1978 was one of the craziest roller-coaster rides any baseball team has ever gone on. On July 19 when the Yankees sat 14-games behind Boston in the AL East, nobody could have predicted they’d chase-down the Sox.
Each team finished the regular season with 99 wins. It was a long road for each team to reach that point. Boston had the best record in baseball through June but then suffered injuries through the dog days of summer, opening the door just a crack for the Yankees.
New York, coming off a championship in ’77, had high expectations tempered with front-loaded injuries and a so-so start to the season. They dealt with an outfield logjam and feud over bullpen roles. All of that paled in comparison to the clubhouse chaos and media circus that followed the team, mainly thanks to Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, and Reggie Jackson. They had prominent players ask to be traded, suspensions, and resignations. As third-baseman Graig Nettles put it:
It wasn’t a question of where we would finish. It was a question of if we would.
Many things had to happen for the Yankees to reach their full potential, including getting a new manager, key players returning from injury, and a timely newspaper strike. If all of that didn’t happen perhaps they would not have been at Fenway Park on October 2 for Game 163.
Podcast – A Brief History: Game 163, the Yankees & Red Sox in 1978
Listen to the fully history podcast below! I go inside Game 163 to explore all the craziness that happened throughout the 1978 Yankees season with Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, the Red Sox, the media and more.
Bucky F–ing Dent
The Red Sox dominated the game through 6 innings. Yankees’ ace Ron Guidry was pitching on short rest for the third consecutive outing and had to battle to keep the Yanks in the game. Sox starter Mike Torrez was cruising, but the Yankees finally mounted a rally in the top of the 7th inning. Up stepped their shortstop, Bucky Dent, a .240 hitter with no power.
Dent was a solid glove the Yankees could ordinarily hide in their lineup, but the situation — 2-on, 2-out, and down by 2-runs — screamed for a pinch hitter. There was just one problem: Jim Spencer, the Yankees’ best bat off the bench, just flew out while hitting for Brian Doyle in the 8th spot. Doyle was even worse than Dent offensively, but was forced into the starting lineup because Willie Randolph was dealing with a hamstring injury. Lemon couldn’t take both Doyle and Dent out of the game because they’d have nobody to play either second or short. The game was in Dent’s hands.
In the video below, you’ll hear Yankees announcer Frank Messer talking about the pinch-hitting conundrum.
Dent checked his swing on a low pitch for ball one. Then he fouled the second pitch off his lower shin/ankle. Dent was dealing with a shin injury all year from fouling a ball off his leg in spring training. He adopted wearing a pad to protect the area, but he wasn’t wearing it for this game — so naturally he fouled a pitch off the exact spot and fell to the ground in pain.
Another amazing tidbit about this moment is that when Bucky was being looked at by the trainers, Mickey Rivers apparently noticed that his bat had a crack in it. He sent the bat boy to bring Bucky one of his (Mickey’s) bats, saying:
Tell him (Dent) there are lots of hits in it. He’ll get a home run.
Had Dent not fouled the ball off his leg, maybe that goes unnoticed and the fly ball he hit on the third pitch doesn’t travel quite as far.
Off the bat, the ball looked like it might have a chance to at least scrape the wall, which would have scored one run, maybe two if Yaz didn’t play it quickly. The ball just kept going and going and barely fell into the green monster net for a 3-run homer.
That’s not where the drama of the moment ends, however. It’s one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, so it’s been dissected a number of times. Two years ago Sports Illustrated released a special documentary in honor of the game’s 40th anniversary. In it, players alluded to the new bat Dent received being corked. According to Luis Tiant:
They told me they put some cork in the bat That’s what they tell me. Mickey Rivers told me.
Randolph joked that it had “some magic” in it but Rivers and Yankees players deny the bat was corked.
Whether or not the bat was corked, the Yankees had a 1-run lead and Bucky F–ing Dent was born.