By Edward Gruver
Forty years ago, spring did not capture Ron Guidry’s fancy.
The smallish southpaw whose colorful nicknames – “Louisiana Lightning”, “Gator” – perfectly reflected his blazing fastballs and biting sliders had been a pleasant surprise on a New York Yankees pitching staff that in 1977 had high-gloss aces Catfish Hunter and Don Gullett along with that season’s AL Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle.
But Guidry arrived at the spring training camp of the reigning World Series champions in the spring of ‘78 battling bronchitis and a flu that stripped eight pounds from an already whippet-lean 5-11, 161-pound frame.
Along with fighting his illness, Guidry was also trying to forget his nightmarish spring from the season before. Expected to one day replace Lyle as the top lefty in the bullpen, the Lafayette, La. resident instead emerged from the ’77 camp with a 10.24 earned run average in six games.
In the spring of ’78, however, Guidry stood on the brink of the greatest single-season pitching performance in Yankees history. Throughout a tumultuous summer and fall in the Bronx, the Cajun was ragin’. By season’s end, Guidry would give the Yankees consecutive Cy Young awards by going 25-3 with nine shutouts, a club record 248 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA. Those numbers are made more impressive by the fact that he was pitching in an American League armed with designated hitters in batter-friendly ballparks in New York, Boston, Detroit, etc.
Guidry’s 18 strikeouts against the California Angels – he fanned former Oakland A’s World Series hero Joe Rudi four times – set an AL record for a lefthander. His nine shutouts tied the league mark recorded by Babe Ruth. Gator feasted on enemy batters; opponents hit just .193 against him. He started the season 13-0 to eclipse the team record of 12 straight victories and was, as Sports Illustrated stated at the time, unbeatable and all but untouchable. He didn’t taste defeat until the day before the All-Star break. For the season he surrendered an average of just six hits per nine innings and his ERA was the lowest by an AL lefty dating to Dutch Leonard’s 1.01 in 1914. Since ‘78, Guidry’s 25 victories that summer have been bested just once, Bob Welch winning 27 for Oakland in 1990. Still, Guidry’s .893 winning percentage in ’78 remains the highest ever for a 20-game winner. Small wonder his Cy Young selection was unanimous.
Guidry finished his stellar season with a flourish, beating Boston three times late in the furious Al East race, including the division-clincher in a famous one-game playoff at Fenway Park. He repeated his postseason success against the Royals and Dodgers, delivering eight innings of one-run ball against Kansas City in the Game 4 clincher at Yankee Stadium and playing the role of stopper in the World Series with a Game 3 victory – courtesy of several startling assists from third baseman Graig Nettles – in the Bronx after L.A. had won the first two games.
In 1983 Guidry would tell The Christian Science Monitor he understood that what he did in 1978 was always going to overshadow the rest of his career.
“In ’78 I overpowered everybody all year long,” he said.
Indeed. Dodgers future Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who lost to the Yankees ace in Game 3 of the ’78 Fall Classic, called Guidry “Sandy Koufax reincarnated.” Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, who enjoyed an up-close view of Louisiana Lightning’s electric performances in ‘78, told the New York Daily News 20 years later that Guidry was a “buzz saw” that season, mowing through lineups like a man among boys. It seemed fitting Louisiana Lightning heralded from the Bayou; his fastballs, indeed, blew by you.
Guidry was 27 when he arrived at the Yankees spring camp in ’78. He had found himself as a pitcher the season before by overcoming a reluctance to throw the slider and relying too much on mid-90s fastballs. He told The New York Times in the spring of ’78 that he previously had the impression that all he had to do was throw heat. But he found he couldn’t get by on fastballs alone; five seasons beating the bushes and a 19-21 mark in the minors taught him that. Knowing he needed another pitch, Guidry worked with Lyle on the slider.
Pressed into service by manager Billy Martin during the ’77 season due to injuries to Hunter and Gullett, Guidry became a regular in the rotation on May 17. He made the most of his opportunity, going 16-7 with a 2.82 ERA in 25 starts and six relief appearances. It was enough to earn him votes in the Cy Young balloting which eventually went to Lyle. In the postseason, Guidry won a pivotal Game 2 in the best-of-five ALCS after Kansas City had won the opener in Yankee Stadium. In the World Series, Louisiana Lightning limited Los Angeles to four hits in Game 4 in sun-drenched Dodger Stadium to give New York a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Guidry’s success was due to his mastery of a slider that hurried toward home plate at 89 mph. His initial attempts to throw the pitch resulted in more of a slurve – part slider, part curve. Eventually, he came up with a legitimate slider that didn’t stay flat but broke sharply. Guidry told the Times his mastering the pitch was not a gradual process.
“I found it all of sudden,” he said.
And just in time, considering that not long before, Guidry had decided to bolt baseball. Despite his ability to deliver 96 mph fastballs, some members of the Yankees brass had wanted to trade him. They thought his thin frame not durable enough for big league ball; his quiet manner not quite fit for the gritty closer role. Yankees general manager Gabe Paul prevented the club from making a disastrous deal by telling owner George Steinbrenner that if Guidry was traded, it would be portrayed in the media as the Boss’s folly; Paul wanting no part in it.
Guidry remained in pinstripes but was essentially placed in mothballs. The only benefit to languishing on Martin’s bench during the ’76 season was that Guidry learned from Lyle how to throw the darting slider that made the speed-challenged Sparky so effective.
When Guidry was demoted to the minors yet again, he was ready to head south on Interstate 81 back to the Bayou. His wife Bonnie, pregnant with the first of their three children, intervened. You’ve never been a quitter, Bonnie told Ron. Don’t do something you’ll regret the rest of your life.
Guidry didn’t, and changing his car’s direction on I-81 led to an equally dramatic shift in Yankee fortunes. Without Louisiana Lightning, the Yankees wouldn’t have won the World Series in ‘77. And they definitely don’t rally from a 14-game deficit to beat Boston for the AL East title in ’78 and repeat as world champions.
Fact is, Guidry elevated the great teams he played on. Forty years ago this season, Guidry’s presence on the mound meant victories in an astounding 89 percent of his starts. Even on a club that listed stars in Nettles, Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent, et al., Guidry’s winning percentage in ’78 was 280 points higher than that of his championship team. In the nine seasons that saw him make 25 or more starts, Guidry exceeded the Yankees’ win percentage by 130 or more points on six occasions.
Having caught lightning in a bottle in ’78, Guidry would go on to win 21 or more games twice, including an AL-best 22 in ‘85. He led the league in ERA twice, in winning percentage twice, and in complete games once, with 21 in 1983. For his career, Guidry exceeded the Yankees’ win percentage by an average of 90 points per season. To this day, he remains the only pitcher to be named Yankees captain.
For nine years – 1978-85 – Guidry was the best pitcher in the American League. And this in an era that included Hall of Fame hurlers Hunter, Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven, as well as all-stars Gullett, Vida Blue, Luis Tiant, Tommy John, Mike Flanagan, Frank Tanana, Scott McGregor, et al. In the National League at that time, when Sutton, Tom Seaver, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Rogers and Gaylord Perry were plying their trade, only Philadelphia Phillies’ southpaw Steve Carlton was as good as Guidry from ‘78-85.
What Guidry lacks in consideration for Cooperstown is the longevity that marked the careers of fellow hurlers from his era, Sutton and Blyleven to name two. Still, consider that Guidry posted seven straight seasons of .630 winning percentages or better, a mark not even Greg Maddux can match.
Louisiana Lightning’s super-charged fastballs and sliders are memorable ornaments from his era. So, too, is his unique lead-up to the pitch – jaw stuffed with chaw as he stands ramrod straight, shoulders back, on the pitching rubber; the compact windup and delivery; and then the firing of the ball toward home plate with a buggy-whip motion and finishing with a short hop forward on the front of the mound.
In 1978 this sequence often led to two quick strikes on flailing batters, and was accompanied in Yankee Stadium by sudden and tumultuous stomping and shouting and rhythmic clapping that has since become a ritual in big league ballparks.
How good was Guidry 40 years ago in 1978?
“He’s our stud,” Jackson said at the time. “He’s dominating the league now the way Catfish used to.”
Dominated the way few others ever have.