Card Corner Plus: The Pennant Race of 1978

Bucky Dent had a career-defining moment during the 1978 pennant race while Bob Bailey’s career ended following its conclusion.

Forty Septembers ago, I had the pleasure of following the most remarkable pennant race of my lifetime, which concluded with a game that wrecked northeastern nerves for nine innings. The New York Yankees, 14 1/2 games back of the first-place Boston Red Sox on July 18, had somehow clawed their way back into the fringes of the race, setting the stage for a remarkable stretch of games in September and early October.

There were plenty of reasons for New York’s comeback. But we can probably boil the turnaround to three major themes. There’s no doubt that the Yankees, fraught with dissension, underachieved badly in June and July, playing .500 ball over those two months. With their level of established talent, they were due for a correction. Second, there’s little doubt that a midsummer strike by the New York City newspapers helped ease an atmosphere of vitriol and controversy. Without local reporters to document the latest declarations coming from Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and company, the soap opera sideshow abated. And third, the firing of Billy Martin, coupled with the hiring of the diametrically opposite Bob Lemon, a man of calm and reason, also helped ease tensions in the clubhouse.

After restoring order to their season, the Yankees continued their comeback in early September with a four-game sweep that will forever be known as the “Boston Massacre.” In those four games at Fenway Park, the Yankees outscored the Red Sox, 42-9, with three of the games being blowouts and the fourth a three-run decision.

That put the Yankees dead even with Boston. They eventually built a three-and-a-half game lead in the American League East. But the Red Sox did not collapse. To their unappreciated credit, they won their last eight scheduled games. The Yankees lost their Sunday afternoon finale to Cleveland, done in by noted Yankee killer Rick Waits, forcing a one-game tiebreaker on enemy ground.

In my mind, that October 2 tiebreaker remains the greatest game I’ve experienced, although I was still in school and had to listen to part of it on a small transistor radio while waiting for the bus. I did get home in time to watch the bottom of the ninth on WPIX TV, allowing me to witness the battle royale between Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Carl Yastrzemski, which ended with a dramatic pop-up to Graig Nettles. When Nettles caught that ball, it capped off a remarkable run that saw the Yankees go 42-17 from August 1 through that memorable afternoon.

In recalling the fall of 1978, I invariably start thinking about the Red Sox and Yankees who appeared on Topps cards that season. Let’s begin with Boston. Three Red Sox players have All-Star designations on their cards—Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and Rick Burleson—a testament to the talent assembled in Boston that year. Two others in Red Sox uniforms in that set—Jim Rice and Fergie Jenkins—became Hall of Famers, joining Yaz and Fisk in Cooperstown. Jenkins actually did not pitch for the Red Sox in 1978, having been traded to Texas over the winter. Another Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley, did play for Boston, but appeared on a Topps card wearing the colors and designation of the Cleveland Indians.

As is often the case, the most intriguing cards are not the ones for the star players, but rather for the journeymen. One of the better shots of a Red Sox player is the Bernie Carbo card, which gives us a nice portrait view of the veteran outfielder. Bernie has a puzzled look on his face; he seems unsure of his surroundings.

Carbo had begun the ’78 season with the Red Sox, but his behavior ran afoul of manager Don Zimmer, resulting in a midseason giveaway to Cleveland that prevented him from taking part in that memorable pennant race. (A player like Carbo, a patient hitter with power, would have been nice for Boston to have during the stretch run.) Forty years later, it’s comforting to know that Carbo has reformed his life; today, he is sober, and runs a ministry meant to counsel those enduring his earlier crucible.

Another memorable card is that of the late Bob Bailey, who died in January of this year. In this photograph, his helmet and jersey trim colors have been airbrushed by a Topps artist. Bailey was almost certainly wearing the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds when this photograph was taken; he spent most of 1977 with the Reds before joining the Red Sox late in the season. In the 1978 tiebreaker game, Bailey appeared as a pinch-hitter against Gossage in the seventh inning. Clearly overweight and with his bat slowed by Father Time, Bailey struck out against The Goose in what turned out to be the final at-bat of his career. For Bailey, it was a discomfiting end to what had been a more than respectable major league tenure.

Of all the Red Sox featured in the 1978 set, the most unusual card is unquestionably that of a pitcher named Mike Paxton. Paxton did not even pitch for the Red Sox in 1978. But he did have an impact on the pennant race. On September 14, Paxton and the Indians beat the Red Sox, 4-3, pushing the Sox a game and a half back of the Yankees.

At one time, Paxton was one of the Red Sox’ better pitching prospects. As a rookie in 1977, the right-hander made an immediate impact, winning 10 of 15 decisions as a starter and reliever. Paxton seemed like he might become a mainstay in Boston, but the Indians wanted him as part of the trade package for Eckersley. So the Red Sox agreed to include Paxton in the deal, along with catcher Bo Diaz, third baseman Ted Cox, and veteran right-hander Rick Wise, all of whom went to Cleveland for Eckersley and backup catcher Fred Kendall.

In today’s game, scouts might have shied away from Paxton, who was listed at 5-foot-11 and featured a bowlegged look reminiscent of a fellow named Bucky Dent. Paxton did not throw particularly hard either, but compensated for his lack of velocity with tenacity and a willingness to throw inside. Those traits earned him the nickname “Bulldog.”

Paxton looks unusual on his 1978 Topps card, but for reasons having nothing to do with his build. The image on the card looks more like a drawing than a photograph. Over the years, Topps has airbrushed uniform and cap colors onto many of its cards, but during the 1970s and ’80s it was unusual for the company to use anything but a photograph as a starting point.

Growing up, I had heard some of my friends assert that Paxton did not want to be photographed for “religious reasons.” I later learned that Paxton is deeply religious, a devout Baptist and a member of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, so all of this made sense to me. After all, I was 13 years old; what in the world did I know? I had heard it speculated that another pitcher, Seattle Mariners left-hander Rick Jones (who was featured on a 1977 Topps card), also did not want to be photographed on his cards because of religious beliefs. Topps has always negotiated its contracts with players individually, with some players like Rusty Staub and Maury Wills refusing to sign on with the company, so it seemed possible to me that Paxton and Jones specifically made the request not to be photographed by Topps.

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As it turned out, religious reasons had nothing to do with the alleged “drawings” on the Paxton and Jones cards. I eventually received the simpler explanation from author and longtime public relations man Marty Appel, who once worked for Topps. Appel told me that it was merely a case of Topps not owning any color photographs for either of the players. The company had only black-and-white photographs of Paxton and Jones, so those were colorized, giving them the look of drawings. In retrospect, I should have asked Marty about this sooner and avoided the embarrassing speculation.

The Yankees had their share of noteworthy 1978 cards, too, including All-Star designations for Willie Randolph and Reggie Jackson; the latter hit a now forgotten home run in the tiebreaker game against Boston. My favorite Yankees card is the one of Thurman Munson, a classic shot from Yankee Stadium taken sometime during the 1977 season.

This is Munson exactly as I remember him: standing tall in his catcher’s gear, his face mask in his right hand, while wearing his trademark red chest protector and shin guards. (Munson always wore the red gear, while the other Yankees catchers usually wore black.) Munson’s mustache and scowl are in full view, too; if there was ever a player who epitomized the gritty nature of a 1970s-era catcher, it was Munson.

As fine a player as Munson was, he had a low-key September and October in 1978, hitting .296 but with no home runs and an OPS below .700. Similarly, he had a relatively quiet offensive day in Game No. 163, coming up with an RBI double in five at-bats but also striking out three times.

Then there is the Bucky Dent card, which ironically shows him squaring to bunt, as opposed to swinging away, as he did in the seventh inning of the tiebreaker game against Mike Torrez, famously producing a game-changing three-run homer.

Prior to that, Dent was a frustrating player for Yankees fans, by far the weakest hitter among the regulars and regarded, in the vernacular of the time, as something of a “pretty boy” by the male fan base. While Munson was my favorite Yankee at the time, Dent was one of my least preferred, a feeling shared by many of my Yankees-fan friends. But that all changed with that home run against Torrez, which gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead while cementing Dent’s status as a newfound man of the people.

Given his heroics that day, Dent didn’t need to do much else to gain favor in New York. But he did. After a tough Championship Series against the pesky Kansas City Royals, Dent bounced back to hit .417 and drive in seven runs in the World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. While some felt that lesser-known Brian Doyle, who hit .428 as a replacement for the injured Randolph, deserved MVP honors in the Series, it was matinee idol Dent who took home the hardware.

While the Dent and Munson cards typify the compelling action photography of 1978 Topps, another action shot stands out as the most unusual Yankees card from that season. It is that of Goose Gossage (always listed as Rich on his Topps cards), which showcases Topps airbrushing in all of its glory. Gossage’s entire Yankees home uniform, but not his face, has been airbrushed, so as to cover up the gaudy colors of his 1977 team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The background of the card, principally the chain-link fence and the 375-foot placard, indicate that this photograph was taken at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, during The Goose was pitching his lone season for the Bucs.

After the 1977 season, Gossage signed a free agent contract with the Yankees, essentially replacing Sparky Lyle as the team’s relief ace. Wanting to use an action photograph of Gossage but also hoping to look current, Topps took a daring approach and airbrushed Yankee colors, pinstripes, and logos over the existing Pirate uniform. While the colors have clearly been drawn on to the card, this is actually an above-average effort for Topps. The end result is surreal, but unusually effective as Topps did its best to remain hip and up to date.

On the surface, Gossage’s performance against the Red Sox in Game 163 was a struggle. He allowed five hits and two runs over two and a third innings. But he was also pushed to limits rarely seen by a closer in today’s game, not only summoned in the seventh inning but forced to throw each pitch under the highest leverage imaginable. With two outs and the tying run at the plate in the seventh, Gossage relieved Ron Guidry (who was the Yankees’ MVP that season, but mediocre on this day against Boston) and ended the threat by inducting a groundout by Rick Burleson.

Then came the difficult eighth inning. Protecting a three-run lead but facing the heart of the Red Sox’ order, Gossage allowed a double, retired Jim Rice, and then permitted three straight singles, bringing the Red Sox to within a run. With runners on first and second and still only one out, Gossage stiffened, inducing a fly out by Butch Hobson (whose defensive woes at third base really hurt the Sox down the stretch), followed by a strikeout of George Scott. And thus ended the rally.

Gossage found the ninth inning just as excruciating. If not for Lou Piniella’s ability to keep Jerry Remy’s line drive in front of him, despite a raging sun that almost completely blinded him on the play, Gossage likely would have surrendered the lead. On that play, Piniella also deked Burleson, making him think he was going to make the catch and preventing him from advancing to third, still with only one out. Gossage then rallied to retire Rice on a fly ball before overmatching Yastrzemski, Boston’s best-known and most established star, on the final swing of the Red Sox’ season.

By the end of the game, Gossage had faced 14 batters, a massive number for a relief pitcher in the context of today’s game. We don’t have official pitch count information from 1978, but an estimate of four pitches per batter would have put Gossage’s total number near 60.

Such usage of a relief pitcher in 1978 is just one of many major differences between the game then and the game now. Another is the postseason structure. Given today’s postseason format and the fallback of the Wild Card, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a pennant race quite like what the American League East gave us in 1978. I feel fortunate to have experienced it, and grateful to re-live it with some assistance from a half-dozen baseball cards.

Even 40 years later, this old cardboard holds up pretty well.

References and Resources

  • Interview with Marty Appel
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Topps Gum Company
  • The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide (1979)


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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AlbaNate
Member
AlbaNate

What I remember most about game #163 is that I missed it because of Rosh Hashanah. I remember walking outside after services to see if I could find out the score from our neighbor, who was also Jewish but who had told me ahead of time that he was planning to skip services to watch the game. I was scandalized, but also excited to know that I had a nearby source of information.

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

You would be hard pressed to find another game with so many stars who participated in this fourth installment of an ongoing Greek tragedy. For old Sox fans, that means 1946, ’49, and ’67. 1986 was the fifth and final insult. You did not mention Paul Blair, the late and great Oriole centerfielder who made a cameo appearance in this game as a pinch hitter. He was at the end of his career. He and Reggie Jackson were part of a very exclusive club: they each played for Earl Weaver and Billy Martin.

PC1970
Member
PC1970

That set is my favorite set of Topps cards. They’re the 1st ones I remember, so that may be some of it, but, it’s also the cursive team name, the baseball with the position in it, the white card stock with the border framing the picture. I also loved the All Star “shields” & the yellow trophy on the top Rookie cards that they used.

Just a sharp looking set of cards.