Cooperstown Confidential: The 1978 Red Soxby Bruce Markusen
September 30, 2011
A pair of late-season breakdowns has me thinking of the most memorable baseball collapse of my childhood. After all, the misfortunes of the Braves and Red Sox made national news over the final week of the regular season, and for all of the wrong reasons. In the National League, the Braves managed to cough up every bit of a 10.5-game lead over the surging Cardinals, surrendering what should have been easy apprehension of the Wild Card. In the American League, the Red Sox owned a nine-game lead over the Rays on Aug. 31, but somehow won only seven of 27 games in September, allowing the Rays to sneak past them for the desired Wild Card prize.
The plight of the Red Sox and the Braves brings back memories of the summer of 1978. In some ways, the 2011 Red Sox have found a way to make the 1978 Red Sox a footnote. The ‘78 Red Sox had an even bigger lead, which peaked at 14 games over the Yankees, but also had 10 weeks remaining in the season. They also managed to gain a small measure of respectability by closing out their regular season in high style before finally succumbing in a one-game tiebreaker.
In racing out to a 51-21 start, the ‘78 Red Sox established themselves as the class of the American League. They looked like an unstoppable powerhouse, an early season favorite to win the World Series. On July 19, the Red Sox reached one of their highest water marks when they opened up a nine-game lead on the second-place Brewers, a 12.5-game edge over the Orioles, and a 14-game bulge over the Yankees.
By this point, the Yankees no longer seemed like a factor. This Yankees fan had already given up hope that summer and had started writing out imaginary lineups for the following season. The Yankees' cause seemed so ridiculously lost that Billy Martin’s decision to resign in late July, which paved the way for the hiring of even-keeled Bob Lemon, seemed like a move made with 1979—and not the balance of 1978—in mind.
No one could have blamed the Red Sox for forgetting about the Yankees; most of the media surely did. The Brewers looked to be the more legitimate threat. By the end of July, the Brewers had moved within five and a half games of the first-place Sox. For that, the Red Sox had no one to blame themselves. They had hit a terrible slump in the final days of July, losing nine out of 10 games to close out the month.
The Red Sox played better to start August, eventually building their lack back up to nine games, this time over the Yankees, who had jumped ahead of both the Brewers and Orioles to move into second place. By the end of August, the lead had been reduced to seven games, but with only a month to go in the regular season, the margin seemed more than comfortable for the Bosox.
Still, an important head-to-head series loomed between the two rivals. The Red Sox would begin a four-game series with the Yankees from Sept. 7 through 10. If the Yankees could close the gap to four games by the start of that series, a series sweep would result in a first-place tie between the two clubs. Lo and behold the Red Sox lost four of their first six games in September, and watched their lead fritter away to four games. They now prepared to host the Yankees for the first of four games at Fenway Park.
The second game was only a little better for Boston. Lasting only an inning and a third, rookie right-hander Jim Wright pitched poorly—one of his few dead spots in an otherwise decent season—as the Sox fell by the final of 13-2. Both Wright and reliever Tom Burgmeier were done in by brutal defensive play: The Red Sox committed seven errors, including two by the normally sure-handed Carlton Fisk and two by Gold Glove right fielder Dwight Evans. The lead over the Yankees fell to two.
In the third game, the Red Sox had to deal with Ron Guidry, in the midst of a career year and on the way to a runaway victory in the Cy Young Award race. Red Sox right-hander Dennis Eckersley fared better than Torrez and Wright, lasting into the fourth, but was not nearly good enough to match Guidry. “The Eck” gave up seven runs, including six earned, while Guidry tossed a complete game shutout. A 7-0 loss for the Red Sox narrowed their advantage to one game.
With the lead at its narrow margin in months, Red Sox skipper Don Zimmer decided to give the ball to rookie left-hander Bobby Sprowl in game four. Boston writers and fans wondered why Zimmer didn’t choose veteran southpaw Bill Lee. After all, “The Spaceman” had pitched brilliantly in long relief in the first game of the series. With his guile and experience, Lee looked like the logical choice.
Sprowl had all of one game of major league experience, having made his debut a few days earlier against the Orioles. Sprowl had pitched credibly in the hard-luck loss, allowing only three runs in seven innings. Furthermore, Zimmer liked Sprowl’s demeanor, describing him as “having ice water in his veins.”
The ice water quickly turned lukewarm. And it happened quickly. Sprowl gave up three runs in the first inning and failed to finish the frame, as Zimmer hooked him for veteran right-hander Bob Stanley. The sinkerballing “Steamer” did not fare much better, as he gave up 10 hits over three innings, allowing the Yankees to double their lead to 6-0. The Red Sox could do no more than a small amount of damage against Ed Figueroa, who limited Boston to three runs over six innings.
Rich Gossage, the Hall of Fame fireman, then came on to post one of his patented three-inning saves. The Red Sox’ 7-4 loss, their ninth loss in their last 10 games, completed the so-called “Boston Massacre” and had brought about the unthinkable: The Red Sox’ 14-game lead over the Yankees was now reduced to nothing. The Sox were now even in the standings with the once hopeless Bombers.
During the four-game Massacre, the Yankees outscored the Red Sox 42-8. The pummeling left the Red Sox shaken. With panic having spread from the bleachers at Fenway Park to the streets of Boston, the Red Sox found themselves at a crossroads. To their credit, they bounced back the next night, beating Baltimore to retake a one-half game lead over the idle Yankees. But then the Red Sox dropped their next five games, to fall three and a half lengths behind the Yankees. Remarkably, the Red Sox had now lost 14 of their last 17 games, an incomprehensible stretch of dreadful play for such a talent-laden team. With only two weeks to go, the most pessimistic of Red Sox fans had given up hopes of winning the division.
Suddenly, the Red Sox stabilized. They won their next three, to move within a game and a half of New York. Then came a loss, followed by a win, and then another loss. Remarkably, the Red Sox embarked on an eight-game winning streak to close out the regular season, allowing them to negate the two-game deficit in the standings. Luis Tiant’s five-hit shutout on the final day of the regular season, coupled with the Yankees’ puzzling loss to Cleveland nemesis Rick Waits, left the two teams with identical records of 99-63, thereby forcing a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park on Monday afternoon.
We all know what happened in that game, from the Red Sox taking an early 2-0 lead against the usually impenetrable Guidry, to Bucky Dent borrowing Mickey Rivers’ bat and clearing the Green Monster, to Goose Gossage retiring fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski on a game-ending pop-up to Graig Nettles.
Putting that memorable tiebreaker aside, how did the Red Sox manage to blow a 14-game edge over their rivals? Here was a club loaded with talent. They had the most devastating day-to-day lineup in the American League, packed with power hitters like Yaz, Jim Rice (who was in the midst of an MVP and Hall of Fame season), Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk. They even had a dash of speed, courtesy of their pesky second baseman, Jerry Remy, who stole 30 bases and became their first threat on the bases since the days of Tommy Harper.
Supplementing their one-two punch of Luis Tiant and Bill Lee, the Red Sox had bolstered their starting rotation with a spring training trade for Dennis Eckersley (who would win 20 in 1978) and the wintertime signing of ex-Yankee Mike Torrez. Boston also had a deep bullpen featuring four brand name pitchers: middle relievers Tom Burgmeier, Dick Drago and Bob Stanley, and veteran fireman Bill Campbell.
As with most team collapses, the reasons for the decline and fall of the ‘78 Red Sox were numerous. They included everything from the manager to injuries to old age, with perhaps a dose of bad luck thrown in for good measure.
*Don Zimmer, the third base coach of the 1975 pennant-winning team who had been promoted to manager, must certainly take his share of the blame. Zimmer’s refusal to sit down third baseman Butch Hobson raised many eyebrows in Beantown. Hindered by a bad elbow, Hobson had trouble making even routine throws to first base. Hobson would end up making a whopping 43 errors that season—a total that seemed like something out of 19th century barehand baseball—with the majority of the miscues coming on errant throws.
Gritty to the end, the hard-nosed Hobson did not ask out of the lineup until Sept. 23, which represented the 155th game of the season. (On that day, Hobson was moved to the DH spot.) But it seems clear that Zimmer should have taken the decision out of Hobson’s hands much, much earlier.
It would have made more sense to use backup infielder Jack Brohamer, who likely wouldn’t have provided much offensive punch, but would have been far more reliable in terms of fielding and throwing. Another option would have been to platoon the left-handed hitting Brohamer with either veteran Bob Bailey (a power hitter with limited range in the field) or Frank Duffy (a light hitter but a sure-handed fielder). Zimmer chose none of those options, at least until the final week, and that decision burned the Red Sox badly.
*It was also Zimmer who decided to give the ball to an inexperienced and untested Sprowl in the finale of the Boston Massacre, instead of the more accomplished Lee. Though Sprowl was considered a good prospect, he had hardly been dominant at Triple-A Pawtucket, with an ERA of 4.15. There’s little doubt that Zimmer’s dislike of Lee played into the decision. While no one can know for sure whether Lee would have salvaged the final game of the Massacre, it’s certainly reasonable to think that he would have been better than Sprowl and given the Sox a chance to win.
In a broader sense, Zimmer avoided Lee whenever possible that summer. After starting the season as part of the rotation and winning 10 of his first 13 decisions, Lee fell into Zimmer’s doghouse. Lee made only eight appearances during the final two months of the season. Four of them were starts; the other four were in long relief, usually in games in which the Red Sox already trailed.
*Though the Red Sox featured what was considered the game’s best set lineup, that projected lineup remained together for only 38 games. Fisk was hampered by sore ribs, Burleson was hobbled by a bad ankle, Fred Lynn was hindered by a sore back, and Evans was bothered by dizziness that resulted from a beaning. Fisk and Burleson’s injuries were especially untimely, affecting their production during the stretch run freefall.
*Slugging first baseman George Scott missed a number of games with a broken middle finger, but “Boomer” picked an especially bad time to show his age. One of the few Red Sox regulars who was past his prime, the 34-year-old Scott hit only 12 home runs in 120 games, slugged a meager .379, and generally drove Zimmer to the brink with his inability to lose weight.
*An early season transaction may have come back to bite the Red Sox. On June 15, general manager Haywood Sullivan sold backup outfielder Bernie Carbo to the Indians in a straight cash deal. Carbo had become a disciplinary problem for the Red Sox, and was one of several players who despised Zimmer. But Carbo had a live, left-handed bat that could have helped the Sox down the stretch. He could have spotted Evans in right field against right-handed pitching, or could have taken some of the DH at-bats away from a scuffling Bailey. By selling Carbo, and receiving no players in return, the Red Sox left their bench thinner for the final kick.
*The Boson bullpen did not live up to its billing, particularly in the late innings. Burgmeier, normally a lockdown left-hander, had one of his worst seasons, with an ERA of 4.40 and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. Furthermore, Campbell did not enjoy a vintage season as fireman. Bothered by repeated arm problems that were likely caused by overwork, Campbell saw his ERA balloon to 3.88 and his save total fall to four, as he lost the fireman role to Stanley and the Drago.
While all of the players shared in the dissatisfaction of those last 10 weeks, some of the ‘78 Red Sox never received another chance to play in Boston. Tiant left as a free agent, signing with none other than the Yankees. Bailey, the 35-year-old DH and backup infielder, announced his retirement after a respectable 17-year career in the big leagues. Backup catcher Fred Kendall, who rarely played behind the durable Fisk, became a free agent and signed with the Padres. Sprowl failed to make the Opening Day roster in 1979, before being traded to the Astros at the June 15 deadline. And, quite notably, Lee was traded to the Expos for a utility infielder named Stan Papi. For all of these Red Sox players, their last taste of baseball in Boston was unpleasant and heart-wrenching.
Unfortunately, Red Sox and Braves fans are enduring similar feelings today. There is little consolation for them, just like there was little for the Red Sox back in 1978. Yes, the ‘78 Red Sox can take some solace in knowing that they actually won 15 games in September and October, and that they won 99 games for the season. There is some worth in that.
Perhaps, as time goes by, the sting of that collapse becomes a little bit less, a little more tolerable. Yet, it never completely goes away.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.