Dick Howser and the 1980 Yankees

That is quite a first paragraph. But Howser was quite a story. Howser lived through the craziest years of the George Steinbrenner era. He was there during the ups and downs of the Billy Martin tenures mixed in with the Bob Lemon and Bill Virdon tenures. He finished his playing days and starting his coaching duties during the Ralph Houk era, an era that ended when Steinbrenner purchased the club. And through it all, Dick Howser kept coaching third. He did manage one game in 1978 after Billy Martin was fired and before Bob Lemon could take over. And he got his chance in 1980 to run the team himself.

The 1980 Yankees were quite an outfit. Reggie Jackson was still there along with a group of position players in their mid-thirties like Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer, Graig Nettles and Bob Watson. But there was also an infusion of some young players like Rick Cerone at catcher and Willie Randolph at second. Bucky Dent, at 28 was the shortstop. Two young outfielders, Rupport Jones and Bobby Brown, split time in center. But there was nothing young about the pitching staff. That staff was pretty much old and older.

That staff was led by the thirty-seven year old, Tommy John. John went 22-9 that season and pitched 265+ innings. He also logged sixteen complete games, six of which were shutouts. He was that successful despite striking out only 78 batters all season. But he only walked 54 and gave up only thirteen homers.

The Yankees also had a pretty good Number Two starter in Ron Guidry. Guidry had lost some of his lightning and dominance of his 1977 to 1979 run, but he still went 17-10 in 29 starts and contributed eight relief appearances as well.  A long-forgotten young pitcher by the name of Tom Underwood started 27 games and pitched in relief in nine more. Underwood went 13-8. Many of the rest of the starts were made by a 35 year old, Rudy May (17 starts), a 39 year old, Luis Tiant (25 starts), a 41 year old, Gaylord Perry (8 starts) along with others like the young Mike Griffin and Tim Lollar and swing man, Ed Figueroa.

The bullpen was led by Rich Gossage, who was still blowing batters away and by a 24 year old, Ron Davis, who had a terrific season in relief. Davis pitched three full seasons for the Yankees as a reliever and went 27-10 in relief with a 2.93 ERA during those years. He was traded after the 1981 season to the Twins (for Roy Smalley) and went on to be a successful closer there.

This was a pitching staff that would allow the second fewest runs in the American League, the second fewest hits and the second fewest walks. But they only struck out 5.2 batters per nine innings. They put the ball in play and that worked perfectly since the Yankees in 1980 had an amazing infield defense. Graig Nettles, one of the all-time bests manned third and was replaced against some lefty pitchers by Aurelio Rodriguez, another defensive specialist. Bucky Dent was one of the best fielding shortstops in the game and Willie Randolph was terrific at second. The pair of Dent and Randolph combined for 890 assists that season!

And Howser used his pitching staff to full benefit. Of the starters, only Tommy John never pitched a game in relief. And no less than eight different pitchers on the team recorded saves including Ron Guidry! It was an infield built for this pitching staff and a staff built for this infield. It worked perfectly.

Reggie Jackson had a terrific year at the plate. He batted .300 with a .398 on-base percentage and a .597 slugging percentage. He hit 41 homers and drove in 111. But the real glue in this offense was Willie Randolph. It was the second baseman’s best season. He walked an incredible 119 times and only struck out 45 times. He finished the season with a .424 on-base percentage.  Jackson would come in second that season in MVP voting and Randolph came in fifteenth. But Randolph was the most valuable Yankee that season. Randolph also stole 30 bases in 35 attempts.

Bob Watson had a solid if not very powerful season at first base. He hit over .300 and compiled an OPS of .824. Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles did not have their best years, but they were solid offensively. The big surprise of the season was Rick Cerone.

Cerone was obtained from the Blue Jays before the season in the same deal that brought the Yankees Underwood. In the deal, Chris Chambliss, Paul Mirabella and Damaso Garcia were sent to the Blue Jays. Rick Cerone caught an incredible 147 games in 1980.  He threw out 52 percent of base steal attempts. He also posted a 107 OPS+ and drove in 85 runs. It was by far his best season in the majors. He never replaced Thurman Munson in the hearts of the fans, but for 1980, Rick Cerone certainly replaced Munson’s performance quite nicely.

The rest of the offense was heavily platooned. The DH was manned by a productive Eric Soderholm against lefties and Oscar Gamble and Bobby Murcer against those that threw from the right side. The outfield was a rotational mix of Brown, Jones, Gamble, Piniella and Joe Lefebvre with Reggie the constant in right. Nine different players had double-digit home run totals, which shows the balance the team possessed.

Everything fit together nicely on this team. They got off to a tepid start with a 9-9 record in April. But starting in May, the team took off. They went 19-7 in May and 19-9 in June and by the end of that latter month, were five and a half games up. That lead increased to nine and a half toward the end of July. August was a struggle and the team only finished one game over .500 for that month. And they lost their big lead. By August 27, the lead had shrunk to a half a game. (There are some parallels to the 2012 season here).

But the team nailed it in September (and October) and finished that stretch, 25-9. The Baltimore Orioles won a hundred games and finished three games back. It had to have been hard to win a hundred games and not make the playoffs.

Stories have come down from that season that Dick Howser and George Steinbrenner did not have a good relationship. That is hardly surprising. Howser was his own man and would not let Steinbrenner manage his team. Stories are told that when Steinbrenner would call down to talk to Howser, the manager would tell The Boss he was busy and hang up. For a control freak like the owner, that had to be jarring. But with the Yankees having a big season, Howser survived and thrived…until the American League Championship Series.

After three straight World Series appearances from 1976 to 1978 including two straight wins, the team did not even make the playoffs in 1979. That, of course, was not acceptable to Steinbrenner and led him to hire Howser in the first place. It was terribly important to Steinbrenner for the Yankees to get back to World Series glory in 1980. But it simply did not happen. The Yankees ran into a tough Kansas City Royals team led by the best player in baseball that season in George Brett.

Words cannot express how good a season Brett had in 1980. Due to nagging injuries, he only played 117 games. But he drove in 118 runs. He came withing a few hits of batting .400 for the first time since Ted Williams and finished at .390. His OPS was 1.118. On top of that, he played great defense at third and despite the few amount of games, compiled a staggering 9.3 rWAR that season. He won the MVP in a landslide.

The Royals also had a good pitching staff and their top three starters stifled the Yankees in the ALCS. Larry Gura, who at one time pitched for the Yankees, pitched the first game and the Royals won it, 7-2. Brett went two for three with a homer and a walk and Gura went the distance for the win.

The next day, Rudy May started for the Yankees and pitched well, going the distance and only allowed three runs. He held Brett without a hit. But the Royals won the game, 3-2, as Dennis Leonard was better. The Yankees were suddenly down, two games to none, to a team they had beat in their glory years a couple of years earlier.

Tommy John started the third game, the first of the games in Yankee Stadium. And John pitched well and allowed only a run through the first six innings. The Yankees took their first lead of the series in the bottom of the sixth as they finally got to and chased Paul Splittorf. But Dan Quisenberry came in and shut the rally down to limit it to two runs. The Yankees scored only two runs in all three games.

Tommy John started the seventh inning and got the first two outs, but then gave up a double to Willie Wilson. Howser went to Goose Gossage, the best reliever in the game. Who could blame Howser for doing so? The most important at bat of the game was Gossage to U.L. Washington. Washington got an infield single that made it first and third with two out. But most importantly, it extended the inning long enough to bring up George Brett. The rest is history.

Brett hit a mammoth shot to right off of Gossage that made Gossage’s head swivel like the Exorcist. Three runs scored as Brett gleefully ran around the bases. Dan Quisenberry was equally heroic and pitched three and a third innings of scoreless relief to seal the game and the series. The Royals had swept the series and went on to the World Series.

That great Royals team ran into another great team in the Philadelphia Phillies and they had an epic series that the Phillies won in six games. The Yankees could only watch on television. That prompted George Steinbrenner to make the worst decision of his ownership years: He fired Dick Howser.

The firing did not appear to be so bad as the Yankees got to the World Series in 1981 because of the convoluted split season fiasco caused by the strike of 1981. Gene Michael managed the first half and was then fired in the second half in favor of Bob Lemon. The Yankees would lose the 1981 World Series and would not go back to the playoffs again until 1995.

The Royals had a horrible start to 1981 and finished fifth in the first half. For the second half, they fired Jim Frey and hired Dick Howser and went 20-13 down the stretch to win first place in the second half. But once again, Howser went three and out in a series against the Oakland A’s. Howser’s Royals won their division again in 1984 but that was the year of the incredible Tigers’ juggernaut and Howser was again swept in the playoffs. By the end of 1984, Howser had managed nine playoff games and lost all nine of them. Steinbrenner probably felt good about himself despite his team not making the playoffs that or any year after 1981.

1985 was the charm for Howser and the Royals. They won their division again and played one of the greatest ALCS in history againt the Bobby Cox-led Toronto Blue Jays. They won that series, 4-3. Then Howser took his team to the World Series and again, it was one of the best World Series ever against the Cardinals and the Royals won that series, 4-3, also and the Royals were world champs.

Tragedy has followed that team as Howser died in 1987 after falling ill managing the 1986 All Star Game. Dan Quisenberry also died of cancer. As for the Yankees, the rest of the 1980s were a disaster of comic proportions. Steinbrenner meddled in everything, signed ill-advised free agents and the team would not gel again until the mid-1990s. While Howser would not have been around after 1986, you have to wonder how the Yankees would have fared with him at the helm in 1981 through 1986. Perhaps the drought might not have been so long. Perhaps it would have anyway. We will never know.

But for one season, Dick Howser led his Yankee team to a 103-59 record. If it were not for George Brett and a decent pitching staff for the Royals in 1980, that season would be a beacon of greatness for Dick Howser. Thanks to an impatient boss, his year of greatness had to wait four more years and with another team.

About William Tasker

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

5 thoughts on “Dick Howser and the 1980 Yankees

  1. Nice article. Dick Howser sounded like a great person and awesome manager. So unfortunate that such a great talent died so early in life.

  2. Great read, thanks.

    As a kid, I was so pissed that they let him go despite the fact that the Royals were a more solid team overall. Sometimes the better manager will have/earn a better record even with an inferior team.

    I also recall, yelling at the TV for Goose to IBB Brett, as he owned him so bad. Gossage (idea) use of the change-up was to have a quicker motion, which he call "getting them juiced for the fastball" and would reduce his arm speed at 12 O'clock versus creating friction with the grip and letting the top-spin do the work (die).

    Overall, likely didn't matter as the Royals had good young starters, used their field to their game (speed), and had more desire due to them being the "step-children" of the AL all those previous years.

    Howser was great, RIP.

  3. I still remember the press conference after the Boss decided to dismiss Howser. He tried to justify it by concocting this bogus story that Howser wasn't being fired, he was leaving to pursuit some marvelous opportunity (in real estate, I think). Howser wouldn't play along and said, in essense, he didn't know what Steinbrenner was talking about, as far as he knew he was being fired. It was great to see Howser stand up to the Boss (although I guess at that point he really didn't have anything to lose) and let people know how full of horse crap he was.