In about two weeks, Angel fans around the globe should be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the greatest regular season series ever played in Los Angeles Angel franchise history. It came during the final three days before the 1979 All-Star break in a match-up with the beastly New York Yankees at the Big A on July 13th, 14th, and 15th.
A Little Background for Those Who Weren’t There
At this point in time, the Angels had been playing baseball in the American League for 18 and a half years, and they had a winning record in only five of those previous 18 seasons. The highest they had ever finished in the standings was second place, which they did only one time, in 1978, when their .537 winning percentage had set a new franchise record.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of anguish involved in being an Angel supporter during those lean years, but the 1978 season had injected a little adrenaline into the hearts of Halo fans, making us hope that we might actually be on the verge of having a real, honest-to-God playoff team on our hands.
When this final series before the All-Star break rolled around, the Angels had an impressive 52-38 record, but that only meant they were leading the AL West by a game and a half over Buddy Bell’s scrappy Texas Rangers. At this point, we fans were very excited about our Angels, but few were able to truly believe, deep in our hearts, that the 1979 Angels really were going to be the first team in franchise history to finish first and taste the sweet manna that is post season baseball, a taste we had been yearning for ever since we first became fans.
Fortunately for us, this final series of the first half was going to be the ultimate test to determine if the 1979 Angels were for real because they were going to play the Yankees, who at this time were a behemoth of a baseball team, having won the AL pennant for three years running. In the last two of these seasons, they went all the way, ravaging their way across the baseball world to win the World Series twice (both times a 4-2 affair that beat down the Dodgers), and now these same, two-time defending World Series champions were in Anaheim to finish off the first half of the season with a set of games against the Angels.
But in 1979, the Angels had a beast of a ballclub themselves, and they weren’t just ready, they were chomping at the bit to prove to themselves and everyone else that they were a team to be feared by any club that dared to step onto the field to play them. And here was the perfect opportunity for them to do just that, with the star-studded, powerhouse New York Yankees, the American League champion for three years running, in town to see what was truly beating in the hearts of these ’79 Angels.
Over 40,000 Halo fans showed up each night to find out as well.
The first game was on a Friday night, and in the moments before the first pitch, it felt like this game could very well be a nail-biter of a pitchers’ duel since Nolan Ryan was facing off against the great Luis Tiant. By the end of the seventh inning, the Angels were holding onto a precarious 3-0 lead that could be wiped out in an instant with a three-run Yankee homer, but maybe that word precarious is a bit misleading.
You see, while Tiant had given up three runs in the first seven innings, Ryan, on the other hand, was merciless. Through seven, he had yet to give up a hit and had struck out seven of those grey-jerseyed Yankee batters. A dominating Ryan was on the hill for the Angels that Friday night, and he was determined to push those Yankee swatters into submission.
In the eighth inning, though, it looked like he finally gave up a hit when designated hitter Jim Spencer was able to barrel one of Ryan’s pitches and hit a solid line drive into center field. A desperate Rick Miller, who had won a Gold Glove for the Angels in 1978, dove for the ball, but it hit off of his glove and fell to the ground. By the time he gathered it up and threw it back to the infield, Spencer was standing on second base. But up on the scoreboard, instead of indicating a double, eleven light bulbs in the shape of a capital E lit up. The crowd cheered when they realized that Ryan’s no-hitter was still alive.
Behind the scenes, Angel general manager Buzzie Bavasi was not pleased. He burst into the press room and berated the official scorekeeper, Dick Miller, by yelling, "I'll give him the 25 grand for pitching a no‐hitter," referring to Ryan’s contractual bonus for pitching the no‐hitter that would break his tie with Sandy Koufax for the most in Major League history, "but I want it to be a [true] no‐hitter."
Dick Miller said that he was 95% sure it was a hit, but if he was going to take away a no-hitter late in the game, he had to be 100% sure. After the game, Ryan laid out to the press his feelings about the ruling. "If I'm going to get the fifth [no-hitter of his career], I want it to be clean."
The status of the game, however, was never in doubt. Ryan stranded Spencer at second base, and at the start of bottom of the ninth inning, the Angels had a commanding 6-0 lead. Ryan was still pitching, and was still yet to give up an offical base-hit. The first batter of the inning, catcher Thurman Munson, reached first base on an obvious error that shortstop Jim Anderson really did bobble. Graig Nettles then popped up to Downing near home plate for the first out. The next batter was Reggie Jackson, and he shot a grounder back up the middle for a clean single into center field. Jackson pointed to the press box once he reached first base safely, and the packed Angel Stadium crowd gave the valiant Ryan a standing ovation. Jackson even turned to face Ryan and tipped his cap to the great Angel pitcher.
As the ninth inning continued, Munson scored a meaningless run on a Lou Pinella sacrifice fly, and then Ryan struck out Chris Chambliss for the final out of the game, sending the crowd into a satisfying frenzy once again.
Fifteen minutes later, the ramps leading down to ground level were buzzing with the excitement of the departing fans who were ready to believe that this was truly going to be the Angels’ year.
The game the following night would prove to be much more of a cage fight than Friday night’s game. Both Don Aase of the Angels and Tommy John of the Yankees survived the first time through the lineup unscathed, but the Bombers dropped a five-spot on Aase in the fourth and knocked him out of the game. Chambliss hit a home run the next inning to increase the Yankee lead to 6-0, but the Angels turned the tables and had Tommy John on the ropes in the sixth inning when they scored two runs off of him. It could have easily been more, but Rich Gossage relieved John and consequently struck out both the DH Merv Rettenmund and first baseman Willie Aikens to squelch the threatening Halo rally.
In the seventh inning, facing a four-run deficit, Angel second baseman Bobby Grich hit a one-out double off of Gossage and then made it to third base on the back of a Carney Lansford single, but then Gossage induced "Disco" Dan Ford to hit into an inning-ending double play. With time running out, the Angels had scratched Gossage, but they failed to draw any blood.
In the eighth, however, the Angels landed two solid punches on Gossage when Don Baylor and Joe Rudi both hit solo home runs to cut the Yankee lead to 6-4 and rile up the fans who could feel just below the surface of their skin a glorious comeback stirring in the stadium air.
The Yankees were the Yankees, though, and they not only were able to stop the Angels from scoring anymore runs in that eighth inning, but they would scrap together an insurance run in the bottom of the ninth off of Angel reliever Dave LaRoche with a single, a walk, and a Reggie Jackson RBI single.
When the Angels came to bat in the home team’s half of the ninth, they were in a bleak 7-4 hole, but holes were meant to be climbed out of, right?
Gossage was determined to shovel the dirt on top of the Angels, and he started by striking out light-hitting shortstop Bert Campaneris and then getting Grich to pop up to his counterpart, Willie Randolph, at second base. Down to their last out, which was really the only proper way to do this, Lansford and Ford both hit singles. That brought up the man every Angel fan wanted to be at the plate, Don Baylor, the man who would lead all Major League hitters that year with 139 RBI, and you know what he did? Of course you do. He hit a three-run bomb that soared defiantly down the left field line and bounced high off of the foul pole to tie the game. The crowd went berserk because, of course, they all just knew this was going to happen, and this was their moment to triumphantly fill their I told you so’s! into every corner of the night sky.
Now a 7-7 tie, it was time for this miraculously rescued game to move into the realm of extra innings. Dave LaRoche and Mark Clear pitched the next three innings for the Halos and allowed no runs and just one base runner. The bespectacled Yankee reliever, Ron Davis, who came into the game in the tenth inning, wasn’t able to extend his luck that far, though. In the twelfth, he gave up a leadoff double to Angel catcher Brian Downing, and then the slugging Joe Rudi (who had just homered in the eighth) laid down an excellent bunt to advance Downing to third. Designated hitter Merv Rettenmund then finished the job by stroking a walk-off RBI single into right field to seal the victory and put the Halos one game away from sweeping the mighty New York Yankees!
If they were going to do it, though, they were going to have to beat the 1978 Cy Young Award winner and current Yankee ace, Ron "Louisiana Lighting" Guidry. And 1979 was no drop-off year for Guidry as he rolled into Anaheim with an outstanding 2.31 ERA.
The task of dispatching the Yankees and Guidry in Game Three was made difficult when Angel starter Dave Frost gave up a two-run homer to Chris Chambliss in the first inning, and then it was made even that much harder in the second when Frost gave up another two-run shot, this one to former Angel Jim Spencer.
It was going to be almost impossible to beat Guidry when he was staked to a four-run lead, but Bobby Grich chipped into that lead in the third with an RBI single that scored shortstop Jim Anderson from second base. Then in the seventh inning, Grich got his third base hit of the afternoon off of Guidry, this one a double that scored both Anderson from second and the speedy Rick Miller all the way from first base to pull the Angels to being just one run behind the Yanks, 4-3.
Was the stage set for yet another dramatic Angel come-from-behind victory?
Well, how is this for dramatic – in the ninth inning, with the score still 4-3 in the Yankees’ favor, Guidry got the Angel lead off hitter, Jim Anderson, to fly out to center field. He then gave up a walk to back-up catcher Tom Donahue. With one out and the tying run on first base, Guidry struck out Rick Miller. The Angels were now down to their last out, and with the hopes of a sweep of the mighty New York Yankees on the line, Bobby Grich was up to bat. Grich was 3-for-4 against Guidry on the day so far, having driven in all of the Angels’ three runs, and the only out he had made was a hard hit line drive to right fielder Reggie Jackson back in the first inning.
Yankee manager Billy Martin called for a time out and went to the mound to check on Guidry. The Yankee ace, who had just struck out Miller for the second out of the inning, was filled with the adrenaline of this success and was eager to get the better of Grich, his nemesis all day long, in this, the most important duel of the entire game.
Guidry reassured Martin that he felt strong enough to finish the game, and the Yankee skipper felt confident enough in Guidry to walk off the field and leave him to do battle with Grich to determine which team would end up victorious.
On the final pitch of the game, Guidry threw to Thurman Munson’s mitt, but the ball never found it because Grich’s left foot took a small stride towards the pitcher’s mound, his hands swung the bat, and he smacked that ball square and hard, driving it emphatically over the right field wall for a two-run, walk-off homer, driving the crowd absolutely wild.
Grich rounded the bases with a heart fit to burst, having just driven in his fourth and fifth RBI of the game off of one of the sport’s premiere pitchers to give the Angels a 5-4 victory, a three game sweep of the friggin’ New York Yankees, and an undeniable statement that every Angel fan finally knew to be true.
The king was dead. Long live the king.