Lemon Will Be Remembered for Yankees Summer of ‘78
He will always be the strong quiet hero of the summer of 1978 with the Yankees. After all the mayhem and melodrama with Billy Martin, after Billy talked about Reggie Jackson being a born liar and George Steinbrenner being a convicted felon in an airport one day and got himself fired, Steinbrenner handed the Yankees over to Bob Lemon. The Red Sox were running away with the American League East. Steinbrenner’s Yankees, half a season after winning the World Series again, were turning into some national joke of sports. Lemon lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair and somehow his team gave us three months of baseball you had to see to believe.
“I just straightened out the pitching and then hoped that Reggie would hit,” Bob Lemon said once.
The Yankees were 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in July and still 10 1/2 behind when Lemon got the team. There was the craziness of Billy Martin being hired back by Steinbrenner on Oldtimers Day, Bob Sheppard telling the crowd at the Stadium that Billy would be back to manage for the 1980 season. But he no longer had the Yankees of 1978. They were Lem’s now. And somehow, out of all the craziness and controversy, out of nowhere really, they began to write one of the splendid and improbable comebacks in baseball history.
“You guys won last year,” Lemon told the Yankees the first time he met with them. “So why don’t you just go out and play the way you did last year and I’ll try to stay the hell out of the way.”
He called everybody “Meat.” It didn’t matter whether you were a clubhouse guy or Reggie. Hey, Meat. Maybe you could think about taking a strike, Meat. He was out of Long Beach and another baseball time, a much simpler time, out of his own Hall of Fame career as a pitcher. He didn’t understand all the noise around the Yankees, the constant shout of the place, the way so many of them seemed to be headline junkies.
Shut up, is what Lem really told them, shut up and play the way you know how.
The Yankees would win another game and get another game closer to the Red Sox and then Lem would go to the bar. His most famous line of all was that he never took the game home with him, he always left it in a bar along the way. He drank too much the way he smoked too much. The bus stopped unexpectedly one night on the way to the airport and someone asked what was going on and Graig Nettles said they were stopping to get batteries for Lem’s nose.
The Yankees kept winning. They started to close on the Red Sox. They were playing the most beautiful brand of baseball, every single day, always getting a big hit when they needed it, never beating themselves. Lem did what he promised and stayed out of the way.
“He was exactly what we needed after Billy,” Reggie said. “A tough old guy with an even disposition.”
Suddenly there was that series in September, at Fenway Park, when the Yankees outscored the Red Sox 42-9. The Yankees had come all the way back to first place. Lou Piniella went to Lem that day and said, “I know we’re in first place. I’m just wondering how the hell we got here.”
The Yankees and Red Sox ended up tied on the last day of the regular season, Oct. 1, 1978. The Yankees could have closed Boston out, but lost to the Indians at home. The Yankees would go to Boston the next day for the playoff game that would decide the great race in the AL East. After seeing what he had seen for two months, Lemon never thought the Yankees would lose to the Indians. Now he had no starter for the Red Sox on Monday afternoon.
Lemon was sitting alone in the Yankee dugout long after the Indians game was over when Ron Guidry came walking out to find him. Guidry was 24-3, and had gotten there pitching on four days’ rest all season. He had pitched the previous Thursday night.
“I’ll take the ball,” Guidry said to Bob Lemon that day, pitcher to pitcher.
“Thanks, Meat,” Lem said, then walked with Guidry to the clubhouse. The Yankees flew to Boston and Bucky Dent hit his home run. Then they won the playoffs and won the World Series.
It never happens without Bob Lemon. He came back the next year, but he was not the same, and would never be the same again. One of his sons, Jerry, was killed in an automobile accident a few weeks after the World Series ended. After the dream baseball season of his life, came the nightmare for any father, one of his children dying before him.
It was the beginning of a nightmare season all around for the Yankees. Goose Gossage hurt himself in a shower fight. Lemon was replaced by Martin in June as Yankee manager. Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in August.
It wasn’t the end of Bob Lemon’s Yankee career. He would come back again, in 1981, and be the Yankee manager when the Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers. But he never came back, not really, from the death of Jerry Lemon, who was the baby of the family, the one that everybody called a chip off the old block, the one who died at the age of 26. “I’ll miss that boy until the day I die,” he said in the bar one night.
Lem died Tuesday. He was 79. He was the outfielder who became the Hall of Fame pitcher, winning 20 games seven times for the Indians, pitching with Feller and Early Wynn. But he is not remembered for his right arm in New York.
He is remembered for being the right man at the right time, for the Yankees, in the summer of 1978.