Even when the Yankees did not win World Series titles, they almost always were a good team. From 1919 to 1964, a stretch of 46 seasons, they had just one losing season—in 1925. They won 29 AL pennants and 20 World Series championships in those 46 seasons.
All that success made the 1965 season a weird one for the Yankees. They lost six of their first nine games and struggled all season. They finished 77–85, 25 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins. That season, injuries took a toll on the Yankees. Mickey Mantle played most of the season. But he did so with pain in his knees and had his worst season.
Unlike other seasons when the Yankees failed to make the Series, 1965 signaled a more long-term problem. The Yankees had always had better players than everybody else.But now those players were older and injured. The Yankees also had always had better minor league players than anybody else.
The star power and depth of talent that made the Yankees great was gone in 1965. Suddenly, the Yankees were just an average team—for the first time in nearly five decades. The Yankees were even worse in 1966, when they placed last in the AL. It was the first time the Yankees sank to the bottom of the league since 1912. Life did not get much easier in the following years either. In fact, after winning 99 games in 1964 and losing in the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Yankees missed the postseason in 11 straight years. It was their longest playoff drought since before Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920.
In 1973, the Yankees got the change they needed. George Steinbrenner, who worked for a shipbuilding company, led a group that purchased the Yankees for $10 million. “The Boss,” as Steinbrenner became known, demanded excellence from his team. “I learned as a young man that discipline is needed in all athletes,” Steinbrenner said in 1998. “I’m a disciplinarian.”
The Yankees were an improved team in Steinbrenner’s first three years as owner. In his fourth year, 1976, they finally got back to the postseason. They lost the World Series in four games against the Cincinnati Reds. Veteran catcher Thurman Munson was the AL’s MVP that season.
But it was several important moves off the field that helped build that team. In 1974, the Yankees traded for first baseman Chris Chambliss. In 1975, Steinbrenner made a splash by signing former Oakland Athletics pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to a big free-agent contract. Before the 1976 season, the Yankees traded for second baseman Willie Randolph and outfielder Mickey Rivers. All of them became valuable members of the new-look Yankees, who found the 1976 season to be the start of another stretch of successful years.
In 1977, the Yankees added free-agent slugger Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry became a regular member of the pitching staff. The core group from 1976 was still intact. Veteran third baseman Graig Nettles smashed a career-high 37 home runs in 1977. That same year, relief pitcher Sparky Lyle won the AL Cy Young Award. With so much talent on the roster, the Yankees had what it took to get back to the top. They won 100 games during the regular season and then defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers four games to two to win the World Series for the first time in 15 years.
One year later, in 1978, the Yankees did it again. They won 100 games during the regular season. Guidry, nicknamed “Louisiana Lightning,” went 25–3 with a 1.74 earned-run average (ERA) and won the Cy Young Award. The team also received pitching contributions from Hunter and reliever Goose Gossage, both future Hall of Famers. The Yankees defeated the Dodgers in six games to win the World Series. That season is best remembered for New York’s remarkable comeback, which was capped by one remarkable game.
On July 17, 1978, the Yankees sat in fourth place in the AL East, 14 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. Six days later, Yankees manager Billy Martin resigned. Bob Lemon, who had been let go as manager of the White Sox earlier that season, took over. The Yankees began catching up to the rival Red Sox. When the regular season ended, both teams were 99–63.
So, they met on October 2 at Boston’s Fenway Park for a one-game playoff to determine who would go to the postseason. Boston led 2–0 going into the seventh inning. That is when an unlikely hero emerged. Shortstop Bucky Dent, who had just four home runs all year, hit a three-run shot just over the famed “Green Monster” leftfield wall—the top portion of which is more than 30 feet off the ground. The shot gave the Yankees a 3–2 lead. New York held on to win 5–4 and earn a spot in the playoffs.
The Yankees remained a very good team for several more years. From 1976 to 1981, they made the playoffs five times and got to the World Series four times. After losing the 1981 World Series in six games to the Dodgers, however, the Yankees went through another down period, by their standards. Although they produced seven winning seasons from 1982 to 1994, they did not qualify for the playoffs in any of those 13 years.
During that era, the Yankees had some great players. Future Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, both outfielders, played for the team in that time. Another star for the Yankees during this period was first baseman Don Mattingly. The only time that he got to the playoffs was in his final season, in 1995. Of the 16 Yankees players to have their number retired by the team through 2013, Mattingly was the only one who never played in a World Series. The others all won at least one World Series. Mattingly came to the team after one great stretch of success. And his career ended just before another great stretch.