The Yankees and their four greatest teams that almost were

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The Dynasty that never Was

The Yankees appeared in three straight World Series from 1976-78, winning two of them. And they had every reason to believe they might go to a fourth.

The team was led offensively by candy bar aficionado Reggie Jackson, who finished with the most home runs on the team (29), tied with Sweet Lou Piniella for the highest average (.297), and was second in walks (65).

And Reggie had more playoff history and success than his teammates. He had previously led the Oakland Athletics to three straight World Series (72-74). They won all three although Jackson did not play in the ’72 Series.

But the emotional leader of the team and fellow middle of the order batter was C Thurman Munson. Munson was a hard-nosed player who had won Rookie of the Year in 1970 and MVP in 1976. By 1979, he was still the best at his position, even with declining numbers.

Of course, that team was loaded with talent besides those two. 24-year old Willie Randolph played second and worked 95 walks that year, fourth-most in the AL. Bucky Dent, at just 27, played shortstop and was the hero of the 1978 play-in game against the Red Sox.

And over at third was the 34-year old grizzled veteran and all-around tough guy Graig Nettles. His defensive wizardry almost single-handedly won the WS that Dent had gotten them to. Nettles hit 20 home runs in 1979, three fewer than DH Jim Spencer, but two more than 1B Chris Chambliss.

The team was loaded with power and speed, especially with Mick the Quick, Mickey Rivers, splitting CF duties with Bobby Murcer.

RIP, Thurman Munson

But on August 2nd, 1979 Thurman Munson died when the plane he was piloting crashed during landing.

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The team played inspired ball after his death but still missed the playoffs, at that time only two rounds. Had he lived, that team might have gone on to become one of the Yankees greatest.

That might seem like a stretch when you look at their record and consider they never even made the playoffs. But the numbers need a little perspective.

On August 2nd, 1977 the Yankees record was 59-46, just thirteen games over .500. But this was always a second half team, and they turned it on in the last two months. Their record by season’s end was 100-62, 38 games over, and in first place. They went on the win the WS.

On August 2nd, 1978, their record was 59-47, twelve games over. However, by season’s end, their record was 99-63, 36 games over and tied for first. They won 100 games (due to the play in game), but I don’t count the extra Yankees win just to keep somewhat accurate comparisons. This team also won the WS.

Can You See a Pattern?

The same was true in 1979. On August 2nd, the day Munson died, the Yankees record was 58-48, ten games over. And just like in previous years, they made a strong second half push. They finished 18 games over (89-71) but in fourth place. But this time they did not have their leader.

Instead, Jerry Naron and Brad Gulden split the catching duties for the rest of the season. When he passed, Munson was slashing .288/.340/.374. Naron put up a .171/.226/.309 line, while Gulden posted a slash of .163/.238/.207. And of course, no one could replace the leadership that Munson provided.

So the Yankees made their usual charge but without one of their two best players. Had he lived, and the Yankees made the postseason, Munson might well have proved as adept at post-season hitting as he had during his career. His overall postseason slash is .357/.378/.496.

The other big reason this team made this list is that most of the Yankees were having better years in 1979. Willie’s strikeouts were down, and his walks were up; Chambliss went from 12 home runs to 18; and, Mickey went up from an AVG/OBP of .265/.302 to .287/.315. But Reggie was having a much better year.

His home run total was relatively the same—27 in ‘78 and 29 the next year—but most of his other numbers went up significantly. Jackson slashed .274/.356/.477 in 1978 with 13 doubles and 133 strikeouts, all while collecting 244 total bases.

Going Up

Things got better in ’79. Reggie slashed .297/.382/.544 with 24 doubles and only 107 SO’s, adding up to 253 TB’s.

Those improvements might not seem that big, but Jackson played 46 fewer games in 1979. That means he was much more productive in each game that he played then in the previous year. I think we can project that rested and ready, he might have had one of his best postseason’s, as well.

Had they won their third WS in a row, and done it with their best team, they might very well be on a top ten list somewhere.

That is a lot of guessing and projecting. I don’t need to do nearly as much when it comes to the 1952 Yankees.