Sunday, June 18, 2017

June 18, 1977: The Wildest Week In New York Baseball History, Part II

It was 40 years ago that we had the wildest week in New York baseball history.

And neither the Yankees nor the Mets came out of it looking good.

On Thursday, the anniversary of the Met event in question, I posted about the trade of Tom Seaver. Today is the anniversary of the Yankee event in question.

I have previously written of The Curse of Martell's. My grandmother lived in Brick, New Jersey for 32 years, 6 miles from the Boardwalk at Point Pleasant Beach. So that was our Shore town. When I got old enough to go on my own, I would get on the bus in East Brunswick, ride it to South Amboy, and get on New Jersey Transit's North Jersey Coast Line, changing trains at Long Branch, down to Point Beach. The station is just one mile from the Boardwalk, and there you will find Martell's Tiki Bar, formerly Martell's Sea Breeze.

Martell's, in its various forms, including now with its rebuilt Tiki Bar and Shrimp Bar, has been home to good food and live music for decades. It's where Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were performing in the Summer of 1962 when they found out "Sherry" had hit Number 1.

But there's a problem: The Yankees never won when I visited at Martell's. And I mean never. Not hardly ever, but never ever. I'm not talking about 0-1, or even 0-5. I'm talking about 0-25 or so over a course of 35 years, and that's just what I could be fairly sure of. The Curse of Martell's wasn't broken until September 3, 2011, a 6-4 home win over the Toronto Blue Jays. So, now, I'm about 1-25 there.

There's no way to prove it, but I may have been with my family at Martell's on that crazy Saturday afternoon when Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin chewed each other out in the Fenway Park dugout.

*

June 18, 1977, 40 years ago today: The Yankees are playing the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The game is nationally televised, on NBC's Game of the Week. The Yankees won the American League Pennant the year before; the Red Sox, the year before that. The rivalry, which had heated up from 1939 to 1951, then cooled off, then was briefly revived in 1967, had gotten nasty again in 1973, and there's been brawls that year and in 1976.

Now, the Yankees were in the place that hated them most, the little green pinball machine off Kenmore Square. As Alec Guinness, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Summer's (and, to that point, history's) biggest box-office bonanza, Star Wars, said of Mos Eisley Spaceport, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

The night before, the series had opened with a 9-4 Sox victory. The Sox now led the American League Eastern Division by half a game over the Yankees, and a game and a half over the Baltimore Orioles, with both teams trailing the Sox by 2 games in the loss column.

A crowd of 34,603 people shoehorned themselves into the Back Bay bandbox for a 2:20 first pitch. A pair of workhorses started: Mike Torrez for the Yankees, Reggie Cleveland for the Red Sox. Neither of them had much. Mickey Rivers led off the game with a single, Willie Randolph doubled, Thurman Munson got Rivers home and Randolph to 3rd on a groundout, then, with Chris Chambliss up, Cleveland threw a wild pitch that got Randolph home. It was 2-0 Yankees, and it could have been worse: Cleveland struck Chambliss out, but he allowed a double to Reggie Jackson, before getting Graig Nettles to fly out.

But in the bottom of the 1st, Torrez allowed leadoff singles to Rick Burleson and Fred Lynn. Jim Rice moved the runners over with a groundout, then Carl Yastrzemski, the venerable Boston captain, hit a home run to give the Sox a 3-2 lead.

Jackson led off the top of the 4th with a popup to 1st base. (Ordinarily, I would refer to him by his first name, "Reggie," but, with the Sox pitcher on this afternoon being Reggie Cleveland, that becomes a little problematic.) Bernie Carbo led off the bottom of the 4th with a home run, and the Sox scored 2 more to make it 6-2. In the 5th, the Yankees made it 6-3, but Carbo hit another homer to make it 7-3. In the top of the 6th, Jackson singled, and scored on Roy White's hit, to close to within 7-4.

Then came the bottom of the 6th inning, when all hell broke loose with the Yankees -- and the Sox didn't have to do anything but watch.

But let's step back, because this had been brewing for some time...

*

The Yankees, as I said, won the Pennant in 1976, but got swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. After the Series, manager Billy Martin, general manager Gabe Paul, and owner George Steinbrenner met in Steinbrenner's office to discuss how the team could be improved for 1977. All agreed that a shortstop who wasn't an automatic out was needed, and the Yankees got Bucky Dent from the Chicago White Sox. All agreed that another outfield bat was needed.

But they disagreed on which outfield bat. Billy wanted Joe Rudi, an All-Star from the Oakland Athletics dynasty that was now breaking up due to free agency. At the time, there was nothing wrong with wanting a health Joe Rudi on your team: He'd just won his 3rd Gold Glove, he'd hit at least 10 home runs every season since 1970, and he had 94 RBIs in 1976.

The problem was that Rudi was a left fielder and a righthanded hitter. The Yankees already had Lou Piniella, who was both -- and a better hitter for average, if not for power. Why bring in a new guy when you've already got a guy who can do what the new guy does? So George nixed the idea, and Rudi signed with the California Angels, giving them 4 solid years, but only 1 postseason berth, and no Pennants.

George wanted another outfielder from that A's dynasty, their best player: Reggie Jackson. He was sure that Reggie would thrive under the bright lights of New York City, especially with the short porch at right field at Yankee Stadium. Gabe had a problem with Reggie's ego. Billy had a big problem with Reggie's strikeouts. But George was The Boss, and Reggie was brought in.

George was the only one welcoming Reggie to the team, except for pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, who had been Reggie's teammate in Oakland. Munson, the previous year's AL Most Valuable Player and the team's Captain, didn't like that Reggie was making more money. Rivers didn't like that a fellow black man was flaunting his wealth. And nobody was crazy about Reggie telling people what a good hitter he was, and how smart he was.

"You got an IQ of 160?" Rivers asked. "Out of what, 100?" Mick the Quick didn't understand how IQ ratings worked, and he didn't have a very high one himself, but he had some wit: "Reginald Martinez Jackson. You got a white man's first name, a Spanish man's middle name, and a black man's last name. No wonder you're so mixed up: You don't even know who you are." Said John Milton Rivers, a man who, sportswriter and student of the classics at NYU Roger Kahn said, was "maybe the only man named John Milton who had never heard of Paradise Lost."

In late May, the June 1977 issue of SPORT magazine hit the streets. It contained an article by Robert Ward, alleging that he'd talked to Reggie about what he could bring to the Yankees, in a bar during the Yankees' Spring Training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They agreed on that.

But Ward quoted Reggie as saying,

You know, this team... it all flows from me. I've got to keep it all going. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson... but really he doesn't enter into it. He's being so damned insecure about the whole thing...

Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.

Munson reads the article, and can barely contain his fury. He sees other quotes where Reggie "rips me." Piniella tries to calm him down, and says, "Maybe he was misquoted." Thurman almost bites Lou's head off: "For four fucking pages?"

In 2007, ESPN would produce a film version of Jonathan Mahler's book about New York City in 1977, The Bronx Is Burning. In it, Reggie is played by Daniel Sunjata, and they got Ward to play himself, 30 years later. They filmed it exactly as Ward described it. In addition, Dayn Perry of Fox Sports published a biography of Reggie in 2008, also taking Ward's word for what had happened.

Reggie was furious, and wrote his own memoir, titled Becoming Mr. October. It backed up what he'd said in his previous memoir, in 1984, titled simply Reggie: An Autobiography: He hadn't ripped Munson at all, and had described a team as being like a drink, with all its ingredients, and suggesting that he was the last ingredient the Pennant-winning, but World Series-losing, Yankees needed -- and that it was Ward who suggested the straw analogy, not he.

It's been 40 years. Only those 2 men know what was really said. Both are still alive. Each is sticking to his story.

The night the article came out, everyone gave Reggie the cold shoulder. And they lost to the Red Sox at home. But Reggie hit a home run, with Thurman on base. When he came around to home plate, there was Thurman, offering to shake his hand. Reggie walked past him like he wasn't even there, and sat at the end of the dugout, not looking at any of his teammates.

He didn't like the hypocrisy: It was as if they were saying, "Two hours ago, you were a filthy son of a bitch who talked shit about our friend, our Captain, and we hate you. But now, you're a superstar, and we love you." Reginald Martinez Jackson was not having it.

It was totally understandable. But it may also have been a bigger mistake than granting the interview, especially considering SPORT had burned him in a previous interview. If he'd let bygones be bygones, the article might have become a 3-day story, and been forgotten.

But the team, with a few exceptions, took Thurman's side. About the only allies Reggie had were aging slugger Jimmy Wynn (black) and catcher Fran Healy (white -- and Munson's backup). Those resentments were still stewing on the afternoon of June 18.

*

Bottom of the 6th. Boston 7, New York 4. Torrez still on the mound for the Yankees. He gets Rick Burleson to ground to short. But Fred Lynn singles to right. Jim Rice hits a looper to short right. Reggie takes too long to get to it. Once he scoops it up, he double-clutches his throw back to the infield. Lynn was going to make 3rd base anyway, but Rice, one of the hardest hitters but also one of the slowest runners in the game, gets to 2nd.

Billy comes out of the dugout. He calls for Sparky Lyle to come in to replace Torrez. Then he tells Thurman and the infielders he's going to show Reggie up, and take him out in the middle of an inning. He yells back to the dugout: "Blair! Right field!" Paul Blair, once a superb defensive outfielder and a decent hitter for Baltimore, goes out to right field.

As Sparky trots in from the bullpen, just beyond the right field fence at Fenway, Reggie starts talking to Healy, who'd been warming Sparky up. He sees Blair coming.

Reggie: "Are you coming in for me?"
Blair: "Yeah."
Reggie: "Why?"
Blair, not sure himself: "Billy's the manager. Go ask him."

Reggie trots in, but does not, as one broadcaster said later, "coming flying at Martin." Reggie is perplexed, but still very calm. He asks Billy why he's been taken out in mid-inning.

When Billy Martin was in control of his emotions, he was a genius. He was in control of his emotions all too rarely, and this was not one of those times. If we presume that taking Reggie out for defensive purposes, in the middle of the inning, was the right thing to do (a big presumption), the right thing to do now would have been to tell Reggie, "We'll discuss it in my office after the game." If Reggie had said, "No, I want to discuss it right now," Billy could have said, "I'm the manager. What I say goes. We'll discuss it in my office after the game, and you'll get a chance to defend yourself then."

Instead, Billy didn't want to discuss it at all. He wanted to chew Reggie out, right there, in the dugout, in front of his teammates. Billy wanted to show that he was the boss, and that Reggie was just a player, and that no player was bigger than the team. He started screaming at Reggie, pointing his finger in Reggie's face.
Billy: "You showed me up!"
Reggie, not understanding: "How can I show you up, when you showed me up?"

And Billy was still showing Reggie up, in front of his teammates... in front of TV cameras sending this game to a nationwide audience, tuning in to see the next chapter of Yankees vs. Red Sox. At this moment, Billy vs. Reggie was a hotter rivalry.

Batboy Ray Negron, who now runs the Yankees' community outreach program, realized that this could get bad, and threw a towel over a TV camera. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only camera recording the scene.

Billy accused Reggie of loafing -- a defensible argument, but not one you make in front of the man's teammates. Reggie denied it. Certainly, he wasn't intentionally loafing. According to Reggie, Billy was not only cursing at him, but got so angry he was incoherent. Billy said he would kick Reggie's ass.

Billy was 49 years old, 5-foot-11, maybe 160 pounds soaking wet -- and if he was soaking in anything, it was whiskey. Reggie was 31 years old, 6 feet even, probably around 200 pounds, in as good a shape as any American athlete then was. To put it in football terms, Reggie was built like a fullback (which he had been, in high school and as a freshman at Arizona State, before switching to baseball full-time), and Billy was built like a placekicker.

If Billy had started a fight with Reggie, Reggie would have beaten the hell out of him.

But Reggie also knew that if he got violent, even in self-defense, the media would paint him as the aggressor and the villain -- because he was black and had a big mouth, and Billy was white and the authority figure.

This wasn't 1963 Birmingham -- and Reggie knew, because he'd played Double-A ball in Birmingham in 1967, and it wasn't a whole lot better -- it was 1977 New York (at least, the New York media of 1977). I doubt that what Dick Young of the New York Daily News had done to Tom Seaver earlier in the week crossed Reggie's mind at all that day, but what Young did was despicable -- and that was to a great white player who wasn't particularly controversial or egotistical, but still a player, and therefore a vassal whom the owners, and the media men who took their sides, believed should be seen and not heard.

What would they have done to a black man with a big ego and a big mouth, but not yet (at least, not for the New York team) the big results, as Seaver had gotten in 1969 and 1973? Reggie would have been roasted.

Reggie says he knew he couldn't fight Billy. But when Billy said he would kick his ass, Reggie called him an old man, and said, "I think all that alcohol you drink has gone to your brain."

"I'll show you who's an old man!" Billy shouted. How many legendary Yankee catchers turned coaches does it take to stop Billy Martin from starting a fight? Apparently, at least 2: Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Meanwhile, Wynn was standing in front of Reggie, to keep him from charging.

This video is how The Bronx Is Burning portrayed it, combining actual game footage (including part of Phil Rizzuto's broadcasting) with moviemaking. Billy is played by John Turturro, and George by Oliver Platt.

Reggie went back to the clubhouse, flipped a couple of things over, and yelled, to no one in particular, that Billy didn't understand him at all, and that, if he wanted a fight, he'd get one, after the game. By this point, Healy had gotten in there, and told Reggie that was the last thing he wanted, and that the best thing Reggie could do was to just get dressed and go back to the hotel. Reggie calmed down enough to realize that Fran was right, and did so.

The game resumed, and here's the weird part: In spite of Reggie's fielding gaffe (Rice was credited with a double, not a single and Reggie assessed an error), no runs scored in that inning: Sparky got Yaz to ground to 1st and Carlton Fisk to fly to center, ending the threat. The Red Sox did win the game, 10-4, adding runs on home runs by Yaz and George Scott, but Reggie had nothing to do with that. (Blair ended up coming to the plate only once, grounding out to 3rd in the 7th. But neither did he record either a putout or an assist -- although that was mainly due to chance -- so his defense ended up not mattering a damn.)

In other words, Reggie's defense had no more to do with the Yankees losing that game than a nude painting had to do with the sinking of the Titanic.

Reggie spent the rest of the day in his hotel room, not going out. He took a call from his agent, Gary Walker. He took a call from his father, Martinez "Marty" Jackson. He took a call from the Reverend Jesse Jackson (no relation). He picked up the room's Bible, and started reading it. He was still reading it when reporters came to talk to him, and he tried to use Scripture to justify his side of the story to them. That was probably a mistake. He should have used words that appear in the Scripture of no religion on Earth: "No comment."

That same day, the Mets, without Tom Seaver, had a 3-0 lead after 5 innings, thanks to home runs by John Milner and Ed Kranepool, but blew it due to Jerry Koosman's collapse in the 6th and 7th innings, losing 4-3 to the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium. Attendance: 52,784, due to it being Banner Day -- and many of the banners were uncomplimentary toward team owner Lorinda de Roulet and team president M. Donald Grant.

The Cincinnati Reds, with Seaver making his 1st appearance for them, beat the Montreal Expos 6-0 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Tom Terrific went the distance, allowing only 3 hits and no walks, and striking out 8. George Foster hit a home run, 1 of a League-leading 52 he would hit in a season that saw him named the National League's Most Valuable Player.

*

The next day, there was no confrontation between Reggie and Billy. Billy put Reggie in the lineup -- not 4th, as Reggie preferred, but 5th. All season long, Billy had been putting Reggie in 5th or 6th, but not 4th. But he did put Reggie in, not suspending him as he did for an incident the next season.

Reggie went 0-for-3 against a fellow future Hall-of-Famer, Ferguson Jenkins, himself wrapped up in turmoil with his team, also (he believed) with race being a factor. Reggie lined to short in the 2nd inning, lined to 2nd to start a double play in the 4th, and hit a pop fly to 3rd in the 7th. So he did kill a rally -- but he did not strike out, and his strikeouts were a big reason why Billy didn't want him on the team.

The Yankees led 1-0 going to the bottom of the 3rd inning, but Ed Figueroa did not have it, and the Sox won, 11-1, thanks to Carbo, Yaz and Scott each hitting another home run, and additional homers by Rice and Denny Doyle. The Yanks were now 2 1/2 games behind the Sox, 4 in the loss column.

The Yankees flew on to Detroit. The rumor was that George Steinbrenner had seen Saturday's dugout contretemps on TV, and was coming to Detroit to fire Billy in person, because of how Billy had embarrassed the organization on national television.

But when George arrived at the Book Cadillac, the downtown hotel that was long the home to teams visiting the Tigers, everyone told him not to fire Billy, because it would create more problems than it would solve. Gabe Paul told him that. Thurman Munson told him that. Even Reggie Jackson himself told him that, saying, "If you fire Billy now, it'll look like I'm running the team. I don't want that, and neither do you."

That Monday afternoon, George called Billy and Reggie over, and they posed together for the media, and George said that Billy was the manager, and that he and Reggie were friends, and that they were going to ride to Tiger Stadium together, in the same taxi.

It was Detroit. It was June 20. It was already a hot Summer for America, and, scientifically speaking, Summer hadn't even started yet.

But that cab didn't need air-conditioning. That back seat was probably icy cold. Billy and Reggie said nothing to each other for the entire ride.

If only Billy had known that Reggie had helped to save his job -- for now.

That night, a near-sellout crowd of 47,236, remembering Billy as the manager who'd gotten the Tigers into the Playoffs in 1972, gave him a standing ovation. Billy told Yogi how much it meant to him. He also told Yogi that it must have burned George up. He did not tell Yogi what he thought Reggie was thinking about it.

The Yankees lost 2-1, as the previous season's rookie sensation, Mark Fidrych, battled arm trouble but emerged victorious, striking out 9, walking none, and allowing just 3 hits, none until the 4th inning, when Munson singled, and Chris Chambliss singled him over to 3rd base. Then came the only Yankee run of the night, as Munson scored on a sacrifice fly to left by... Reggie Jackson.

*

Jimmy Wynn was released by the Yankees on July 14. Was it because he was seen as Reggie's ally? Probably not: At age 36, he wasn't hitting, and was clearly in sharp decline. He was soon picked up by the Milwaukee Brewers, but released after the season, and never played again.

On August 10 -- mere hours before the New York police finally discovered the identity of the serial killer calling himself "The Son of Sam," and arrested postal worker David Berkowitz for the 8 shootings that had wounded 13 people, killing 6 of them -- and with the Yankees 5 games behind the Red Sox, 6 in the loss column, with 53 games to play, George called Billy into his office, and, with Gabe also there, gave him an ultimatum: "Billy, bat Reggie 4th, or you're fired. Not just today, but every day, for the rest of the year."

Billy knew this was it: His job now depended on whether he batted Reggie 4th.

In the last 53 games, Reggie played in 51. He was given the day off in Detroit on August 18, and again at home to Seattle on August 31, but, both times, Billy used him as a pinch-hitter. He was given the day off in Minnesota on September 4, and was held out of the meaningless season finale at home to Detroit on October 2.

Other than that, given 49 chances, he was put into the 4th spot in the lineup 49 times. Usually, in right field, but, a few times, sending Paul Blair out late for defensive purposes. A few times, as the designated hitter. But, from the August 10 ultimatum onward, every time that Billy Martin put Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup, he put Reggie into the 4th position.

In those last 51 games, the Yankees went 38-13, and won the Division, the Sox and Orioles each finishing 2 1/2 games back. Despite another incident between Billy and Reggie in each round of the postseason, the Yankees went on to win the Pennant, beating the Kansas City Royals 3 games to 2, and they also won the World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4 games to 2.
Billy and Reggie at a happier time

The 1978 season was full of turmoil, too, and Billy's loss of his job on July 24 was directly related to yet another argument with Reggie.

But that's a story for another time.

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