94 Wins, Miss the Playoffs. The 70’s, Man.
In these days of four wild card slots, when 88 wins can easily be enough to make the playoffs, it brings me up short to remember that back in the early days of the local franchise, 94 wins was not good enough to get to the post-season.
Pull up a chair.
We’ve already talked about the magical 1974 season, when manager Billy Martin led a team of below-average players (only five earned bWAR above replacement) to their first winning season – a contender until September.
The next year, 1975, the team came back to its own level. Martin was fired in the middle of the mediocre season after finally pushing his GM and owner one step too far – a story for another day.
Side note: Just a few weeks after his Texas dismissal, Martin was hired by the New York Yankees. It was the first of Billy’s five tempestuous terms as manager there. His regular clashes with owner George Steinbrenner kept New York writers happy for years.
Back in Texas, Martin’s third-base coach, Frank Lucchesi, was tabbed to take over as the Rangers’ manager. He was a true, old-school baseball guy and the Rangers were such an odd group that Lucchesi never figured out how to earn their respect. They finished 79-83, third in the division.
The 1976 season was even worse. The team finished a listless 76-86, tied with the Angels for fourth place in the AL West. Some of the players on that team worth noting were rising fan favorites Jim Sundberg, Toby Harrah and Tom Grieve, and infielder Lenny Randle. More about him in a minute.
The next season, though: 1977 saw a remarkable turn in the team’s fortunes that began, unexpectedly, with a violent incident in spring training.
The team’s first-round draft choice, rookie second-baseman Bump Wills – son of Maury – took the starting job away from the incumbent Randle. Young Wills, by the way, was a delightful interview at that time, still bright-eyed and having fun.
Randle – not so much. He had been a Martin favorite, but he and Lucchesi didn’t hit it off. You might recall that Randle’s fiery temper was one of the sparks for the 1974 Ten Cent Beer Night riot in Cleveland. That temper came up again, during 1977’s spring training, when he felt he was being treated unfairly.
When Randle complained publicly about losing his job to a rookie, Lucchesi told reporters, “I’m sick and tired of punks making $80,000 a year moaning and groaning about their situation.” I was later told that for some African-Americans, “punk” was among the most offensive remarks you could make in those days – it carried a sexual-orientation undertone.
On March 28, as the Rangers prepared for an exhibition game with the Twins, Randle asked Lucchesi for a few words. They talked very briefly, then Randle suddenly punched the 51-year-old Lucchesi in the face, knocking him to the ground, and continued to punch him until teammates intervened.
Lucchesi was hospitalized for a week. He had surgery to repair his cheekbone, which was broken in three places. He suffered two broken ribs and a bruised kidney. The team fined Randle $10,000 – big money, at the time – and suspended him for 30 days without pay. Before the suspension was up, the Rangers traded Randle to the Mets for, basically, nothing.
Randle was charged with assault and fined $1,050. Lucchesi filed a civil suit which was eventually settled out of court. Randle tried repeatedly to apologize but Lucchesi wouldn’t talk to him for over a year.
Randle’s career slid downhill after that and he eventually wound up being the first American major-leaguer to play professionally in Italy. He now teaches anger management to young athletes.
The fight, coupled with a very sluggish start to the season, led to Lucchesi’s dismissal as manager. The Rangers went through a carousel of would-be replacements – respected veteran Eddie Stanky took the job but quit after one game, saying he was homesick – before landing Billy Hunter, a long-time coach for Baltimore’s managerial genius, Earl Weaver.
Hunter managed to instill some discipline in the team, leading them to a 60-33 record for the remainder of the season. Notable newcomers included shortstop Bert Campaneris, plus right-handers Doyle Alexander and Bert Blyleven.
There was also the outspoken, talented but erratic Dock Ellis, who went 10-7 with a 2.90 ERA after his June acquisition from Oakland.
The on-field excitement continued to build. In early August, the team turned its first triple-play ever – Harrah to Wills to Hargrove. It helped that the opposing batter was 33-year-old catcher Manny Sanguillen, who made me look fast.
Later in the month, August 27th in Yankee Stadium, Harrah and Wills had back-to-back inside-the-park home runs.
And in mid-September, Blyleven threw the team’s second no-hitter, blanking the Angels in Anaheim.
The Rangers finished 94-68, a .580 winning percentage, their best record ever. Unfortunately, the Kansas City Royals won 102 games that year, eight in front of Texas. The Rangers would not make their first playoff appearance for another 19 years.
One final note about the 1977 season – it laid the groundwork for a player insurrection the following year. After a big fight broke out on a team charter flight, manager Hunter imposed a no-alcohol rule. The erratic Ellis – who later admitted he dealt with substance abuse problems for his entire career, even claiming he threw a no-hitter after taking LSD, for example – vehemently objected, saying he would defy the manager and bring his own booze onto the flights.
He characterized Hunter as a tyrant, telling reporters, “He may be a Hitler but he ain’t makin’ no lampshade out of me.” The management group wanted Ellis gone, but the owner – oilfield pipe salesman Brad Corbett – thought Ellis was amusing and so he fired Hunter instead.
The 70’s, man.