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     New York’s disappointing fourth-place finish in 1971 made the Yankee front office keenly aware of the team’s shortcomings.  The Yankees continued to get very little in the way of offensive production from their first and third basemen, causing them to hit fewer than 100 home runs for the second time in three seasons.  Furthermore, the bullpen, which had been so effective two years earlier, faltered badly in 1971, compiling a total of only 12 saves.  Something clearly needed to be done to address the power shortage in the middle of the lineup and the bullpen situation if the Yankees had any hope of contending for the A.L. East title in the upcoming campaign.     

     New York’s front office began addressing the team's needs during the off-season on December 2nd, when it traded pitcher Stan Bahnsen to the Chicago White Sox for infielder/outfielder Rich McKinney.  While the Yankees expected the 25-year-old McKinney to establish himself as the team’s starting third baseman, the move wreaked of desperation since McKinney had never before played third base regularly in the major leagues. 

     After making another two less significant deals, the Yankees made their biggest move of the off-season on March 22nd, when they traded Danny Cater to the Red Sox for reliever Sparky Lyle.  The left-handed Lyle pitched effectively out of the bullpen for Boston in each of the previous four seasons, saving as many as 20 games in 1970.  However, the Red Sox felt that the right-handed hitting Cater would be a perfect fit for Fenway Park, and they were willing to part with Lyle to acquire him. 

     Having completed their off-season face-lift, the Yankees entered the 1972 campaign with a very different look.  In addition to adding McKinney to the starting lineup, New York expected 23-year-old Ron Blomberg to garner significant playing time at first base, and veteran outfielder Johnny Callison, who the team also acquired during the off-season, to assume the starting right-field duties. 

     However, New York’s plans failed to come to fruition.  The 33-year-old Callison, an All-Star player earlier in his career with the Phillies, had little left in the tank, hitting only nine home runs, driving in just 34 runs, and batting only .258, in 300 total plate appearances.  The left-handed hitting Blomberg hit well whenever manager Ralph Houk entered his name on the lineup card.  But his inability to hit left-handed pitching relegated him to a part-time role.  McKinney proved to be the biggest disappointment of all.  After committing eight errors in only 33 games at the hot corner, he spent the remainder of the year on the bench, finishing the campaign with only one home run, seven runs batted in, and a .215 batting average.  Meanwhile, Stan Bahnsen went on to win 20 games for the White Sox.

     The one saving grace for the Yankee front office turned out to be the performance of Sparky Lyle, who finished the season with a record of 9-5, an ERA of 1.92, and a league-leading 35 saves, en route to earning a third-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.  Lyle’s 35 saves established a new American League record, and also tied the existing major league mark.

     The Yankees also benefited from the fact that the Baltimore Orioles fell back to the rest of the pack in the A.L. East.  With the Orioles no longer a dominant team, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and New York all remained in contention throughout the year, making for an exciting pennant race.

     As the four teams continued to jostle for position, the Yankees and New York City reached agreement on a 30-year lease on Yankee Stadium on August 8th that provided for the team remaining in the Bronx until 2002.  The City agreed to spend $24 million on renovations that were scheduled to begin upon the conclusion of the 1973 season.  However, the face-lift ended up costing New York almost $100 million.      

     With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season and three teams closely bunched just ahead of them, the Yankees needed to play almost perfect baseball down the stretch if they had any hope of winning the division.  On September 27th, they went to Detroit for a critical two-game series with the Tigers.  In the first contest, the Yankees built a 5-1 lead going into the eighth inning.  However, Detroit stormed back with three runs in the eighth and another two in the ninth against Lyle to all but end New York's title dreams.  Even though New York defeated Detroit the next day by a score of 3-2, the earlier loss seemed to deflate the Yankees, who wound up losing their final five games to finish the season with a record of 79-76, in fourth place, 6 ½ games behind the first-place Tigers.

     Although the season ended in disappointing fashion for the Yankees, they found themselves able to take some positives out of the campaign.  Thurman Munson raised his batting average 30 points, to .280, and continued to mature behind the plate, developing into one of the junior circuit’s top signal-callers.  After getting off to a slow start, Fritz Peterson ended up leading the team with 17 victories and 12 complete games, while compiling a 3.24 ERA and throwing 250 innings.  Steve Kline developed into a solid third starter, finishing the year with a record of 16-9, throwing 236 innings, completing 12 games, and leading the team with an ERA of 2.40.   

     Meanwhile, Bobby Murcer had his second consecutive outstanding season.  He placed among the league leaders with 33 home runs, 96 runs batted in, 171 hits, 30 doubles, and a .537 slugging percentage, batted .292, and topped the circuit with 102 runs scored and 314 total bases.  On August 29th, he became the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Mickey Mantle accomplished the feat 15 years earlier.  Murcer won a Gold Glove for his outstanding work in centerfield, finished fifth in the league MVP voting, and earned spots on both the A.L. All-Star Team and The Sporting News All-Star Team.

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
Bobby Murcer, Danny Cater, Fritz Peterson, Johnny Callison, Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees, Ralph Houk, Rich McKinney, Ron Blomberg, Sparky Lyle, Stan Bahnsen, Steve Kline, Thurman Munson, Yankee Stadium

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