One October day in 1978…

Marquez continues to settle down
Previewing the season, 26 games in

Before delving into the game, Richard Bradley, author of The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78 (Free Press, $25), sets a high bar for himself. How exactly does one go about determining the “greatest game” ever with such certainty?

In my life — which started a good four and a half years after the 1978 playoff game — I’ve seen two perfect games, an amazing World Series game 7 and a 3-0 playoff series lead evaporate. Depending upon your perspective, most of those games could be considered the greatest game ever, and when Buster Olney wrote about that World Series game 7, he just called it the last night of a dynasty.

Bradley has no qualms about his claim. Game 163 of the 1978 regular season — played only by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park — stands as baseball’s greatest game. For nine innings, two bitter rivals duked it out with the victor becoming the heavy favorites to win the World Series.

For Yankee fans alive at the time, that game stands as one of the greatest baseball games of all time, and in his book Bradley takes his readers through both the game and the season. In alternating chapters of game play and 1978 baseball history, Bradley sets the stage for an epic showdown. It’s Carl Yastrzemski’s last hurrah, and the culmination of a Bronx Zoo-type season in the Bronx. It’s Yankee grandeur and success against the Red Sox’s decades of failure. It’s Mike Torrez trying to prove his former employees wrong, and it’s Bucky Dent trying to prove his manager wrong.

Bradley starts out inside the minds of Goose Gossage and Yaz. What takes this book that extra step are his sources. Bradley relied on a lot of interviews with players. It brings up questions of historical memory: What does Goose Gossage remember in 2007 of a game 29 years earlier? How do Mike Torrez and Bucky Dent recall seminal moments in their careers after volumes of ink have been spilled over the game’s most famous rivalry? But for now, we can let the players take it away.

And take it away they do. Bradley describes the characters involved. There’s the irascible Billy Martin, the pugnacious Thurman Munson, the arrogant Carlton Fisk. He discusses recent Yankee history and recent Red Sox history. We learn about Reggie Jackson and Dwight Evans, about Lou Piniella and Catfish Hunter, about Yaz’s time in Fenway and Don Zimmer’s managerial failures.

For avid baseball readers, Bradley’s book treads some familiar ground. Jonathan Mahler’s excellent Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning covers the Bronz Zoo Yankees and the 1977 season is detail, and Bradley rehashes that in an early chapter. But Bradley’s book is the logical literary sequel to Mahler’s seminal tome. Bradley’s writing and reporting takes you inside the minds of the players of this game, and for those of us who are fans of the game — alive or not in 1978 — the book takes us back to that crisp fall day in October 1978 when two teams laid it all on the line for a chance to move on.

Was the game really the greatest one ever? Two aces without their best stuff faced off against each other; the lead changed a few times; an unlikely hero emerged in Bucky Dent. A closer — Gossage — nearly blew the game, and a late-inning home run by Reggie Jackson would be the difference. Carl Yastrzemski was fitting the last out just as Gossage and Yaz imagined the game would unfold. For all that, it’s still tough to top that 2001 World Series Game 7.

But this book is also about baseball at a moment in its history. It’s is about baseball on the cusp of change. It’s about how the onset of free agency would forever alter the game’s economics but how playoff baseball remains the pinnacle of the sports world.

You didn’t have to be there or be alive to still feel the goosebumps as Bucky F***in’ Dent blasts a three-run home run over the Green Monster to give the Yanks a lead they would not relinquish. It was a good day for Yankee fans.

Marquez continues to settle down
Previewing the season, 26 games in
  • BigBlueAL

    I was born in 1980, so i wasnt alive durin this game. I have though watched the 1978 team video a million times as a little kid (my parents were seen for a few seconds in the stands durin Old-Timer’s Day cheering when Billy Martin was introduced) so i feel like i was alive and following the team durin the late 70’s, and am lookin forward to readin this book eventually. I loved the books by Buster Olney and especially Joel Sherman on the latest Yankee dynasty, and definitely a classic is the book by Peter Golenbock on the 1949-1964 Yankees (although its a shitload of pages). Anyway, about the greatest game ever, in regards to the Yankees anyway actually i think it probably was Game 5 vs Seattle in 1995, although obviously it ends horrible for us Yankees fans. For me personally though, Game 7 in 2003 ALCS by far, even though the loss in the WS to the Marlins that year and subsequent loss in the 2004 ALCS has taken alot of prestige out of that game. BUT definitely w/o a doubt, Game 6 of the 1986 WS is the greatest game ever, hands down in my opinion (i HATE BOTH the Mets and Red Sox obviously, but i actually bought the 1986 WS DVD collector’s set just to be able to watch that game in its entirety. btw, Game 7 was pretty damn good too, and the DVD also has Game 6 of the NLCS vs the Astros, another amazing game). Just my personal take.

  • nefarious jackson

    If you were alive to remember seeing it, this would be the greatest… you think 2001 was because you saw it, all these thing are subjective, but I thought 78′, because of the teams involved, this was the greatest

  • LiveFromNewYork

    I vote for the 78 one-off and even at 9 years old understood it was history unfolding. In NY people ran out into the streets like we had won the Series. Everyone was hunkered around the TV and were sullen and sure we were losing until the BFD homer. The city, at the height of its disrepair, was almost SILENT as everyone was tuned into the game. For one day we were all on the same page and nothing else mattered: the Yankees had to win.

    And the difference between Game 7 2001 and 78 playoff?

    We won.

    And it was magical.

    My love for the Yankees was sealed that day although had I become anything else my family would have hunted me down and killed me.

  • Ed

    I wasn’t born until ’81, so the teams of the 70’s don’t mean much to me. Some good teams in there, but not as impressive as the Ruth/Gehrig/DiMaggio/Mantle lead teams.

    I’m obviously biased about it because I was in the stands, but 2003 Game 7 against Boston is my favorite. Clemens vs Martinez, with the twist that if the Yankees this is the last game of Clemens career (yeah, he changed his mind later, but it was on everyone’s minds all night). The parade of pitchers, starters included, coming in from the bullpen, to save the season. Moose’s first career relief appearance, which couldn’t have been more stressful. And of course the rally against Pedro and the 11th inning walkoff homerun.

  • Wolf Williams

    I remember watching that game but not realizing anything about the significance of the Yanks-Red Sox rivalry. I was ten and a half years old, and had only begun watching baseball during the previous World Series, when I sat beside my mother and watched the Reggie Jackson, three-home run game that ended the series. I had bad eyesight and couldn’t play baseball well, so I had avoided the game. But my mother was telling me how much she had loved Mickey Mantle — her fourth birthday was Mantle’s major league debut — and telling me about the ’61 home run race. We watched Reggie swat those three shots, and it was a bonding moment for us. We had escaped my father, who was a terrible, abusive alcoholic, and the Yankee bond cemented my mother and me.

    But that 1978 game didn’t resonate so much with me. I was still a Yankee neophyte. For me, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, and Aaron F***ing Boone, and Matsui scoring the tying run and jumping up and growling at the plate after he slid across it, and Mariano collapsing onto the rubber as the rest of the team went ape-shit at home plate…. By then, I got it. And that game was as thrilling for me to watch as were any of the 2001 World Series games.

    However, I will get this book. Thanks for reviewing it. And speaking of reviews, someone just gave me the DiMaggio bio from Richard Ben Cramer, as a 40th birthday gift……. and it stinks, for all kinds of reasons. Read the “Greatest Game” book over Cramer’s waste of wood.

  • Yankee Fan in Chicago

    I was 8 at the time and a baseball fanatic, if a neophyte. 1978 was the first season I followed the Yankees religiously. I remember some of the 76 and 77 world series, but in 78 I played little league for the first time and became obsessed with baseball.

    The thing that made the Dent game so special was the season that preceded it. Billy fired, Lemon replacing him, and the Yankees coming back from a 14 1/2 game July deficit. (This was also summer of Rose’s 44 game hit streak, which is why that 78 season is for me the best baseball season of my memory).

    I got out of school at 2:30, and so had to race home to catch as much of the game as possible. I believe the Yanks were already down 1-0 by the time I got to the tv. At 2-0 in the 7th it hardly seemed possible the Yanks could come back. The Dent homer was magical and remains the best moment of baseball fandom for me, better than the subsequent 5 world championships.

  • Motown Yankee Fan

    I’m so happy this book exists. 1978 was the first year I started really following the Yankees. I was 14 years old and put together a scrapbook of all the important games that year. I had a huge school-girl crush on Bucky Dent; his heroics could not have been more perfect.

    I remember rushing home, running through the cafeteria, while some of the football players were gathered around a radio, listening to the game. My brother (who was 9 at the time) and I watched the game alone in the house. I remember hugging him like mad when Bucky hit that ball–that was big since we were at the height of our sibling rivalry back then. We felt so bad for our sister because she was stuck at soccer practice during the game.

    I hated the Red Sox back then. Boy, that victory was sweet. I guess if I think about that one and the Aaron Boone game enough, I can forget about the pain of 2004, at least for a little bit.

    Thanks for focussing on this book. I know what I’m getting my brother for his next birthday!

  • Ben K.

    Wow. Forgetting Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is a grave oversight on my part. That game was thrillingly excellent, highs and lows, great pitching, timely hitting, bad managerial decisions. What a great drama.

  • jscape2000

    Hard to pick a greatest game ever, but my heart says Game 7, 2001.

    I’ll be interested to read this book and compare it with Roger Kahn’s October Men (which cover’s the 1978 season). Thanks for the review Ben.

  • Mike D

    I’ve had the opportunity to see all the games mentioned (I came of age in the baseball sense in 1974 as a child) and the most memorable are Chambiliss’ HR game in ’76, Jackson’s 3-HR game in 77 WS, Dent’s HR against the Sox in 78, about four games in the 2001 World Series (which eliminates any single game!) and Boone’s game in ’03. There have been many other great and memorable games over the years, but those are at the top of the list. The Dent game, however, tops them all because it represented more than just a single game. It was the culmination of the season when the Yankees came back from 14 games in July when they were left for dead, it was a game that added as much as any to the myth of the “curse” in Boston, and it was a game that in many ways re-ignited the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry that had been building in previous years, after have gone dormant for a quite a while. It’s the easy number one becasue it represented more than a single game, and my guess is that’s the point of his book.

    • LiveFromNewYork

      I think the 78 game tops them all as well. There was so much more to it than just a “game” and there was, as The Bronx is Burning illustrates so much faith of a very defeated city riding on it.

      2001 was the opposite. We were feeling defeated again (at least very trod upon) and could have used the boost from a WS win. I’m STILL sad about the 2001 defeat in the 9th inning of the 7th game. It still haunts.

      But in 1978 no one gave a damn about NYC as the federal govt and the country thought we had dug our own grave. In 2001 the whole country supported us in our grief. Our grief was the country’s grief.

      In 78 we stood alone. Our team was such a microcosm of the city, blowing up from the inside out but still pulling up some gritty determination to keep it from going completely to hell.

      So I still pick 78. It just represents to me what New York, the Yankees, the rivalry and baseball are all about.

  • pounder

    Unquestionably the greatest game ever played.Hollywood could not have scripted a more ‘Hollywood’ ending to a season packed with soap opera hysteria and clubhouse drama.I was in the middle of purchasing a 78 Buick Regal while the game was played.After listening to the first few innings at work on the radio,I managed to watch,albeit interrupted by the Buick,on the TV.The ninth inning I was at my Dads place in Yonkers when the ninth inning unfolded.To this day I can recall how long it seemed for Yaz’ popup to desend into the glove of Nettles,I cringe,even today when I ponder what could have occured.Piniella saved our bacon that day,as well as Bucky(you know what) Dent.The euphoria felt by Yankee fans is felt even today.It was THE classic game of all time.