1979. Not the Smashing Pumpkins song.
The year 1979 produced my first memories of the great game of baseball. My earliest recollection is of attending Yankees spring training one day in February 1979. I don’t remember too much about my day there except my parents probably wanted to drop me off at the nearby airport and put me on the first flight to Key West. I kept insisting for what seemed to be an hour the Yankees were playing the Dodgers. Since our trip was probably the third week of February, the only players there were pitchers and catchers and maybe a couple of position players. Nevertheless, I was 100% sure the Dodgers were there and I do remember that finally my parents gave in and said that the Dodgers would be playing the Yankees and the game would start at any minute. My guess is not too long after that is when we started getting autographs from various players which is why I did not bring it up again. Check out the roster cover and the autograph of Ron Guidry (along with a faint ketchup stain).
1979 was my first extensive collection of baseball cards. I remember getting a wrinkled up 1978 Topps Pete Rose Record breaker. I was hooked instantly and I would spend many Summer hours looking at the pictures on front and stats on the back of each card. With my mother’s financial assistance, I was able to acquire most of the 726 card set by October. The actual completion of the set didn’t come until a few years later when I was earning a killing as a paperboy and discovered Dragon’s Den located on the world famous Central Ave. in Yonkers. While it is a tossup as to which card finished off the set for me, I do know the last Yankees card collected was Gary Thomasson. Bucky Dent’s card was one of the first Yankee cards found and he played a pivotal role in another memory. During one of his at-bats, I started to name all of the words that rhymed with “Bucky”. Needless to say, it didn’t take me too long to find the one that began with the letter “F”.
The actual 1979 baseball season was outstanding. We all know about the “We Are Family” Pirates coming back from a 3-1 deficit against Baltimore to win the World Series. There is also the infamous Disco Demolition Night that took place in Chicago on July 12th which resulted in the White Sox forfeiting their game against the Tigers. Gloria Gaynor may have survived a breakup but her record did not survive Comiskey Park. And of course, there was the horrific tragedy of the plane crash of Thurman Munson which occurred on August 2nd. However, there were some notable, if sometimes overlooked events that took place during the 1979 season.
On the same day of the Munson tragedy, a 34 year old man was named manager of the White Sox. The hiring was overshadowed by the horrible event of the plane crash but this manager carved out a pretty nice career for himself. All he did was win division titles in three cities along with six pennants and three World Championships. You may have heard of him. Some guy named Tony LaRussa, arguably the best manager of my generation.
Two Hall of Famers would record their 3,000th career hits in 1979. The first was base-stealing king (until Rickey Henderson) Lou Brock. He reached the milestone on August 13th. Following Brock was Carl Yastrzemski (the last Triple Crown Winner) who hit the magic number on September 12th. The 3,000 hit club is indeed rare as only 28 players have done it. To have two players reach that number a month apart in the same season is indeed a remarkable accomplishment.
More unusual feats occurred as there were not one but two co-winners of awards handed out for the 1979 season. The American League Rookie of the Year honors went to John Castino of the Twins and Alfredo Griffin of the Blue Jays. Over in the National League, the MVP award was split between Willie Stargell of the Pirates and Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals. These awards have existed in one form or another for over 75 years and there have been only two other occasions where awards were split (1976 National Rookie of the Year and 1969 American League Cy Young).
You can see why the 1979 season was special. The rest of the country might have been stuck in Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” but this fan was just discovering the joys of Major League Baseball.