Thursday, October 1, 2009

Something Was in the Air:

My Close Encounter with Game 6 of the 1977 World Series

By Jim Walters (with Mike C. DeNero)

Yankee Stadium - The Bronx, NY

“Oh, what a blow!” – Howard Cosell (after Reggie Jackson launched his third home run in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, into the deepest part of Yankee Stadium).


For a few hours on the night of October 18, 1977, everything at Yankee Stadium was so right that I forgot that everything outside the ballpark was so wrong. The world was thrust into fits of craziness in 1977. In the Soviet Union, staunch Stalinist Leonid Brezhnev consolidated his power and agitated the Red Bear at the height of the Cold War. Back in the U.S., it snowed in Miami, Florida (the only time in recorded history), and a bloated Elvis Presley—the undisputed King of Rock and Roll—died from a drug overdose on a Graceland toilet. Regrettably on many levels, the King’s last breath came as Andy Gibb topped the charts with the sappy, “I Just Want To Be Your Everything.”

The Big Apple, of course, would not be outdone in 1977’s Bizarro World. Some wacko named “the Human Fly” scaled the World Trade Center’s South Tower, earning him a measly fine of $1.10 (i.e., a penny per floor) from the City’s diminutive mayor, Abe Beame. Two months later, a blackout blanketed the City for twenty-five hours, sparking severe and ubiquitous looting and disorder. Once power and order were restored, New York’s Finest finally arrested “Son of Sam,” but not before he spent a year trolling the boroughs, slaughtering six people, wounding seven others, and casting an ominous cloud of fear over millions. Against that backdrop, it’s probably no coincidence that 1977 marked the opening of the sci-fi hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Dubbed “The Bronx Zoo” by the local press corps, the ’70s Yankees were not themselves immune to the bizarre. Superintending the worst World Series drought in Yankees history, owner George Steinbrenner hired a fresh cast of talented misfits to return the team to the Promised Land. The much-hyped zookeeper, Reggie Jackson, signed a five-year, $2.9 million free-agent deal with the Bombers (not including furs, bonuses, and luxury cars), and made every effort to upstage Joe Namath as Broadway’s most egotistical showboat. And in 1977, former Yankee scrapper and wiry cage-rattler Billy Martin was the team’s sophomore manager, still drowning his sorrows from a Big Red Machine sweep of the Yanks in the 1976 World Series. Fueled largely by egos and, in Martin’s case, large amounts of scotch, by the fall of 1977 the Jackson-Martin marriage had morphed into a clash of titans, a caustic relationship that constantly teetered between great promise and epic destruction.

But on the night of October 18, everything was right in the House that Ruth Built. The money I’d earned washing dishes in a nursing home bought me two tickets to each of the Yankees’ World Series home games. My dad and I were two of 56,407 in attendance during Game 6, sitting in the cool air beneath the radiant lights (to be exact, high above home plate in Row W of Section 2 – Seats 24-25) of the newly refurbished Yankee Stadium, a glowing shrine perched among the torched buildings in the darkened Bronx. We didn’t yet know that we were about to see one of the most memorable performances in baseball history.


With two outs in the top of the first inning, Steve Garvey hits a two out triple off Yankees starting pitcher Mike Torrez to score two runs and give the Dodgers a quick lead...

My journey to Game 6 began in a modest Northeast Jersey living room, where I spent my boyhood Friday nights in the late ’60s. Like many other young baby-boomers in the area, I sat captivated in front of a wooden television console’s black-and-white picture, listening to the hypochondriacal Phil Rizzuto exclaim “Holy Cow!” on WPIX Channel 11, and watching my beloved Yankees. If the atmospheric pressure measured just right, and if the rabbit ears were tilted directly at Pluto (back when it was still a planet), the union between TV pixels and sound was decipherable. To be sure, it wasn’t easy being a pinstripes fan in those gloomy years: Mickey Mantle’s exit ushered in a cast of line-up fillers, while the Lovable Losers from nearby Queens were fast becoming the Amazin’ Mets.

After Reggie Jackson draws a four-pitch walk in the bottom of the second inning, Chris Chambliss belts a two-run homer off Dodgers starter Burt Hooton to knot the game at deuce...

Fast-forward to 1977. The Bombers were poised to reclaim the pennant. As an 18-year-old college freshman waiting for class to begin, I impatiently flipped through the Daily News. In the smeary newsprint, I seized upon an ad for Yankee World Series tickets—offer good only for orders postmarked before noon tomorrow. Two tickets to each of the four home games, including shipping and handling, would set me back $85, quite a bit more than my customary $4 seat s. So be it. I rushed to the post office, leaving the campus in my wake. I was going to the World Series!

Reggie Smith puts the Dodgers up 3-2 with a solo blast in the third...

My daily routine thereafter never wavered: I went to class; came home; and made a beeline for the mailbox. After two anxious weeks, it arrived: a brown legal-sized envelope with a return address marked New York Yankees. After carefully opening it, I held in my hot little hands two beautiful strips of World Series tickets.

Reggie Jackson blasts a first-pitch, two-run bomb in the right-field stands giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead in the fourth inning and knocking Hooton from the game... Lou Pinella increases the Yankees lead to 5-3 with a sacrifice fly…

I attended Games 1 and 2 in the Bronx with my boyhood friend Howie (the pictures of us sprinkled herein were taken before and after Game 1). For Game 1, I drove my 1969 Volkswagen Beetle—a green love bug replete with sunroof and rusted right front bumper—to the Port Authority. Then we headed to Tad’s Steak House on 42nd Street for a $5.99 steak dinner (see picture below) with all the fixings before heading to the Times Square subway station. Once there, we hopped on the 42nd Street Shuttle to the #4 train, which then carried us to 161 Street Station Yankee Stadium. After eleven tense innings, the Yankees’ Paul Blair sent us home after midnight with a game-winning single in the twelfth.

Reggie Jackson puts the Yankees ahead 7-3 in the fifth inning after launching Elias Sosa’s first pitch in the right-field stands for his second two-run home run in as many innings and pitches (Reggie declines the fans’ raucous request for a curtain call)...

In Game 2, Howie and I superstitiously followed the same routine. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as well. The Yankees got thumped 6-1, and during the game arsonists set buildings on fire behind the stadium (thus, “The Bronx is Burning”). To add insult to injury, Howie and I got lost on the way home. We somehow missed our subway stop at Grand Central Station and ended up touring the NYC underground. (For the New Yorker recreationists: 14th Street back to 42nd Street; #7 train headed toward Queens; exit Hunt's Point Market; take the #7 back to 42nd and then—fuggetaboutit!). Lesson learned: pay attention!


The teams traveled to Los Angeles, where the Bombers had to win a game to bring the Series back to Yankee Stadium. They won two. Game 6 was on October 18, just three days past my dad’s birthday. I thought it would be a nice gift to take my old man to his first Yankees game, and let him enjoy his first NYC subway ride to boot. Needless to say, he wasn’t displeased.

Reggie Jackson crushes the first Charlie Hough knuckleball he sees 475 feet into the black in dead centerfield, putting the Yankees ahead 8-3…

Leading three games to two, the Yanks had little wiggle room to squander Game 6. The Dodgers quickly jumped out to a 3-2 lead, but what happened thereafter is now memorialized in the Book of Legends. Reggie would hit three home runs on three pitches. Taking into account his late-inning Game 5 blast, and his base on balls to start Game 6, he would homer on his last four swings of the Series, each off a different pitcher, leading the Yankees to their 21st World Series title and cementing the nickname “Mr. October.”

Reggie obliges with a curtain call, pumping his fists as the crowd goes crazy and the stadium shakes…

Of course, as soon as the last out was tallied, Bizarro World 1977 returned. Fans stormed the field in pandemonium. People tore up the grass, sliding into home and jumping around like maniacs. One guy tried to steal third base—literally—before a policeman jacked him across the chops with a nightstick. The would-be thief lay draped over the base, motionless for the remainder of the celebration. I actually checked the obits the following day to learn if he’d died. (Still unsure.) But in the meantime, I didn’t care too much about the wackos. When I got home, I just collapsed from emotion and exhaustion and fell asleep with a huge smile on my face, content with my close encounter with one of the greatest sporting events of all time.

Yankees 8, Dodgers 3. Even in Bizarro World, nothing else mattered.

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