October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978

October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978

by Roger Kahn

Paperback(First Edition)

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On the morning of October 2, 1978, the World Champion NewYork Yankees found themselves tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox. That day these rousing ball clubs would meet at Fenway Park. Both had won ninety-nine games. Only one would win one hundred. The Yankees should have been reaching for their golf clubs-they had feuded until they were fourteen games out of first place. Then their fortunes turned, and they capped one of the most thrilling comebacks in baseball history by defeating the Red Sox that October afternoon in a game that many still remember as the greatest ever played. Transporting us into the midst of this unforgettable team, Roger Kahn weaves the first in-depth account of the legendary season of '78 and reaffirms his standing as our nation's master storyteller of baseball.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156029711
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 01/07/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 398
Sales rank: 555,867
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Widely acclaimed as the greatest baseball writer of his generation, Roger Kahn is most famous for his modern classic, The Boys of Summer, which James Michener called the finest American book on sports. Kahn is the author of 16 books, including The Head Game, Baseball Seen from the Pitchers’ Mound. His magazine articles won five Dutton Best Magazine Story Awards and his book The Era: When the Yankees Dodgers and Giants Ruled the World was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y. with his wife, the psychotherapist Katharine Colt Johnson.

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chapter one


ON THE EARLY EVENING of October 1, 1978, after six months of roistering with an intensity unmatched in the long history of hyperkinetic, high-proof roistering that so enriches the annals of American baseball, the New York Yankees found themselves tied for first place. The team had won 99 of 162 games, a commendable winning percentage of .611, but so had their traditional rivals, the Boston Red Sox. Autumn had taken hold along the eastern seaboard, bringing bright clear skies and quickening winds. The regular season of '78 was history. Still, in a sense, the teams found themselves just where they had been some six months earlier on Opening Day, April 8-tied, toe to toe, and glowering. As nature is said to abhor a vacuum, baseball abhors a tie, so now the Yankees were going to have to fly to Boston and meet the Red Sox yet again in a single-game playoff on October 2. As more than one sportswriter pointed out, the entire season for the two teams was coming down to one game. The regular season had ended and it had not ended. (In an interesting theory advanced by the author W. P. Kinsella, a ball game can stretch from the first inning clear to infinity. Uniquely among team sports, baseball proceeds outside of time. There is no clock.)

By every reasonable standard, the 1978 Yankees should have been terminally exhausted. Their opening-day manager, Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin, had been drinking so heavily that his personality, none too tranquil when he was sober, had erupted with repeated explosions of anger, hatred, and paranoia, until he had finally gotten himself "resigned" back in July. While his great predecessor, Casey Stengel, mellowed with drink, booze turned Martin into a human Gatling gun. "You always wanted to be around Billy for the first drink," suggests Gene Michael, then the Yankees first-base coach. "You never wanted to be around him for the last one."

I knew Martin when he was a young infielder for Stengel's Yankees. He was a winning ball player who could be fine, if somewhat raucous, fun. But he also had an unpleasant, combative side. During spring training in 1953 he turned to the late Ben Epstein, a genial reporter for Hearst's tabloid Daily Mirror, and said, "I hear you used to be a wrestler."

"Yeah," Epstein said. Years earlier he had earned a living in his home state of Arkansas by wrestling as "Pat Rollo, the Undefeated Middleweight Champion of Bulgaria." Standing in the marble lobby of the Hotel Soreno, Martin said, "I'll show you some holds." Epstein said fine, although Martin was twenty-five years younger than he. "How's this?" Martin said, hoisting Epstein and starting an airplane-propeller twist. "Off," Epstein said, no longer quite so genial. Martin dropped Epstein to the lobby floor, believing that he was terminating the episode. But Epstein rallied, applied one of his Bulgarian flips, and left his opponent helpless. With Allie Reynolds and a few other Yankees watching, Epstein applied a Bulgarian twist. Martin cried out in pain. Epstein said, "Had enough?"

"Okay," Martin shouted. "Anything you want. Lemme loose." Epstein told me some time afterward, "I remember two things about the match. First, the only thing that got damaged was my watch, and Reynolds fixed it for me right away. Second, when I said 'Had enough?' that was the first time Pat Rollo, the Undefeated Middleweight Champion of Bulgaria, had ever spoken in English." This episode foreshadowed the more visceral confrontation of July 1978 when Martin, talking while intoxicated, threw down another challenge quite beyond his strength and pretty much forced his boss to fire him.

The boss-George Michael Steinbrenner III of Bay Village, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; and the South Bronx-is said to be the only owner in baseball who walks into his clubhouse humming the theme from Patton. He is famously a hard-fisted businessman who shouts and rants and cultivates a climate of creative terrorism. As I write these lines, Steinbrenner is a vigorous, vastly wealthy character just past seventy who speaks to the press infrequently, ignores rumors he has undergone a face-lift, and employs a high-powered New York public relations firm to protect his image. Back in 1978, he was available to the press and public more or less on whim.

When the late Ed Linn began work on a book about Steinbrenner and his team, George telephoned me and made a troubling request. Would I arrange for him to see the manuscript before publication so he could "check it out for accuracy"? Steinbrenner knew that Linn had collaborated on books with Bill Veeck, then running the Chicago White Sox, and the two-Steinbrenner and Veeck-regarded each other with loathing. Steinbrenner's deep concern, it seemed to me, was that Linn would write the book with a hatchet sharpened by Veeck. Linn was a friend of mine. I certainly liked (and like) Steinbrenner. What to do? I simply relayed George's request to Linn, who was working in his cluttered basement office on Long Island. Linn thought for a while, then called me back and said, "Fine. Tell him he can read every passage in the book that isn't about him."

The role of telephonic go-between enlivened my life for several weeks, but failed to produce anything approaching accord. Aside from the Veeck element, Steinbrenner had serious grounds for concern. He didn't know Linn and had brushed off several interview requests more casually than he might have with better advice. His background, which Linn intended to explore, contained more than one disquieting episode. Within six months of the day Steinbrenner acquired control of the Yankees (January 3, 1973), he had pleaded guilty to two felony charges, for essentially making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign. With great intensity and in fine detail, Steinbrenner explained to me afterward that he considered himself an independent Democrat and that he had been victimized by Nixon and Nixon's henchmen. (We will consider that story at length later on.) Working on his own from other sources, Linn categorically rejected Steinbrenner's explanation. His book portrays Steinbrenner as an arrogant, law-breaking manipulator. In Linn's version only a shrewd lawyer and a plea bargain saved Steinbrenner from a prison sentence and probable expulsion from baseball. Such accusations-they were around before Linn wrote them-cut deeply. "Owning the Yankees is just unique," George remarked to me once with distinct tenderness. "I've had lots of offers to sell. No way. Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa."

The Steinbrenner of 1978 was relatively new to both baseball and New York City, and he still was close to the humiliating felony rap, which among other things cost him his right to vote. (President Reagan restored that with a pardon.) Back then he was decidedly more frantic than the seasoned, confident, mostly triumphant, sometimes guarded swashbuckler one encounters today. He wanted very much to become a sporting presence, a social presence, and a power beyond baseball in the business world. He ran with Bill Fugazy, the limousine king; wined Barbara Walters, the television queen; and huddled with Lee Iacocca, the commandant at Chrysler. After one lunch at the 21 Club, on 52nd Street, Steinbrenner and Walters made a bet: Which of the two would be recognized by more passersby as they walked the quarter block from the gates of the elegant restaurant to Fifth Avenue? (My understanding is that nobody recognized either.)

Operating his baseball team in the South Bronx and surfing the fast life in Manhattan, the kid from Bay Village reached back toward his Ohio roots that, beneath the charm and bluster and bravado, he seemed to need for security, as the savage wrestler Antaeus in Greek mythology needed the earth for strength. Steinbrenner lured Al Rosen away from an executive position at Las Vegas' most prominent hotel and hired him as club president. Rosen, a man of great personal strength and high intelligence, had been a slugging third baseman for the Cleveland Indians, twice leading the American League in home runs and winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 1953. But he had not before held a front-office baseball job. "What I remember about Rosen," says Moss Klein, a solid reporter who covered the Yankees for the Newark Star-Ledger, "is that he was the one person in the ruling group who, however crazy things got, always told the truth. It was as if Rosen didn't know how to tell a lie."

The day after Martin resigned in July, Steinbrenner and Rosen had replaced him with bulbous-nosed Bob Lemon, who for nine years, 1948 through 1956, had been the ace of a fabled Cleveland pitching staff. Lemon won twenty games seven times for the Indians and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. He is remembered for his gifts, for his nose, and for a candid comment he uttered more than once: "When I lost a ball game, I never took it home with me. Along the way I stopped at a few bars and left it there." Lemon started 1978 managing a lethargic Chicago White Sox team. Seventy-four games into the season, he was fired by, of all people, Steinbrenner's baseball antagonist, Bill Veeck. (Veeck replaced Lemon with Larry Doby, only the second African American to manage in the major leagues.)

Steinbrenner, Rosen, Martin, and Lemon: This, then, was the foursome chained together at various times within the Yankee command post, a baseball equivalent of Fort Apache, the Bronx. Four very gifted, very assertive men. Each possessed star power, and when they clashed, significant portions of the cosmos seemed to shake. That is one view, anyway, and the popular one. A dissenting opinion goes like this: After Martin vaporized, all you really had were three tough guys from Cleveland trying to make it in New York.

WHEN THE YANKEES awakened on the morning of October 1, they were riding a six-game winning streak and holding on to first place by one game. All they had to do to secure the division championship and complete what could well be the greatest comeback in the annals was thump a journeyman lefthander named Rick Waits, whom they had already beaten three times, and defeat a Cleveland team that was festering in sixth place, thirty games behind them. The Yankees led with an ace, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, and he yielded five runs in the first two innings. "The fabled money pitcher," Moss Klein wrote, "went bankrupt in a big game." Cleveland defeated the Yankees, 9 to 2. Meanwhile, 202.7 miles northeast at Fenway Park, the Red Sox won their eighth straight, beating the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, 5 to 0. The Yankee lead, so damnably hard to gain, was history.

The Metropolitan New York media people-radio reporters, blow-dried television interviewers, and the sportswriters from the suburbs-made their familiar trudging march toward the Yankee clubhouse, a place without windows or natural light, remote from the brightness of the playing field, buried among the catacombs far below the vaulting three-tiered grandstand. For a time the clubhouse door stayed shut. Out of media range, Ron Guidry walked into Bob Lemon's office. "Tomorrow," he said. "I want the ball." Guidry had won twenty-four. He had pitched consecutive two-hit shutouts against the Red Sox in September. "You got it," Lemon said.

After the clubhouse door opened, most Yankees ducked the reporters. With a championship on the line, they had lost to a journeyman pitcher and a bad ball club. Was there anything left to say, any words worth uttering except expletives? Well, maybe a few. Not many on this Yankee gang understood the magical possibilities of silence.

"There are games when you can tell right away you either have it or you don't," babbled the swift, quirky centerfielder, Mickey Rivers. "We didn't have it. The Indians wanted to win and maybe we just thought we couldn't lose." Rivers spoke in a mumble, superimposed on a thick Miami drawl. He was a popular and effective ball player, a passionate horse player, and usually broke. Rivers' full name was and is John Milton Rivers. He may well be the only person named for John Milton who has never heard of John Milton.

"We got beat," Reggie Jackson said, "and it wasn't just another game. We knew the Red Sox were winning. We knew what was happening. Now we got to get them tomorrow."

"I'm hoping for six or seven strong innings from Guidry," Bob Lemon said. "Then I can go to [Rich] Gossage."

Guidry, slim, graceful, contained, and nicknamed "Lou'siana Lightnin," would be working with three days' rest instead of his customary four. At 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, Ronald Ames Guidry exemplified the lilting word lithe. "Too small for a pitcher," some scouts had said. "Too skinny." Now at twenty-eight Ron Guidry threw 95-mile-an-hour fast balls and broke off great sliders that rammed right-handed hitters in the bat handle. By 1978, "Gator" Guidry had become the best pitcher on earth.

The media of Metropolitan New York was then as now a disquieting beast. Some reporters were solid; other were frantic. One locked himself into a toilet stall in the Yankee clubhouse bathroom earlier so that he could overhear ball players' conversations and take notes without being detected. Graig Nettles discovered the man and threatened violence until Al Rosen intervened. Further complicating the scene was the late-season entry of female reporters into the dressing rooms, armed by a recent court order that cited equal employment opportunity. Sparky Lyle celebrated this milestone of liberation by affixing a long white sock, a "sani," to his penis, creating at least a fleeting impression of exceptional length. With stealth newspapermen hiding in the bathroom and aggressive newspaperwomen trying to look nonchalant as they stood among naked athletes, some embarrased, some clowning, the historic ball players' sanctuary, the clubhouse, was no longer what it once had been.

To the joy of many, including Bob Lemon, New York's three major newspapers, the Times, the Daily News, and the Post, had shut down on August 18 when a mechanical group, the pressmen, went out on strike, and others, including the reporters' union, walked out "in sympathy." Talking about a late-season Yankee hot streak, Lemon said later he didn't believe it could have happened if the ball players had been forced to deal with all the reporters and columnists who covered the team for the big three of New York newspapers.

Guidry usually dealt with reporters by offering one of three answers: He smiles slightly as he recalls, "I'd tell them yes, maybe, or no." After a while, he says, the reporters tired of these answers and stopped coming around. But he has always been a stand-up character and on the eve of the play-off Guidry let his reserve drop a bit and answered questions. "No, I'm not worried about being tired. Am I sure? I won't know for sure until I start pitching, but I think I'll be okay."

"I'm ready," Gossage said. Bob Lemon had not thrown him into today's game, which the Yankees had lost almost from the start. "I've got to be ready. There's no tomorrow after tomorrow."

The clubhouse was mostly quiet; some thought it was like a soldiers' camp on the night before a battle. But this was Yankeetown, 1978, and there were always wars within the wars. Cliff Johnson, a huge (6 foot 4 and 230 pounds) backup catcher and pinch hitter, looked over at Jackson jabbering at a scribbling half moon of reporters from suburban and out-of-town newspapers. "What's he talking about?" Johnson began. "What the hell is there to say? Does Jackson ever shut up? Shit. That guy just never stops talking." Before the biggest game of the year the protagonists were not Henry V's "little band of brothers" gathered at Agincourt. No, not at all.

The charter flight from LaGuardia to Logan Airport was uneventful-less than forty minutes in the air-and the ball players checked into the Sheraton Hotel, not far from Back Bay, in an area dominated by the Prudential Tower, then the tallest building in Boston. Toward nine o'clock they scattered into their rooms and into a welcome and forgiving privacy.

RICHARD "GOOSE" GOSSAGE, a strapping righthander out of Colorado Springs, had left the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent after the 1977 season and signed a six-year contract with the Yankees on November 23. The terms: $2.75 million, about $460,000 a year. Today it may appear that batboys make that sort of money, but in those days free-agent baseball was just emerging from long decades of feudalism, and the Gossage contract was front-page news. Albert "Sparky" Lyle, whose relief pitching won him a Cy Young Award in 1977, was working for the Yankees under a feudal-era contract: $140,000 a year. Now here came Gossage, riding off a nice but not a great year with a team that missed the play-offs, joining the World Champion Yankees for more than three times Lyle's salary. Gossage was in fact drawing the highest salary any team had ever paid to a reliever. Questions bubbled to the surface. Was Gossage worth that much? Was President Jimmy Carter worth that much? Was anyone? Wouldn't this high-rolling-and to some observers, reckless-spending set off explosions in the Yankee clubhouse, particularly around the locker occupied by the opinionated, extroverted Sparky Lyle?

At a press conference called to introduce Gossage to New York, he certainly simplified things. "This deal," he said, "is what the Yankees need to make a dynasty." Gossage thinks now, without being certain, that either his agent, Jerry Kapstein, or George Steinbrenner put him up to making the dynasty remark on the theory that brashness would dazzle the New York media. He is a well-spoken and confident man, who says, "My style was never to boast. My style was to let my pitching boast for me." Now in the play-off game, his pitching would have to speak for him, for his team, for the whole season.

"When we got to the hotel," Gossage says. "I went up in the elevator with Lou Piniella. He told me he was turning in to get some sleep. I thought I'd do the same. But when I lay down I started tossing. I was going to pitch the last two or three innings. And now I'm in my hotel room. And I can't sleep. I just felt too nervous and excited." At length Gossage decided, as so many pitchers before him, to regain his composure in a saloon. A surprise was waiting for him when he got there.

RON GUIDRY is by habit a late retirer. In his words, "I go to bed last most of the time." But he stayed in his room at the Sheraton, and he says he slept well. "I didn't get a lot of hours of sleep, but I did sleep fairly deep. I was up early. I had breakfast by myself, and I went to the park early. Didn't wait for the team bus. I took a cab." Guidry had thought about his mental preparation; he knew what he wanted. He didn't want "a mess of conversation. I didn't intend to get distracted." So he would avoid chatter with others including, or especially, his excitable employer, George M. Steinbrenner III.

ALBERT LEONARD ROSEN, called Flip in his playing days, had lived a life that was thrilling but touched with pain. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, ran a department store in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a mill town set among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon after Al was born in 1924, his grandfather died, the Great Depression came, the store went bad, and the family moved. The Rosens settled in Miami, Florida, in a neighborhood without other Jews. Rosen's father left the household when his son was eight. Rosen cannot recall the first time he heard "Jewboy," but the word was part of his childhood. "What is it?" he still wonders. "Is it because your nose is a little bigger, or your hair is a little curlier, or you don't go to Sunday school on Sunday morning, or you're not in regular school on Yom Kippur? What is it?"

As he grew older and rougher in Miami, he began spending time in a boxers' gym. He watched professionals, studying them, and, after a while, sparring with them. His Jewish education was measured in jabs and hooks. He went out for football at a Miami high school. After one early practice, he and six or seven other boys piled into the coach's car. "Rosen," the coach said, "what are you doing out for football?"

"I love to play the game," Rosen said.

"Rosen," the coach said, "you're different from most Jews. Most Jewboys are afraid of contact."

Two years later Rosen enrolled at Florida Military School, a prep in St. Petersburg, on an athletic scholarship. His mother was tremendously proud. He lettered in baseball, basketball, football, and boxing and made the dean's list. "Some of my best friends at prep," he says, "were gentiles." After the army he ad some college, but he wanted to be a ball player. He played in Thomasville, Georgia; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and Oklahoma City and Kansas City and San Diego on a long, grinding journey to the major leagues. He remembers that sometimes during that struggle he wished his name were something other than Rosen. Smith, Jones, Abernathy. Anything but Rosen. Being Jewish was just one more handicap on top of all the other things that made it so damn tough to reach the majors.

Then in 1950 he broke through with the Cleveland Indians: 37 homers and 116 runs batted in. He did even better in 1953: leading the American League with 43 home runs, 145 runs batted in, and missing the batting title by a single point, .336 to Mickey Vernon's .337. After that he sometimes wished that he had a name even more Jewish than his own, perhaps Rosenthal or Rosenstein. He wanted nobody, least of all the bigots, to ever forget just who and what he was.

Before the confrontations of 1978, he had some history with Billy Martin. "I was playing for San Diego in the Pacific Coast League, and Martin was a skinny infielder with Oakland. An Oakland pitcher drilled me, and when I glared, he called me a Jew cocksucker, and I went for him. A lot of people got into that brawl. In the middle I noticed, I don't know how, Martin sneaking up to me trying to blindside me with a punch. He never did."

Often in 1978, Martin tried to challenge Rosen's authority. The chain of command ran upward from field manager (Martin), to general manager (the diffident Cedric Tallis), to president (Rosen) to principal owner (Steinbrenner). From the start, Martin said in saloons and elsewhere that Rosen didn't know what he was doing, had no business holding down the job of president, and, after a while, that he, Martin, was no longer speaking to Rosen. "If I want to send word upstairs, I talk to Tallis." For a time Rosen was tolerant. Then he said, "All right, Billy. Here's what we do. Just you and me. Bare knuckles. At home plate. Either right before or right after a game. We'll give the fans a little something extra for their money."

That story, even the mere headline, has appeal:


That headline never ran for one reason. Martin did not accept Rosen's challenge.

THE WARRIOR PRESIDENT of the Yankees awoke on October 2, 1978, instantly aware of many things, including the fact that this day was Yom Kippur. "I'm not observant," Rosen says, "but I did think, how will this look? The Jewish president of the New York Yankees goes to a ball game on the holiest Jewish holiday. The rabbis say that on Yom Kippur one should not eat or drink, let alone go to work. It's the day of atonement, a day to be spent atoning for the sins you have committed during the past year. I was aware of all these things. Of course, I decided to go to Fenway." There was only one unpleasant consequence. Rosen handled it with skill and humor.

Rosen felt tense when he entered the box behind the Yankee dugout, and his mood did not lighten when he saw a pale, expensively suited man sitting in his seat. "You'll have to move," Rosen said. "You're in my seat."

The man stayed where he was. "Don't bother me," he said. "I'm a personal friend of George M. Steinbrenner. Who do you think you are?"

"The president of the New York Yankees," Rosen said. "Move!" He spoke so fiercely that the intruder, Roy Cohn, lawyer, hustler, and once deputy to the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy, did as he was told.

Rosen looked out at the field. Lovely day. Fresh breeze from left. He considered the ball players warming up on the green and brown and white texture before him. Lou Piniella. Hot tempered but a student of hitting. A competitor. Graig Nettles. He had some nasty moments, but he could pluck 'em at third and he could hit. Thurman Munson, the stocky, mustached, sometimes angry catcher, an Ohio kid who'd come round for help handling his money when Rosen ran an investment business in Cleveland. All excited about his private jet plane these days. A gamer. Munson could play like hell through pain. Bucky Dent. Maybe not up with the others, but he got the job done at shortstop and he never quit. A nice kid and a quiet pro. And Reggie Jackson; he'd torn a nail off a finger and he couldn't play outfield, but he could DH and this was Reggie's time of year. He owned the autumn. Last season in October 1977 he had hit five homers, five, in a six-game World Series. One homer for every four times at bat. Nobody had done that before in a World Series. Probably nobody ever would again.

These fellers, my fellers, Rosen thought, can play. But here are the Red Sox and their stumpy, gritty manager Don Zimmer. Some were saying this was the greatest Boston Red Sox team ever assembled. He had been through a lot in baseball and beyond, but suddenly Rosen felt more tense than he ever had at a ballpark. His stomach was a knot of twine. He reached for a package of antacid tablets and shoved a couple into his mouth. Was this tight stomach divine punishment for going to work on Yom Kippur? Who knew? A bulky man made his way into the Yankee box.

"Hello, George," Rosen said. "Now that you're here I guess we can begin to play the ball game."

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Table of Contents


Nothing to Atone For
The New York Red Sox (and Other Curiosities)
Steinbrenner Unbound
The Dark Prince
R. Martinez J.
The Doughnut as a Whole
The Gathering Storm
A Bickering Spring
Thirty Billion Calories on the Field
The New York Choirboys
Ten Days that Shook the Bronx 5
The Game

Epilogue: Finis Coronet Opus
An Informal Bibliography

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