It was a slow sports weekend, so I watched a couple of baseball games … from 1978.
The YES Network, home of the New York Yankees, replayed some Yankee Classics — shockingly, the channel shows only games the Yankees win — and the two games I watched were Game 3 from the World Series against the Dodgers and the famous AL East tiebreaker game against the Red Sox at Fenway, aka The Bucky Dent Game or The Bucky $*@!#!*! Dent Game.
It’s fun to look back at old games like these from time to time, not only to see how much the game has changed, but also to see how much it hasn’t changed. Though today’s baseball players are certainly bigger and stronger, I would bet the game changed more from 1938 to 1978 than it did from 1978 to 2018.
I turned 9 years old in 1978 and watched that World Series game — indeed, this was the game in which Graig Nettles made several outstanding plays in the field, and I certainly remember that. The tiebreaker game would have happened when I was in school, and though ABC televised the game with Keith Jackson and Don Drysdale on the call, the only version you ever see is the Yankees’ broadcast with Bill White, Frank Messer and Phil Rizzuto.
Ron Guidry, Mr. Louisiana Lightning himself, started both games for the Yankees. This was the season of his life, when he went 25-3, tossed 16 complete games and nine shutouts, and finished second to Jim Rice in the MVP voting. Who would win this vote today?
Guidry: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 273⅔ IP, 248 SO, 9.6 WAR
Rice: .315/.370/.600, 46 HR, 139 RBIs, 121 R, 7.6 WAR
In 1978, Rice collected 20 of the 28 first-place votes. Rice’s 406 total bases were the most since Stan Musial in 1948 and the most in the AL since Joe DiMaggio in 1937, and I think that was a big deal at the time. Rice had a monster season, but now we’d be more aware of park effects (Rice hit .361 with 28 home runs at home and .269 with 18 home runs on the road) and probably penalize him more for starting 49 games at DH (before even getting into the difference in WAR, which, of course, didn’t exist in 1978).
Anyway, some general observations from the games:
–The first thing I noticed (besides the game not being in HD): The players are much thinner. My wife walked into the room at one point and after asking — with a very puzzled look — what game I was watching, she commented, “They all look skinny.”
–Even the big sluggers like Rice and Reggie Jackson don’t look as physically imposing as some of today’s big sluggers. I remember Rice as an intimidating presence at the plate, but he looks more like a basketball player, trim and lean. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Reggie is listed at 6 feet, 195 pounds.
–It’s a good thing most of the players are thin, because those polyester pullovers the Red Sox are wearing don’t hide much in the middle. Red Sox first baseman George Scott could not have been happy with those pullovers. At one point, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer comes out to talk with Mike Torrez. Let’s just say Zimmer wasn’t missing too many meals in those days.
–Lack of batting gloves. Some players wear them, many don’t, some wear one glove. Very few players go without them today, with Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter being the most prominent player who doesn’t wear them.
–Unusual batting stances. Roy White of the Yankees is completely hunched over at the plate, his head leaning out over the plate like he’s trying to peek through a keyhole. Chris Chambliss has a less severe hunch. Slap-hitting Mickey Rivers is also crouched way down, à la Pete Rose. Dodgers fans will certainly remember Steve Garvey’s completely upright and motionless stance (which teammate Bill Russell emulated). You don’t really see guys hitting like that anymore.
–Choking up on the bat. Still a thing in 1978. Not a thing in 2018. Guys like Rivers and Dent and Russell are just trying to put the ball in play, not really even trying to drive it. That kind of player doesn’t exist anymore, except in the very rare form of a Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton type.
–Pitchers working fast. In the World Series game, Guidry and Don Sutton both work very quickly. When you watch these games and see how much faster the game pace is, you absolutely would be in favor of a pitch clock. The pace of baseball today isn’t necessarily killing the sport, but I’m with the commissioner on this one: The game would be better if the pace picked up. The Yankees won the World Series game 5-1 and it lasted only 2:27. The game wasn’t without baserunners, mind you — there were a combined 18 hits and 10 walks (Guidry went the distance even though he allowed eight hits and seven walks). The tiebreaker game was slower, lasting 2:52. In 2018, there were 33 postseason games played. Only two were shorter than 3:12, and only one was under 3 hours. (Yes, longer commercial breaks play into the longer game times.)
–Smoking in the stands. When did ballparks crack down on this? I remember going to a game in Kansas City when I was in high school and the guy next to me started smoking. (I asked him to stop, and though he got ticked off, he did. So it must have been sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s.)
–Hard slides at second base. The “Hal McRae Rule” was in effect in 1978 — which meant baserunners had to be able to touch the bag with their slide into second base, a rule that resulted from McRae’s notorious takeout of Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS — but it doesn’t seem like the umpires were calling it. In the second inning of the World Series game, Chambliss basically barrel-rolls into Davey Lopes at second base. On the very next play, Brian Doyle does the same thing and doesn’t come close to the bag. The Doyle slide, in particular, would be illegal today and probably lead to a brawl and 24 hours of Twitter fights.
–Bad hair. Lots of bad hair. I suppose 40 years from now, we’ll say the same thing about 2018: “Beards. Lots of bad beards.”
–Yes, Nettles could really play third base. Here’s one play he made in Game 3:
Nettles was a vastly underrated player, a fabulous defender who also hit 390 home runs in his career. As Bill James once observed, when Nettles came along in the early 1970s, Brooks Robinson was still active and had already established himself as the pre-eminent defender at the hot corner in the game’s history. The public wasn’t ready to anoint Nettles as his equal. Baseball-Reference credits Nettles with 68.0 WAR in his career, which would make him a Hall of Fame candidate.
–Did the pitchers throw as hard? No, of course not, but the idea that everyone was throwing 85 mph 40 years ago (except Nolan Ryan) isn’t true either. Guidry would fit right in today with his fastball/slider combo. It looks like he would vary his slider, throwing one that darted more down and one that would swoop more across the plate. Torrez had a fastball that had pretty good zip at times and would mix in a slow curve — a pitch you don’t really see these days. Sutton threw the whole kitchen sink, including a screwball. He looks like he’s barely putting any effort into his delivery, so I doubt he was throwing 90. Goose Gossage pitched in the tiebreaker game and, of course, had a big-time fastball. Today, he’d throw 65 innings instead of 130 and reach 100 mph.
–Guidry looked gassed in the World Series and didn’t have a good game with those seven walks — and yet Bob Lemon let him go the distance and face 39 batters. That’s four times through the lineup and the top three hitters a fifth time. Take that, 2018 pitchers. Nettles bailed him out a couple of times, the Dodgers left 11 runners on and Lee Lacy grounded into two double plays.
–Thurman Munson had a bad shoulder, although the Dodgers weren’t able to take advantage in the running game, going just 1-for-2 on stolen base attempts, with Munson catching Russell in the first inning on a bad one-hop throw. But even the idea of a running game was omnipresent, much more so than today.
–Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola were outstanding in the booth for the World Series game. You can sense their excitement and enthusiasm for the game. Tom Seaver, still an active player, joined them in the booth and it really felt like three guys just talking about baseball. I love Kubek and Garagiola telling Seaver, “I told you!” after the Nettles play. As a National League guy, Seaver apparently wasn’t buying into the Nettles defensive hype. Might be a good idea to try adding an active player into the booth for playoff games. This was done all the time back then, with guys like Seaver, Reggie and Jim Palmer all doing postseason broadcasting while still playing.
–It’s hard not to notice the large African-American presence that’s now largely missing from baseball. The Yankees had Rivers, White, Reggie and Chambliss in the starting lineup, while the Dodgers had Lopes, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Lacy and Bill North.
–Oh, here’s the Bucky Dent home run off Torrez:
–The one thing everyone forgets about that game — or doesn’t know — is that it wasn’t over after Dent’s home run. That made it 3-2 in the seventh. The Yankees added another run that inning and Reggie homered in the top of the eighth off Bob Stanley. The Red Sox scored twice off Gossage in the bottom of the eighth. Lou Piniella would save the day in the bottom of the ninth with this play:
That came with one out. Rice was the next batter and flew out to right field — Rick Burleson would have scored if he’d gone to third on the hit to Piniella. Carl Yastrzemski then popped out to end it.
Anyway, both games are available online. I’m not saying baseball was better back then. Indeed, if anything, after watching 1978 baseball, you’ll realize this about the game in 2018: (1) Hitting is much more difficult now, given how hard the pitchers throw; (2) Pitching is much more difficult now, given how much better the hitters are.