Yankees Magazine: 1977 Revisited

Sparky Lyle remembers the magical season that made him a Cy Young Award winner and, more importantly, a World Series champion

June 21st, 2017

There haven't been many relief pitchers who were as dominant -- or as valuable to their team's success -- as Sparky Lyle was to the Yankees in 1977. That season, Lyle -- acquired five years earlier in a rare trade with the Boston Red Sox -- pitched in a league-leading 72 regular-season games, posting a 13-5 record and a 2.17 ERA. He collected 26 saves, half of which he had to pitch two or more innings to earn.
While the Yankees have had great closers on the mound since that magical season, including Hall of Famer Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera, baseball's all-time saves leader, Lyle remains the only relief pitcher in team history to win a Cy Young Award and one of only eight relievers in baseball history to receive the honor.
Before Lyle, a native of Western Pennsylvania, was officially given the award in the fall of 1977, he helped pave the way for the Yankees' first World Series championship in 15 years. That October, Lyle pitched in a combined six American League Championship Series and World Series games, racking up a 3-0 record and a 1.29 ERA.

Last summer, Lyle chatted with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III.
Before I ask about the 1977 season, take me back to your hometown of tiny Reynoldsville, Penn. What are your favorite memories of playing baseball when you were growing up?
When I was 15 years old, I started playing in a men's beer league, against guys who had already played in the Minors. I can remember pitching complete games and striking out 16 or 18 guys. After that, I went to DuBois to play American Legion ball because we didn't have that in our town of 2,300 people. We advanced to the state final playoff in American Legion, and I struck out 31 guys and we won the game, 4-3. It was a 17-inning game, and I pitched the first 11 innings. I played first base for the next three innings and then went back to the mound.
Were there a good number of scouts at that game?
There actually were no scouts at that game, but because I broke some kind of an amateur record, a few scouts read about me in the newspaper and came to our next game. But if I had never done what I did in that 17-inning game, the scout who ended up signing me would never have seen me.
Do you think that building up your arm strength at such a young age allowed you to do what you did in the Majors?
Absolutely. I would pitch a game and then go down to the sandlot and play in another. Between the sanctioned and non-sanctioned games, I think I played in 500 or 600 games before I graduated high school.
Save for the sale of Babe Ruth, there haven't been too many trades between the Red Sox and Yankees, but you were at the center of one of the biggest ones. How did you feel when you were traded from Boston to New York?
It was a bittersweet moment for me because I did have loyalty to the Red Sox. They brought me to the Big Leagues. On the other hand, they didn't have confidence in me, and I don't think they ever thought I'd be the pitcher I became. But, in retrospect, I would not have become as good as I was if I hadn't been traded to the Yankees.
Joining the Yankees and putting those pinstripes on did something to me. I didn't change the way I pitched, and I don't think I became more focused, but it was just something about being a Yankee. The team hadn't been doing well there, and I wanted to pitch every day. When I told [Manager] Ralph Houk that, he said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, my arm doesn't get sore. If I don't have an 86- or 87-mph slider that day, I'm still going to get guys out at 84 mph." He was willing to give it a shot, and that made me a better pitcher.
Do you remember walking into the home clubhouse at the old Yankee Stadium for the first time? What were your first impressions of the atmosphere around that team?
Yes. The atmosphere was phenomenal. I got chills almost every time I walked into that clubhouse. I knew who came before me, and that clubhouse was just oozing with tradition. My favorite day of the season was always Old-Timers' Day. I can remember Bill Dickey coming up to me and asking if he could borrow a pair of shoes. I couldn't believe who I was around on that day.
When did you feel that there were enough pieces in place for the Yankees to really contend for a championship?
In 1974, we only missed the playoffs by two games, so that told me that we weren't that far away. But in Spring Training of '76, we looked around and said, "We've got something here." We didn't have any selfish guys. We didn't have any bad guys on the team. That was the year.
Did you guys carry the emotions of getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the '76 World Series into Spring Training the following year?
All I can say is that almost immediately, everyone on that team was talking about how much we wanted to play the Reds again in the World Series.
Why was that?
Taking nothing away from how good they were, we felt that we could compete with them. I think when they won the World Series, we had a little letdown from the way we won the American League Championship Series on Chris Chambliss's home run. I'm definitely not making excuses, because they were the better team, but I think we were just tired and couldn't mentally do it anymore. That stuck in our throats, and we were very anxious to get to Spring Training in 1977.
Speaking of that spring, how much did Reggie Jackson's arrival, and his outspoken nature, take you guys by storm?
I think every one of us knew who he was and what he was all about. We talked with him when he got there and made it clear that Thurman was our captain, and that we wanted Reggie to leave him alone. That's it. Then, Reggie told a writer that he was going to be the straw that stirred the drink. That didn't go over well.
Do you feel as if that significantly affected the team in a negative way?
No. We had a couple of scuffles in the clubhouse, and then it was over. We knew that once the national anthem was played, everyone on that team, including Reggie, had the same mindset. That's what I loved about that team.
What was it about Thurman Munson that made him "The straw that stirred the drink" in your eyes?
If you want to be the guy that stirs the drink, you have to prove it out there, and Thurman Munson had been doing that for as long as he was a Yankee. He led by example every single day by the way he played. I can honestly say I don't know of anyone who took the captaincy more seriously than Thurman. He never gave up an at-bat, and he was always so intense. He did everything he could to help us win games. That's why we loved him so much.
How would you describe your relationship with Thurman?
It was tremendous. When I was traded to the Yankees, the first words that Thurman Munson ever said to me were, "I don't want you worrying about throwing that slider in the dirt with a runner on third. It's not going to get by me." That was the end of the conversation, and I knew I was going to have a lot of fun in New York.
You had great seasons before 1977, but what you did that year was nothing short of brilliant. Did you prepare differently or was it just a matter of everything coming together for you at 32 years old?
That was the first year I actually worked out with a trainer in the winter. I felt great all year. As long as my slider exploded on the hitter -- which happened as a result of arm strength -- I was going to be all right.
You also contributed to the cause by teaching Ron Guidry how to throw that devastating slider. That proved to be what he needed to get hitters out, didn't it?
But he still had to throw the [darn] thing. He gives me a lot of credit for that, and I appreciate that, but the bottom line is, he was throwing a 95-mph fastball in the Minor Leagues and trying to throw a curveball and a slider -- and no one was doing enough to help him down there.
How did your tutorial with him come about?
When he got called up for good in '76, I said, "All right, you've got to make up your mind if you want to stay here. You either have to throw the curveball or you've got to throw the slider. Either way, you need another pitch to offset that fastball."
He chose the slider, and we went to work on it. He and I threw from the same arm angle, so it was easy for him to learn how to throw the slider quickly, in less than two weeks. As soon as he threw it and saw what it could do, he just started smiling.
On Aug. 7, the Yankees were in third place. Then you went on a 24-3 run, never looking back. Why do you think the team caught fire at that point?
We just started winning all of the close games. We were losing games in which our starters were only giving up a few runs. We were giving up walk-off runs. Well, now we were at a point in the season where we knew we couldn't let those games slip away, and we started winning those games. Once you win a few close games, you become very confident.
Once you clinched the AL East, how did you feel about your chances of getting back to the World Series?
Great. We felt like we could beat any team in the league.
How contentious was the rivalry with the Kansas City Royals going into the ALCS against those guys for a second straight year?
It was a good rivalry, mainly because back then they were good in their division but they had a tough time beating us. That's usually the way it was, even during the regular season.
I think George Brett was a very good competitor and a very good third baseman, but the pine tar incident with him, the competition between him and Graig Nettles, and the brawl that was set off when George slid hard into Nettles escalated things for a long time. Things calmed down after so many years, but it's not like George and I will be going to the bar and having a cocktail together.
How important do you think Guidry's complete-game win in Game 2 of the ALCS ended up being, especially considering your team had lost Game 1?
It was tremendous. He came up big all year long. We didn't expect anything less from him. There wasn't any question in my mind that we were going to win that game.
You came into Game 4 -- a day after you pitched in a losing effort in Game 3 -- with two outs in the fourth inning. Were you surprised that Billy Martin brought you in so early that day?
Not at all. It was do or die. I was ready to go. I planned on finishing that game.
Indeed you did, and then you came back again in the winner-take-all Game 5. What were your thoughts when you took the mound needing to protect a one-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the eighth?
I was so focused at that point in time. All I was thinking about was putting the ball where I wanted.
How did you feel about facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series?
I couldn't believe it. We really thought we could beat them. And they felt the same way about us.
What was the experience of watching Reggie hit three home runs in Game 6 like for you and your teammates?
We felt like the World Series was over in the eighth inning when he hit his third home run. We were stoic, but we already knew we won. Those last couple innings took forever.
How would you describe the atmosphere in Yankee Stadium during the last inning of that game?
It was unbelievable. As soon as the last out was made, the fans ran onto the field. Trying to get to the dugout was ridiculous, but I'd go through that every single day if I could.
Looking back, does that championship mean more to you because it was the Yankees' first in so many years?
Well, from the time I got to New York, there was a plan to build up the team. Seeing it actually happen made me feel proud to be a Yankee and to have been part of that rebuilding process. When I think about Hall of Famers and great players who never had a chance to experience what we did, I feel lucky.
What does it mean to you to be the first American League relief pitcher to take home a Cy Young Award?
It was very important for me and also for the guys who followed me. I think that Mike Marshall -- who won the National League Cy Young Award in 1974 -- and I opened the door for relief pitchers to get more respect. You can certainly see that happening now. That is worth 1,000 Cy Youngs to me.
When you look back on that whole year in your life, how much fun was it?
It was a whirlwind. To win the World Series, to be at the top of my game and to feel like I earned the respect of my peers, that's what being a Yankee is all about.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.