The telephone rang in my home early on the morning of January 3, 1973. It was old pal Bob Fishel, publicity director of the New York Yankees. He was calling me to a press conference at New York’s fashionable “21” club.
Fishel had worked for many years as the publicity director for Bill Veeck with the old St. Louis Browns. He was the guy who hid Eddie Gaedel, baseball’s most famous midget, while the 1951 crowd in Sportsman’s Park anticipated another exciting Veeck event.
Gaedel appeared in all his three-feet-seven-inch glory. The number ? could clearly be seen on the back of his fine-fitting St. Louis Browns uniform. Surprisingly, he walked.
It was one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. Gaedel’s name and fame would be enshrined in baseball record books forever. You could look him up on page 916 of The Baseball Register just between Len Gabrielson and Gary Gaetti. Veeck, a Hall of Famer in the game’s Cooperstown Valhalla, would talk merrily about the day and event until his death.
Fishel, as decent, intelligent, and gentle a man as the game had ever seen, was forever connected to the incident. Nothing again could give Fishel that sense of the game’s history throughout his brilliant career with the Indians, Browns, Yankees, and the American League.
Then came George M. Steinbrenner III.
This man would change Fishel’s life, the life of general manager Lee MacPhail, the life of manager Ralph Houk, the life of every Yankee player for the next generation, and the lives of so many dedicated, devoted, determined fans of the New York Yankees.
I drove my car from my home in suburban New York City to the famed restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As I moved closer to the midtown restaurant I wondered, who was this guy named Steinbrenner.
I would spend a good part of the next quarter of a century trying to find out and trying hard to explain that to the readers of the New York Post.
Steinbrenner had been a Cleveland industrialist and had run the American Shipbuilding Co., mostly a carrier of iron ore on the Great Lakes, after his tyrannical father had turned over the director’s chair to him.
No matter how well young George ran it, and he ran it quite well, it was never good enough for his father. A lot of Freudian stuff here better left for the hundred-dollar-an-hour shrinks.
This young Steinbrenner, an athlete of sorts at Williams College—not an athletic bastion—and later a football coach at North-western, always kept his finger close to the sports scene as fan, player, and then owner of something called the Cleveland Pipers, a professional basketball team of no small distinction. No large distinction, either.
Steinbrenner thought this sports connection allowed him to sit in the main room of the legendary “21” restaurant where the sports bosses, television types, and top jocks were the elite who would meet to eat. The “21” Club was not about food. It was about being there. Newspaper columnists, dating back to speakeasy days, led off their stories quite often with, “While I was sitting at the “21” Club . . .”
Steinbrenner knew a lot of this history and when he made it big in shipping his secretary would call the “21” Club almost every time he came to New York on business. Just about every time he did that, the answer was the same. The snooty reservationist would tell this big Cleveland boss that a reservation could be made at the “21” Club at four o’clock in the afternoon upstairs or a bit later downstairs. Nobody important would be there. Steinbrenner fumed. And dreamed. He would get that lunch in the main, important room of the “21” Club even if he had to buy the Yankees to do it.
For a paltry 10.3 million dollars, the Columbia Broadcasting System got out of the baseball team ownership business and turned it over to a limited partnership led by George Steinbrenner.
“There is nothing as limiting as being a limited partner with George Steinbrenner,” fellow magnate John McMullen, later to own the Houston Astros baseball team and the New Jersey Devils hockey team, would subsequently say.
Old Cleveland pals and show business buddies, the Nederlanders, who allowed Steinbrenner in on their production of Applause, starring Lauren Bacall on Broadway, would be among the limited group.
Steinbrenner met the New York press that January day in 1973. His hair was smoothed down. His suit fit beautifully. He looked slightly overweight. He actually did very little talking. The front man was baseball executive Gabe Paul, who had led the Reds and the Indians.
Paul had started out his career as a traveling secretary of the Cincinnati Reds. He was known as a cliché expert when questioned by the press and he was known as a guy tight with a dollar.
As he watched a rainstorm from an open press box, while the crowd froze in a chill, he would always say, “It will stop raining. It always has.”
It always did, especially when it was early enough to keep the receipts.
He was the traveling secretary when a morose player named Willard Hershberger, a backup catcher to the future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi, failed to show for a game one day in 1940 in Boston.
Paul was dispatched to the hotel room. He saw Hershberger in the bathtub of his hotel room, blood all around him, the thirty-year-old catcher from Lemon Grove, California, dead of self-inflicted knife wounds. Paul knew what to do.
He moved to Hershberger’s clothes closet, took out the rest of his meal money for the trip, and saved the Reds about twenty bucks. Then he bragged about it. That’s how some guys move up in baseball.
Paul became instrumental in Steinbrenner’s purchase of the Yankees through his longtime contacts. He told an old story about how a sportswriter could decide if someone is a good general manager or not.
“If you can wake up another general manager at three in the morning and he asks what he can do for you instead of screaming about the hour, you know he is a good general manager,” he said.
Through the contacts with the CBS ownership of the Yankees, especially through operating head Michael Burke, Paul discovered the Yankees were for sale. They had finished fourth in 1972 for the second year in a row, had fallen under a million in attendance for the first time since 1945, the last year of World War II, and seemed to have lost fans to the exciting Mets, a World Champion in 1969.
CBS knew a lot about broadcasting. It knew nothing about baseball. Burke had been a dashing football player at the University of Pennsylvania, a World War II OSS agent, a dapper dresser, and a major attraction for the ladies. It did not qualify him to out-slick Paul or any other general manager in a baseball trade.
Steinbrenner really suggested that day that he would be sort of a behind-the-scenes boss, that Paul would assist Burke in the operation of the team, and that things would move forward as before with a deep sense of regard for the Yankees tradition. After all, this was the team of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and the rest. Nobody tampers with that tradition.
Burke had always been a charmer. He dressed in English tweed jackets, discussed intelligent books he had read with interested sportswriters, talked easily about his war exploits, and conversed daily with CBS executives.
None of this helped the Yankees win any games.
By late 1972, CBS was ready to go back to broadcasting and get away from baseball. Paul, who had a nose for news, mentioned this fact to his Cleveland pal, George Steinbrenner. The idea intrigued Steinbrenner. This would be high profile baseball instead of laboring (pre-Michael Jordan) basketball. This would be the most famous sports team in history. This would be New York, New York—a helluva town.
Steinbrenner put together the limited partnership, purchased the Yankees from CBS, and announced at the “21” Club press conference that Burke, a part owner in the new deal, would have a significant role. That lasted about as long as it took Steinbrenner to get out of the door of the “21” Club that day. This was a new day, a new boss—later to be Boss—a new era of New York Yankees history.
There were two dominant media personalities around at the time. Dick Young was the feisty, outspoken hard-hitting columnist of the Daily News. Howard Cosell was ABC’s Young.
Young was a New York kid who came from the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, a street kid, slight in build but gigantic in stature. He could destroy a player with his pen. A team, too. He wrote critically of the fading Brooklyn Dodgers. Some Dodgers and some Dodger fans never forgave him.
Cosell was from Brooklyn, well educated, a former practicing attorney who got into broadcasting through the back door. He had represented a Brooklyn Little League, which led him to Ebbets Field games. He saw the vacuum in broadcasting and immediately filled it. He was a comical sight in his earliest days, when he lugged a huge broadcasting power pack on his back while he interviewed players for ABC radio.
This was still before Monday Night Football, which brought Cosell to national attention, but he had already made a significant impact on the sports scene around New York. He had gained much air time with his advocacy of the cause of a young fighter named Cassius Clay, later remade as Muhammad Ali.
Young and Cosell were bitter enemies, each jealous of the attention the other always got, constantly fighting for the lead spot at any sports event, often making biting remarks about each other to neutral sportswriters. Each had an ego the size of Montana. I was competitive with Young. I was amused by Cosell. Young hated me. Cosell lectured me.
If this new guy Steinbrenner was going to be a big shot in the big town he had to romance these two powerful media types. It didn’t take him very long. Young got an exclusive interview the first day, while the rest of us wrote off the press conference.
Cosell put that press conference on the air but upped Young by one lunch. He invited Steinbrenner to join him at the same “21” Club the next afternoon for lunch on ABC. Cosell could hardly have known what this meant to Steinbrenner. After all these years, after all those emotional disappointments of not being important enough to gain entrance to the inner sanctum of the place to be at Manhattan lunchtime, Steinbrenner would be there.
Cosell put together a small lunch table with himself at the head, Steinbrenner facing the crowded room, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle on one side, and New York Giants glamorous great Frank Gifford on the other. This was a power lunch before the power lunches of the 1980s, when billions being talked about over lunch was invented.
The Cosell table at high noon was in the center of the room. That spot, that lunch, that ego-stroking afternoon only cost Steinbrenner 10.3 million. Oh yeah, he also got the Yankees for that money—to go with the lunch.
A few years later Steinbrenner took Barbara Walters to lunch at the “21” Club. It was a beautiful spring day and Steinbrenner ordered his limousine driver to stop a couple of blocks before the famed restaurant on Manhattan’s Fifty-second Street. They talked and chatted for a while as fans nodded to them or called out their names. Steinbrenner, feeling his Boss power, decided to start counting the greetings from his fans against the greetings Walters received. It was about two to one for Walters (even before she’d mingled with Monica), and that destroyed the joy of the lunch for Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner knew he needed more attention in the papers, more controversy, more exposure in media-mad Manhattan if he was going to have the impact he wanted and needed.
The Yankees prepared for spring training in 1973 under the leadership of general manager Lee MacPhail and field manager Ralph Houk. MacPhail was the soft-spoken, painfully shy son of flamboyant baseball personality Larry MacPhail. Larry MacPhail had run the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Yankees before self-destructing in a drunken rage after the team’s 1947 World Series triumph over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larry MacPhail may not have been baseball’s most famous drinker, an honor probably shared by Babe Ruth, Paul Waner, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. But MacPhail was certainly one of the top drinkers in the game’s history, and his fights with other owners, executives, and especially his favorite punching bag, Leo Durocher, were legendary.
Lee MacPhail could have a pop now and then but never lost his calm or his cool. One day at a wonderful spring training dinner in Fort Lauderdale, with all the sportswriters and their wives as guests, Lee MacPhail called on my wife, pregnant with our son, Ted, for a few words of greeting. Janet was a little weary from the pregnancy, which she described as going on as long as an elephant’s, a little tired from the long night, and a little bored by the endless baseball conversation.
She stammered a few words and sat down. MacPhail moved the program along and said nothing further about it. As we left, Janet said to MacPhail, “Next year, when I’m not pregnant, I’ll do better.”
“Next year,” MacPhail said, “I won’t call on you.”
MacPhail was soon swallowed up by Steinbrenner’s dominance. He would move into the office of the baseball commissioner and would end his Hall of Fame baseball career as president of the American League.
Ralph Houk, a World War II army ranger, a cigar smoker of note, an intimidating figure for players and press, was the field boss. I had my run-ins with Houk. Houk, a backup catcher to Berra in the late 1940s and 1950s, managed at Denver and coached under Casey Stengel before taking over the team in 1961. Stengel had lost the seventh game of the World Series to Pittsburgh. Then he got fired. He was seventy years old.
Houk took over, managed the 1961 home run season of Roger Maris (sixty-one) and Mickey Mantle (fifty-four) with great care for their psyches, won the World Series easily over Cincinnati and won again in 1962. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1963 World Series and Houk turned over the field job to Berra as he became the general manager. It allowed him to smoke more cigars.
When Berra was fired after failing to win the 1964 World Series, Johnny Keane, a baseball fish out of water in New York, was named manager. He lasted a year and a bit, until his players quit on him. Houk came back on the field.
He seemed different this time around, less angry, less combative. Maybe the war experiences were fading further into his psyche. I wrote a column about him in the New York Post, about how he was a softer guy, how some of his younger players—Joe Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Phil Linz—were running away from Houk. It was mostly a complimentary column about his past successes, but a little hard on his present operation. I remember using the word, marshmallow next to his name.
When George complained that 17 (Gene Michael), 1 (Bobby Murcer), and 28 (Sparky Lyle) had hair that was too long, Houk knew the interference would be too much. MacPhail also sensed this during the first game of spring training. Murcer, who had hit thirty-three home runs and had ninety-six RBIs in 1972, won a big contract for his performance. He popped up in his first training at bat.
“Is that the bum we are paying a hundred thousand dollars?” Steinbrenner howled.
No matter. He paid. Then he fell in love with Murcer and kept him around for many years as a broadcaster.
All of this was typical, Steinbrenner, as Yankee employees, players, and fans would find out in the next quarter of a century or so. He could embarrass a player publicly one day and hire him the next for a key Stadium job. He could trade away a player in anger and bring him back. He could fire a manager one, two, three, four, five times (read: Billy Martin) and bring him back. He could even be thinking about bringing him back again when Martin died in 1989.
Steinbrenner’s first season in baseball was definitely my strangest. A couple of flaky Yankee pitchers named Fritz Peterson, thirty-one, and Mike Kekich, twenty-eight, were the catalysts.
Peterson was a forever-smiling left-handed pitcher as interested in a practical joke as he was in a Yankee win. He loved to give sportswriters and teammates a hot foot before, during, or just after games. He often put moldy hot dogs into the gloves of sensitive teammates, especially shortstop Gene Michael, who would howl wildly when he ran out to his position and placed his left index finger into a squishy wiener instead of baseball leather.
He called up teammates and imitated sportswriters over hotel phones asking for exclusive interviews. He called Mickey Mantle’s room once and pretended he was a beautiful girl sent to visit Mickey as a going-away present. He was a fanatic hockey fan and later a hockey broadcaster. He often printed up phony newspaper headlines, proclaiming crashes of Yankee chartered airplanes with himself as lone survivor. He had a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Northern Illinois University, near his Mount Prospect, Illinois home and later earned a master’s degree in physical education from Morehead State University in Kentucky.
With a good fastball, much guile, and a great pickoff move to first, he was 12-11 in his rookie 1966 Yankee year. The team finished in tenth place but Peterson laughed his way through a successful season.
“This is a lot better than teaching,” he said.
In 1970 he won twenty games, the cherished amount every pitcher since Cy Young has always dreamed of achieving as the standard for pitching success. After being relieved Peterson went into fetal position under a clubhouse table with a towel pulled tight over his head against the clubhouse din of the radio broadcast of the game. His teammates stormed into the locker room to tell him he was the winning pitcher for the twentieth time in 1970.
After Peterson joined the Yankees in 1966, he quickly became friendly with pitcher Jim Bouton, the witty, wacky, wonderful, iconoclastic, right-handed pitcher who would later pen the muckraking baseball book, Ball Four with my former New York Post colleague Leonard Shecter. Bouton and I and our wives—Bobbie Bouton, Jim’s first wife, and my one and only, Janet Allen—became pals through spring-training dinners, an occasional road-restaurant visit, and a barbecue once in a while at each other’s homes. The test of a relationship between a baseball player and a sportswriter is whether or not they make it to the other guy’s home. Lots of sportswriters, me included, drank lots of beers with players in lots of hotel bars for lots of years but never met the little lady at home or visited the other guy’s backyard. Casey Stengel was my favorite manager. I was invited to his Glendale, California, home many times for interviews and baseball parties. I never invited him to mine. I’m sorry about that. Casey would have been big in my neighborhood.
Bouton and Peterson became very close. After a twenty-one-game winning season in 1963 and two dramatic World Series wins over the Cardinals in 1964, Bouton was losing it as an effective pitcher when Peterson joined the team. He was having arm trouble, the curse of the pitching profession. My friendship soured with Bouton when I wrote a story in the Post about his failing wing. He thought what he had told me about his arm was off the record. I thought it was a great story about a great guy losing his fastball, the overachieving fastball that saw him lose his oversized hat as he exploded off the mound but could still outmuscle the Cardinals in the Series. (Willie Mays always wore a bigger hat than necessary so his hatless outfield catches would be more dramatic.)
A dinner in Fort Lauderdale with the Boutons and the Petersons was about as much fun as Janet and I could have in Florida spring training. These players were very bright, interesting, articulate, and warm. Bobbie Bouton and Marilyn Peterson—Fritz called her Chip because her maiden name was Marilyn Monks and Chip Monks was too funny for him to pass up—got along well with my wife, who always appreciates humor, intelligence, and warmth.
The wives of most ballplayers I have met were adjuncts of the player—glowing, pretty cheerleader types silently worshiping at the shrine of the big leaguer. Bobbie Bouton and Marilyn Peterson—I could never call her Chip—were exceptional in that scene. They were pretty, all right, but they could think, talk, and disagree when necessary.
Bouton left the Yankees after the 1968 season to finish his career in Seattle, Houston, and Atlanta. He filled his notebook steadily and shocked baseball when he wrote of Mickey Mantle’s drinking habits. He exposed the secrets of ballplayers when he wrote of beaver shooting from a Washington hotel rooftop (looking for pretty girls scantily dressed at the pool) and Joe Pepitone’s love life. His greatest truism was expressed in the final line of his book, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Peterson now became my closest friend on the team.
Mike Kekich joined the Yankees in 1969 after being traded over to the team from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I was never close to him. He seemed too loud, too much of a self-promoter, too anxious for attention he could not earn on the field. The Dodgers thought they had another Sandy Koufax when they signed him for a then whopping 1964 bonus of 50,000. About all he had in common with Koufax was throwing a baseball from the left side of the mound.