jackson’s misplay of a Jim Rice flyball. When the Yankee skipper pulled his rightfielder mid-inning, perhaps in imitation of Gil Hodges’ famous removal of best batter Cleon Jones in the Mets’ 1969 championship season, the manager and his slugger had words in the Yankee dugout, and Martin needed to be restrained from going after his player by coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra.

It all played out in full view of a nationwide audience on NBC’s “Game of the Week.” Riveting drama, undoubtedly, but also catastrophic for clubhouse morale.

Despite revitalizing squads in three prior managerial stints with the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers, Martin had lost them all because of his penchant for drinking and fighting with players. There was no reason to think, with an impatient George Steinbrenner looking for the slightest excuse to shake his team up, that the same scenario wouldn’t recur now.

The Bombers’ morale wasn’t helped in the slightest by everything else going on at Fenway in that series. It wasn’t only that the Yankees were swept, but also the manner in which it was done that was so aggravating. The Bosox set a record of 16 home runs in the three games. “Guys were gettin’ blisters shakin’ hands,” said manager Don Zimmer.

Matters showed no sign of improving in the late innings the next time the two teams squared off, on the 24th. Yankee starter Jim “Catfish” Hunter had put the Yankees in a hole with three homers. Though the Bombers had some satisfaction in roughing up Red Sox starter Bill “Spaceman” Lee, relievers Bob Stanley and Campbell had proceeded to stifle them from the fourth through most of the ninth inning.

Then, with two out, a triple by Willie Randolph brought White to the plate.

The senior Yankee on a squad almost totally made over by the free-spending Steinbrenner, the 33-year-old White had first arrived in the Bronx in 1965, when the perennial champions had stumbled from an American League championship to 25 games out of first place, the first season with a losing record since 1925.

The unassuming leftfielder had been one of the few bright spots in the dismal decade that followed, a two-time All-Star with great speed. He had thrilled fans for years with his ability to get to the left-field wall at the stadium, time his jump and rob opponents of home runs. He would undoubtedly have won a Gold Glove for his defense if he had only had a stronger arm.

More to the point, he possessed some power from both sides of the plate. The prior year, he had amassed 14 homers. Long-suffering fans could only hope he would do the same now.

He did, putting one of Campbell’s pitches in the stadium’s short right-field porch. Suddenly, the Bombers had come back from the dead. It not only afforded Martin some breathing room, but also Jackson, who made the best of his opportunity in the bottom of the 11th to hit a single that brought in third baseman Graig Nettles with the winning win. (Sparky Lyle, a former Red Sox reliever, now in the midst of his Cy Young season, notched the win with 2 1/3 shutout innings.)

The Bombers, of course, swept the rest of that series, and the Red Sox proceeded to lose nine straight. The chase was on, leading to the kind of thrilling pennant races that fans of the two teams had become used to in the DiMaggio-Williams era--one that now, as before, the Bombers pulled out.

Over his remaining 2 ½ seasons with the Yankees, White endured his share of frustrations, especially decreased playing time, as Martin sought opportunities to insert Lou Piniella into the lineup for his bat, but unlike so many others on the squad he never complained about this. That was just the type of player he was. 

On a squad with no lack of drama, White supplied a quality that was absolutely essential on those championship teams: a quiet professionalism.  Throughout it all, he still managed to be there in key moments, including hitting the decisive home run in the decisive Game 4 of the 1978 American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals—and, in a sequence that still stings longtime Bosox fans, on base when Bucky Dent hit his famed shot over the Green Monster of Fenway Park in the epic contest that decided the 1978 divisional race with the Red Sox.

Several years ago, I attended a party in eastern Pennsylvania, given by a friend with many connections to retired baseball players. There, I had the chance to meet White. My jaw dropped when I saw him. When I had the opportunity to talk to him a little while later, this baseball hero of my boyhood and youth turned out to be every bit the gentleman that I and thousands of other Yankee fans had thought from watching him play three decades before.

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