Good Enough to Hate… Again
May 30, 1977
For the Yankee Hater, it was a mounting dilemma: an endless parade of pin stripes rounding bases, a monotony of pin stripes blowing heat past banjo hitters, a ho-hum succession of pin stripes Hooverizing ground balls in the infield. The New York Yankees — the souped-up 1977 version of the Hated Yanks — haven’t quite got their death-rays stoked up yet. First they lose eight of 10, then they win 14 of 16. But the old feeling is back. The cold dread that stalked every national-league kid when he proclaimed that this year the Yanks were dead tunas and might as well not show up. Of course, the Hated showed up, of course they won, and of course there was misery all around. And now, after all these years, the Yankee Hater is whistling by the graveyard once again, for when these new Hated are good, they are very, very good.
Perhaps not good enough to fit the definition of what old crotch Jacob Ruppert — the Hated Yank owner who bought the Bambino from the Bosox to the Bronx in 1920 to begin the Bombers’ 29-pennants-in-44-years domination of hardball — used to croak was his idea of a perfect afternoon: “When the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.” But close enough.
What was worse was what pitcher Mike Torrez said. Only recently escaped from the Finleytorium, it was Mike’s first start for the Yanks. He went five innings, no-earned runs. The press, figuring “the Woolly Bear” was the “story” for the evening, crowded around his locker. It’s possible, even probable, that Torrez was thinking of the $200,000 a year he stands to pick up from Yank owner George “Bottomless-Wallet-But-No-Cheek” Steinbrenner, but he said it anyway. He said: “Gee whiz, there really is something about putting on the Yankee uniform. It’s the feeling you get when you look down and see that NY. And those pin stripes, those pin stripes really give me a tingle.” Phil Rizzuto, the shrill shill, happened to be passing by. His ears perked up at the mention of pin stripes. He took one look at Torrez, a dark and handsome type, and said, “Holy cow, he looks great in pin stripes. Just like a Yankee.”
Shit. Can you believe that? That kind of crap was what made hating the Yankees one of the great passions of my life. I suppose I was fated to hate the Yankees: The first game I ever went to was on May 12, 1956. It was my birthday, and my grandfather, after three years of constant badgering, took me to Ebbets Field; an old John McGraw man, he had been holding out. But on this day, just for me, Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter. The afternoon would brand me a national-league rooter forever and, by definition, a Yankee hater. Once, in 1966, through a haze of acid, I ran down Sunset Strip screaming that the Hated had finally finished in last place. The clones who took their transistor radios to Chavez Ravine to listen to Vin Scully tell them what my ex-beloved Dodgers were doing on the field didn’t understand what I was talking about.
I hated the Yankees for most of the same reasons I thought everyone must hate the Yankees: the cloying “great to be a Yankee” litany, pin stripes, the numbness of winning constantly (especially against the Dodgers), the Protestant front, the dullness of the American League, no blacks, the phrase “Yankee co-owners” used to describe Topping and Webb, Frankie Crosetti banking all those world-series shares, you name it.
But mostly I hated their fans. All accountants and success worshipers, I felt; if there was ever a group you could build a fence around and say, “These people have no soul,” Yankee fans were it. The worst thing about them was the “excellence” rap. They smirked and talked about Bobby Richardson, or Tony Kubek, or Cletis Boyer. They said, “They play the game the way it’s made to be played. They’re the best. It’s beautiful to watch the best.”
Sure. The Babe must have really been something. I too cry when Gary Cooper (in Pride of the Yankees) says, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I always root for Italians, so DiMag and me would have gotten along. But the paragons of excellence we got stuck with were the nark look-alikes Ford and Mantle. Now they call them Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and paint them lovable, but they still could ruin a pot party. They’re so blond. And these were the guys Rizzuto — in an obvious case of WASP worship — said “looked just like Yankees.”
There was triumph when the Yankees fell. Hey, Rizzuto — didn’t guys like Roger Repoz, Ray Barker, Jerry Kenney, Jake Gibbs, Frank Tepedino, Lu Clinton, Ken Johnson, Jimmy Lyttle, and Bill Burbach look like Yankees? They wore pin stripes too. Why didn’t you get any of those “great to be a Yankee” testimonials from old Horace “Ass Out” Clarke? So what if the sight of flashing spikes made him faint? He still led the club in hitting in 1967 with a smashing .272. It wasn’t his fault “Butch Cassidy” Mickey struck out 113 times and hit .245, or that “real” Yankee Tommy Tresh didn’t have what it takes to be a star and hit .219, or that old Charlie Smith — a Met castoff the Yanks got for what was left of abused Roger Maris — hit .229 and did less than play the hell out of third base. It wasn’t Horace’s fault, not all of it. But the Yankee fans, the fickle few accountants that stayed, still booed his West Indian ass off. They said Horace — decidedly non-Yankee (he played calypso records in the clubhouse) — was “the symbol of the Yankees’ decline, the embodiment of the fall from excellence.”
It was a bum rap. If there was ever a case of the turkeys coming home to roost, the Yankee Misery Decade was it (during 44 Dynasty Years, the Yanks won 4292 times, lost 2643 for a .619 percentage; the Misery Decade, 1965 to 1975, netted them a stunningly ordinary 888 to 881 won-lost record). The Yanks had been fucked in every respect. They were owned by CBS, the first ball club to be owned by a conglomerate. It was fitting that the network bought the club in a “diversification” move (they also picked up Fender guitars at the same time) in 1964, the last year the Yanks won. The CBS smartguys knew so much about their product that they failed to psyche out that the “co-owners” had been looking to unload for a while and hadn’t spent any money on new players in years. It was also fitting that the Yanks would stagger through the early stages of the Misery Decade as an aging white team. They had been, after all, one of the last clubs to play blacks. They passed on such obvious stars as Vic Power — too flashy, he caught balls with one hand, how jive — before they settled on the benign Elston Howard, who couldn’t even run.
By 1969, when the Mets won, there wasn’t much point to hating the Yankees. Sure, there were a few cackles left. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four affirmed what Yankee haters always suspected. Mickey Mantle really wasn’t such a saint after all. If he stayed out of saloons two nights in a row, maybe those “crippling” injuries wouldn’t have been so “crippling,” and he would have been able to hit those 1000 homers he was always supposed to hit. The Mike Kekich–Fritz Petersen wife swap, fabulously un-Yankee, wasn’t bad either. But the club didn’t present enough cheek for a solid Yankee hater to spit in; they were the invisible team.
Now, of course, that’s all fodder for the stat freaks. The anonymous losing of the Horace Clarke Memorial Misery Decade stopped with last year’s pennant. Today you can’t pick up a goddamned magazine without seeing trillionaire Reggie Jackson’s candy-man mug. Pin stripes are all over the Howard Cosell–inspired “Game of the Week” bullshit-athons. The pack, as they say, is back.
On paper, at least, this has the makings of a great Yankee team, certainly with the most fire power since the 1961 Mantle-Maris hammer brigade. Squat Man Munson and Quiet Chris Chambliss are, with George Brett and Rod Carew, among the best “pure” hitters in the league. Nettles and Jackson are the premier sluggers (they hit 59 homers between them last year). Willie Randolph, who’ll quite likely wind up better than Bible-thumping Bobby Richardson if his knees hold up, is developing into a class lead-off man. Mickey Rivers will never hit below .300 and always takes the extra base. Toy Cannon Wynn, if he gets going, and Slabby Carlos May are the best left-right dh combo around. Roy White is an accomplished .290 hitter.
Speedwise, with Rivers and Randolph, there’s enough. The defense, despite the outfield’s lack of top-notch arms, is more than adequate. Nettles, Dent, Randolph, and Munson are contenders for Golden Gloves. And how can you argue with a pitching staff that has Catfish (if well), Eddie Figueroa (who’s won 36 games in two years), Torrez (a probable 20-game winner with the Yanks), Gullet (if he doesn’t get hurt), and Kenny Holtzman (he’s not completely finished; if he is there’s Ron Guidry) for front-line starters. Not to mention Sparky Lyle and the grossly underrated Dick Tidrow in the pen.
Clearly, this is a team worth hating. No lie. Go to any bar and guys’ll tell you how much each player’s making, even if they don’t know what he’s hitting. After all, who do the Yanks think they are, buying themselves world-series rings? They got Catfish (3 million), Reggie (3 and a half), and Gullet (a little teeny two and a half), through the free-agent route that’s probably going to end up destroying the historical progression of the game. The total contract money of the Yanks’ 25-man roster is nearing 15 million. Just about every player has one of those leisure-suited agents who stands the hair in Dick Young’s armpit on end.
Then there’s the guy who pays: George (Watergate) Steinbrenner the third (no less). How can you help but hate a team that’s owned by a hick from Cleveland who’s been convicted of giving illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign? And then making the employees of his shipbuilding company lie about it to cover up his bloody tracks? Steinbrenner, who got the team from CBS on a fire sale — the only baseball franchise that ever decreased in value — passes the bill for his generosity with hot-dog outfielders and crook presidents on to the kid baseball fan. Until recently, he had been pressing a mind-boggling $4.50 general admission price for kids to sit in the stratosphere third deck. It was a mere three-fold rise over last year’s prices. George, it seems, didn’t like the practice of kids buying cheapo seats and then moving down to boxes in the fifth inning. He sought to exile such rabble to the bleachers so they could get a good view of Mickey River’s asshole and not much more. To top himself, the felon — who recently was reported by Liz Smith “in a corner” with Spiro T. Agnew — had his ushers haul down a banner in the bleachers that said, “$4.50 is a shutout.” It was a “political banner,” the Yank brass said. And everyone knows politics and baseball don’t mix.
If that’s not enough, there’s always Yankee Stadium itself, everyone’s favorite political-patronage $200-million boondoggle. It’s probably not the Yanks’ fault part of the $2 million dollars once ticketed to improve the neighborhood around the stadium got rerouted into buying $300,000 of equipment now owned by the team. In the irrational, beer-sweat-stained mind of a ball fan, you could wind up hating the Yanks for it.
But somehow, despite it all, the Yankee hater likes this team. He could even root for it.
Besides, there isn’t much choice. Oh, the Mets. How I have suffered and gloried in you… You scumbags. There was the day, opening day Baseball Season of our Lord, 1963, that I cut ninth grade, got on the subway with my bed-sheet “Let’s Go Mets” banner, and rode up to the Polo Grounds. It was a day of hope. The team had lost 120 games the year before, but now they had added the stellar Al Moran, the stunning Tim Harkness, and my favorite, the Duke, late of Flatbush. Unfortunately, they had retained the fucking terrible Charley Neal, who took the first pitch of the game, a little dribbler down the third baseline, and threw it 125 feet over Frank Thomas’s head, at first, into the stands.
I persisted, however, and in ’69 was so richly rewarded. But no more. The franchise has been going downhill since Mrs. Payson died. And her executor, the prig Grant, has turned perhaps the most beloved team in the history of sports into a blot.
It was a shock to discover that the “People’s Team” was racist, but after the “Cleon Incident” — in which the laconic Met leftfielder was made to publicly apologize for a little spring training hankypanky — there was no way around it. The Mets never had any speed or hitting because they didn’t want any blacks. For a while first baseman John Milner was the only black on the team; no wonder he never became a star. Then came the Jet flap, in which M. Donald conspired to force the football team over to New Jersey. And the refusal to sign free agents. It seems as though the team is happy to finish third; they haven’t made a significant effort to upgrade the squad in five years.
Now all that neglect is coming home. They can have clubhouse meetings with Grant forever. It won’t help. They’re out of power. The Yanks will outdraw them two to one this year. The best thing that’s happened to the Mets recently was the rain-out of the Mayor’s Trophy Game. It avoided all those terribly obvious comparisons between the two teams. The Mets will finish last and alone this year. It’ll take a Misery Decade before they turn it around.
The Yankees are now the home team. Warts and all, they look the part. The only good thing about last year’s series was the red-neck Cincy fans making a big deal about how neat their little Astroturf was compared to the Yankee Stadium grass. They were intimating that the Yankees, representing an evil and dirty place, were an evil and dirty team. It seemed like the Yankees, for the first time, embodied what New York is really all about. It doesn’t hurt that they start six blacks, one of their most important pitchers is a Puerto Rican, the manager is Italian, and they even have two Jews (if you count Blomberg).
And they don’t (Torrez’s statement aside) look or feel “like Yankees.” Mickey Mantle, Blonde Bomber, used to go down to the old stadium’s “Great Moments Room” to listen to tapes of DiMag’s great plays. Reggie Jackson, the team’s first black “Big Guy,” doesn’t even know the room exists. Jackson came to New York because, like they say, there’s not enough mustard in the world to cover his sausage, but the Big Apple has the most.
The majority of the players, however, are here because Steinbrenner pays the best. Only Munson and White of the starters were “developed” in the Yankee “system” (in contrast to the ’61 team, for which only Maris wasn’t from the Yankee farm). Somehow, despite Steinbrenner’s Nazi dress code (no long hair) that guards against creeping Rizzutoism, Jimmy Wynn, a classy guy who’s been through Houston, L.A., and Atlanta in the past 10 years, says, “I don’t exactly feel like a Yankee. No. What’s a Yankee? I feel like a ball player who is employed by the Yankees, which is good because there happen to be a lot of good ball players employed by the Yankees right now.” The end of the reserve-cash-money hassles, the free agents, made baseball a grown-up game, and the Yankees, a group of fabulous mercenaries, are the game’s most grown-up team. That’s good because, like Wynn says, the Yanks are good. In fact, an accountant of a Yankee fan might say “excellent.” The kind of Yankee “excellence” even a Yankee Hater could love.
When you “cover” a team, you’ve got to get out to the park two hours before the game. Not that you’ll see anything particularly new. Yogi will be fungoing grounders to the infielders just as he’s done for the better part of the last 10 years. He will have four baseballs in his back pocket, making his body look even more like a plumber’s than the days when he was hitting all those homers in the clutch. A kid will be in the stands screaming, “Hey Yogi, hey, hey Yogi, hey Yogi” as he tries to make Yogi acknowledge his existence. Yogi won’t hear the kid (after all, he’s heard millions of kids just like this one; now it just goes in one ear and out the other; and will continue to hit fungoes to the infielders. And the kid will yell, “Hey Yogi, hey Yogi, hey Yogi… hey Yogi, you suck!”
The purpose of getting to the park two hours before the game is that you can fill your notebook with “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” items. That means you stand around the batting cage and wander into the dressing room trying to overhear what the players are saying to one another. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear Reggie Jackson call to Don Baylor of the California Angels, “Hey, applehead, dickface… how you doing?” Or Thurman Munson say, “Which cocksucker took my towel?” Because it’s a cinch most players aren’t going to say much when they know you’ve got your pen in the cocked position.
So you hang around. Baseball writing is much like the game itself, a collection of tiny details painted on a wide but well-defined canvas. To do it well is a gradual process of building up confidences, making small talk, and cataloguing impressions. It was easier in the old days, when baseball was the plum of the sports desk, when there were three teams and seven newspapers in New York, when the great writers Daniel, Schecter, Smith, and Young traveled with the teams on trains, and when the Yankee players still lived in the Bronx.
Now baseball writing is in decline. Much of the talent has been siphoned off to other sports, where you don’t have to file 162 times a year and spend two days in Boston, then get on a plane and fly to Anaheim. Papers, cognizant of the “bread-and-butter” relationships writers often develop with players, began switching assignments often. So now the continuity of the daily coverage is rather jumpy, and imprecise. Most of the better young writers don’t get to cover one team for extended periods of time. So the players see plenty of guys they don’t know getting more and more suspicious, giving more and more “nothing.”
That makes the “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” stuff important. It also gives you plenty of items for the three-dot columns you have to file on off-days or rain outs. Hanging around the Yankees, you might learn:
…Jimmy Wynn has the most colorful underwear on the team. Over a recent three-day stretch, he wore: yellow with brown polka dots, denim, and brown cross-hatching with blue polka dots. All bikini briefs… Graig Nettles’s license plate, as does his glove, says “E- 5,” the official scorer’s notation for error on the third basemen. Nettles, who is off to a better start than usual, being above 200 in May, has been reminding people of Roger Maris. He looks like him, plays like him — intense, a brilliant but underrated fielder, super power, low average; also he is what the players call a “red-ass,” a crackerism for prick… There is a story around about the time a reporter came over to the Catfish and asked him if he could do a magazine story. The Fish, a friendly aw-shucks guy who writers liken to a hockey player for his omnipresent use of the word “fuck,” said, Sure, just send me a copy. The guy did. The Cat hit the ceiling when he saw he had been profiled in a raunchola stroke book; the Baptist in him was outraged. He went upstairs to Steinbrenner and said, “They got me between the beavers, what’s my family gonna say?”George, a noted prude, thereafter issued an edict that all mag interviews had to go through him… Another Catfish-media story concerns the time someone brought the tobacco chewer the lyrics of a Bob Dylan–Jacques Levy song, “Catfish,” as recorded by Roger McQuinn. The Cat took one look at Dylan’s rhymes and said, “It ain’t me, boy”… Yogi smokes Lucky Strikes… Big Lou Pinella said the other day, “Shut up or I’ll stick your head up the Farrah Fawcett”… Sparky Lyle, a beauty, has been said to buy a guy an enormous cream birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday,” and then sit down in the cake bare-assed. He also once rose from a coffin, “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” style, at a team meeting… Pete Sheehy, the Yank clubhouseman, has had the job for 51 years. That means he’s picked up the jock of the Babe, the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, King Kong Keller, the Mick, the whole schmeer. But he doesn’t have any stories. Ask him, and he just smiles. Around the clubhouse they say that’s how you keep a job 51 years: Don’t tell stories… The best bodies on the team are Paul Blair, Reggie, Don Gullet. Catfish and Carlos May are the most noticeably out of shape… Some Yanks were saying maybe its better Steinbrenner got shortstop Bucky Dent to complete his “all all-star” lineup instead of waiting for injured rookie Mickey Klutts to come around. Who wants a shortstop named Klutts?… When Joe Pepitone first used a hairdryer in his locker, Mickey Mantle, that good ole boy, loved to run his sweaty hands through Bensonhurst Joe’s do. Now even the batboys have stylers… Some say the real purpose of the famous “out of a hat” lineup Martin used to shake the Yanks out of their early slump was to move Mickey Rivers out of the lead-off slot as diplomatically as possible. Mickey pissed Martin off by refusing to learn how to drag bunt during the spring. His refusal to try to draw walks has caused fans to scream, “Way to wait him out, Mick” after Rivers pops up on the first pitch. Considered by writers to be “okay, but you can’t shut him up once he gets going,” Mickey has also been known to “miss a sign or 10″… After the game, the Yanks usually get some food brought in. All carbohydrates. The other day Don Gullet ate a potato-salad-on-white-bread sandwich… After watching Ron Blomberg run into a few walls, some baseball people have sworn, “He can’t be Jewish”… The Yank locker room hasn’t been the same since the departure of Dock Ellis. He was the most outspoken guy on the team. Against Steinbrenner — “l’ll talk about the man’s personal life.” Against anything. But a good guy. He was the club player rep. Now that’s he’s gone there isn’t any team leader. In fact, the Yank clubhouse emits no vibe at all… If basketball tends to make white country boys act like black city boys, baseball goes the other way. Almost all the slang is cracker. There are black expressions like “zacky” (which is old now). It was used to denote a smelly guy whose “mouth smell zacky like his ass.” But ball players use towny talk like “horseshit” over jive “bullshit.” Willie Randolph, of Livonia Avenue, borough of Brooklyn, says, however, “I think horseshit is bullshit”…
Some players, however, won’t fit into “Seen and Heard…” These guys are stars, guys you “write.” Yanks Reggie and Munson are the “stories.” You’ve got to talk to them, even it they sit on the bench.
Reggie’s the easiest, you can always talk to him. But what do you talk about? Everyone already knows he has a $3.5 mil contract, 100 shirts (many of which have Bill Blass labels on the outside), 11 cars (give or take a Ferrari), likes Weather Report and Herbie Hancock–style jazz, is into encounter groups, loved “living with the hippies” in the Berkeley Hills, speaks Spanish fluently, has the middle name Martinez, was once married to a Chicano, went to a fairly swank high school in Philly where he hung out with the faster-moving white kids, likes stewardesses, called Charley Finley “my great white father” but is thought to be cozy with Steinbrenner, is the only Yank who lives in Manhattan, gets mentioned regularly on Page Six, talks a lot about what he’s going to do for Harlem with his money, (“If I was here five years ago, Harlem would be a lot different today”), first wore Number 20 after Frank Robinson but soon changed to Number 44 after Hank Aaron, watches his home runs from the batter’s box, finally got his way and is hitting clean-up, has never hit .300, still is a very feared batter by opposing pitchers, is an overrated fielder who makes good throws then it doesn’t count, is the most popular guy on the team with the fans, will sign autographs even for cops, and finally got what he came to New York for — a candy bar named after him, the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie bar, which will be test-marketed this summer. The Reg says it will be “nutritious.”
If you missed any of that, go talk to Reg again. He’ll be glad to reiterate. When you’re switching gears from Reggie Jackson, bitchin’ ballplayer, to Reggie Jackson, folk hero, you’ve got to keep the rap flowing.
But if the writers think Reggie is part good guy, part insecure egomaniac who tries to “write” their copy during interviews (most older white writers tend to believe black stars who showboat are egomaniacs), they are not quite sure what to make of Thurman Munson. After the Yanks’ shutout of Seattle a few Fridays ago, a daily writer asked Munson about his catching of rookie Ron Guidry. Team captain Thurm said, “Hey, fuck off, you know I ain’t talking to you, cocksucker.” To which the unfazed reporter said, “Gee, I can never get anything out of that Munson.”
Thurman Munson is a very touchy guy. He’s touchy about his name, he’s touchy about his squatty body, he’s touchy about his place in baseball history. You see, Munson thinks more about getting into the Hall of Fame than fan love or folk heroism. The only reason he made such a big deal over his contract was that he figures salaries are based on ball-playing ability, and on that score he doesn’t want anyone in front of him. Yankee players used to torture Munson by plastering the clubhouse with pictures of Carlton Fisk, the handsome lumberjack catcher from the Red Sox. It drove Thurman nuts; he always thought Fisk got more recognition than him because Carlton had more savoir faire, not because he played a better game of hardball. As it turned out, Munson was right on both accounts.
On one hand, Munson has to the the biggest boor in the club. Asked by a young reporter if he had a minute, Chubby T threw underwear toward the kid’s face. He’s the sloppiest dresser on the team. He goes around the clubhouse snorting and beating his mitt. But then again, you won’t find many people around who still think Carlton Fisk, or even Johnny Bench (Munson’s other nemesis), can carry Thurman’s mask. He is easily the smartest ballplayer on the Yankees: he doesn’t make mistakes. Not the fastest guy on the team by a long shot, he’s the best base runner. With a bat in his hands Thurm has been known to leer in the fashion of a cheap crook fingering his first tommy gun, but if he’s in a good mood he’ll go through long and detailed theories about “keeping a quiet body” and “being gentle with my stride at the plate.” Listening to him talk about going to the opposite field can be moving. A Zen student of hitting, Munson could become latter-day Ted Williams, albeit with less power.
One guy you always write is Billy Martin. Billy Martin is an American tragedy dressed up in pin stripes. He was born Alfred Manual Martin in a poor and broken home near Oakland. But it’s easier to see him out by the road in a hot-picking county, maybe Salinas, a mean little rat-faced kid throwing rotten peaches at passing cars. The cars would keep going and Martin would remember each and every one of them, figuring when he met the driver, he’d get even.
It’s ironic that Martin would wind up managing the team that seems destined to return the Yankees to the glory of the dynasty days. He played second base here for six years in the ‘5os. And despite Stengel’s love for him (Case knew a punk when he saw one, saying, “The little bugger is scrawny, is no beauty with that big schnozz but he’ll never let you down”) and his remarkable ability to play miles above his head in the World Series (far beyond his usual .260), Billy Martin was always doomed as a New York Yankee. He just didn’t “look like a Yankee” to George Weiss and Dan Topping. He always seemed to be trying too hard — those days Yankees were supposed to hustle, but not sweat. Joe D., the Yankee Clipper, never sweated — Billy Martin sweated. He also battled with his draft board, suffered from hypertension, got divorced, and fought on the field. (In fact, no player probably fought more: Martin tangled with Jimmy Piersal, Clint Courtney, Larry Doby, and once broke Cub pitcher Jim Brewer’s jaw with one punch. Brewer sued for a million, to which Billy said, “How would he like it — check or cash?”)
It was no surprise that Billy would take the fall for the Copa incident. It happened 20 years ago, on Martin’s 29th birthday. His Yankee buddies Mantle and Ford decided to take Billy out. During the show a guy was calling Sammy Davis, Jr. a nigger. Hank Bauer, the Yank Marine, didn’t like it. A fight started, and a banner headline flashed across the front of the New York Mirror blaring about Yankees in a drunken nightclub brawl. Billy never even got in a left hook but a few weeks later he was exiled to “the kissin’ cousin” Kansas City team. After that Martin played with six teams in five years, but he wasn’t much; after all, none of those teams ever got into the World Series. So Martin thought about the Yankees, and how it would be when he “got back.”
Before Billy “got back” to win the pennant for the Yanks last year, he managed three other clubs, Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas. All were dogs when Billy put the whip to them; each time he brought them home winners. He won divisional flags with Minny in ’69 and the Tigers in ’72. In ’74 he was the “manager of the year” for transforming the floundering Texas team — which had never had a winning club in the franchise’s history — into the hottest bunch of young ballplayers in the league. As a skipper, Martin plays it the same way he did barreling into second to break up a double play — spikes up. He’ll bring the infield in to cut off a run in the second inning of a scoreless game. He’ll pinch hit in the first inning. There’s no better operator “between the lines,” but then again, there’s also never been a manager who’s gotten fired three times in six years after significantly improving the play of each club he’s handled.
It was always “the front office.” That means the bosses told Billy to do something, he told them to fuck off, and got canned as a result. Or something like that. Billy will tell you none of it was his fault: The fans loved him. The players loved him. And the owners didn’t know shit from shinola — they should have stayed in the Stadium Club polishing pinky rings. It’s true, too, that all three clubs took almost immediate dives into the toilet after Billy left. But there’s another side to this. At Texas some players balked when Martin reportedly told them to bean Elliot Maddox, an ex-Ranger then with the Yanks. Martin was supposed to have had a run-in with Maddox and was using his pitchers as button men. Billy says, “They just didn’t understand my way of doing things.”
Which is why Billy’s current tenure with the Yanks is so strange. Here he is back with the team that stole his youth, the team he’s always vowed to return to. And everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Martin explains it all in his “clubhouse theory.” “Managing on the field ain’t shit,” Billy says. “It’s in the clubhouse a manager has to know what he’s doing. I go by the Peter Principle. You know about? It says everyone seeks his own level of incompetence. That I do, find that level.” Billy Martin’s level of incompetence is, of course, the punk in him, and he can’t shake it.
The writers are hip. After every game, while the players soap up and play bumper pool, scribes file into Billy’s blue cinderblock wall office to watch The Skip drink a Lite beer and glare underneath the mounted bonefish he caught off the Bahamas. (It figures fish is on the puny side but “fought like hell.”) They ask Martin about managerial decisions made and not made. Billy answers in one or two sentences, usually saying things like, “I don’t have to explain what I do to you guys.” Over the recent homestand these rituals were kind of boring. But the writers know you can’t “get” from Martin while his club is winning. You’ve got to wait for him to get mad, that’s when the copy gushes.
Two weeks ago it began. All through the media blitz over the free agents and Steinbrenner’s supposed “all all-star team” you got the feeling that despite Billy saying accommodating things like, “I’ll manage whoever they give me,” he was not happy with the state of affairs. The acquisition of Bucky Dent wasn’t his idea. He would have been happy with Chicken Stanley at short. The Chicken can’t hit worth a shit but he fields like a vacuum and tires hard — the kind of limited but hungry player close to Martin’s heart. To Billy it was a symbol of what was happening to the club. Sure they were getting great players, but Martin liked last year’s less devastating team better. That club has “a pulse”: they gambled, ran the bases, and hit line drives. They were like their manager. Now, with a multitude of riches, Billy can’t find that “pulse.” This is a rich and unwieldy crew, not Billy’s at all.
It had been eating at Martin. And a few weeks ago the bile began to surface. In a fit of self-destruction, Billy began to call Steinbrenner out. Reports leaked that he didn’t like being called after every losing game. Then came “the 25th man” incident. After a particularly depressing loss to the Seattles on the coast, Martin screamed he didn’t know why the hell he has to play ball with 24 men while everyone else got to use 25. He was referring to the open spot on the Yank roster, one which Martin wanted filled with Elrod Hendricks, the catcher Billy said he needed to spell Squat Man Munson. He implied the “front office” had been lax in making the move.
After some headlines, Steinbrenner hit the ceiling. First he filled the 25th slot with Dell Alston who, although he was hitting some .200 points higher than Hendricks, is an outfielder and won’t do much for Munson’s wobbly legs. Then came a press release saying Martin’s statements were “inaccurate and unfounded.” A few days later, just in time for Billy’s birthday, Steinbrenner fined his manager $2500, presumably for having a big mouth.
So the lines are drawn. No doubt, it’ll be a fight to the finish. For if Billy Martin, Salinas punk, has always longed to grace a baseball field with “Yankee excellence,” so has George Steinbrenner, third-generation rich kid from Cleveland.
Steinbrenner, a rotund 46-year-0ld man with faraway eyes and a nervous manner, has been rehearsing all his life for owning the New York Yankees. He says he’s always wanted “being part of the best… what has always signified the best. A tradition of greatness. That’s what the Yankees are to me.” Now George has it; he is, just as Topping and Webb were “co-owners,” “the principle owner.” But that’s not enough.
You see, what George M. has really always wanted is to be one of the guys. Once, when he was the boss of the Cleveland Pipers, a minor-league basketball team, George became enraged at a call against his team. He charged out onto the court to protest and got saddled with a technical foul. It’s probably the only technical ever called on an owner during an actual game. George said, “Well, I just wanted to get into the game.” Steinbrenner’s later technical foul, his campaign contribution conviction, came for similar reasons. To hear George tell it, he believed in Nixon and just wanted to be part of the team.
No surprise he got caught. Like Billy Martin, George has always tried too hard. Since buying the Yanks and a townhouse in the East ’60s (three years ago), Steinbrenner has been going around saying, “I’m all for New York, it’s the best city. That’s why I want to win for my city. I want to give New York the best. It’s my home.” So, like any would-be City Father, George has tried to move with others who are “all for New York.” The other night at the Garden’s Norton-Bobick fight, George was sitting in the right section: alongside Hughie Carey, John Lindsay, Felix Rohatyn, and the rest. But with the NY Yankee logo monogrammed on his tie and that faraway lonely hurt in his eyes, he seemed painfully out of place; just the way a hick businessman from Ohio is supposed to look in a crowd of New York sharpies.
George has had similar success buddying up with the Yankee players. They like his checks, but they sure aren’t going to love him. When asked if they were going to bet on Steinbrenner’s horse, Steve’s Friend, in the Derby for “sentimental reasons,” the pony-playing Yanks reacted like the idea had lice. Some say they remember George’s other attempts to be one of the guys. When he was suspended by Bowie Kuhn for his felony conviction, he reportedly sent tape-cassette pep talks to be played at team meetings.
In the end George Steinbrenner will fire Billy Martin. Maybe because baseball owners always fire baseball managers. Or maybe because Billy Martin was born to be fired. But there’s better tragedy here than that: When two losers, no matter what their pretensions, aspire to the mantle of eternal winning, something has to give. When it dies, if it hasn’t already (the Yanks’ recent stumble started the night “The 25th Man” episode began), it will be sad. Because after Billy goes, the Yanks, like all the teams he’s managed, are likely to go into the toilet, too. And then the grace both Billy and Steinbrenner sweat after will be gone forever.
When it happens, Billy, who cried the last time he was sent out to Kansas City, will pretend not to notice. He was half-expecting it all along. He’s been in town nearly two years and still lives in a hotel over in Jersey. In fact, Billy’s already got his statement planned. “All my life,” he says, “all my life in baseball and in everything else, too, I’ve never gotten back the loyalty I gave… so I don’t care what they think. There’s only one who can judge me now, and that’s Jesus Christ in the heavens.”
But later for all that. Today, as Red Barber used to say in the days when he’d banter with Mel Allen before they both got fired to signal the absolute end of the Yankee dynasty, it was a beautiful day at “The Big Ballpark.” The sun was out, 35,000 little kids got free double-knit pin-stripe shirts with NY on them, and the Yankees killed the Oakland A’s. Jacob Ruppert would have loved it. They scored five runs in the first inning, and then slowly pulled away, making it 10 to 2 before the Oakland scrubeenies closed it to 10 to 5. Graig Nettles hit a homer and made a few dazzlers in the field. Thurman hit one, too, as well as banging out three other safeties. It put him in a good enough mood to actually “give” the writers some positive Munson stuff. Mike Torrez won his second game in a week and said, yes, it was still “great to be a Yankee.”
Outside, the kids waiting for autographs are talking about the players. Most of them wait at the press gate every day to get a look at the Yanks as they come out all dressed like normal people to get in their cars to drive to New Jersey. Just like the writers, they talk about which players you can “get” from and which will “stiff” you: Mickey Rivers, sometimes he’ll sign. Carlos May never will. Chicken Stanley’s not bad, but he don’t start so who gives a fuck about him?
Reggie, they agree, is the best. Not only will he always sign no matter, says one kid, “what kind o’ fox he got waitin’ for him downtown,” but his John Hancock is worth the most. One teenager comes up to the Press Gate every day to “get Reg.” Then he goes to Harlem and sells the auto; once he got five dollars… maybe that’s one way the Yanks can put money back into the community.
When Reggie appears in his leather-trim jacket, everyone starts chanting, “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie.” The chant, now a Big Ballpark staple every time the Reg comes to the plate, was what gave Standard Brands the idea to call Jax’s candy bar the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie. As part of the promotion they let 140 kids in free to the right-field stands. The only thing they have to do is pretend to be part of “Reggie’s Regiment” and hold up letters spelling out REGGIE. Sometimes it comes out REGGIE and the Reg hits the ball before the kids have a chance to fix it.
Hearing his name, the Reg smiles. Everyone crushes toward him. He politely motions them to go back behind the police sawhorses. They do. Then the Reg goes down the line, signing maybe 20 “Best wishes, Reggie Jackson’s.” Then he goes into the VIP parking lot to get into his Rolls.
A guy standing with his wife says, “He ain’t so good-looking.” She looks at him and says, “He’s a whole lot better looking than you, fool.” And as Reggie pulls away toward the Major Deegan, kids run after the car, screaming, “Hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie… hey Reggie… you suck.” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 30, 1977