Baseball is the most individualistic of team sports. Every at bat has its own separate drama. The one-on-one struggle between the batter and pitcher has become engrained in our culture. That drama is heightened when the stage is the World Series. During the 1978 World Series, Reggie Jackson’s first at bat against Dodger pitcher Bob Welch became legendary. To Reggie, it was a temporary failure. For Welch, it was the start of a career that would lead to challenges, both personal and professional.
More Drama Than Broadway
Going into the 1978 season, the New York Yankees were riding high on their first World Series championship win since 1962. During the ’77 Series, Reggie had become “Mr. October” after hitting three home runs in Game 6 to close out the Series, winning MVP. It was his fourth ring in six years, having earned three with the Oakland A’s from 1972 through 1974. He had played on six division winners in seven years. Reggie thrived under the pressure. New York City was tailor made for a guy like him.
The only thing larger than Reggie’s talent, was his ego: cocky, brash, and some would say arrogant. He never backed down to anyone, whether it be his manager, owner George Steinbrenner or the media. Being one of Steinbrenner's first big free agent signings brought a certain aplomb. In his one year plus in New York, the drama had never stepped, including on field fights with fiery manager Billy Martin.
The team was struggling throughout April and May. Martin would be fired in June , and replaced by former major league pitcher and Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, the total opposite in personality. Lemon, forever unruffled, would lead them to the Division title, as New York formulated one of the most famous comebacks in baseball history. With the Yankees 14 games back in mid-July, they managed to catch the Boston Red Sox, leading to a legendary one game playoff. New York would win on an unlikely three-run home run by Bucky Dent and go on to beat the Kansas City Royals once again in the American League Championship Series.
It was a team beset by turmoil and injuries. The Yankees were a microcosm for New York City in the 1970s: battered, bruised but chugging along. They would be without their starting second baseman Willie Randolph because of a torn hamstring. Regular first baseman Chris Chambliss and centerfielder Mickey Rivers would only be able to platoon due to injury.
It's Always Sunny in L.A.
The Dodgers were looking for redemption in 1978. Reggie’s exploits haunted them all off-season. Luckily, the ream remained relatively intact. Tommy Lasorda, who became manager in 1976, had the team in their third World Series in five years. He felt they had improved because of a strengthened bullpen. Featuring one of the best infields in baseball and playing in an iconic stadium, the Dodgers were celebrities in a town of stars. They won the National League West again, but by just 2 ½ games over the Cincinnati Reds. Many on the roster had already played in multiple World Series without a ring. This team was still hungry.
Into this maze of celebrity, stepped a 6’ 3” righthander from Michigan, 21-year-old Bob Welch. L.A. had drafted him in the first round of the ’77 draft out of Eastern Michigan University. Welch had originally been drafted out of high school in the 14th round by the Cubs but opted for college. It would be a momentous decision. Called up on June 19, he got his first win on the 21st against the Astros. The rookie started 13 times, and appeared in 23 games, even picking up three saves. With 111 innings pitched, he had an impressive 2.02 ERA. He struck out 66 and walked only 26. Lasorda, a former Dodger pitcher, was impressed.
The Dodger staff was already one of the best in the majors, anchored by a group of veterans: Don Sutton, Tommy John and Burt Hooton; they had amassed 51 wins. Behind the plate, Steve Yeager, in his seventh season, guided the staff. Their ERA of 3.12 led the Major Leagues.
The Dodgers went into the National League Championship Series confident. They had reason to be, as they once again beat Philly in four games. L.A. also had home field in the World Series and would host Games 1 and 2. Many in the media saw the Dodgers as heavy favorites, despite New York’s Cinderella story.
There was also a sad component to the Dodger season. Longtime coach and former player, 49-year-old Jim Gilliam succumbed to a stroke just before the Series. He had mentored so many Dodgers prospects, and the players felt a deep personal lose. The team’s uniforms would feature a black armband and a patch with the number 19 on the left shoulder.
Game 1 went as expected, as the injury riddled Yanks went down 11-5. New York was forced to start an ailing Ed Figueroa because their ace, 25 game winner, Ron Guidry, could not go until Game 3. Despite having won 20 games, Figueroa’s arm was shot. After giving up three runs on three hits, two of them homers, Figueroa got the hook in the 2nd inning. Tommy John got the win. One writer declared that the Dodgers wanted it more than the Yankees, describing New York as flat and tired.
Reggie, inserted as designated hitter (DH), managed three hits, including a home run. Under the system that Major League Baseball had adopted at that time, the designated hitter rule was used every other year. Jackson would DH the entire Series.
Game 2 brought higher hopes for the Yankees as veteran righthander Catfish Hunter took the mound. 19-game winner Burt Hooten started for LA. Nearly 56,000 filled the stadium as twilight descended upon Southern California. The Dodgers had come directly from Jim Gilliam’s funeral in Inglewood. Reggie was sent as the Yankees' representative. It had been a warm day, nearly 80 degrees and both pitchers started hot to match the weather.
After two scoreless innings, the Yankees struck first in the top of the third. Roy White singled, stole second and Thurman Munson walked. Then Reggie Jackson stepped up and promptly doubled, driving home both men. The Dodgers would get a run back in the bottom of the fourth with three singles. The score would remain 2-1 until the bottom of the sixth when the Dodgers struck hard with two singles and a home run by Ron Cey, giving them a 4-2 lead.
The Yankees battled back with another run in the top of the seventh after the Dodgers had taken out Burt Hooten for lefty Terry Forster. Jackson had grounded out to second, allowing Roy White to score. Reggie, the Dodger menace, had accounted for all three runs. As the night wore on, the tension built. Los Angeles held on to the 4-3 lead going into the top of the ninth.
The crowd was on its feet as Bucky Dent came to the plate to start the inning. He singled and reached second after Roy White hit a squibber back to Forster for a force-out at first base. Forster walked Paul Blair and out came Tommy Lasorda. Forster was replaced by Welch.
As he got to the mound Lasorda and most of the infield were there to greet him. Second baseman Davey Lopes immediately told him, “Just throw your pitch.” Lasorda’s parting words were, “Just throw strikes.” Welch’s primary pitch was the fastball that had some movement on it. So, it would power versus power. He quickly got Munson to fly to right. Two out, two on and Mr. October stepped into the batter’s box.
It was Jackson’s third World Series against L.A. In his 41 at bats against the Dodgers, including Games 1 and 2 of this Series, he had slammed seven homers, 17 hits with 14 RBIs. The Dodger faithful had a right to be nervous.
Welch had attended the 1971 All Start Game, and saw Reggie hit his famous 500-foot home run off Doc Ellis. Seven years later, he’s facing one of the game’s greatest home run hitters. But he was not awed:
“I loved every minute of it. I am a performer, a competitor. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t worried. I just wanted to get the man out and get the game over with.”
The noise was deafening. Reggie went through his batter’s box routine: raking the dirt with his left foot, moving his neck left and right, digging in his left foot, adjusting his glasses, pushing down on his helmet, and giving one last spit. Finally, both men were ready. Jackson took a big cut at the first pitch, a fastball right down the middle, and missed, barely managing to stay upright. Reggie stepped out of the batter’s box, going through his routine once more: licking his fingers, adjusting his helmet, pulling on his sweatbands, pushing on his glasses, and raking the dirt. Joe Garagiola, NBC’s play by play man, called it “regrouping.”
The next pitch was a fastball high and tight, just missing Reggie’s head; it knocked him over. He was unable to hold his balance in the deep split he did on every swing. Once again, Jackson stepped out. Welch wanted to work quickly but Reggie became deliberate, making the rookie wait. There were 42 seconds between pitches two and three. Tom Seaver, working as an analyst on the broadcast, noted his palms were sweating.
He fouled the next three pitches off until another high and tight pitch for ball two. Another foul back. Reggie continued stepping out and taking his time. Then ball three as the eighth pitch sailed high and away. Full count. Dodger Stadium was shaking. After one last deep breath, Welch went into his wind up and threw another fastball that dropped at Reggie’s knees. Swing and a miss. Homeplate umpire Bill Haller gave a rather modest turn of the wrist signifying a strikeout. Welch pumped his right fist as Yeager ran out to shake his hand. Jackson erupted in anger.
It took seven minutes and nine pitches to make the 21-year-old a World Series legend. Welch was mobbed by his teammates. A dejected Yankee team began packing up and heading into the locker room. Reggie reached the dugout steps and threw his bat. Then he pushed past Bob Lemon and teammates blocking his way to the clubhouse. He later claimed to have been distracted by Bucky Dent moving around at second base. Just another controversial night for baseball’s biggest soap opera. It was a night of missed opportunities for New York; they left 10 men on base.
All Glory Is Fleeting
Despite the euphoria of being up 2-0, it was the Yankees who would have the last laugh. Game 3 became a showcase for ace Ron Guidry and the amazing defensive prowess of Graig Nettles, who saved at least three runs with stop after stop at third base. New York would win 5-1.
In Game 4, the Yankees would win a nailbiter in 10 innings. Once again, Welch had to face Reggie, but Mr. October got the better of him with a two-out base hit to keep the inning alive. Lou Piniella came up next and promptly lashed a single into right center for the win.
Game 5 would feature a Yankee lineup that no one would have taken seriously before the season began. The banged-up Bronx Bombers had no choice but start a group of journeymen and aging veterans. Most shocking of all was that a 24-year-old rookie pitcher, Jim Beattie, got the start. He had made 23 starts, going 6-9 while giving up 123 hits in 128 innings. Despite having momentum, many Yankee fans were not confident. In what some consider a miracle, Beattie pitched a complete game, beating the Dodgers 12-2. L.A. did not help their cause by committing three errors.
A stunned Dodger team arrived back in L.A. feeling a lot of déjà vu. Even with their ace Don Sutton starting, the Yankees jumped out to a 3-run lead and never looked back. The highlight of the night came in the top of the 7th when Welch would face Reggie one more time. Jackson got his revenge as he hit a towering home run over the right field bullpen. Welch tried to stay composed on the mound with a couple of deep breaths, but he knew it was over. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. New York won its second World Series in a row.
Reggie went on to a Hall of Fame career, retiring in 1987, finishing up where it started, back in Oakland. He retired with 563 home runs, over 2500 hits and 1700 RBIs. His clutch persona was confirmed by his two World Series MVPs, five rings and an in an era with fewer postseason series, played in a phenomenal 77 postseason games, getting 78 hits, 18 homers and 48 RBIs. A 14-time All Star, he also led the American League in HRs four times. Still a beloved figure by two fan bases, his legend continues to grow.
Bob Welch went onto a solid Major League career, helping the Dodgers get revenge against New York in the 1981 World Series. A trade revived his career in the late 80s, playing for the Oakland A’s teams that went to three straight World Series. He would get another ring in 1989. In 1990, he won 27 games, winning the Cy Young Award.
He retired with a 211-146 record with a 3.47 ERA over 17 seasons. Along the way, he got 1,969 strikeouts in 3,092 innings, with an impressive 61 complete games; that’s more than John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. His teams made the playoffs in eight different seasons.
Back from the Edge
Sadly, Bob had a secret: alcohol addiction. People began to notice during Spring Training in ’79. Lasorda tried to talk to him. Then there were several incidents on the team plane and at various hotels. When he began lashing out at Lasorda, it convinced the team something had to be done. The Dodger organization spared no effort to get him clean. It was also one of the few sports entities that had set up an alcoholism program for its employees. MLB also had a program with the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. Sobering up was not easy. Rehab made him come to terms with everyone he had hurt. He eventually got married and had three kids, though the marriage would not last.
Welch came clean publicly in 1991, writing a book with New York Times writer George Vescey, Five O’clock Comes Early: A Ballplayer's Battle With Alcoholism. It was a remarkable achievement for a professional athlete at the time. Describing every painful detail from rehab was tough, but Welch felt if he saved one life, it was worth it.
Retiring in 1994, he then went into coaching. In 2001, he was the pitching coach on the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. Most importantly, he became a popular figure at Dodger Old Timer’s Days. Being welcomed back into the Dodger family was important for him. His addiction had caused riffs in their relationship, but old teammates and fans were ready with open arms.
Tragically in 2014, he died after breaking his neck in a fall. It was a shocking end to a man who had made so many comebacks. Tributes poured in from old teammates. A’s teammate Mark McGwire said, “I don’t think there was a player who knew him that didn’t care for him.” Dodgers President and CEO Stan Kasten said, “He was one of the greatest competitors to wear the Dodger uniform.”
Former manager Tommy Lasorda had great memories of Bob, and remembered him fondly,
“Bobby Welch was just one of my all-time favorite pitchers. He had a lot of heart … he had tremendous ability, he was a great guy, and everybody loved him.”
Rest in Peace, Bob Welch, 1956-2014.
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- “Former pitcher Bob Welch dies at 57.” ESPN; June 10, 2014. espn.com
- Golla, James. “Harmonious atmosphere in Los Angeles Dodgers match John against Figueroa in opener.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto); October 10, 1978: P.35. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library System (kcls.org).
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- Snyder, Matt. “Former Cy Young winner Bob Welch dies at age 57.” CBS Sports; June 10, 2014. cbssports.com.
- Vecsey, George. “Bob Welch: Young, Talented And an Alcoholic.” New York Times; April 20, 1980. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: King County Library System (kcls.org).
- “Welch wins showdown on 11 pitches.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto); October 12, 1978: P. 50. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, King County Library System (kcls.org).
Welch, Bob and Vecsey, George. Five O'clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory. Fireside (First Edition), 1991.
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