“Yes We Can”: A Look Back at the 1979 California Angels

Bill MartinezContributor IFebruary 13, 2009

The year 1979, outside of baseball, had a myriad of history going on.

The Ayatollah Khomeni seized power in Iran and people loyal to him eventually took American diplomats hostage.

Californians were introduced to the term “twinkie defense” after the conviction of Dan White to the lesser charges of manslaughter in the assassinations of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk.

Margaret Thatcher made history as Great Britain’s first female prime minister, and the U.S. went through an energy crisis which brought rationing not seen since 1973.

On the baseball side, longtime Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley passed away and Bill Veeck introduced the world to Disco Demolition Night, costing his Chicago White Sox a forfeit due to the damage on the field.

But what also happened that year was one of the biggest surprises to hit not only Orange County, but baseball in general, as the Angels captured their first division title.

After the 1978 season, there were many questions about the Angels, who had finished five games behind the Kansas City Royals.

The team was still reeling from the murder of right fielder Lyman Bostock in Gary, IN during a September road trip to Chicago and the wonder from the fans was not only who was going to replace him, but who would provide some extra offense to a team that was seventh in the AL in runs scored and ninth in batting average.

The only proven power hitters on the team were designated hitter Don Baylor and veteran left fielder Joe Rudi.

Owner Gene Autry, who had not been afraid to spend money in the past, gave the go-ahead for GM Buzzie Bavasi on a pair of trades with the Minnesota Twins.

The first was to acquire young outfielder Dan Ford in exchange for first baseman Ron Jackson and prospect Danny Goodwin. The second sent shockwaves, with Bavasi landing Rod Carew in exchange for four players, the most notable of which was outfielder Ken Landreaux.

With those trades in place, the feeling around Anaheim was that the Angels had enough offense to keep up with the Royals, but not enough pitching, since the only proven hurlers were Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana.

California got off to the best start in club history, with Carew consistently setting the table for Baylor and the team getting offense from all over the lineup in winning 12 of its first 15 games.

Though the Angels cooled off a bit in May, the team did stay in the race, never falling more than 4.5 games off the pace. Things changed in June, though, as the veteran first baseman suffered an injury.

For most of the month, the Angels managed to stay afloat and had even managed to move back atop the division as the other contenders struggled. However, that changed late when the team suffered consecutive sweeps at the hands of Texas and K.C. to fall out of first place.

The injury ended up being a blessing in disguise. Ford was moved up to third in the order and Willie Aikens, who spent the first two months fighting for at-bats, was installed at first base to fill in for the injured Carew. The increased pop in the lineup showed, as the club averaged nearly five runs a game in June and July.

Aikens took advantage of the extra playing time and clobbered the ball in June, Ford became a run scoring and producing machine, and even Grich was having a career year despite hitting eighth in the order.

The Angels also had a knack for coming from behind to win games, and rookie reliever Mark Clear was the beneficiary. Clear won 11 games that season and had 14 saves on a team that also got an unexpected lift from right-hander Dave Frost.

The 26-year-old, who came to the Angels in the trade that sent Bobby Bonds to Chicago, stepped up when Tanana went down with an injury and won 16 games, tying Ryan for the most on the team.

When Carew returned to the lineup in late July, the Angels were rolling along, having gotten their signature moment a week earlier with a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Yankees.

In that series, Ryan had one of his signature games on the mound. The Express dominated the Bronx Bombers, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning before losing it on a one-out single by Reggie Jackson.

The Angels then pulled out a dramatic 12-inning victory on Saturday and completed the sweep Sunday with a walk-off home run by Grich off Ron Guidry.

From that point, the Angels believed, the fans believed, and eventually the rest of baseball finally believed. California would spend all but one day atop the division the rest of the way, with the clincher coming on Sept. 25th before a capacity crowd at home.

Tanana, who came back earlier in the month after missing half the season with an arm injury,  tossed a complete-game five-hitter that night, setting off a wild celebration throughout Orange County.

However, the 1979 season would not end well for the Angels, as they were beaten by the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series, falling in four games.

Still, it became a season of many firsts. Baylor won the AL MVP award after a campaign which saw him lead the majors in runs scored and RBI, Grich and Ford both drove in 100 runs, and Clear finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

The offseason also became known for the infamous departure of Ryan to the Houston Astros. The right-hander sought to be the highest paid player in the game, to which Bavasi responded that he could replace him with a pair of 8-7 pitchers, a quote that was in reference to Ryan’s 16-14 record in 1979.

The Express had the last laugh, though, as him and J.R. Richard anchored a pitching staff that vaulted Houston to its' first divisional title, while the Angels lost 95 games and finished sixth.

In the years since that magical season, the Angels and their fans experienced the lowest of lows (the 1986 ALCS loss to Boston) and the highest of highs (the 2002 World Series win).

However, if you ask most fans to rank their top seasons, 1979 would finish second in that poll, as it does in my personal memories.


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