“Memory is what I have,” Hannibal Lecter said to Clarisse Starling during a thoughtful moment in The Silence of the Lambs. That might be a strange introduction to this story, but given the struggles of the Yankees this past summer, the memories of 30 years ago are far more appealing to this long-term fan of the franchise. It’s been three full decades, but the impressions of the fall of 1978 remained sharp and fully defined.
It’s still the most memorable game I have ever seen. It was a tie-breaking play-off game that took place on October 2 that season, when the Yankees and Red Sox grappled in Fenway Park’s October twilight to decide the championship of the American League East. If you’re old enough to have experienced that game, you remember exactly where you were that fall afternoon.
Ridden with injuries to key players like Goose Gossage, and laden with controversies involving the triumvirate of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner, the Yankees had endured a miserable first half of the 1978 season. On July 19, the Yankees reached a low-water mark when they fell 14 games back of the Red Sox. All seemed so incurably lost that Martin’s decision to resign four days later, which paved the way for the hiring of Bob Lemon, struck most observers as a move that would pay benefits the following season—and not any time sooner.
Lemon, a Hall of Fame pitcher who had received praise for his calm managing of the White Sox in the mid-seventies, didn’t see it that way. He restored order quickly by ignoring a fit of temper thrown by Jackson, and by fining Mickey Rivers and Roy White for breaking team rules. Under Lemon’s calming leadership, and aided by the continuing domination of ace left-hander Ron Guidry, the Yankees regrouped and slowly climbed back into contention in the American League East. A New York City newspaper strike didn’t hurt, either; annoying beat writers like Henry Hecht were no longer around to fan the flames of Yankee controversy.
The Pinstripes moved within four games of the Bosox by early September, just in time for the start of a quartet of head-to-head games. Four days and one famed “Boston Massacre” later, the Red Sox found themselves tied with the Yankees.
The Yankees eventually moved past the Red Sox. Boston refused to quit and climbed to within a game heading into the final day of the regular season. When Indians southpaw Rick Waits (a notable Yankee killer) blanked the Yankees in the Sunday finale, Boston found the door to the pennant ajar. The Red Sox shut out the Blue Jays, forcing a one-game play-off.
Having won a coin toss in September, the Red Sox enjoyed the advantage of hosting the game at Fenway Park. Red Sox’ manager Don Zimmer selected right-hander Mike Torrez, ironically a former Yankee who had won the final game of the previous season’s World Series before departing as a free agent. His counterpart? None other than Guidry, who had won 24 of 27 decisions on his way to winning the Cy Young Award.
Thanks to a lineup loaded with right-handed power hitters like Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice and George Scott, the Red Sox posed a formidable match for the fastballs and sliders thrown by the left-handed Guidry. Yet, it was Boston’s premier left-handed hitter, Carl Yastrzemski, who started the scoring by driving one of Guidry’s pitches down the right- field line. The ball stayed to the left of the Pesky Pole and landed in the right-field stands, giving the Sox a 1-0 lead.
The Red Sox added to their lead in the sixth inning. Leadoff man Rick “The Rooster” Burleson pounded out a double and moved up to third on Jerry Remy’s sacrifice bunt. Rice—who would win the American League’s MVP Award over Guidry—followed with a line-drive single to center field. Rice’s 139th RBI of the season gave the Sox a seemingly safe 2-0 lead.
Torrez showed no signs of tiring when he retired Graig Nettles to start the seventh inning. Then, without warning, Chris Chambliss and Roy White touched Torrez for back-to-back singles. Lemon sent the late Jim Spencer, a tough out against right-handers, to the plate as a pinch hitter for Brian Doyle, a light-hitting second baseman who was only playing because of a season-ending injury to Willie Randolph. Torrez stiffened, retiring Spencer on a harmless fly ball. With two on and two out, No. 9 hitter Bucky Dent stepped to the plate.
Second-guessers of Lemon started to scream! Why didn’t he pinch-hit for Dent, the weakest link in the Yankee batting order? After all, the Yankees could have called on any one of three formidable veterans in the pinch: Jay Johnstone, Gary Thomasson, or Cliff Johnson. (The Yankees really had a bench in those days.) Lemon faced another problem, however. Having already pinch-hit for Doyle, and with Fred “Chicken” Stanley scheduled to come into the game to play second base, Lemon had no other middle infielders at his disposal. Dent, the starting shortstop, would have to hit for himself.
Torrez delivered his second pitch, which Dent fouled directly off his left foot. Dent hopped around home plate, stung by the force of the foul tip. He hobbled back to the dugout, picked up a bat on loan from Mickey Rivers, and returned to finish out the at-bat against Torrez.
On the next pitch, Dent lifted a high fly ball toward left field. If Dent had hit a ball of such moderate depth at Yankee Stadium, Yastrzemski would have caught the ball easily before it reached the warning track. But this was Fenway Park. The ball had plenty of depth to reach the park’s famed left-field wall. But did it have enough height to clear the wall and scrape the netting above the “Green Monster?”
Yankee fans watching the game on television struggled to see the ball against the October background of late afternoon sun and shadows. “Deep to left,” cried Bill White, announcing the game on WPIX-TV in New York. “Yastrzemski will not get it… it’s a home run!! A three-run home run by Bucky Dent…” White’s words provided Yankee fans with confirmation of something they could not believe—a home run by the Yankees’ weakest hitter, a man who had hit all of four balls over fences during the first 162 games of the season.
Much of the remainder of the game remains overshadowed, obscured by the drama of Dent’s blast. Later that same inning, the late Thurman Munson provided an insurance run with an RBI double. In the top of the eighth, Jackson gave the Yankees a three-run lead with a monstrous home run to center field. The Red Sox rallied for two runs in the bottom of the eighth and continued to apply pressure in the ninth. With Burleson on first, Remy lined a ball solidly toward right field. Draped and blinded by the Fenway sun, Lou Piniella had no idea of the ball’s location. He didn’t see the ball until it landed on the outfield grass, and then stabbed at it with his glove. Somehow, Sweet Lou fielded the ball cleanly, holding Burleson at second base. Instead of having the tying run on third with only one out, the Red Sox still needed two more bases to even the game.
Jim Rice followed by driving a fly ball to right field. If Burleson had already been on third, he would have scored easily. As it was, he had to settle for a one-base advance, from second to third. With two outs, Yastrzemski came to the plate. Gossage and Yaz battled. Gossage tried to throw his best pitch—a rising fastball—by the slowed swing of the aging Yaz. Down to his final strike, Yastrzemski swung at the Gossage fastball. If it had been 1968, Yaz might have done tangible damage with that swing. But in 1978, Yaz swung late, lofting a weak pop-up down the third base line. Straddling the foul line behind the bag, Graig Nettles cradled the ball with two hands, ending one of baseball’s most classic games.
Yaz. Gossage. At Fenway Park. Guidry’s 25th win. A miraculous play in right field. A blast by Reggie. And one unlikely home run by a little shortstop named Bucky. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLBlogs at MLB.com.