It wasn’t easy for these two teams to repeat as their respective league’s champions, both scrambling back to the Fall Classic late in the season.
The New York Yankees were as far back as fourteen games behind the Boston Red Sox at mid-July suffering from injuries to pitchers Catfish Hunter and Jim Beattie. A public display of antipathy between manager Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson resulted in the replacement of Martin by the amenable, easygoing Bob Lemon on July 17. With time running out, the Yankees, four games behind the Red Sox in the American League East, began a crucial four-game series in Boston. On September 7, the Yanks began the "Boston Massacre" with a 15–3 drubbing of the “Sox” with second baseman Willie Randolph driving in five runs. The assault continued with the Yankees winning game two, 13–2, game three, 7–0 (Ron Guidry winning his 21st—a two-hitter) and game four, an eighteen-hit, 7–4 victory completing the sweep. The Yankees and Red Sox were now tied for first place with twenty games remaining for both clubs. Overall, New York would win 48 of their last 68 games finishing the regular season in a dead-heat with Boston. The Yanks went on to win a one-game playoff (5–4) on October 2 made famous by light hitting Bucky Dent's clutch three-run homer in the seventh inning (his fifth of the year). Ron Guidry would win his 25th game (against only three losses); Goose Gossage pitching the last 2 2⁄3 innings picking up his 27th save, retiring hall of famer Carl Yastrzemski with a man on base for the final out.
In the National League the Los Angeles Dodgers were locked in a tight three way race with the rival San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds falling as far as 6 1⁄2 games back. Taking a lesson from the in-fighting Yankees, this normally close-knit group caught fire after a clubhouse fight between teammates Steve Garvey and Don Sutton in August, ultimately finishing 2 1⁄2 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. Unlike the 1977 Dodgers with four 30+ home run hitters, this squad’s leader in home runs was Reggie Smith with 29. No pitcher won twenty or more games but five pitchers did win at least ten games. Rookie Bob Welch was a key after being promoted from the minors, winning seven games and saving three while being utilized as both a starter and reliever.
During the World Series the Dodgers wore on their uniforms a black patch with the number 19 in dedication to coach Jim Gilliam, who died from a brain hemorrhage two days before the start of the Series. His uniform number was retired by the Dodgers prior to the start of game one.
In a repeat of the 1977 playoffs the Yankees again dispatched the Kansas City Royals, this time three games to one as the Dodgers did the same to the Philadelphia Phillies by the same margin. After losing the first two games of the World Series, the Yankees would become the first team ever to come back to win the Series in six.
AL New York Yankees (4) vs. NL Los Angeles Dodgers (2)
With Yankee ace Ron Guidry unavailable at least until Game 3, the Dodgers pounded twenty-game winner Ed Figueroa. Figueroa left after two innings, allowing home runs to Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes. Lopes would add a three-run shot in the fourth off Ken Clay to make it 6–0. Another Dodger run crossed the plate in the fifth; Ron Cey scoring on a Clay wild pitch.
The Yankees tried to claw back in the seventh as Reggie Jackson homered and Bucky Dent singled in two runs, but the Dodgers bounced back with three of their own, two coming on a Bill North double. The Dodgers would cruise to an easy Game 1 win from there.
Ron Cey drove in all the Dodgers' runs with an RBI single in the fourth and a three-run homer in the sixth off Yankee starter Catfish Hunter. Reggie Jackson would try to keep pace by batting in all three of the Yankee runs with a two-run double and RBI groundout, but this game would be remembered for one memorable Jackson at-bat.
Rookie Bob Welch was brought in to pitch the ninth to save the game for Burt Hooton. He allowed Bucky Dent and Willie Randolph to reach base between outs, bringing up Jackson. Welch ran the count to 3–2. Jackson fouled off several pitches before Welch finally got a fastball by him, sending the Dodger Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
In post-game interviews, Jackson initially blamed his striking out on Bucky Dent running from second with the 3–2 pitch and distracting him from focusing on Welch. In later interviews, however, Jackson would give Welch his proper due.
With the Yankees desperately needing a win, ace Ron Guidry provided a victory aided by the stunning defense of third baseman Graig Nettles.
Guidry pitched a complete game, even though he allowed eight hits, walked seven, and struck out only four. Nettles' defense saved at least four runs.
The Yankees got on the board in the first off Don Sutton on a Roy White solo homer and added a run in the second on an RBI forceout by Bucky Dent.
In the third, the Dodgers began to come back against an apparently tired Guidry. However, with a runner on third, Nettles snared a Davey Lopes hard liner to turn a certain extra-base hit into a key out and temporarily save a run. Bill Russell followed with a single to drive in the Dodgers' only run. The next batter, Reggie Smith, hit a hard ground ball to third. Nettles made a diving stop to save another extra-base hit and probable run, and threw Smith out at first to end the inning.
In the fifth, the Dodgers had runners on first and second with two outs when Smith came up to bat. Nettles knocked down Smith's sharply hit ground ball down the third base line. Smith reached first, but no runs scored. Steve Garvey, the next batter up, hit another hard ground ball down the third base line, and Nettles made a backhanded stop and forced Smith at second base to end the inning. The Dodgers loaded the bases again with two outs in the sixth, but Nettles again made a great stop on a ball hit by Davey Lopes, and threw to second to complete the inning-ending force play.
The Yankees would later add three more runs. Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson had RBI singles in the rally that put the game out of reach, despite an otherwise fine pitching performance by Sutton.
In the top of the ninth inning, when Lopes came to bat, he jokingly waved Nettles away from the third base line. Nettles shook it off.
Starters Ed Figueroa and Tommy John were locked in a scoreless duel before Reggie Smith struck with a three-run homer in the top of the fifth. John continued his shutout through the fifth, but, in the Yankees' half of the sixth, things got a little crazy.
Reggie Jackson finally got the Yankees on the board with a one-out RBI single. With Thurman Munson on second and Jackson on first, Lou Piniella hit a low, soft liner that shortstop Bill Russell fumbled (some claim intentionally). Russell recovered the ball, then stepped on second to force Jackson, but his attempted throw to first to complete the double play struck a "confused" Jackson in the right hip and caromed into foul territory. Munson scored, partially because first baseman Steve Garvey stopped to yell at the first-base umpire over the non-interference call before retrieving the ball. The Dodgers' protests went for naught but would not have been necessary if Russell had made the proper play. Thinking Russell was going to catch Piniella's liner, Munson retreated towards second and was on second base when Russell picked up the ball. Munson then turned to third and Russell stepped on second to force Jackson and threw to first. The inning would have been over if Russell had tagged Munson (out #2) and stepped on second (out #3) to force Jackson or Russell steps on second to force Jackson (out #2) and gets Munson in a rundown between second and third (out #3); the score would have remained 3–1, instead the score was then 3–2. But of course, Russell had no reason to think his throw would not reach first base.
Later review of the play showed that Jackson had stopped midway between first and second when Russell had made his throw to first. As the ball carried very close to Jackson's immediate right, Jackson had moved his hips to the right just as the ball sailed past, deflecting the ball down the first base line. While Jackson continues to deny it, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, along with other eyewitnesses, steadfastly believes the Yankee outfielder purposefully interfered in the play.
The Yankees tied it in the eighth when Munson doubled home Paul Blair. The score remained tied until the bottom of the tenth. Dodger rookie and Game 2 hero Bob Welch walked Roy White with one out. After Welch retired Munson, Jackson strode to the plate for his first confrontation with Welch since Game 2. This time, Reggie got the better end by singling White to second. Lou Piniella then lined a single to center, scoring White and tying the Series.
The bungled Russell/Jackson play changed the game and the entire Series; instead of the Dodgers going up 3–1 in games, the Series was then tied and the momentum shifted to the Yankees who outscored the Dodgers 19–4 in the final two games.
The Yankees took one step closer to a repeat World Series championship on the strength of an unexpected complete game victory by young Jim Beattie. Beattie scattered nine Dodger hits and was buoyed by an eighteen-hit Yankee performance, including a World Series-record sixteen singles.
Early on, the Dodgers tried to run to take advantage of a sore-shouldered Thurman Munson behind the plate. Davey Lopes led the game off with a single, stole second, and scored on a Reggie Smith single. The Dodgers stretched their lead to 2–0 in the third when Lopes scored again on a double by Bill Russell.
But, that would be it as Beattie settled down and shut out the Dodgers the rest of the way. The Yankees countered with a four-run third on a two-run single by Munson and RBI singles by Roy White and Lou Piniella. They added three in the fourth, four in the seventh, and one in the eighth to complete the blowout. Munson was the star Yankee hitter with five RBIs, while White had three. The Dodgers were understandably distracted in this game, having lost the controversial Game 4 the day before.
Game 6 turned out to be the Bucky Dent–Brian Doyle show.
Davey Lopes gave the Dodger home crowd a ray of hope with a leadoff home run off Catfish Hunter. Dent and Doyle put the Yankees ahead in the second; Doyle with a two-run double, Dent with an RBI single. Lopes had an RBI single in the third to cut it to 3–2 through the fifth inning, but that would be it for the Dodgers. Sutton pitched well until the sixth.
Dent and Doyle pushed the score to 5–2 in the sixth with RBI singles and Reggie Jackson put the final nail in the coffin with a tremendous two-run blast in the seventh off his Game 2 nemesis, Bob Welch.
Dent would be named World Series MVP, batting .417 with 10 hits, 7 RBI, and 3 runs scored. Doyle would make a claim for the MVP himself with a .438 average, 7 hits, 2 RBI, and 4 runs.
While Lopes had a monster series with three homers and seven RBIs and Bill Russell had eleven hits, the Dodgers' power hitters lack of production and the Dodgers shoddy defense was their downfall. Steve Garvey (5-for-24, no RBIs) was no factor, and neither were Dusty Baker (5 for 21, one RBI) or Ron Cey (no RBIs after Game 2) and the Dodgers defense committed seven errors.
Thurman Munson caught the final out of the game on a foul pop by Cey. This would be the final post-season game of Munson's career before his death during the 1979 season.
1978 World Series (4–2): New York Yankees (A.L.) over Los Angeles Dodgers (N.L.)
This Series is tied with the 1980 World Series for the highest overall television ratings to date, with the six games averaging a Nielsen rating of 32.8 and a share of 56.
The Yankees became the last repeat World Champions until fifteen years later (1992–1993; Toronto Blue Jays). This would be the last time the Yankees would win a World Series until 1996. The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series in 1981, against the Yankees in the same way they won this series (losing the first two games, then winning the next four), and 1988, against the Oakland Athletics.
This would be the last World Series championship for the city of New York until the Yankees' cross-town rivals, the Mets, won in 1986.