Despite bolstering their starting rotation during the off-season by acquiring veteran pitchers Tommy John and Luis Tiant through free agency, the Yankees failed to capture their fourth straight A.L. East title in 1979. Injuries to several key players, subpar performances by others, and a truly tragic loss prevented the Yankees from ever establishing the kind of momentum they needed to overtake the first-place Baltimore Orioles, who posted 102 victories during the regular season. New York finished fourth in the division with a record of 89-71, 13 ½ games behind Baltimore.
The dark cloud that hung over the Bronx for much of the 1979 campaign surfaced for the first time early in the year, when star reliever Goose Gossage injured his hand during a clubhouse altercation with Cliff Johnson. Gossaage ended up missing a significant portion of the season, saving only 18 games.
New York’s pitching staff found itself further compromised by injuries to Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Don Gullett. Hunter and Figueroa, both of whom missed most of the year with arm problems, posted a combined record of only 6-15. In fact, Hunter pitched so ineffectively that he elected to retire at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Gullett sat out the entire campaign and never again pitched in the major leagues.
New York’s lineup was also hit hard by injuries. Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, and Bucky Dent all missed extensive playing time, with only Jackson posting the kind of offensive numbers the team expected from him. Rivers played such uninspired ball whenever he took the field that the Yankees included him in a multi-player deal with Texas that returned Oscar Gamble to New York.
The popular Rivers left the Bronx approximately one month after another fan favorite made his triumphant return. The Yankees reacquired Bobby Murcer from the Chicago Cubs in late June, bringing back home one of the franchise’s very best players who performed for the team during the dark days of the early 1970’s. Murcer’s return also re-united him with his close friend and former teammate, Thurman Munson.
Unfortunately, the reunion turned out to be short-lived, since Munson died tragically in an airplane crash on August 2nd, while returning home to visit his family in Akron, Ohio. Munson’s loss left a huge void in the Yankee clubhouse. In addition to being an outstanding player, Munson was the leader of the team and, arguably, its most popular player. Unable to recover from the loss of their captain, the Yankees finished out the campaign unenthusiastically, playing dispirited ball much of the time.
Still, the front office tried everything to light a spark under the team, including rehiring Billy Martin as manager. Martin replaced Bob Lemon at the helm after the Yankees posted a record of 34-31 in their first 65 games. Martin led New York to a record of 55-40 over the season’s final 95 contests.
While the 1979 campaign turned out to be an extremely disappointing one for the Yankees and their fans, a few players on the team distinguished themselves over the course of the season with their outstanding play. Ron Davis tried his best to pick up some of the slack in the Yankee bullpen in Gossage’s absence. The hard-throwing 23-year-old right-hander finished 14-2, with nine saves and a 2.85 ERA. Tommy John led the staff with 21 victories, 17 complete games, and 276 innings pitched, while finishing second in the league with a 2.96 ERA. Ron Guidry followed up his brilliant 1978 season with another fine year, leading the league with a 2.78 ERA, compiling a record of 18-8, and placing second in the circuit with 201 strikeouts.
On offense, Willie Randolph led the team with 98 runs scored and 33 stolen bases. Reggie Jackson put together another solid season, leading the club with 29 home runs, 89 runs batted in, and a .297 batting average, en route to earning a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team. Teammates Nettles, Guidry, and John joined him on the squad.
Still, the 1979 season will long be remembered in New York as the year the Yankees lost their beloved captain, Thurman Munson. Perhaps Bobby Murcer said it best when he spoke the following words while delivering his eulogy at his close friend’s funeral: “Someday the Yankees may have another captain...no greater honor could be bestowed on a man than to be a successor to this man….Thurman Munson, who wore the pinstripes, was number 15, but in living, loving, and legend, history will record my friend as Number 1."By Bob_Cohen
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- Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Bobby Murcer, Catfish Hunter, Chris Chambliss, Cliff Johnson, Dave Righetti, Ed Figueroa, George Steinbrenner, Graig Nettles, Luis Tiant, Mickey Rivers, New York Yankees, Oscar Gamble, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Ron Guidry, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Tommy John, Willie Randolph