Before their late 1990s dynasty under Joe Torre, the Yankees controlled the 1970s under Billy Martin. With bats like Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, and Mickey Rivers, the Yanks almost always had a lead. Martin turned to Sparky Lyle to protect those leads.
Lyle finished his career with 238 saves before the closer position took on the role as we understand it today. Over the course of 1976-1978 World Series teams, he closed 58 games successfully.
It wasn’t until about ten years later that Tony LaRussa made Dennis Eckersley famous with the exclusively-9th-inning closer (read about that here, about half way down).
With that in mind, Eckersley caught the blessing the Lyle noted during his career, saying, “why pitch nine innings when you can get just as famous pitching two?”
He enjoyed so much success in the tail end of ballgames that he became the first American League reliever to win a Cy Young Award. Over 16 years and 899 career appearances, the lefty never started a Major League game. He twice led the league in saves including 35 in 1972.
His fastball complemented a sharp breaking ball – a pitch that came about by picking the mind of the game’s best hitter. The following, from the SABR Baseball Biography Project:
Even though Lyle enjoyed success himself, he mostly set the table for closers to take over the 9th inning leaguewide. Rollie Fingers (HoF 1992) broke Lyle’s American League saves record in 1980 and Dave Righetti snatched his Yankee save record before Mariano Rivera did.
But Yankee reliever Goose Gossage (HoF 2008) forced Lyle out the door as much as anyone. Moving to the bullpen fulltime in 1977, Gossage took 27 saves the next season while Lyle only finished with nine.
The Yanks turned him into a long reliever, catching onto the closer trend and outsourcing Lyle. When his time with the Yankees came to a close, he reportedly considered a dishwashing job in Florida, uncertain of his baseball career.
Texas, Philadelphia and the Chicago White Sox all game him a chance. In parts of six more seasons, he just barely cracked 200 innings.
Lyle turned into a manager for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball after his playing days. He still stands as the League’s winningest manager.