The two-time defending world champion New York Yankees suffered through a demoralizing 1979 campaign during which they lost their beloved captain Thurman Munson in a plane crash. The loss of Munson, coupled with a hand injury suffered by relief ace Goose Gossage during a clubhouse altercation with teammate Cliff Johnson, prevented the Yankees from mounting a serious challenge for their fourth consecutive A.L. East title. Instead, the Baltimore Orioles returned to the top of the division standings for the first time in five years by compiling baseball’s best record – a mark of 102-57 that put them eight games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Brewers in the final standings. The Boston Red Sox finished third in the division, 11 ½ games back, while the Yankees came in fourth, 13 ½ games off the pace.
Both the Brewers and the Red Sox featured more potent offenses than the Orioles. Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper, and Sixto Lezcano all had big years for Milwaukee. Thomas knocked in 123 runs and led the league with 45 home runs. Cooper hit 24 homers, drove in 106 runs, and batted .308. Lezcano went deep 28 times, knocked in 101 runs, and batted .321.
The tandem of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn led Boston’s potent attack. Rice followed up his fabulous 1978 campaign by placing among the league leaders with 39 homers, 130 runs batted in, 117 runs scored, and a .325 batting average. Lynn posted equally impressive numbers, also hitting 39 home runs, while driving in 122 runs, scoring 116 others, and leading the league with a .333 batting average and a .637 slugging average.
Although the Orioles placed third in the American League with 181 home runs, they lacked the offensive firepower of their two closest rivals. The Birds finished just eighth in the junior circuit with 757 runs scored, and their team batting average of .261 left them 11th in the rankings. Eddie Murray and Ken Singleton were the club’s top two offensive threats. Murray hit 25 home runs, drove in 99 runs, scored 90 others, and batted .295. Singleton hit 35 homers, knocked in 111 runs, scored 93 others, batted .295, and compiled a .405 on-base percentage, en route to earning a second-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.
The thing that enabled the Orioles to separate themselves from Milwaukee and Boston in the A.L. East was their superior pitching. Baltimore’s staff compiled a league-leading 3.26 team ERA that no other team in the junior circuit even approached. Mike Flanagan anchored the starting rotation, earning A.L. Cy Young honors by leading the league with 23 wins and five shutouts, while also compiling a 3.08 ERA and throwing 266 innings and 16 complete games. Dennis Martinez chipped in with 15 victories and a league-leading 292 innings pitched and 18 complete games.
While the Orioles had a relatively easy time finishing first in the A.L. East, the California Angels found the going much tougher in the junior circuit’s other division. The Angels outlasted three other teams in the closely-contested A.L. West, to capture their first division title. California finished the regular season with a record of 88-74, just three games ahead of the Kansas City Royals, who failed to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years. The Texas Rangers finished third, five games back, while the Minnesota Twins came in fourth, six games off the pace.
The Angels used the league’s top offense to win their first division crown. Although California placed ninth in the circuit with a team ERA of 4.34, their 866 runs scored led all American League teams. Brian Downing scored 87 runs and finished third in the league with a .326 batting average. Bobby Grich hit 30 home runs, drove in 101 runs, and batted .294. Carney Lansford hit 19 homers, batted .287, and scored 114 times. Dan Ford hit 21 home runs, knocked in 101 runs, scored 100 others, and batted .290. Don Baylor earned A.L. MVP honors by batting .296, hitting 36 home runs, and topping the circuit with 139 runs batted in and 120 runs scored.
However, Baltimore’s superior pitching proved to be too much for the Angels to overcome in the ALCS. The Orioles captured their first pennant in eight years by defeating the Angels in four games. Nevertheless, the Series was a competitive one, with two of the contests being decided by a single run, and a third going into extra innings.
The Orioles subsequently built a three-games-to-one lead against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, before their National League counterparts came storming back to win the final three games. Willie Stargell led the charge for the Pirates, earning Series MVP honors by batting .400, hitting three homers, driving in seven runs, and scoring seven others.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• February 3 – The Minnesota Twins traded Rod Carew to the California Angels for Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell and Brad Havens.
• June 12 – The Detroit Tigers hired Sparky Anderson as their new manager.
• July 12 – The Detroit Tigers won the first game of a scheduled doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, 4–1, on Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Thousands of young fans swarmed onto the field between games, damaging the field and causing mayhem throughout the stadium. The White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game.
• July 24 – Boston's Carl Yastrzemski hit his 400th home run off Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Morgan during a 7-3 Red Sox win over Oakland at Fenway Park.
• August 2 – The Chicago White Sox replaced Don Kessinger as their manager with rookie skipper Tony La Russa.
• August 2 – Yankee captain Thurman Munson lost his life in a plane crash.
• August 3 – Over 51,000 mourners attended a memorial service for Thurman Munson at Yankee Stadium.
• August 6 – Hours after attending a funeral service in Canton, Ohio for team captain Thurman Munson, the Yankees returned to New York City and defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5–4 at Yankee Stadium. Bobby Murcer, one of Munson’s closest friends, provided the heroics in the nationally televised contest, driving in all five Yankee runs with a three-run home run in the seventh inning and a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth.
• September 12 – Carl Yastrzemski recorded his 3,000th career hit, making him the first American League player to reach both 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.
• Kansas City’s George Brett became the first player since Willie Mays in 1957 to surpass 20 homers, 20 triples, and 20 doubles in the same season. Brett finished the year with 23 home runs, 42 doubles, and a league-leading 20 triples. He also batted .329, knocked in 107 runs, scored 119 others, stole 17 bases, and led the league with 212 hits.
• New York’s Ron Guidry finished 18-8 with a league-leading 2.78 ERA.
• Minnesota’s John Castino (.285 batting average) and Toronto’s Alfredo Griffin (.287 batting average) shared A.L. Rookie of the Year honors.
• Billy Martin replaced Bob Lemon as Yankee manager 64 games into the season.
• The Hall of Fame inducted Willie Mays, Warren Giles, and Hack Wilson.
• Ranger third baseman Buddy Bell won the first of six consecutive Gold Gloves.
• Kansas City's Willie Wilson led the American League with 83 stolen bases.
• Walter O'Malley died.
• Nolan Ryan led the American League with 223 strikeouts in his last season with California.
• New York’s Tommy John placed second in the American League with 21 wins, a 2.97 ERA, 276 innings pitched, and 17 complete games.
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