Despite all the changes, there was an air of familiarity as the World Series dawned in October. The Dodgers, who had made three World Series appearances since their last meeting with the Yankees, put an end to the Big Red Machine's reign of terror over the National League, outpacing Cincinnati by ten games for the NL West flag then dispensing with Philadelphia in the NLCS.
The Yankees meanwhile were making their second consecutive appearance in the Fall Classic. After faltering through the late sixties and early seventies they returned to the World Series in '76 only to be swept by the mighty Reds. The Yankees went through a soap opera season in '77, winning a three team battle with Boston and Baltimore for the division crown, and fighting a three headed battle amongst their owner, manager, and star slugger on the tabloid backpages throughout the summer. Despite the turmoil, they not only won the division, but knocked Kansas City out of the ALCS for the second consecutive year.
While none of the players had been around long enough to remember past Yankee-Dodger tilts, there were folks in each dugout who had plenty of memories. The Yankees were managed by the combustible Billy Martin, a veteran of four Subway Series against Brooklyn in the fifties. His coaching staff featured Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, who between them faced the Dodgers in ten World Series.
Meanwhile the Dodgers coaching staff featured Junior Gilliam, a veteran of four World Series against the Yankees. Dodgers rookie manager Tommy Lasorda had ties to both organizations. Lasorda succeeded the legendary Walter Alston with four games remaining in the 1976 season. Alston had been the Dodger manager since 1954, dating back to their days in Brooklyn. Three times his clubs faced the Yankees in the Fall Classic, and twice they had emerged victorious. Lasorda made eight appearances as a middling pitcher on those '54 and '55 teams. After washing out with the Athletics in 1956, Lasorda was traded to the Yankees and assigned to their top affiliate in Denver. The next year he was traded back to the Dodgers, spent three more years in their system, then began a career as a scout, minor league manager, coach, and eventually their skipper.
The Series began at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday October 11th. For the Dodgers, longtime ace Don Sutton was on the mound. The Yankees sent lefty Don Gullett to oppose him. Just 26 years old, Gullett was the Yankees' second biggest free agent signing the previous off-season. He broke in with the Reds as a 19 year old in 1970 and was a member of their back-to-back World Series winners in '75 and '76. Arm troubles had prevented Gullett from pitching a full season since 1974, and limited him to just 22 starts in his first season with the Yanks.
Gullett spotted the Dodgers to a 2-0 lead in the first, walking leadoff man Davey Lopes, allowing a triple to Bill Russell, and surrendering a sacrifice fly to Ron Cey. The Yankees got one back in the bottom half, as an RBI single from Chris Chambliss scored Thurman Munson. Gullett settled down from there, shutting the Dodgers out through the eighth. The Yankees tied in the sixth on a solo shot from Willie Randolph, and took the lead in the eighth, when Munson doubled Randolph home.
Given the lead, Martin elected to stick with Gullett rather than summon relief ace and eventual AL Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle. Lyle was coming off an outstanding season, tossing 137 innings of relief to a 2.17 ERA, saving 26 games and winning 13 more. Dusty Baker singled to start the frame, and after Manny Mota flew out, Steve Yeager walked. With the tying run in scoring position Lyle came on, and allowed a game tying single to Lee Lacy. The teams traded zeros into the twelfth, with Lyle retiring eleven in a row after the game tying hit. Randolph led off the bottom of the inning with a double. The Dodgers walked Munson to face light hitting defensive replacement Paul Blair, and the former longtime Oriole delivered a game winning base hit.
Game Two matched Burt Hooton against Catfish Hunter. Hunter fronted the A's rotation as they won three straight titles earlier in the decade, then signed with the Yankees as a free agent prior to the '75 season. Though only 31, Hunter had logged more than 3,000 Major League innings, and they had begun to take their toll upon his arm. He was limited to just 22 starts in '77, but he was a certified big game pitcher and his championship pedigree was considered to be a major influence in putting the Yankees over the top. Hunter couldn't recapture his past magic in Game Two though, lasting only two and a third surrendering five runs on homers to Ron Cey, Steve Yeager, and Reggie Smith. Hooton allowed just six base runners over nine innings, and the Dodgers evened things up with a 6-1 victory.
Two days later in L.A., veteran starters Tommy John and Mike Torrez got the ball for the Dodgers and Yankees respectively. This time, it was the Yankees jumping out to an early lead, riding back-to-back-to-back RBI hits from Munson, Reggie Jackson, and Lou Piniella to a 3-0 lead. The Dodgers drew even in the third on a three run homer from Baker. The following inning, a Mickey Rivers groundout pushed Graig Nettles across with the go-ahead run, and an RBI single from Chambliss the following inning made it 5-3. Torrez shut the Dodgers down the rest of the way, and the Yankees jumped up two games to one.
The Yankees sent Ron Guidry to the mound for Game Four. After appearing briefly in '75 and '76, Guidry established himself as a valuable starter in 1977, his five shutouts portending things to come. Once again, the Yankees gave their starter an early 3-0 lead, as RBIs from Piniella, Nettles, and Bucky Dent chased Dodgers started Doug Rau in the second. Guidry gave two back in the third on a homer by Davey Lopes, but it was all the scoring the Dodgers would do. Reggie Jackson added a home run in the sixth, and Guidry surrendered four hits, three walks, and struck out seven in tossing the Yankees second straight complete game.
With their back against the wall, the Dodgers went back to Sutton in Game Five. A first inning RBI single from Bill Russell gave them an early lead, then they pounded Gullett, Ken Clay, and Dick Tidrow nine more across the middle three frames. The Yankees had a late rally, scoring two in the seventh and two more in the eighth on solo shots from Munson and Jackson, but it wasn't enough, as they fell 10-4.
As the teams returned to New York for Game Six, Reggie Jackson was winding down a tumultuous first season in pinstripes. The prize of the first free agent class the previous winter, George Steinbrenner was hellbent on making a splash by adding Jackson's potent bat and flair for the dramatic to the heart of the Yankee order. Martin preferred Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich, with designs on using him to fill the Yankees gaping hole at shortstop. Per usual, Steinbrenner got his way. The three clashed repeatedly over the course of the season: over Jackson's spot in the batting order, over whether he'd be the right fielder or the designated hitter, over everything. When Martin felt Jackson loafed it fielding a ball during a summer game at Fenway Park, he replaced him mid-inning. The two nearly came to blows in the dugout. Jackson's social awkwardness and desire for attention made him a bit of a misfit in a clubhouse full of gruff personalities, and his spring training interview with Sport magazine, in which he claimed he was "the straw that stirred the drink" and took a swipe at respected team captain Thurman Munson, alienated him from nearly the entire roster.
Despite all that, Jackson entered Game Six doing what he did best: shining on the big stage. His legend began as an A, with a monstrous home run off a Tiger Stadium roof transformer in the 1971 All-Star Game. That fall, in post-season play for the first time, Jackson knocked two more homers in a losing effort in the ALCS. A leg injury suffered in the ALCS the following year kept Jackson out of the '72 Series, but he returned with homers in the '73 Series against the Mets, the '74 Series against the Dodgers, and the '75 ALCS against the Red Sox.
When Jackson stepped into the batters with one on and no one out in the fourth inning of Game Six, he had already homered twice over the Series' first five games. With a chance to clinch, the Yankees were trailing 3-2, a Chris Chambliss home run not enough to overcome Steve Garvey's two run triple and Reggie Smith's solo shot. As he so often did though, Jackson game through when it mattered most. He took Hooton's first offering and launched it into the right field stands.
Jackson came up the following inning. The Yankees were now leading 5-3. Willie Randolph was on first with two outs and Elias Sosa had replaced Hooton on the mound. Jackson took Sosa' first offering and deposited into the right field seats to make it 7-3 Yankees. Three innings later, Jackson led off against Dodger fireman Charlie Hough. Jackson jumped on the knuckleballer's first pitch, blasting into the black bleacher seats in dead center field. In doing so, Jackson joined Babe Ruth as the only men to hit three homers in a World Series game. Torrez gave one back in the ninth to make it 8-4, but when he squeezed a pop bunt of the bat off Lee Lacy for the game's final out, the Yankees had their first championship in fifteen years.