By Ed Gruver
They didn’t bring a title back to the Bronx.
But the New York Yankees of the early 1970s did win something else: the admiration of those who grew up in the New York Metro area at that time and followed Yankees baseball by clicking the dials of our TV sets to WPIX Channel 11 or tuning transistor radios to WMCA 570 AM.
Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Sparky Lyle, Horace Clarke, “Stick” Michael, “Boomer” Blomberg, Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre and the Alou Brothers, Felipe and Matty – these were the pride of the new Yankees. Even former stars Ron Swoboda and Johnny Callison and more modestly talented types such as Celerino Sanchez, Doc Medich and John Ellis earned a following among fans filing into the big ballpark in the Bronx.
The original Yankee Stadium was a great place to watch a game; it was austere and steeped in history and tradition. Manager Ralph Houk, a reminder of the Mantle-Maris-Ford-Berra dynasty of the previous decade, could be seen leaning on the top step of the Yankees dugout, studying the action on the field through tinted glasses. Ellie Howard, another symbol of the Bronx Bombers’ glory years, stood astride the first base coaching box. The great green expanse of the outfield offered the famous Death Valley in left, the Ruth-Gehrig-Huggins monuments on the field in deep center and a short porch in right.
A pair of immortal voices – public address announcer Bob Sheppard and National Anthem singer Robert Merrill – echoed throughout the cavernous cathedral. Stadium organist Toby Wright made “Pomp and Circumstance” – which signaled the dramatic, late-game entrance of Lyle from the bullpen car, a pinstripe-painted Datsun – the soundtrack of the season.
Summer days and nights at the Stadium mixed the scent of cigars, Schaefer beer and hot dogs with the voices of Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White on hand-held radios and the theme song that opened their broadcast (“Here come the Yankees…”) Smoke from cigarettes and cigars spiraled toward the signature copper frieze and fabled lattice work that rimmed the Stadium’s roof. The memorable Schaefer jingle (“One beer to have when you’re having more than one…”) was sung on occasion by that great lady, Lena Horne.
These Yankees were a good, not great team, but their competitive fire proved compelling. In 1970, they finished second to the eventual world champion Baltimore Orioles in the Eastern Division race with 93 wins, the third highest total in the league and fifth best in baseball.
In 1972 New York battled Baltimore, Boston and eventual division champion Detroit in a fierce four-team race that wasn’t decided until the final series of the season.
The 1973 season was supposed to be the Year of the Yankees. They were the preseason choice of many to be beasts of the East. Conventional wisdom considered the Orioles and Tigers too old; the Red Sox too young. The Yanks, meanwhile, had added all-star talent in slugging third baseman Graig Nettles, flame-throwing southpaw “Sudden” Sam McDowell and former 20-game winner Pat Dobson.
For the first half of the season, new-look New York looked like it was on a collision course with the reigning world champion Oakland A’s for the AL pennant. With Murcer, Munson, Nettles and Blomberg swinging dangerous lumber, these new Bronx Bombers rode a six-game win streak to the top of the division in July, the latest they had occupied first place since their pennant-winning season in 1964. They were the toast of the town at a time when the Mets owned the city.
In cabs, buses and subway trains, on city sidewalks and street corners, in delis and bakeries, neighborhood bars and taverns, New Yorkers were talking more about the Yankees than the Mets.
The national media took note and flocked to the Bronx, prompting Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner to say that it was good to walk on the field before a game at the Stadium and see so many reporters with microphones, notebooks and cameras “interested in us again.”
Houk, balancing a beer on his belly and holding his ever-present cigar in hand, jokingly told a couple of cameramen that it had been so long since anyone asked to take his photo.
“I probably can’t remember how to pose,” Houk laughed,
Pinstripes, always worn with the top button on the Yankees’ jersey loosened, were suddenly in style again, and not just among Madison Avenue Ad Men and Fifth Avenue bank presidents. These Yankees left an impression, a series of indelible images from a busy summer in the Bronx:
Munson, a hitting machine, hustling on the base paths and behind the plate, leaving his loose-fitting uniform smeared with dirt and dust;
Murcer, dark hair flowing from beneath his midnight-blue batting helmet, hitting out of a severe crouch at the plate and patrolling center field in front of the famed monuments;
the bespectacled Clarke’s exaggerated stance, his feet spread wide and glittery glaze fixed on the opposing pitcher;
Lyle, his jaw stuffed with Red Man chaw, stepping from the pinstriped Datsun and striding to the mound;
Lyle’s sliders, Lindy McDaniel’s forkballs;
Blomberg and Nettles pulling drives into the lower reaches of the right-field porch.
For the first time in a decade the Yankees were entertaining. The song “Seems Like Old Times” boomed from Wright’s stadium organ. The Scooter’s celebrated “Holy Cows!” increased, as did fan attendance. No longer the No. 2 team in town, the Yankees drew more than 148,000 fans for a series despite days of threatening weather. This era of Yankees baseball also featured an off-the-field cause celebre – the Mike Kekich-Fritz Peterson family swap.
General Manager Lee McPhail, more adept at playing “Let’s Make A Deal” than Monty Hall, put together a rotation featuring four starters – Stottlemyer, McDowell, Dobson and Peterson – who had been 20-game winners. Munson, Murcer, Nettles and Lyle ranked among the best in baseball at their respective positions.
Unfortunately for Yankees fans, the heat Houk’s crew generated in the summer cooled with coming of fall. Their 50th anniversary season in Yankee Stadium saw the Bombers fade in the final weeks and Baltimore, not New York, battle the A’s in the ALCS. Ironically, the New York team that opposed Oakland in the ’73 postseason hailed from Flushing, the Amazin’ Mets falling to the Mustache Gang in a memorable World Series.
The Murcer-Munson-Lyle Yankees of the early 1970s may not have brought a title back to the Bronx. But they won over Yankees fans and helped set the stage for a return to glory in 1977.