In their first two trips to the post-season in franchise history, the Royals had been eliminated by the Yankees in the ALCS. By 1978, the Royals’ goal was clear - beat the Yankees and prevent them from winning a third consecutive American League pennant. The foundation of this mission was laid in Kansas City on July 24th, when Billy Martin, who spent most of his time three sheets to the wind, resigned under pressure from Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner. The Yankees had become a three-ring circus under Martins’ leadership and after Martin spouted off to Yankee beat writers that “Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner deserve each other. One’s a born liar and the other is convicted.”
It was obvious that this threesome could not co-exist, so Steinbrenner accepted Billy’s tearful resignation in a Crown Center conference room and promoted former Royal skipper Bob Lemon to the managerial post. Ironically, the Yankee general manager at the time was Cedric Tallis, the man who built the Royals into a championship contender.
That 1978 Yankee team sucked all the wind out of baseball year. Even though that team was loaded with talent, they were essentially a three-alarm fire under Martin, going 52-42. After a one-game bridge with interim skipper Dick Howser, a game the Yankees lost, Lemon came in and righted the ship, guiding the Yankees to a 48-20 finish and famously overcoming a 14-game deficit to the Red Sox.
They then won a one game playoff in Boston, when Bucky Dent lofted a fly ball over the green monster, breaking hearts all over New England. However, the biggest play might have been made by another former Royal, Lou Piniella, who fought off the sun to snag Jim Rice’s sinking liner to right field with two men on and only one out. Had that ball skipped by Lou, the Red Sox almost certainly would have won in a walk-off. Instead, Goose Gossage got Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski to pop up to third base for the final out.
The Yankees finished at 100-63. Kansas City won its third consecutive American League West title with a quiet 92-70 mark. The 1978 year had been a roller coaster for the Royals as well. Their pitching was excellent, but the hitters took a step back. George Brett only played in 128 games due to injury. John Mayberry was exiled to Toronto and the Royals missed his power and run production. Al Cowens, who enjoyed a breakout year in 1977, and Hal McRae both had off years. Amos Otis had the best year of his brilliant career, leading the Royals in nearly every hitting category.
The Royals ended the 1977 season on one of the all-time great winning streaks in baseball history and they continued those winning ways to start the 1978 season, going 14-5 in April. Then for some reason, they went nosedived during May and June, going 24-31. July saw the return of the Royals we knew and loved, as they won 20 games against 8 losses. They took the month of August off (13-16) before awakening to go 21-10 to finish out the season. Has there ever been a more schizophrenic team in Royals history?
The result set the stage for the third installment of this classic ALCS rivalry. As Willie Randolph said, “Everyone talks about the Red Sox, but those playoffs against the Royals were as nerve-wracking games as we ever had. We had knock-down, drag outs. We fought all the time. We didn’t like each other. Those guys played really well on turf and it was not easy playing there. Everybody forgets now about that rivalry, but if those games had been in the World Series, they’d be some of the most famous games in baseball history.”
Game 1 was played the evening of Tuesday October 3rd in Kansas City. Lemon, a former star pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, had to rest his ace, Ron Guidry. Guidry had pitched 6 1⁄3 innings in the one-game playoff with Boston and was nursing a sore arm. Instead Lemon started 23-year-old rookie right-hander, Jim Beattie. The Royals countered with 21 game-winner and Brooklyn native Dennis Leonard.
The move was lambasted in the New York press, but Lemon proved to be a genius as Beattie and Ken Clay held the Royals to two hits - a single by Cowens leading off the fifth and a double by Brett, leading off the sixth. The Royals did manage to draw eight walks from the young Yankee pitchers, but were unable to generate any offense, stranding nine runners. Every Yankee batter collected at least one hit, except Paul Blair, who entered the game in the eight inning and only got one at bat.
Leonard lasted just four innings, giving up three runs on nine hits. The Yankees battered four Royal pitchers for 16 hits. Reggie Jackson greeted reliever Al Hrabosky in the eighth, by slamming his second pitch into the right field bleachers for a three-run dong, icing the game. The Yankees take Game 1 by a score of 7-1.
Game 2 was played Wednesday afternoon, October 4th. Desperately needing a win, Royals manager Whitey Herzog started Larry Gura, who responded with six shutout innings of work. The Royals drew first blood, with Brett singling to right, leading off the first. An Otis single moved Brett to third, before Darrell Porter hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Brett.
Kansas City blew the game open in their half of the second, sending nine men to the plate. Clint Hurdle and Al Cowens hit consecutive singles, before Freddie Patek reached on a Bucky Dent error, which allowed Hurdle to score. Frank White then drilled a single to center, scoring Cowens and Patek. Lemon had seen enough and yanked starter Ed Figueroa in favor of Dick Tidrow.
It didn’t matter. Hal McRae hit a one-out single, moving White to third. Darrell Porter plated White with an infield single, before Tidrow got out of the inning by getting Pete LaCock on a groundout. The Yankees finally broke through with two runs in the top of the seventh, but Kansas City answered back with three of their own in the bottom of the inning, highlighted by a Hurdle triple and a two-run home run by Patek. Both teams added two more runs in the eighth, bringing the final tally to 10-4, Royals. The Royals pounded out 16 hits against three New York pitchers.
The series moved back to Yankee Stadium for Game 3, a pivotal game matching Paul Splittorff against Catfish Hunter. Instead of a pitching duel, the game quickly turned into a mano a mano affair between Brett and Jackson. Brett, who was recovering from a bout of hemorrhoids, blasted three consecutive solo home runs off Hunter in the first, third and fifth innings. Jackson answered with a home run, RBI single and sacrifice fly, all off Splittorff, the pitcher that Billy Martin said Jackson couldn’t hit. Since the game started at 2:30 Central Time, and television coverage in those days was limited, I listened to the game on the radio while driving home from college. I’ll always remember Denny Matthews call on the radio, “At the end of five, it’s New York three, George Brett three.”
The game was not without controversy. In the bottom of the fourth with Lou Piniella on third, Graig Nettles hit a fly ball to left field for the second out. Piniella tagged and broke for home. Clint Hurdle, playing left, made a terrific throw to Porter. It appeared that Piniella beat the throw, but home plate umpire Ron Luciano thought Piniella had bounced over the plate with his slide and called him out for the inning ending double play. When Thurman Munson took the field in the fifth, he told Luciano that he had blown the call. Munson then said, “don’t worry, I’ll bail you out.” Later, Luciano asked Porter what he thought. Porter replied, “it was pretty close.”
Thanks to the Jackson sacrifice fly, which scored Roy White, the Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the seventh inning. Lemon went to Gossage to start the seventh. The Yankees had a lethal right-left combo with Gossage and the 1977 Cy Young winner, Sparky Lyle. Lyle, the star of the 1977 American League Championship Series, took a minor role in the 1978 classic, and was traded shortly after the conclusion of the 1978 season, prompting Graig Nettles to say, “he went from Cy Young to sayonara.”
The Royals got to Gossage in the eighth. Amos Otis led off with a double to right and scored on a Darrell Porter single to left. Clint Hurdle punched a one out single to center, which advanced Porter to third base. Porter scored on a fielder’s choice ground out by Cowens to give the Royals a 5-4 lead, before Gossage induced a Freddie Patek ground out to end the inning.
Kansas City had to be feeling good about their chances. They were six outs away from taking a two games to one lead in the series. Splittorff got Paul Blair on a short popup to Frank White to start the eighth. Roy White, an underrated 14-year veteran, who was a constant thorn in the Royals side, punched a single to center. With Thurman Munson coming to the plate, Herzog had seen enough and called on Doug Bird to squelch the rally.
At age 31, Munson’s body was starting to fall apart. He hadn’t hit a home run in 54 games and many in Yankee Stadium were hoping that he wouldn’t hit into a double play. Bird quickly fell behind in the count with two balls. The third pitch was a fat fastball on the outside edge of the plate. Munson hit it on the screws and sent the ball sailing into Monument Valley, where it landed near the Babe Ruth marker. The blast was estimated at 475 feet, the longest home run of Munson’s career. The shot gave the Yankees a 6-5 lead and took the wind out of the Royals sails. As Munson crossed home plate, he said to Luciano, “You’re welcome.”
Herzog lifted the deflated Bird and Al Hrabosky got the final two outs of the inning to keep the game close. Gossage breezed through the ninth, getting Steve Braun, Brett and McRae on twelve pitches and that was that. The Yankees held a two games-to-one lead and many thought a Yankee Series win was just an afterthought.
Herzog brought back Dennis Leonard for Game 4while Lemon countered with Ron Guidry. Guidry had put together one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history in 1978, going 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. Before the game, Brett declared, “Guidry is not God.” Then to prove his point, Brett slammed the fourth pitch of the game over Mickey Rivers’ head in center field for a lead off triple.
Hal McRae drove Brett home with a single and the Royals had a quick lead. Then Guidry became God again and the Royals’ lead didn’t last long. Graig Nettles led off the bottom of the second with a home run to tie the score. Both pitchers then settled in and the game remained tied until, you guessed it, Roy White hit a one-out home run off Leonard in the bottom of the sixth, giving New York a 2-1 lead.
Guidry breezed through the 7th and 8th innings on a total of 17 pitches and it looked bleak for the Royals. Amos Otis made things interesting by tomahawking a high fastball off of the left-field wall for a double to lead off the ninth. That brought Lemon to the mound. He called on Gossage and his 95 mph fastball to close out the series. Gossage only needed 14 pitches to retire Hurdle, Porter and LaCock and secure the victory. After the last out, thousands of Yankee fans stormed past security guards onto the field, chanting “Red Sox suck!”
After the game, a circumspect Herzog said, “The third time around and I’ll still be seeing the World Series in street clothes. This is about the 76th time we’ve played since I’ve been here and I think they’re two up on us. We’re basically even clubs. We had a better club last year and had three playoff games at home. But the Yankees have signed free agents. As a consequence, they’re a better team.”
In the 1978 series, it was the same Yankees doing the damage. Chris Chambliss, Reggie Jackson, Munson, Nettles, Rivers and Roy White, the same group that tormented the Royals in the 1976 (with the exception of Jackson) and 1977 series, did it again in 1978. That group hit .364 (32-for-88) with all five of the Yankees home runs and 13 of their 18 RBI for the series. As a team, the Yankees hit .300. Kansas City clocked in with a .263 average. Brett, Hurdle, LaCock, Porter and Otis hit well, going 25-for-65 (.385). The rest of the Royals were only good for 10 hits in 68 at bats (.147).
The Yankees had broken the Royals hearts for the third year in a row. The question has always remained, what if Boston had won just one more game? Would the Royals have fared better against the Red Sox? Kansas City went 6-4 against Boston in 1978, outscoring them 40-26. The Red Sox were Kansas City’s equal on offense, boosting a lineup that included Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, George Scott and Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski. On paper, Kansas City appeared to have a stronger pitching staff and a better defense. The Red Sox staff was loaded with former Royals: Dick Drago, Tom Burgmeier and Andy Hassler. Playing three games in Fenway would have been interesting. My gut feeling is that Kansas City wins that series. But that speculation is now left for nights sitting by the fireplace, sipping bourbon.