Sparky Lyle was born in DuBois, PA on this date in 1944. I was a huge Sparky fan. When the Yankees grabbed him from the Red Sox in exchange for Danny Cater just before the 1972 season started, I knew it was a good move by the Yankees but I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the greatest trades in Pinstripe history. To understand the impact Lyle had on the Yankees, you need to consider what the Yankee bullpen was like before “The Count” arrived. In 1971, Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker had shared the Yankee closer role and tied for the team lead in saves with four each. That’s right, it’s not a typo, four saves led the team. In Lyle’s first season as a Yankee, he saved 35 games and won nine more. The Yankees won 79 games that year and Lyle was involved in a total of 44 of those victories. His 1972 ERA was an amazing 1.95. Within a single season, Lyle had turned the Yankee bullpen into one of the best in the league. Gabe Paul continued to work his magic with clever trades over the next few seasons and by 1977 the Yankees were World Series winners and Sparky Lyle won the AL Cy Young Award with a 13-5 record, 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA. He went on to win three games during the 1977 postseason and cemented his reputation as one of the elite closers in all of baseball. So what does George Steinbrenner do? He goes out and signs another elite closer named Goose Gossage.
Update: The above post was written in 2010. Here’s an update. Just as Lyle retired from baseball after the 1982 season, America’s baseball memorabilia craze was gathering steam and Sparky was in a great position to take full advantage of it. Since he called southern New Jersey home by that time, he jumped at an offer to become a greeter at an Atlantic City Casino with former Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle. A New York Times article in 2010 quoted Lyle as saying the five years he spent at that hotel keeping Mickey out of trouble were “the best five years of my life.”
Then in 1998, he went to a New Jersey dealership to buy a new pickup truck and the owner of the place asked Lyle if he was interested in managing a new baseball team he was putting together for the Atlantic League, a brand new minor league that would be unaffiliated with any Major League franchises. Mantle had passed away by then and the memorabilia craze had also died, so Sparky said yes and became the first manager in the history of the Somerset Patriots in 1998, at the age of 53. He remained in that position for 15 years, retiring after the 2012 season. During that span his teams won five league pennants and compiled a won-loss record of 1024 – 913.
Reflecting on Sparky Lyle’s Yankee career today, I tried to compare him with the great Yankee closers I’ve seen pitch in my 54 years as a Yankee fan. He was definitely the first “great” Yankee closer of my lifetime. He lost his job to the second one, Goose Gossage, because he was older and couldn’t throw as hard. In fact, when an eighteen-year-old Lyle had his first-ever big league tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the scout running it watched the young southpaw throw a bunch of pitches and yelled out to him to show him his hard stuff. Lyle responded that he had been throwing his hard stuff, which explains why he was not signed by the Pirates. Still, I think the real reason that Yanks got Gossage in the first place was because Lyle was a bit too vocal about his lack of respect for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Dave Righetti lacked Lyle’s fun-loving and outgoing personality. For example, Rags would never sit naked on a birthday cake in the middle of a clubhouse, which was a Lyle tradition. Like Mariano, Lyle became great when he perfected one pitch. In Sparky’s case it was a slider, which he learned to throw because the great Ted Williams told him it was the one pitch the Splendid Splinter couldn’t handle. Bottom line is that Rivera will certainly be the last Yankee ever referred to as the greatest pure closer in baseball history but Lyle was the first.
Sparky’s wasn’t the only Yankee career Goose helped end. Ironically, another one belonged to this former teammate of Lyle’s who shares his July 22nd birthday. This former Yankee starting pitcher also share the Count’s birthday.
Here’s Lyle’s seasonal pitching stats as a Yankee and his MLB career totals:
|NYY (7 yrs)||57||40||.588||2.41||420||0||348||0||0||141||745.2||666||239||200||32||234||454||1.207|
|BOS (5 yrs)||22||17||.564||2.85||260||0||160||0||0||69||331.1||294||124||105||27||133||275||1.289|
|PHI (3 yrs)||12||9||.571||4.37||92||0||35||0||0||6||125.2||146||68||61||7||51||47||1.568|
|TEX (2 yrs)||8||10||.444||3.84||116||0||85||0||0||21||175.2||175||84||75||18||56||91||1.315|
|CHW (1 yr)||0||0||3.00||11||0||6||0||0||1||12.0||11||4||4||0||7||6||1.500|
By the time Scott Sanderson became a Yankee, he was already a thirteen-year veteran of the big leagues. He started his career with the Expos in 1978 and was 56-47 during his six seasons up north. He then pitched another half-dozen seasons for the Cubs, where he won in double figures just once. In 1989, this right-handed native of Dearborn, MI signed a one-year free agent deal with Oakland and proceeded to have a career year. Pitching in a rotation that included 20-game-winners Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, Sanderson finished 17-11 during his first season in the American League, helping the A’s win the AL West flag. The A’s re-signed him that December and then almost immediately sold him to the Yankees.
The Yankee rotation Sanderson joined was in a shambles. Tim Leary had been New York’s biggest winner the previous season with a 9-19 record. Not one Yankee starter had managed to finish the 1990 season with a winning record. Sanderson got off to a great start as a Yankee, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning of his pinstripe mound debut against Detroit. He finished the 1991 season with a 16-10 record and a 3.81 ERA and was the only pitcher on that horrible club to achieve double-digit victories and a winning record.
Sanderson’s second year in the Bronx was not as noteworthy. He again was the only Yankee starter with a winning record, going 12-11, but his ERA climbed to 4.93. When his contract expired at the end of the 1992 season, the Yankees did not try to re-sign him. Sanderson shares his July 22nd birthday with this former Yankee DH and this one-time Cy Young Award winner.
|CHC (6 yrs)||42||42||.500||3.81||160||116||12||8||1||3||737.2||729||338||312||79||172||478||1.221|
|MON (6 yrs)||56||47||.544||3.33||149||136||5||24||8||2||883.0||838||363||327||83||240||603||1.221|
|CAL (3 yrs)||8||16||.333||4.67||33||32||0||4||1||0||192.2||240||121||100||26||35||96||1.427|
|NYY (2 yrs)||28||21||.571||4.35||67||67||0||4||3||0||401.1||420||211||194||50||93||234||1.278|
|SFG (1 yr)||4||2||.667||3.51||11||8||1||0||0||0||48.2||48||20||19||12||7||36||1.130|
|OAK (1 yr)||17||11||.607||3.88||34||34||0||2||1||0||206.1||205||99||89||27||66||128||1.313|
|CHW (1 yr)||8||4||.667||5.09||18||14||0||1||0||0||92.0||110||57||52||20||12||36||1.326|
On April 19, 1979, the two-time defending World Champion New York Yankees had just lost a Thursday afternoon game to the Baltimore Orioles and were in their Yankee Stadium home locker room peeling off their pinstriped uniforms. According to an account of the incident that appeared in the NY Times, Yankee closer Goose Gossage had removed the adhesive tape he used to hold up his game-sox, rolled it up in a ball and “playfully” tossed it at Cliff Johnson, who was undressing in front of his own locker about thirty feet away from the Goose’s cubicle. The wad of tape missed the huge Yankee DH but Johnson took the opportunity to come up with what I thought was a very clever line; “I don’t have to worry about you hitting me.” At the time of this incident, Gossage had been experiencing a season-long streak of wildness, during which he had walked seven hitters in the eight innings he had pitched thus far that year.
Never being known as someone who calmed down a situation, Reggie Jackson took the opportunity to ask Johnson how well he had hit Gossage when the two both played in the National League. Before big Cliff could respond, Goose piped in that Johnson simply swung at what he “heard.
Cliff Johnson had joined the Yankees in June of 1977, coming to the Bronx in a trade with Houston. He proved to be a valuable acquisition for New York. He had blasted twelve home runs in the 56 games he played in pinstripes that year and then hit .400 in the 1977 ALCS against the Royals. But the man they called “Heathcliff” could not keep that pace going in 1978. He hit just .184 during his second season in New York. The Yankees tried using Johnson as a backup catcher and first baseman but his defensive skills were lacking. He was pretty much a pure DH. The future of a Yankee DH who hits .184 in the George Steinbrenner era was precarious enough before Johnson followed Gossage into the showers after that April ’79 game against the Orioles.
Evidently, Cliff took Gossage’s “heard my pitches” retort as a personal insult. According to Goose, after the two entered the shower room, Johnson grabbed the reliever’s head and shoved it real hard. While attempting to push his angered teammate off of him, Goose tore the ligament in his right thumb. Unfortunately for the Yankees and for Johnson, Goose threw a baseball with his right hand.
Gossage’s injury required an operation and the reliever did not return to action for almost three months. By that time, the Yankees were in fourth place, nine and a half games behind first place Baltimore and Cliff Johnson was wearing the uniform of the Cleveland Indians.
Johnson’s final big league season was 1986. The player nicknamed “Heathcliff” hit 196 home runs during his fifteen seasons in the big leagues including 21 pinch hit home runs which was the Major League record in that category until Matt Stairs broke it in 2010.
Johnson shares his July 22nd birthday with this former Yankee closer who I bet smiled when he heard about the scuffle between Heathcliff and Goose. This former Yankee starting pitcher was also born on July 22.
|HOU (6 yrs)||376||1186||997||142||255||51||4||52||172||1||167||205||.256||.370||.471||.842|
|TOR (4 yrs)||400||1376||1175||162||321||58||3||54||202||0||178||203||.273||.372||.466||.837|
|NYY (3 yrs)||160||449||380||55||91||23||1||20||56||0||60||62||.239||.353||.463||.816|
|OAK (2 yrs)||157||554||487||59||122||18||0||24||90||6||54||101||.251||.327||.435||.762|
|CLE (2 yrs)||126||477||414||62||105||13||1||24||89||2||49||69||.254||.333||.464||.797|
|TEX (1 yr)||82||334||296||31||76||17||1||12||56||0||31||44||.257||.330||.443||.773|
|CHC (1 yr)||68||227||196||28||46||8||0||10||34||0||29||35||.235||.335||.429||.763|