THE YEARLY READER

1977: Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!

After a stormy season in which he publicly feuded—and nearly personally fought—with manager Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson goes from superstar to instant legend with his home run theatrics in the World Series, earning the New York Yankees a tumultuous championship.

Reggie Jackson homers three times in final game of 1977 World Series

Three pitches, three swings, three home runs: Reggie Jackson becomes World Series legend. (Associated Press)

The New York Yankees were missing something. Though developing into a solid, all-around outfit of veteran ballplayers, the Yankees were lacking that beacon, that superstar icon in pinstripes—like Ruth, or DiMaggio, or Mantle, the legend that elevated the team to unconquerable heights. Being flattened by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series bluntly proved how badly the Yankees needed such a player.

George Steinbrenner was not one for sitting on his hands. The restless New York owner had both the impatience and the money to fill the bill with a headliner; and now, free agency was going to make it easier for him to accomplish his wish.

Reggie Jackson, Steinbrenner’s prize purchase from the free agent supermarket, would manage to alienate just about everyone in the Yankees organization as that iconic final piece to the 1977 championship puzzle. But he would prove his value—ego, warts and all—in the truest tradition of past pinstriped greats, playing the hero to the hilt when it mattered most in a purely majestic World Series performance.

Having spent a forgettable year at Baltimore after enduring Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley for nearly a decade, the 30-year-old Jackson made himself available to the highest bidder in baseball’s first free agency auction following the death of the reserve clause. Steinbrenner made his expected pitch, but Jackson also received lucrative offers from Montreal and San Diego that, dollar for dollar, exceeded the New York bid.

Perhaps Montreal and San Diego were nice places to be, but New York City had a world-famous persona that intoxicated the flamboyant Jackson. No other place could feed the slugger’s ego better, and no other person went to the mat to stroke it more than Steinbrenner, who Jackson said hustled him like “a girl in a bar” before being signed to a five-year, $3.75 million deal with the Yankees.

Any red carpet rolled out for Jackson in New York might as well have been peppered with land mines by his new teammates. They weren’t thrilled that the new Yankee showed up and immediately began bragging about being the savior of a team that, after all, was the reigning American League champion.

No Yankee stewed worse than catcher Thurman Munson. The nine-year veteran and team captain was already piqued that Steinbrenner’s oral commitment to make him the highest-paid Yankee was shattered with Jackson’s millions. (Steinbrenner denied ever making such a promise to Munson.) Then came a Sport magazine interview in which the smooth, self-promoting Jackson raised his own pedestal while bashing Munson’s. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” Jackson boasted, adding that Munson “can only stir it bad.” An enraged Munson refused any olive branches from Jackson, and the other Yankees—already cool to Jackson—began avoiding him completely.

BTW: As it always seems to be when a player gets into hot water over printed comments, Jackson denied making them about Munson.

If Jackson was to seek solace in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse, he certainly wasn’t going to find it with manager Billy Martin. The fiery Yankees skipper never wanted Jackson to begin with; he wanted a soldier, a trustworthy right-handed batter with a good glove—like Joe Rudi, who was also available on the free agent market. Instead, Steinbrenner gave him Jackson, a left-handed slugger on a team already full of them. Add to that Jackson’s cocky nature and deteriorating defensive game, neither of which was ideal for Martin’s want.

The incendiary relationship between Jackson and Martin reached a toxic flashpoint at Boston’s Fenway Park in June. The Red Sox’ Jim Rice popped a short fly to right field that Jackson decided he could not or would not get to—and perhaps fearful that the ball would get past him, he made a slow, tentative field of the ball, which gave Rice time to reach second.

Seething from the dugout, Martin made the ultimate baseball insult of removing Jackson from the field in the middle of the inning. Approaching the dugout with hands outstretched as to beg why, the two began arguing with an upward spiral in loudness and profanity. Ever the bulldog, Martin had to be restrained by Yankees coaches (and ex-teammates) Yogi Berra and Elston Howard from going after Jackson.

The Saturday afternoon incident was captured live by NBC’s Game of the Week cameras for a nationwide audience to see, including an angry George Steinbrenner—who wanted to fire Martin. But it was Jackson, of all people, who talked Steinbrenner out of it for fear that the raucous, overwhelmingly pro-Billy Yankee fan base would take it out on him.

The feuds intensified into the summer, with Jackson, Martin and Steinbrenner battling to claim the center of the Yankee universe. Everything finally got ironed out when Martin acceded to Steinbrenner’s wish to have Jackson bat fourth in the lineup—and in return, Martin could bring in long-time pal Art Fowler as his pitching coach.

With the cast of Yankees characters no longer trying to step on each other’s lines, the team busted out for the third act—winning 41 of its final 54 games, during which Jackson knocked in 50 of his 110 runs for the regular season. The Yankees would need just about every win and every Jackson RBI during the stretch, outlasting both the high-powered Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles by 2.5 games each to win the AL East.

Like the Yankees in the AL East, the Kansas City Royals emerged from a midsummer dogfight in the AL West and erupted at the end, losing just seven of their last 42 games—all without internal fisticuffs—to post a dominant 102-60 record and set up a powerful ALCS rematch with the 100-62 Yankees.

BTW: The Royals’ hot stretch run included win streaks of eight, 10 and 16 games—the latter being the longest in the AL since 1953.

For awhile, it looked as if the Royals would get even with New York for their painful walk-off loss of a year earlier. Instead, they experienced a tormenting recurrence. They won two of the first three games over the Yankees and went home to Royals Stadium with two chances to wrap it up; they couldn’t. After losing 6-4 in Game Four, the Royals sent lefty Paul Splittorff (16 wins, six losses) to the mound for Game Five—and stunningly, Billy Martin kept Reggie Jackson on the bench, figuring the left-handed slugger would not match up favorably against the southpaw. Some Yankees players believed Martin sat Jackson out of spite, even at the risk of losing a pennant.

Believing they were being handed a free pass to the World Series, the Royals took advantage by quieting the Yanks for seven innings, 3-1. But Jackson was unleashed in the eighth inning, delivering a pinch-hit, run-scoring single that ignited the New York offense; the Yankees rallied for three more in the ninth against a Kansas City bullpen that lacked a marquee closer, and then used their own—AL Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle—to shut down the Royals in the bottom of the ninth to nab their second straight AL pennant.

Having first fought off themselves, then the Royals, the Yankees headed to the World Series against their old Fall Classic adversary, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The big news at Chavez Ravine was twofold in 1977: Unseating the two-time defending world champion Cincinnati Reds, and achieving that accomplishment with new manager Tommy Lasorda.

After 23 years of leadership under Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ helm was handed over to the 49-year-old Lasorda: The anti-Alston, a non-stop cheerleading chatterbox compared to the emotionally tacit Alston. Lasorda was no stranger to the Dodgers family; a pitcher struggling to make it in Brooklyn during the early 1950s, a scout in the 1960s, a minor league manager in the early 1970s, and then third base coach for the parent club. In the minors, he had seasoned most of the players he was now about to manage in Los Angeles, and his enthusiastic streak was enough to get him miked up by NBC for a nationally telecast game while coaching at third. 

Under Lasorda in 1977, the Dodgers never sneezed. They started out at 22-4 and left the Reds choking in their dust, never allowing the defending juggernaut any closer than seven games throughout the year.

To expel the Reds from the top of the National League West, the Dodgers needed to be strong in almost every facet of their game. They were. On offense they led the league with 191 homers, 125 of which were divvied up between four players—Steve Garvey (33), Reggie Smith (32), Ron Cey and Dusty Baker (30 each)—to became the first foursome to each hit at least 30 in one season. On the mound, the Dodgers’ 3.22 earned run average was the NL’s best, individually highlighted by a 20-7 mark and 2.78 ERA by Tommy John—completing a long, successful re-emergence to prominence after having his elbow reconstructed three years earlier.

BTW: Baker became the last of the four players to reach 30 when he homered in his final at-bat of the regular season.

The Reds’ fall from first place had nothing to do with their prodigious hitting—they were sparked by a monster effort from George Foster, who hit .320 with 52 homers and 149 RBIs—but more with a no-name pitching staff that finally began living up to its anonymity. When they finally did add a marquee starter in Tom Seaver—in an eye-opening midseason trade with the New York Mets—his 14-3 mark in a Cincinnati uniform was too little, too late for a staff whose team ERA was third-to-last in the NL.

BTW: Dissension among the Reds’ All-Stars also took a toll as they began to feel restless over the free agency riches achieved by other players.

Despite overwhelming the NL East with 101 wins for the second straight year, the Philadelphia Phillies ended up playing second fiddle once more to the NL West champions at the NLCS. The Phillies had muscled up during the regular season behind “Baby Bull” Greg Luzinski (.309 batting average, 39 home runs, 130 RBIs), Mike Schmidt (.274, 38, 101) and pitcher Steve Carlton (a NL-best 23 wins and a 2.64 ERA). But against the Dodgers, the Phillies were snake-bit by the subpar efforts of Schmidt (one RBI single in 16 at-bats) and Carlton (a no-decision and a loss in two starts). Dodgers bats, led by Dusty Baker’s two homers and eight RBIs, were wide awake to give Los Angeles the NL flag in four games.

The last time Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin faced off against one another in 1956, it was as Kansas City pitcher and Yankees infielder, respectively—and the two had to be separated from starting an all-out brawl after trying to out-heckle one another. Maybe all was forgiven 21 years later, but the two managers—and everyone else, for that matter—would soon take the public eye’s backseat at the World Series to Reggie Jackson.

For the first three games, Jackson was out of the spotlight, usurped by the Los Angeles slugging foursome of Garvey-Cey-Smith-Baker—each of whom had connected once. The Yankees nevertheless felt good, winning two of the three games; they were about to feel even better as Reggie was ready to sound off in the way most everyone wished he would: Not with his mouth, but with his bat.

Jackson homered and doubled in a 4-2, Game Four Yankees victory that put New York within reach of its first Series triumph in 15 years. He homered again late in Game Five, but for the moment it was an insignificant event as the Dodgers stayed alive with a 10-4 rout.

Before Game Six at Yankee Stadium, Jackson took batting practice and couldn’t believe the groove he was in. Practically every ball he swung at cleared the outfield wall. It was as good as he ever felt before a game.

BTW: The fans that witnessed Reggie’s 35 BP drives into the seats gave him a standing ovation when he was through.

He would get better when the pitches starting coming in for real.

After walking in his first at-bat, Jackson swung at Los Angeles starter Burt Hooton’s first pitch and smacked a two-run, fourth-inning blast to knock the Dodgers out of the lead and Hooton out of the game. One inning later, Jackson grandly repeated himself—swinging and homering on the first pitch, another two-run shot that extended the New York lead to 7-3 and knocking Elias Sosa, Hooton’s replacement, into the showers.

Jackson had nothing to lose when he returned to the plate in the eighth. The Yankees had the game in hand, the fans were yelling “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” and he was facing reliever Charlie Hough, who lived on knuckleballs—a type of pitch Jackson historically had no problem with. The drama was no longer in the score, but in the at-bat; it was now all exhibition for Jackson, who later recalled the situation as “strictly dreamland.”

Seeking the exclamation point, Jackson found it on, again, the first pitch: Right over the plate and clobbered to the distant recesses of the center-field bleachers, where few had ever been hit at the Stadium—original or refurbished. It seemed a miracle that the exuberantly wild Yankees fans decided to contain themselves and wait until the final out to invade the field in celebration.

BTW: Even Steve Garvey couldn’t help but applaud into his glove as Jackson passed him at first base during his home run trot.

Jackson’s third home run, on his third swing of the night, made him the first player to hit five in one World Series. Hitting .450 with nine hits in 20 at-bats, he also set Series records with 10 runs scored and 25 total bases.

Reggie Jackson had indeed accomplished what he set out to do in New York: He came, he saw, he conquered. He also ticked off just about everyone he crossed paths with. But for one night in October, everyone was willing to forgive, forget and fawn over Reggie.

1978 Baseball HistoryForward to 1978: The Denting of the Red Sox Bucky Dent’s improbable 163rd-game heroics cap a feverish late-season comeback by the New York Yankees over the Boston Red Sox.

1976 Baseball HistoryBack to 1976: The Big Leaguer Emancipated Shackled for nearly a century, major leaguers are freed with the death of the reserve clause.

The 1970s: Power to the Player Curt Flood’s sacrificial stand to win free agency opens the door for the biggest challenge yet to the reserve clause, which is eventually shattered—but not without fans suffering from numerous player strikes and holdouts.