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The Bronx Zoo: How Bucky Dent led the Yankees to glory in 1978

This is an exclusive free extract from my latest book, Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart. You can grab your copy in paperback or Kindle eBook format here.

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In 1973, swashbuckling entrepreneur George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million and promised to rekindle former glories in the Bronx. “We plan on absentee ownership as far as the Yankees are concerned,” said Steinbrenner at a media briefing following the sale. “I’ll stick to building ships and let the baseball people run the team.”

Contradicting himself almost immediately, Steinbrenner introduced a strict personal appearance policy, forbidding his players from growing beards and forcing them to keep their hair short. “There are ballplayers, and then there are Yankees,” said The Boss, whose determination to win was matched only by his willingness to spend enormous amounts of money in pursuit of success.

How George Steinbrenner revolutionised the Yankees with free agent spending

When imposing ace Catfish Hunter found a loophole in his Oakland A’s contract in 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared him a free agent. Hunter duly signed a five-year contract with the Yankees, who blew away the field with a $3.35 million salary offer.

The reserve clause - which effectively bound baseball players to one team for life barring a trade or retirement - was subsequently abolished, heralding the era of free agency, in which players sold their services to the highest bidder. This was a boon for the filthy rich Yankees, who transformed a stale roster with George’s bottomless pit of cash.

Reggie Jackson, the game’s brightest star, became a free agent following the 1976 season, shortly after the Yankees were swept by Cincinnati in the World Series. Desperate to save face, Steinbrenner set his heart on landing the slugger and pulled out all the stops, flying Jackson to New York for negotiations and chauffeuring him to complimentary meals. The Yankees eventually signed Reggie to a five-year deal paying $2.96 million. The baseball economy had changed forever.

With fresh superstars in tow, New York won the World Series in 1977, its first crown in 15 years. Once again, the Dodgers were defeated in a famous Fall Classic, cursing the Yankees as in times of yore. Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in Game 6, earning his famous Mr October nickname as the Yankees clinched the 21st world championship in franchise history. George had a taste of success, and he liked it very much.

Fashioned in his image, the Yankees became a corporate machine, cast in stark contrast to the bohemian Red Sox. It was a struggle of rich against comparatively poor, cold-blooded capitalism against idealistic socialism, and stout imperialism against quaint romanticism. The Yankees were your boss. The Red Sox were your neighbour. There was little to unite the two except the interconnected surge of predictable success and recurring failure. They were two distinct planets in a complicated solar system.

George Steinbrenner and the Yankees' addiction to winning

Steinbrenner demanded greatness from every employee, right down to the groundskeeper and the clubhouse attendants. “Winning is the most important thing in my life after breathing,” he once said. “Breathing first, winning next.”

In his first 23 seasons at the helm, George changed managers 20 times, bordering megalomania in his micromanagement of staff. Billy Martin, a passionate Yankee, was fired and rehired on five different occasions, while Dick Howser, Bob Lemon, Gene Michael and Lou Piniella all had multiple tours of duty.

“The first time George fires you, it is very traumatic,” Yankees public relations czar Harvey Greene once said. “The three or four times after that, it’s like, great: I’ve got the rest of the day off!”

Why were the 1978 Yankees known as the Bronx Zoo? Exploring a nickname 

The 1978 season became a microcosm of the Yankees under Steinbrenner’s command. Dubbed The Bronx Zoo, that incarnation of the team was characterised by internal conflict and soap opera storylines. Despite interminable chaos and intractable disagreement, the team thrived on a sense of injustice and disrespect, which eventually coalesced into a historic postseason drive.

Encapsulating the fury of subjugated Bronx neighbourhoods, the Yankees became a vehicle for regional pride. Plagued by poverty, inequality and racial tensions, the Yankees’ home borough fell into disrepair as frustrations mounted. Arson became a symbolic tool of protest against a failing economy and mass urban decay. The Yankees caught fire, too, raging through the American League with outrageous combustibility. 

Sparky Lyle, the Yankees’ closer, had been dominant in 1977, winning the American League Cy Young Award after maintaining a 2.17 ERA through 72 relief appearances. Nevertheless, during the winter, Steinbrenner went out and signed Goose Gossage, another relief ace, giving him a larger salary than Lyle’s. Despite talk of a late-inning rotation and forming a potent one-two punch at the end of games, Gossage was favoured in the big spots. Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara,” as Nettles put it. There was no place for sentiment on the modern Yankees.

Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and a chaotic Yankees feud

Such resentment was replicated throughout the team. Players, coaches and executives seemed almost inhuman to Steinbrenner, who moved them about like bishops and knights in a game of championship chess.

Meanwhile, Martin and Jackson, manager and slugger, endured a tumultuous relationship that destabilised the Yankees’ efforts. Martin disapproved of Jackson’s swashbuckling style, while Jackson was turned off by Martin’s verbose rabblerousing. The pair even came to blows at one point in the dugout at Fenway Park, embarrassing the organisation before a national television audience.

In this regard, Martin gradually lost control of his players, a victim of eroding respect. At one point, Mickey Rivers was benched for a lack of hustle in the outfield, while an alcohol-fuelled brawl aboard an airplane brought shame on the Yankees. Boston developed a strong division lead, adding to the cauldron of anger. New York was destroyed by its own explosive potential.

The Yankees were savaged by a barbaric tabloid press, as Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post fought the New York Daily News in a sensationalist war of controversy and sleaze. The tabloids became embroiled in a race to the bottom, seeking salacious stories to splash across the back pages. The Yankees filled notebooks with their incendiary daily drama, and the resultant culture of backstabbing set the club ablaze.

In July, for instance, Martin instructed Jackson to lay down a sacrifice bunt in a game against Kansas City. Jackson failed to get the bunt down in his first attempt, at which point the sign was taken off. Perhaps out of spite, Reggie continued to show bunt, eventually striking out. Martin removed him from the game and suspended him for a week.
 

Steinbrenner sided with Jackson, flabbergasted that a guy who launched three home runs in one World Series game mere months before would be asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt. “The two of them deserve each other,” Martin told the press of his star and his owner. “One is a born liar. The other is convicted.”

This was a reference to illegal contributions made by Steinbrenner to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1974. George duly began shopping for a managerial replacement, attempting to broker a trade for White Sox skipper Bob Lemon, who was subsequently fired by Chicago. The day after his controversial remarks, Martin resigned for health reasons at a tearful press conference, jumping before he was pushed. Lemon replaced him in the hot seat. 

However, just five days into Lemon’s tenure, the Yankees announced that, effective from the 1980 season, Martin would return as manager, at which point Lemon would move upstairs into an executive role. Steinbrenner regretted his ousting of Martin, but aides somehow convinced him that Lemon deserved at least a year in charge. Chaos reigned supreme. 

How Bob Lemon worked miracles as manager of the 1978 Yankees

A stooge in the love-hate triangle of George, Reggie and Billy, Lemon quietly led the Yankees to one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history to finish the 1978 campaign. Boston enjoyed a 14.5-game lead over New York in late-July, but the Yankees surged under Lemon’s command, reducing the deficit to four games by early-September, just in time for a four-game series at Fenway.

In baseball’s answer to the Boston Massacre, New York won all four games, sweeping the series by a combined score of 42-9. The Yankees annihilated their stunned rivals, outhitting them 67-21 and moving into a tie for first place in the embryonic AL East.

“Forget any other games these two teams have ever played,” wrote Mike Vaccaro of the series in Emperors and Idiots. “The four that would forever be known as ‘The Boston Massacre’ live on, and will continue to live on, as a permanent symbol of what this rivalry was for eighty-five long summers. The Yankees walked into Fenway Park and rifled the place, robbing Boston of a pennant that had been all but ceded to them months earlier.”

In fact, both teams jostled for pole position until the season’s momentous climax. The demands of excellence were exhausting. Entering their final game of the season, New York held a one-game lead in the division. Cleveland won said game, offering a reprieve to the Red Sox. In turn, Boston beat Toronto to draw even in the standings with a 99-63 record, identical to that of the Yankees. A one-game playoff was arranged for the following day, and a coin toss selected Fenway as the venue.

Remembering the one-game playoff, Yankees-Red Sox, that decided the 1978 AL pennant

Just one win separated the Red Sox or Yankees from the American League Championship Series, where Kansas City lurked with eyes on the pennant. A crowd of 32,925 crammed into the old yard on Yawkey Way for a Monday afternoon showcase. Ron Guidry, a precocious young ace, started for the Yankees while Mike Torrez, a wily veteran, got the ball for Boston. Tension filled the air.

Yastrzemski parked a solo homer in the second and Rice tacked on a further run in the sixth, giving Boston an 85% win probability, per Baseball-Reference.com. That is when the Yankees rallied.

Nettles flew out to lead off the seventh before Chris Chambliss and Roy White lined consecutive singles, putting two runners aboard. Torrez recovered to induce another fly ball from Jim Spencer, hauling the Red Sox within seven outs of a postseason berth. Bucky Dent, the ninth-place hitter, stepped to the plate with a batting average in the .240s. Ahead 2-0, Boston was in command.

How Bucky Fucking Dent got his nickname with a legendary home run at Fenway Park

A spindly shortstop, Dent was on the Yankees’ roster for his glove, not his bat. In six major league seasons to that point, the quiet guy from Savannah, Georgia had mustered just 22 home runs, less than four per season on average.

Amid a raucous Fenway crowd, batting with two outs and two on, Dent flirted with automatic out status. Given a stronger bench and a healthier roster, Lemon may well have pinch-hit for Dent. Instead, Bucky wrote his otherwise forgotten name into the record books, a villain for all-time.

Opening the plate appearance, Torrez threw a ball before Dent fouled a pitch off his foot, bringing Yankee trainer Gene Monahan from the dugout for assistance. Hobbled and pressured, Dent settled back in, crouching over the plate in an awkward stance. The crowd buzzed expectantly, sensing victory for the Red Sox. Torrez came set, kicked, and delivered a fastball that tailed back across the plate.

Boom.

Dent connected with the pitch and lofted a high fly ball to left field. Yastrzemski chased helplessly, a minuscule figure peering up at the huge outfield wall, begging for it to grow, yearning for it to keep the ball in play. The wind did not cooperate, however, blowing Dent’s pop fly over the Green Monster.

Going.

Going.

Gone.

Yastrzemski doubled over in pain. A shattered pall settled over Fenway Park. The Yankees were ahead, 3-2. It was Groundhog Day in New England. 

The most unlikely World Series title in Yankees history

Rivers followed with a walk, knocking Torrez from the game. Munson drove him in with a double off reliever Bob Stanley, who also surrendered a bomb to Jackson in the eighth. Boston rallied with RBI singles from Yastrzemski and Lynn, but Gossage gritted his teeth and closed the door on a 5-4 win. Once an ocean of opportunity, the Red Sox’ season was over.

Duly buoyed, the Yankees beat Kansas City en route to a World Series rematch with the Dodgers. Down 2-0 in that Series, New York came roaring back to win yet another world title in six games.

Guidry and Jim Beattie pitched excellently, while Jackson came up clutch with 2 home runs, 8 RBI and a 1.196 OPS against Los Angeles. However, Dent was named World Series MVP as a remarkable season received its exclamation point. The Yankees celebrated the most improbable championship in their history.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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