A version of this story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Mickey Morabito knew he would be fired by midnight.
As soon as bundles of the bulldog editions hit the curb by New York City newsstands, the second-year public relations director of the Yankees was sure owner George Steinbrenner would make good on his promise just hours earlier.
“I’m done,” Morabito said to himself on the night of Aug. 9, 1978, at Yankee Stadium, where third-place New York, 8 1⁄2 games behind the invincible Red Sox in the American League East, trailed the Brewers 7–3.
That afternoon, without telling Steinbrenner, Morabito had arranged for the five Yankees beat writers from the biggest papers to have lunch with Billy Martin. It had been 16 days since Martin resigned as manager after giving the newspaper guys (and they were all guys then) one of the great baseball quotes ever, saying of rightfielder Reggie Jackson and of Steinbrenner, “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar. The other’s convicted.”
It had been 11 days since Steinbrenner, at his carnival barker best, had shocked all in attendance at Old-Timers’ Day by announcing that Martin would return to manage in 1980. The breathlessness of Daily News beat writer Phil Pepe leaped from the first words he rapped out on his typewriter: “In the most incredible turn of events in baseball history...
Maybe the Red Sox were better. But hyperbole was no match for these Barnum & Bailey Yankees.
Morabito was an elfin, street-smart 26-year-old from Brooklyn who started as a Yankees batboy in 1970 before moving into p.r. After Martin resigned, Steinbrenner gave Morabito orders to keep him away from the press for the rest of the 1978 season and the offseason, lest his own mouth—lubricated by liquor—get him in trouble.
With Morabito fending off interview demands, nobody had talked to Martin since Steinbrenner’s Old-Timers’ Day stunt. But Morabito knew the embargo could hold no better than cheesecloth, so he went to team president Al Rosen. “Billy’s going to be somewhere over the winter,” Morabito said, “and he’s going to meet some writer from some Podunk paper and he’s going to talk and the New York writers are going to be ticked off.”
Back then you did not tick off the newspaper guys, not with their massive circulation, loudmouthed columnists and back pages that set the city’s sports agenda. Newspapers were so influential that Yankees clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy kept a small stack of them on a picnic table in the middle of the room for players to take to bathroom stalls or the training room or their lockers so they could gorge on baseball gossip.
The Daily News, borrowing from the Daily Mirror of London, brought the tabloid format to New York in 1919. By '78 its subway-friendly format, enthusiastic crime coverage and cheeky voice made it the country’s largest newspaper, with 1.8 million readers daily and 2.7 million on Sundays. So powerful was the News that it was said to have changed presidential history with one headline. FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD it screamed in 1975, shaming President Gerald R. Ford for refusing to provide federal assistance to spare New York from bankruptcy. The next year Jimmy Carter, nominated by Democrats at Madison Square Garden, carried the state, and Ford blamed the News’s headline.
Morabito had this in mind when he suggested to Rosen, “Why not get the beat writers together and do a little luncheon? We won’t tell George.”
Rosen signed off. That’s how Martin came to be at Alex & Henry’s in the Bronx with Morabito, Pepe, Henry Hecht of the Post, Murray Chass of the Times, Moss Klein of Newark’s Star-Ledger and Joe Donnelly of Long Island’s Newsday. Morabito could not get over how well his plan was working. “Even Henry was nice to Billy,” Morabito says, referring to the well-known enemies.
There was, of course, alcohol. Martin had knocked back a few glasses of wine when somebody brought up his infamous line. “I didn’t mean what I said about George,” Martin said, “but I did mean it about the other guy.”
Morabito saw the dam about to burst. He knocked knees with Martin under the table and whispered, “Billy, please, shut up.” But Martin could not be stopped.
“I never looked at Reggie as a superstar,” he continued. “He never showed me he was a superstar. I never put him over [Yankees mainstays] Chris Chambliss or Thurman Munson or Willie Randolph or Mickey Rivers. There were times I put Chicken Stanley ahead of him.”
Jackson was a seven-time All-Star. Fred (Chicken) Stanley was a .226-hitting infielder. The writers couldn’t believe their good luck. As soon as the meal ended, they called Steinbrenner for comment. Steinbrenner, having known nothing about the lunch and who was out of town, was apoplectic. He ordered a conference call with Morabito and Rosen.
“Morabito”—Steinbrenner routinely called people by their last name, like an angry drill sergeant, “I told you I didn’t want Billy to talk to anybody! I told you this would happen!”
“I okayed it,” Rosen said. “I told Mickey I thought it was a good idea.”
Steinbrenner resumed tearing into Morabito. Then he paused. An idea came to him: “I’ll tell you what, Morabito. I’m going to send my driver out tonight to pick up the early editions of the papers. If it comes out bad, you’re gone. Fired.”
Morabito knew the stories could turn out only one way. The looming loss to Milwaukee would serve to make the day a complete disaster. But in the bottom of the ninth the Yankees provided some solace, stitching together three hits, two walks, two errors and a hit batter to win 8–7.
It was 10:53 p.m., time to go to the gallows. Morabito left the Stadium for his apartment in Manhattan and the bad news. But when he arrived, there were no newspapers. None. He couldn’t believe it. Where were the headlines screaming BILLY BASHES REGGIE or BILLY TO JAX: RATHER HAVE CHICKEN?
Morabito soon learned that the 1,508 pressmen of the News, Post and Times had gone on strike hours before, after management carried out a threat to post new work rules designed to cut staff. This night, of all nights, there were no papers.
A strange silence befell the city. The three dailies had a combined circulation of 3.3 million. They employed 10,000 people covered by 11 unions, all of whom struck in support of the pressmen. “The only place the story ran was in the -Star-Ledger [and Newsday],” Morabito says. “At that point George didn’t give a s--- about them. As long as it wasn’t in the News, the Times or the Post, he didn’t care. The newspaper strike saved my job.”
Morabito may have kept his job, but something changed that night forever. Newspapers and the Yankees—and that fascinating, withering, bamboozling, maddening and compelling intersection of the two—would never be the same.
The 1978 Yankees were baseball’s greatest gift to newsprint, certainly since 1946, when Dick Young, later a star columnist at the News but then a writer brimming with ambition, upended coverage by leaving the press box to pepper his morning-edition stories with quotes from players and the manager. The clubhouse quote—not the flowery account of game action—became the coin of the baseball-writing realm.
Around the '78 Yankees such coins fell in deluges, like rain from the most massive of thunderstorms. The love-hate Billy-George-Reggie triangle was potent enough to keep the writers busy. But the clubhouse was also filled with a supporting cast of scoundrels, clowns, misanthropes and comedians with their own tabloid nicknames: Thurm, Sparky, Bucky, Lou, Goose, Gator, Figgy, Mick the Quick, Cat, Puff ... Any of them could be a story at any time of any day.
“It sounds strange, but I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark,” says Klein, who was 28 then. “It was like walking into a pinball machine. You would be working on something and then something else would happen or somebody would say something else. I’d take a break for five minutes—sit down in the press room—and go back in and see what was next.”
The great pinball machine that was the '78 Yankees clubhouse went dark the night of Aug. 9. Oh, the suburban papers still covered the team and four strike rags popped up, but the noise, lights and bells essentially ceased without the News, the Post and the Times to amplify them all.
“The suburban papers were there, but they weren’t digging for stuff,” Morabito says. “They wrote game stories, and they went home. It was like a vacation.”
The Yankees swear they were the better for it. They went 37–14 after the newspapers went on strike. They chased down the Red Sox after trailing them by as many as 14 games. They completed the greatest comeback since the 1914 “Miracle” Braves by beating Boston at Fenway Park in a tiebreaker game for the division title, then went on to defeat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series. Said New York’s new manager, Bob Lemon, the affable antidote to Martin’s combustibility, “The strike, coming when it did, did more for us than if we picked up a 20-game winner.”
The relationship between the press and baseball teams would never again be so tightly intertwined (and not because by the end of the season clubhouses opened to female reporters for the first time). In 1978 newspapermen traveled with the team on buses and on flights. A ballplayer would give a writer a ride home or a birthday present. The major league minimum salary was $21,000, and it wasn’t unusual for a reporter to be making more than a player.
Writers and team personnel rode shoulder-to-shoulder through the bobbing and dipping rapids of a baseball season—rapids that seemed made of booze. Clubhouses were stocked with beer. Writers, players, managers and coaches would repair to hotel bars after games, often sharing the same table and tab. Martin lost his job because of the potent cocktail of alcohol and the New York press. Slowly and inexorably, as more money flowed into the game from television, a chasm opened between writers and teams.
The 1978 strike was the canary in the coal mine for the newspapers themselves, though few people knew it at the time. The two sides fought over how many people were needed to operate—at the literal risk of life and limb—the massive presses that printed, cut and folded newspapers. But the real threat to publishers was not from the staffing. It was from a word and concept that was not yet in vogue: technology.
Newspapers, wheezing like a three-pack-a-day smoker, ran on iron machinery and the fossil fuels that powered the delivery trucks. Computerized, high-speed presses were coming. Technology quietly threatened not only jobs in the print-and-haul system but also the very meaning of newspapers in the fabric of a city. Hardly anyone, for instance, noticed that just as the pressmen went on strike in 1978, academics and computer scientists were developing a protocol suite to weave together various computer networks. A precursor to the World Wide Web was two years away.
James Reston, a columnist at the Times who worked through the strike as part of the newspaper’s syndication service, was one of the few who understood what was at stake.
On October 26, one week after the Yankees won the World Series, writing about the strike, Reston observed, “The element of tragedy lies, not so much in a conflict of right and wrong, but in a conflict of rights, in their common concerns about the technological changes that are revolutionizing the world of communications.
“For the pressmen, the invention of photocomposition and computerized high-speed presses is as much a threat as the automobile was to the livery stable, or the diesel locomotive was to the old coal-burning railroad engine with the third man in the cab. It is a struggle to preserve a world that is going, if not gone.”
But Reston knew technology meant trouble for the publishers as well as the laborers in their ink-stained denim jumpsuits. Even if his vision were a bit fuzzy, he saw how the future endangered newspapers.
“For while the new printing revolution is the pressmen’s nightmare,” he wrote, “it is the newspaper publishers’ main hope in their competition for readers and advertisers with network television, radio, cable television and—just beyond the horizon—world satellite television and the electronic transmission of printed news out of the back end of your television set.”
When the strike ended on Nov. 2 (the Post’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch, had broken ranks from the News and the Times and resumed publication on Oct. 5), the headline in the News read HELLO, THERE. REMEMBER US?
The answer was not one the News would like. Its circulation dropped by 145,000 during the strike, the Post’s by 47,000 and the Times’s by 4,000—a combined 6% in three months. It would get much worse. From 1964, when the circulation of U.S. dailies hit 60 million for the first time, to 1984, when it peaked at 63.3 million, the newspaper business was as reliable and robust as it would ever be. The 1978 Yankees existed in and were made all the more legendary because of the zenith of the press’s power and health.
By 2017 fewer than half as many people were reading newspapers, and baseball writers no longer had access to or much in common with the people they covered. The chasm grew. The pinball machine stilled. The river of alcohol dried.
But for one year—because the newspapers were there and then because they were not—the Yankees were, as good copy goes, even better than advertised, which is saying something, considering the ’77 Yankees had won the World Series in Year One of the Billy-Reggie-George mayhem. The Los Angeles Times sent a 26-year-old Skip Bayless to 1978 spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale specifically to write about the team’s prospects as tabloid fodder.
“Journalists are thicker than Florida mosquitoes” around the Yankees, Bayless wrote. The New York writers had been trained to be “part track star, part gossip columnist, dashing from player to player, trying to keep up with the soap opera, hoping they didn’t miss somebody blasting somebody.”
Newsday’s Donnelly, who was 43 then and had covered baseball since starting out at the World-Telegram & Sun in 1958, told Bayless, “The personalities in the clubhouse were becoming bigger than the game on the field.”
“It was hell,” Chass said. “I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
Tampa, Friday, March 17 (Spring training)
Steinbrenner gathered reporters at the Bay Harbor Hotel, which he owned, on a cement deck overlooking a swimming pool. He ripped his team for losing a St. Patrick’s Day game to the Reds 9–2. “After seeing the inadequacies of a team that is supposed to be world champions, I think my complexion matches the other guys’ green uniforms,” the Boss bellowed. “We’re at a point where Billy better start bucking down on them or we won’t repeat.”
The Yankees were getting into tabloid shape. Sparky Lyle, the team’s ace reliever and the 1977 AL Cy Young Award winner, showed up late to camp after Steinbrenner signed another ace reliever, free agent Rich (Goose) Gossage. When Lyle did arrive at the airport, Steinbrenner hired the 100-piece Hollywood Hills High band to greet him with their rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Two weeks later Lyle asked Steinbrenner to trade him.
The catcher and captain, Munson, came a day late, after asking to be dealt to the Indians so he could get away from Jackson and be closer to his Canton, Ohio, home. When Munson did show he announced, “I’m not talking to writers.” He ended his embargo long enough to allow one pitch-perfect line when a reporter asked him if he expected 1978 to be without the problems of ’77: “I’m an intelligent guy, but I’m not delirious yet.”
Centerfielder Mickey Rivers showed up late for workouts two days in a row. The Yankees fined him $1,000 and told him to meet the next day with Rosen. Rivers was late for that, too.
Martin hung a grotesque head in his office with yellow hair and a polka-dot necktie and a sign that said PULL DOWN FIRMLY. The innocents who did so recoiled in disgust when the head promptly spat on their hand.
On the day Gossage was scheduled to make his first appearance, in a spring game against the Rangers, Martin, who had managed Texas from 1973 to ’75, called the righty aside, folded his arms and told him, “I want you to hit that [bleeping] Billy Sample in the [bleeping] head.”
Gossage thought Martin was kidding. But Martin’s glare quickly persuaded him otherwise. “Billy, I throw a hundred miles an hour,” Gossage said. “I might kill him.”
“I don’t give a [bleep] if you do kill him.”
“Billy Sample never did anything to me. I won’t do it.”
“Are you telling me you’re not going to hit him?”
“That’s right. Whatever beef you have against Billy Sample, you’re going to have to handle it yourself.”
“That’s exactly the way I figured you: nothin’ but a big [bleeping bleep].”
When Sample came to bat in the seventh, Martin called time and brought in Gossage from the bullpen.
“I didn’t hit him,” Gossage recalls. “Our relationship went south. At the end of the day he was testing my loyalty.”
Friday, April 14 (2–4, 31⁄2 GB)
Lyle, Munson, Rivers, Graig Nettles and Roy White all skipped the team’s annual Welcome Home Dinner, a Steinbrenner favorite event with proceeds going to charity. Rosen fined each of them $500.
Unbowed, Nettles told the press, “If they want somebody to play third, I’m ready. If they want an entertainer for lunch, let ’em hire George Jessel.”
Rivers ripped Rosen for hurting the team morale with the fines.
The next game Nettles said he couldn’t play because of the flu and Munson said he couldn’t play because of a cyst behind his knee.
Daily News: EVERYTHING WENT WELL IN YANK FAMILY; DISCORD RETURNS.
Tuesday, May 9 (16–10, 2 GB)
Munson arrived in the clubhouse singing, “You Can Change Your Mind, but You Can’t Change Me.” The irony was lost on Munson that as someone who chose not to talk to the writers, he was reading the sports section of The Record of New Jersey when New York Times columnist Dave Anderson approached him.
“How come you’re not talking to the writers?”
“All the years I played can’t make up for what happened last year.”
“What happened specifically?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
So Anderson asked Jackson, the object of much of Munson’s angst.
“Thurman doesn’t like all the fanfare, all the hubbub,” Jackson said. “This is New York, where the reporters think they’re columnists, where the writers feel more qualified than any other city. And rather than get yourself in trouble, it’s better to keep quiet. Last year was a horror for me, for him, for Billy.”
Wrote Anderson, “Grumpy, grouchy, ornery, irascible, sometimes surly—perhaps [Munson] believes that such an attitude makes him appear tougher than he really is.”
Kansas City, Sunday, May 14 (17–12, 3 GB)
The Yankees blew a 6–3 lead and lost to the Royals 10–9 on a walk-off double. They were scheduled to fly commercial to Chicago, but the plane was delayed, which gave everybody more time to drink. Martin and his coaching staff sat in first class, the players and writers in coach.
Donnelly and Klein sat behind the bulkhead, Munson and Gossage in the second row, across the aisle. Munson was listening to his favorite artist, Neil Diamond, through headphones in his boom box, but he kept pulling the jack out, blasting snippets of Diamond at random, annoying intervals. Munson thought it was hilarious. Gossage, also laughing, advised him to knock it off. “Billy’s not going to like it,” he said.
“Billy’s so drunk he won’t even remember this flight,” Munson replied.
“The more I said no,” Gossage recalls, “the more Thurman would pull out the jack.”
A man in a suit, seated in front of Munson, turned and asked politely, “Would you mind lowering that a bit?”
Munson shot back, “Mind your own business, [bleep] face!”
Rivers, meanwhile, was in the back of the plane flinging playing cards at passengers. Martin sent a coach, Elston Howard, to tell Munson to knock it off. “What are you, the music coach?” Munson snorted.
Martin came back next. Munson had the headphones plugged in when the manager shook his head and muttered, “Captain, my [bleeping] ass.”
Munson turned to Gossage and asked, “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Captain, my [bleeping] ass.’ ”
Munson flew out of his seat and lunged at Martin. Gossage grabbed Munson. Howard grabbed Martin.
When the plane landed, there was a ground delay. Munson got up to use the first-class bathroom. Martin started complaining to Munson about Rivers. Munson waved him off.
“I don’t care about the other guys,” Munson said.
Martin sent another coach, Dick Howser, to tell Rivers to see him when they got to the hotel. “I don’t take no orders from no secretary,” Rivers snapped. “He wants to talk to me, let him tell me.”
Howser lunged at Rivers. Howard intervened.
At the hotel, Gossage went to Munson’s room before they headed to the bar for more beers. The phone rang. Munson answered.
“Oh, yeah?” Munson yelled. “C’mon up here! I’m going to beat your [bleeping] ass!”
He slammed the phone.
“Wow,” Gossage said. “Who was that?”
“Billy. I’m going to kill this [bleep].”
Martin never showed.
Third baseman Graig Nettles later said, “It wasn’t a question of where we would finish. It was a question of if we would.”
Seattle, Monday, June 5 (30–21, 4 1/2 GB)
From Young’s column in the News: “Martin will be gone from the Bronx in two or three days.”
The Times said of Young’s writing, “With all the subtlety of a knee in the groin, Dick Young made people gasp”—and that was in his 1987 obituary, with his 69-year-old body barely cold. Young was a rakish, Guys and Dolls, only-in-New-Yawk kind of character. He led with his chin, set off by a shock of white hair and the wide, sharp lapels of fashionable sport coats of the time, though nothing pierced like his words in print. A hardscrabble upbringing—he was born in 1917 and the child of a Depression-era broken family—formed the kind of acidulous writing that the sports pages never had seen.
As a young boy during the Depression, Young boarded with an Italian Catholic family in Washington Heights in a lower middle class neighborhood. After high school he shipped out to California to reunite with his father, who was working as a cameraman in Hollywood. The reunion didn’t turn out well. Young enrolled in a junior college but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford the $75 nonresident fee—his father failed to support him.
The dropout turned to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government work program that handed young men an axe and sent them off to clear forests to build roads and parks. The CCC sent Young to upstate New York, where his tree-felling skills helped build a state park. It was grueling work for which he was paid $30 a month.
One day he heard someone say the News was hiring people at the rate of $60 a month. He immediately dropped his axe and hitch-hiked to New York City—only to find out the News required a college degree. So Young signed up for some classes at NYU, where he took the only writing class of his life.
Proudly never a wordsmith, Young later gave this advice to a young writer named Bill Madden after Madden joined the News: “Don’t be a [bleeping] Hemingway. We don’t need any essayists here. Talk to your readers.”
The News hired Young in 1937 as a messenger boy at the rate of $18 a week. Young wanted much more. He was enthralled at the time with the staggering fame of Walter Winchell, who trafficked in gossip and parlayed a job at the New York Mirror into a syndicated column, a radio gig and a reputation as the biggest newsbreaker in America. Young didn’t want to join the pack. Like Winchell, he wanted to be ahead of the pack.
The News handed Young his first beat, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946, and he quickly went about changing the business. Young dismissed the usual polished pomposity of the sports section to get busy with his knack for kneeing people in the groin. In his first year on the beat he ripped Joe Hatten, a 14-game winner, for beating only second-division teams, a slight that president Branch Rickey repeated to Hatten when he went looking for a raise. “He cost me a bundle,” Hatten said of Young.
Young didn’t spare Rickey; he called him El Cheapo. He maligned manager Burt Shotton by regularly referring to him as KOBS—for “Kindly Old Burt Shotton.” When the Dodgers lost a game to the Giants 17–6, Young wrote, “This story belongs on page three with the other axe murders.”
When the Dodgers collapsed down the stretch in 1948, Young, invoking Betty Smith and the sporting sin of choking, began his story with one of the most famous leads in the sportswriting business: “The tree that grows in Brooklyn is an apple tree.”
Three different Dodgers managers tried to bar him from the clubhouse. The shortstop Johnny Logan would greet him with the nickname he gave Young—“Poison Pen”—and ask, “Who are you knockin’ today?”
Young’s ambition to be the Walter Winchell of sportswriting changed the business.
Writers for the other morning papers grudgingly had to follow him into the clubhouse to get quotes. Even his so-called early stories—the ones beat guys had to file before the game—made his peers nervous. At Ebbets Field night games they would send out for the early edition of the News to see what Young had written. He perfected, if not invented, adversarial sportswriting, becoming the most influential and highest-paid sports columnist in the country. In 1961 he was the first to suggest an asterisk if Roger Maris broke the single-season home run record. In ’77 he called Mets ace Tom Seaver “a pouting, griping, morale-breaking clubhouse lawyer.” He was so malicious to Seaver (and favorable to Mets chairman M. Donald Grant) that Maury Allen wrote a back-page column for the Post headlined DICK YOUNG DROVE SEAVER OUT OF TOWN.
You were either with Young or against him. And Steinbrenner, like Grant, made sure he remained with him. “The only negative I would say is that he seemed too close to Steinbrenner,” says Klein of Young. “Steinbrenner would leak stories to him. He was the most powerful guy at the most powerful paper. He was the king of sportswriters.
“I really liked Dick Young, but I just felt you couldn’t really reason with him. If he disliked somebody, like Tom Seaver or Billy or whoever, the coverage would be very, very slanted.”
Said Hecht, “He lost all credibility when he took Grant’s side in 1977. He sold out. The only Dick Young story I have is when he was with the Post in ’82. It was the ALCS. I was the game story writer. I’m supposed to get the press box seat with the phone. He took it. I had a choice of punching out a man 40 years my senior or walking away. One of the hardest things I ever did was to walk away.”
The author Roger Kahn wrote, “I knew Young across four decades: he was a compact, crude, combative man, the product of a broken home (like so many of the ’78 Yankees) . . . I never encountered anyone, including Billy Martin, who so ardently wanted to control every situation . . . as that crackling and never-boring baseball writer, Dick Young.”
In ’78, perhaps owing to his alliance with Steinbrenner, Young hammered Martin. The manager’s job was on the line because Young said so—day after day, column after column, one knee to the groin after another.
Seattle, Wednesday, June 7 (31–22, 4 GB)
“[Martin] is working on getting himself fired,” he wrote on June 7. “This is one of Billy’s finest talents, getting the bosses sore at him. . . . It’s a sickness and it is going to destroy him. Billy Martin doesn’t drink too much. He just talks too much when he drinks.”
The Bronx, Thursday, June 15 (36-24, 6 GB)
Young: “He is working on getting himself fired, and right now he is about even money to make it. Martin is obsessed with proving he’s the boss. He’s paranoid about it.
“Martin flies off the handle with his players to prove that he is the boss, and even with the newspapermen. ‘I know you stayed in the clubhouse two minutes after the deadline before the game’ he’ll say to a newspaperman.
“Having a few drinks accentuates Martin’s macho, his compulsion to let everybody know he’s boss.”
The Bronx, Sunday, June 18 (37–26, 7 GB)
The Yankees and Angels were tied at two with two outs in the ninth inning when Martin sent Art Fowler to the mound to talk to Ed Figueroa about the next hitter, Ron Fairly. Fowler was the Yankees’ pitching coach, but more renowned as Martin’s drinking buddy. He would visit a struggling pitcher on the mound and say, “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but whatever it is you better stop it because Billy’s getting awfully mad.” And then he’d walk back. This time he came bearing instructions from Martin.
“Pitch around him.”
Figueroa threw two perfect strikes on the outside corner. At 0-and-2, he decided it was time to finish off Fairly with a breaking ball down and in. Fairly smacked it into the rightfield seats. The Yankees lost 3-2.
Billy had no problem telling the press after the game that Figueroa disobeyed him—that he was told to walk Fairly.
Energized, the press left Martin’s office and dashed to Figueroa’s locker to tell him what Martin had just said. This was journalistic catnip. Figueroa did not disappoint. He erupted.
“Nobody said I was supposed to walk Fairly,” he said. “If they don’t like the way I pitch, they can just get my butt out of here.”
Boston, Monday, June 19 (37–27, 8 GB)
Before New York began a three-game series at Fenway Park with a 10–4 loss, Chass, citing a baseball source, wrote, “The owner’s view of Martin is at such a low level that if the Yankees lose two or all three games in this series Martin could be an ex-manager for the fourth time in his stormy career.”
Chass was 39 years old in the summer of ’78, a cardholding member of the Baseball Writers Association of America since 1962, when he worked for the Pittsburgh bureau of the Associated Press. He moved to the AP’s New York office in 1963 and to the Times in 1968. The Times put him on the Yankees beat in 1970.
Chass wanted to be a newspaperman since he was eight years old, and he was a bloodhound of a reporter. On Thanksgiving Day 1976, for instance, he received a tip that the Yankees were about to sign Jackson. He needed Steinbrenner for confirmation, but how could he reach him on the holiday? Chass tracked him down by calling the house phone at The Shack, a restaurant near Culver Military Academy, his alma mater near South Bend, Ind. Steinbrenner, shocked, came to the phone. So no-nonsense was Chass that during the 1978 World Series, while on strike but helping to run the press box as the New York chapter vice chairman of the BBWAA, he threw out Sidney Zion, an accomplished journalist who broke the story that Daniel Ellsberg was the source of The Pentagon Papers. Zion, Chass knew, was not properly credentialed to sit in the press box. Zion complained to Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times. Chass was unbowed.
New York would lose two out of three to Boston, but Martin kept his job. These managerial warnings were as common around the Yankees as changes to the five-day weather forecast. Many of the stories were planted by Steinbrenner.
“George had his guys,” says Morabito. “Dick [Young] was big, and Milt Richman of UPI and Tom McEwen of Tampa. He’d call me and say, ‘Give this to Tom.’ That was his buddy down there. He had his favorites, and when Dick Young is on your side, that’s a good thing.
“He loved Moss, he loved Phil, he respected Murray, he hated Henry. There were times when he’d call me and say, ‘Call Pepe and give this to him.’ I’d think, I can’t just make an announcement to Phil Pepe. But George felt, I’m going to take care of the guys who write good things about me. There’s no doubt George tried to manipulate the writers, and I was stuck in the middle of it.”
Boston, Tuesday, June 20 (38–27, 7 GB)
Young’s drumbeat about Martin continued. That afternoon, before the Yankees played at Fenway, Young paid a visit to Rosen at his suite at the Sheraton Towers. He prodded Rosen about Martin’s status.
“Tenuous,” Rosen told Young. “It is a very difficult situation. We are falling dangerously behind.”
Word got back to Martin about Young’s meeting with Rosen. That night the Yankees beat the Red Sox 10–4. When the reporters made their way into the visiting manager’s office, Martin confronted Young about trying to run him out of town. A shouting match ensued.
Later, around 3 a.m., a reporter ran into Martin on the streets of Boston. “I was right, wasn’t I?” Martin asked, referring to his blowout with Young.
“Well, maybe half-right.”
Martin corrected the reporter: “Three-quarters right.”
Detroit, Thursday, June 22 (39–28, 7 1/2 GB)
Young, beating the Martin drum again: “He had the job he always wanted. And he’s blowing it.”
Said Martin, “I’ve never been scared in my life, and I’m not scared now. We’ve got a pennant to win. My mother didn’t raise a quitter. Remember when I was going to get fired last year? I’ll show you the ring I got fired with.”
The Yankees beat the Tigers 4–2 behind Ron Guidry, who improved to 12–0. Jackson played rightfield wearing a batting helmet. Two cherry bombs had been thrown at him.
Monday, June 26 (41-30, 9 1⁄2 GB)
Billy met for 2 1/2 hours with George and Rosen at Yankee Stadium and talked them out of firing Fowler. George assured the press that Billy would manage through the season.
“This should end the speculation that has been developing of late concerning Billy’s job,” Steinbrenner said.
“If they get rid of Art, they’re gonna lose me, too,” Martin told the press. “Anyways, I got bigger things on my mind.”
“Mickey. He may be dying.”
Mickey Mantle, his good friend and drinking buddy, was admitted to a hospital in Dallas with a bleeding ulcer, the toll of years of drinking. If it caused Martin one bit of introspection about his drinking, it wasn’t obvious.
“I tell people to this day the best manager I ever played for was absolutely Billy Martin,” second baseman Willie Randolph said. “For a season, if you wanted to galvanize a team and play Yankees baseball, Billy was the best. Nobody could make you feel like Joe D. and all those cats back in the day like Billy.
“But eventually, you knew he might self destruct.”
The Bronx, Sunday, July 2 (45–33, 8 GB)
Martin voiced his frustrations with Steinbrenner to a friendly sounding board, Pepe. “How do I get that man to like me?” he asked. “I want to manage for him the rest of my life.”
Martin had close relationships with Pepe and Klein, often sharing drinks and gossip with them in hotel bars. “We had an understanding,” Klein says, “that based on how drunk he was and what he said, we’d get back to him the next day, Pepe and me, about whether we could use it or not.”
Pepe, then 43, had been covering the Yankees since 1961, when he was part of the group of up-and-coming young writers known as the Chipmunks. The son of a Brooklyn bookkeeper and store clerk, Pepe attended Lafayette High and St. John’s before landing a gig at the New York World Telegram in 1957. He stayed there until 1966, when the Telegram became the third of four New York newspapers that folded after the last big newspaper strike (1962–63). Pepe was a survivor. He kept his head low and took few risks; he had his prickly colleague, Young, to provide cover.
“I loved Phil,” Morabito says. “Phil was also a bit of a fan. When the team was going good, Phil was happy. Phil and Moss did their jobs, but deep down they wanted the players to like them.”
Klein began covering the Yankees in 1976. With one week left in spring training that year, he stood outside Martin’s office, a rookie beat writer trying to work up the nerve for a one-on-one interview. Finally, he walked in and asked Martin about the team’s plans at shortstop, where Stanley and Jim Mason were competing.
“Nobody’s asked me about that for a few days,” Martin said. “So they don’t know I’ve made a decision. You’re asking me, so I’m telling you first. Stanley will start against lefties, and Mason will start against righties. It’s a platoon.
“Write it. You’ll look smart.”
Steinbrenner wasn’t the only one to use information as currency with the writers. Martin saw a fresh beat guy to pull to his side. “Let’s you and me have an understanding,” Martin said, leaning over his desk. “A lot of people don’t like me, and a lot of writers have burned me. I know I can be a real [jerk]. But if you’re honest with me, I’ll be honest with you ... I think we can get along pretty good.”
An alliance was forged. Drinking with Martin after games was part of Klein’s job. “I found out more at the bar, especially from Billy, than if I spent two hours in the locker room,” Klein says. “The games, except pennant race games, were not as significant as what happened before the game and especially what happened after at the hotel bar.”
By July 1978 the turmoil was taking a toll on the club, if not the writers’ livers. Veteran pitchers Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Andy Messersmith and Dick Tidrow were hurting; Munson, Lyle, pitcher Ed Figueroa, outfielder Roy White, first baseman Jim Spencer and DH Cliff Johnson all wanted out; and the Billy Watch, despite Steinbrenner’s proclamation, was constant and withering.
Young let up on Martin for a day, but only so he could go after the captain: “I’m not surprised at anything Thurman Munson does. He is one of life’s beautifully selfish persons. He spends half his day thinking only about himself, and the other half thinking of how much he hates Reggie Jackson.”
The Bronx, Thursday, July 13 (46–39, 111⁄2 GB)
After the first game back from the All-Star break, a 6–1 loss to the White Sox, Hecht joined the nuttiness of the Yankees’ beat. The Post’s custom then was to switch its two baseball writers, Hecht and Maury Allen, at the break. Hecht spent the first half covering a Mets team that would lose 96 games. He was 30 years old and described thusly by Detroit columnist Joe Falls: “He looks a lot like Woody Allen: wire glasses, scraggly hair, a sad but funny face. You know the type.”
In 1969, Hecht, just out of Vanderbilt with an English degree, started as a clerk at the Post. He moved to high school sports and harness racing handicapping, and then to baseball in 1974. He famously sparred with Martin, who once announced to the team in the clubhouse, “Don’t trust this guy” and said he would throw Hecht in the whirlpool. Nettles in his book called him “the worst” and “a scrounge.” Said Gossage, “Henry was probably the most negative about everybody and everything.”
But Hecht (who would work at SI from 1984 to ’87) had his supporters. Fran Healy, a backup catcher who was released to become a broadcaster in May 1978, helped Hecht move from a fifth-floor studio to a seventh-floor one-bedroom. Jackson sometimes gave him a ride to Manhattan after games in his Rolls-Royce. “He trusted me,” Hecht says. “Billy tried to drive a wedge between me and Reggie.”
In 1977 and ’78, Hecht played poker with the players in hotel suites. The rotating crew included Rivers, Munson and pitcher Ken Holtzman. “I was the only beat writer who gambled seriously,” Hecht said. “They trusted me. I never said a word about it.
“I was there at the greatest time to ever be a baseball writer, because it changed so dramatically. It was great to get access, make friends with players not for nefarious reasons but because you’re spending time with them, and when you do that, you naturally gravitate toward certain people.
“I was young and I was single. You know what I did for 10 years? I worked my ass off, I chased women, I gambled, I smoked dope and I went to Europe for two to three weeks.”
Hecht would find the next 16 days to be among the most absurdly chaotic stretches any beat writer ever experienced.
The Bronx, Monday, July 17 (47–42, 14 GB)
One of the most tumultuous days in Yankees history began with Jackson meeting for 90 minutes in the Boss’s office. Jackson was convinced he could not play for the manager. He and Steinbrenner wound up in an argument of their own.
That night the Yankees took a 5–1 lead over Kansas City, but Martin replaced a weary Hunter in the fifth inning with Lyle. After he threw 1 2/3 innings, Lyle told Martin that he was done for the night—he was not a long reliever, he insisted—and showered, dressed and drove home to Demarest, N.J., with the game still going on. Gossage blew a two-run lead in the ninth.
“They gave me Sparky’s job on a silver platter, and I proceeded to go through the worst time of my career,” Gossage recalls. “It was the only time I felt like quitting. We ended up 14 games behind because of me. Billy just kept throwing me out there. I’d come in and Munson would go, ‘How are you goin’ to lose this one?’ And I’d go, ‘Get your ass back there and we’ll find out.’ ”
Lyle watched Gossage blow the lead from his couch with a beer in hand. What he saw next would set in motion Martin’s demise.
In the 10th, Munson led off with a single. Martin, through Howser, his third base coach, ordered Jackson to bunt against lefty Al Hrabosky. Jackson squared but took the pitch for a ball. With K.C. now expecting it, Martin took the bunt off. Jackson, on his own, tried to bunt a high fastball and missed.
Howser called time, walked to Jackson and said, “Billy wants you to hit away.”
“I’m bunting,” said Jackson, who was swinging a cold bat and had told Munson before the inning began he might try to bunt him into scoring position.
Jackson squared again and missed. Then, at 1 and 2, popped out on another bunt attempt. As he walked back to the dugout, Martin said to coach Gene Michael, “Tell Jackson to get the hell out of the dugout and go into the clubhouse.”
“Tell Billy,” Jackson told Michael, “to tell me to my face.”
The Yankees wound up losing 9–7. The game ended when Martin sent Johnson, batting .192, to pinch-hit for Jackson. Johnson flied out. In his office, Martin flew into a rage. Shouting and cursing, he threw a clock radio and a soft drink bottle against a wall. He called Rosen and demanded, “I want Jackson suspended for the rest of the season!”
Rosen arranged a conference call with Steinbrenner. The Boss settled on a five-day suspension, which was announced immediately. “He doesn’t want me around here. He should be happy now,” Jackson said about Martin. “Billy hasn’t spoken to me for a year and a half, so why should he talk to me now? Why should he tell me?”
Martin repaired to the press room for a few nightcaps. “Only the manager can decide when to bunt and when not to bunt,” he told his scribe friends. He took one last swig and headed for the elevator and the ride to Steinbrenner’s office.
Reporters and TV crews decamped to Jackson’s apartment on Fifth Avenue. Early the next morning, an off day for the Yankees, Jackson slipped out a back entrance of his building and hopped a flight to San Francisco. Another throng of reporters gathered there for the plane’s arrival. The airline ordered the pilot to stop at an access ramp off the runway, where Jackson was allowed to deplane, avoiding reporters.
The latest Billy-Reggie battle attracted so much attention that Lyle’s desertion drew little notice, at least until Hecht read the Times. Says Hecht, “I thought, Wait a minute. One guy defies the manager and gets five games and another guy defies the manager and gets away with it?”
Hecht quietly began working the Lyle angle.
Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 19 (48–42, 14 GB)
Post: REGGIE SHOULD JUST STAY AWAY.
Wrote Hecht of his occasional driver, “Enough. Stay home, Reggie. If the Yankees pay you for not playing, great. If they don’t, you can afford it ... If Billy gets fired and you stay, you’ll earn the undying enmity of almost every Yankee, even the ones who can’t stand Billy.
“The Yankee season is lost ... The atmosphere is so heavy, so laden with hate ... The Yankees were lucky to survive without trying to murder the guy in the next locker ... Get away, Reggie ... Get out of New York ... You can’t win.”
The Post had barely hit the newsstands when Figueroa, starting that night against the Twins, told the press, “I feel like I’d like to get out of this club. Not next year. This year. Too much junk going on. I want to go play with a nice quiet ball club.” Then he shut out Minnesota 2–0.
Bloomington, Minn., Thursday, July 20 (49–42, 13 GB)
Even Chris Chambliss, one of the most reticent Yankees, had had enough. Speaking of Jackson, the first baseman said, “I don’t think he can come back and have things be rosy ... If he comes back, something else has to happen. There will still be more problems.”
Lyle, usually loquacious, simmered. “I’m not talking about anything,” he said. “Nothing I could say now would help me. I’ll have plenty to say when I finally get out of here.”
According to Hecht, Martin did not show for the 7:30 p.m. game until 6:10.
The Yankees won another shutout 4–0, this time behind Guidry.
Chicago, Friday, July 21 (50–42, 12 GB)
Hecht’s story about Lyle and the team’s “double standard” hit the streets. “The Yankees went berserk,” Hecht says. “They tried to get me to walk back the story, but I said, ‘No, I nailed it.’ I don’t remember seeing Billy that night. Saturday I was off—no Sunday paper. Sunday, Reggie shows up. The suspension is over, and he’s completely unapologetic. Billy is apoplectic. The team was imploding.”
Chicago, Sunday, July 23 (52–42, 10 GB)
Jackson rejoined the Yankees. He missed the team bus to Comiskey Park and arrived late for the 1:15 game. He didn’t apologize because he figured Martin despised him so much nothing would change. Martin left Jackson out of the lineup. He walked out of his office, saw reporters crowded around Jackson and snarled, “Damn reporters. Disrupting my team.”
The Yankees won 3–1. They were now 5–0 without Jackson, while picking up four games on Boston. The game took just 2:20, leaving the team plenty of time to drink before an evening flight to Kansas City. Martin headed to the Comiskey Park press room and started in with several scotch-and-sodas. He saw a reporter.
“What did Jackson say?”
“Here, read it yourself,” the reporter said, handing Martin a copy of the typewritten story that had been transmitted via Telecopier.
“Yecch,” Martin said after reading it, handing it back as if it were spoiled milk.
The Yankees, press in tow, loaded onto buses to O’Hare Airport. Martin, a bit woozy from the drinks and the tumult, looked for his usual sympathetic ears, Pepe and Klein. Neither was on the trip. Jack Lang, normally on the Mets beat, filled in for Pepe. Another Mets writer, Dan Castellano, subbed for Klein. Donnelly from Newsday wasn’t there, either. Even Morabito, another Martin ally, was not on the trip.
Where to turn? Chass happened to be sitting near Martin on the bus. “When we get to the airport,” Martin said, “can I see you for a few minutes?”
After reaching O’Hare, Martin unloaded to Chass about Jackson. “We’re winning without you,” Martin said, referring to his rightfielder. “We don’t need you coming in and making these comments. If he doesn’t shut his mouth, he won’t play, and I don’t care what George says. He can replace me right now if he doesn’t like it.”
Lang and Frank Brown of the AP saw Martin talking and joined in. Brown asked Martin, “Is this on the record?”
“You bet it is,” Martin responded.
The reporters dashed off to pay phones to call in the latest in crazy Yankees stories. Martin headed for a bar. About 15 minutes later, he spotted Chass and Hecht near a newsstand. “Here’s Billy coming out of the bar,” Hecht says. “He’s not drunk. It took an enormous amount of liquor at that time to get him drunk.”
“Did you get all that in the paper?” Martin asked.
“Sure did, Billy,” Chass replied.
The plane was about to board. Martin, Chass and Hecht began walking to the gate. Martin wasn’t done complaining about Jackson. He was particularly peeved that Jackson said the two of them had not talked for a year and a half.
“We talked in spring training when I let him drive his Royals Royce to Miami, Vero Beach and Fort Myers,” Martin said.
Recalls Hecht, “He said Royals Royce. You can’t forget that.”
“I let him fly to Oakland,” Martin continued. “He’s a born liar. The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar. The other’s convicted.” (In 1974, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to charges related to illegal campaign contributions.)
Hecht and Chass looked at each other. They immediately knew this was huge, even by Yankees standards. Neither had a notebook out. Martin walked ahead of them to board. They checked with each other on what they had just heard, making sure they agreed on every word.
Buzzing, they knew they had the biggest story of the year in a year full of big stories. Chass and Hecht, whose deadline had long passed, had to board the plane. There was no time to call the office. After Chass checked into the Crown Center Hotel, he called Steinbrenner and read him Martin’s quote. “Did he really say that?” Steinbrenner asked. “Was he drinking?”
Steinbrenner called Rosen at home, waking him. Rosen called Cedric Tallis, the general manager, who was traveling with the team. He asked him to go ask Martin if he really said those words. Tallis found Martin drinking in a room with his staff. Martin denied it.
Meanwhile, Hecht had persuaded Healy to get Jackson to talk to him. “I go up to his suite,” Hecht says, “and he unloads on Billy and what Billy is doing to him. He was right. Billy was trying to gaslight Reggie until he begged for a trade.”
When Hecht was done talking to Jackson, he phoned Steinbrenner, about an hour after Chass had called. Word of a damning quote from one reporter is one thing—easily written off as a misquote or an ax to grind. But the same quote from competing reporters? Steinbrenner was alarmed. It was almost midnight on the East Coast. He telephoned Rosen again and ordered him to fly to Kansas City first thing in the morning with Morabito and then fire Martin.
About 1 a.m., Martin phoned Hecht. His words were slurred. Hecht jotted notes: “Out to get me ... fired ... vindictive ... not a nice person.”
When he hung up, Hecht, writing for the afternoon Post, sat down at his typewriter to compose the magnum opus of the 1978 Yankees beat.
Kansas City, Monday, July 24 (52–43, 10 1/2 GB)
Post: GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE.
“It’s four in the morning and I’m thinking how much I hate covering the Yankees and how I should be happy now,” Hecht wrote. “Billy Martin has been fired for calling his boss a ‘convicted’ liar. Billy is a brutal man. Forked tongue and all that...
“He lies to his players and you know about it, but you back off because the little unprintable is still the manager and you have to deal with him.
“But he’s also a pathetic figure, self-destructive, childish, a man who will go to pieces if he can’t get another job managing... Drinking too much is almost a real death wish.
“This Yankee team is hateful to me, as it is to all the beat guys. We like the individuals, but not the collective madness George Steinbrenner has gathered.”
Times: MARTIN RAPS STEINBRENNER, JACKSON AND JEOPARDIZES JOB; OWNER STUNNED BY MANAGER’S OUTBURST.
Says Hecht, “Murray wrote the story, and the Times made it the lead on the righthand column. I was on the front page. The Times was so passive then, so conservative.”
As soon as Rosen reached the hotel, he called Martin’s room. Martin hung up on him. Rosen told Morabito to go get Martin and bring him to his suite. Morabito found Martin walking toward an elevator and crying behind dark glasses. He had a resignation letter in his hand. He was headed toward the lobby to tell the writers he was resigning.
“Let’s go back to the room first,” Morabito said. They sat down, writing some notes on a hotel pad about what to say. They stopped by Rosen’s suite. Then Martin pulled himself together enough to read a statement in front of the writers. And then he was gone, walking off with Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto.
“What happened at the airport in Chicago is what did Billy in,” Klein says. “Nobody did anything wrong. The fact is he wound up with Murray, a guy he wasn’t that close with, and Henry, a guy he disliked. Poor Billy had nobody to talk to. It’s weird to think of twists in history like that.”
Lemon, a drinker, but a quiet one, replaced Martin. That night he gathered the players at Royals Stadium. “Hey, you guys are world champions,” Lemon told them. “I’ve watched you guys. You guys are good enough. So let’s stop stinking up the place. I’m going to give you the bats and balls, and hopefully I make the right pitching changes. Let’s go get ’em.”
Says Gossage, “We proceeded to start playing the way we were capable.”
Wednesday, July 26 (54-43, 8 1/2 GB)
Young weighed in: “Billy Martin got himself resigned for one basic reason. He couldn’t stand the Steinbrenner-Reggie friendship. Thurman Munson can’t stand it either. Thurman Munson thinks Reggie Jackson is teacher’s pet, and that makes him mad because he was teacher’s pet before Reggie came along.
“Thurman didn’t care much for Martin. They had only one thing in common: a mutual dislike of Reggie Jackson. Reggie’s honcho charm doesn’t register with too many players.”
The News’s Mike Lupica, then 26, wrote with a fury to hint that he was the heir to Young as the most powerful columnist in New York.
Steinbrenner, Jackson and Martin, he wrote, “have managed to tear down everything Yankee Stadium stood for. In the world of sports, this is quite a crime.
“But it is Martin who made the Yankee clubhouse the most unpleasant place in sports. He was positively brilliant in creating an atmosphere of fear and hate. Walking through the Yankee clubhouse became the closest thing to taking a stroll through the South Bronx in the middle of the night, unarmed.”
The Bronx, Thursday, July 27 (55–44, 8 GB)
Jackson pulled into Yankee Stadium in a red Mercedes convertible, one of his six cars. The Times noted that Jackson “ran from the parking lot to the entrance before anybody had a chance to boo.”
He would be back in rightfield for a doubleheader against the Indians. New York had gone 7–1 without him. The first pitch he saw was called a strike. The crowd cheered. Someone hung a bedsheet with orange letters reading BUNT, REGGIE.
Jackson went 5-for-8 in the doubleheader, which the Yankees split. Reporters crowded around his locker. A cameraman asked Jackson if he could turn on his light. “Go on, do what you’re going to do,” Jackson said. “Run me right to California ... Run me right out of here.”
He pulled at the tin foil around a cold bottle of beer. “Why don’t the fans leave me alone and let me play ball?”
The Bronx, Thursday, Aug. 10 (64–49, 7 1/2 GB)
There were no newspapers on Sheehy’s picnic table in the Yankees’ clubhouse. The pressmen strike was on. On the first day without the News, Post and Times, Guidry threw a three-hitter to beat Milwaukee 9–0.
New York without its newspapers would be a strange land, like Paris without its patisseries or London without its theatres. Hotlines, leaflets, sandwich boards, new tabloids and even a squadron of women in Dolly Parton wigs advertising the country musician’s upcoming concert tried to fill the void. You could call a News hotline and hear a one-minute recording of Young, but he didn’t pack nearly the same punch on tape.
Wall Street analysts estimated the papers were hemorrhaging $2 million a day. City officials figured businesses were losing just as much without people seeing their ads. Producers delayed the release of the film A Dream of Passion, starring Ellen Burstyn, due to lack of publicity and reviews.
Among the Yankees, however, the strike created welcome tranquillity. “I remember walking into the clubhouse,” Randolph says, “and for the most part it was just about the players. It was a small group now. I remember thinking, It’s just us. It gave us an opportunity to work together.
“We had been getting so distracted that this was the time to just take a big exhale, coming to the park and just preparing for the game. You could have a beer or two after the game and talk baseball. I felt a certain rebonding, if you will, sitting there and talking baseball rather than all that other chatter. It got us back to being about the Yankees instead of about George or Billy or Reggie.”
Seattle, Sunday, Aug. 20 (69–53, 8 1/2 GB)
The Yankees lost to the Mariners 5–4. Rivers was fined for being late to the ballpark and benched. Lesley Visser in the Boston Globe wrote, “What wasn’t mentioned, however, was that Yankee management felt Rivers was loafing in the game the night before. The rumor was he was angry because the Yankees couldn’t get a check cashed for him so he could go to the racetrack.”
It had all the ingredients of a noisy tabloid story: money, gambling, a lack of hustle, a fine and a benching. But it wasn’t news. There were no tabloids. The story never had a life in New York.
Baltimore, Thursday, Aug. 31 (77–54, 6 1/2 GB)
The Yankees’ 6–2 win over the Orioles was their seventh straight and 15th in 20 games since the strike. “No news is good news,” said Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. “The newspaper strike in New York may be the best thing that happened to the Yankees. Probably the same words are being said and the same things are being done. But the public is not reading about it, and the Yankees aren’t, either.”
Wrote Roger Kahn in his 2003 book, October Men, “No more could Dick Young tell millions of readers what was wrong with George Steinbrenner, an inviting target now that Martin was gone. No longer could Henry Hecht demand in large, intimidating type that Reggie Jackson get out of town. For this season at least, Murray Chass’ days of shadowing drinking ballplayers in airports were finished ... The Yankees richly enjoyed a freedom ignored in James Madison’s Bill of Rights. That was freedom from the press.”
Detroit, Wednesday, Sept. 13 (87–57, 1/2 GA)
The first Broadway play to open since the strike, Players, starring Fred Gwynne, reported strong ticket sales. Retail and entertainment businesses plowed more advertising money into radio and television—and much of it stayed there for good. The Yankees won at Tiger Stadium 7–3 to move into first place for the first time all season. They had wiped out a 14-game deficit in 56 days, including a 24–8 run since the newspaper strike began.
The Boston Globe’s story was written by Chass, with an addendum noting that he “regularly covers the Yankees for the New York Times, which is currently on strike.” Jackson, downplaying the standings, told Chass, “It’s where you are when the leaves turn brown, not when they’re green.”
The Bronx, Tuesday, Sept. 26 (95–62, 1 GA)
“Get ready,” Lemon told Guidry before Figueroa beat Toronto 4–1. “There’s going to be some funny-looking reporters in here tonight.”
For the first time in history, the Yankees’ clubhouse was opened to women reporters, thanks to a ruling the previous day by U.S. district court judge Constance Baker Motley. It settled a lawsuit brought the previous year against commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the Yankees by Time Inc. and Melissa Ludtke, a 27-year-old reporter for Sports Illustrated who was barred from the clubhouses while covering the 1977 World Series.
Motley, in an unintended nod to the revolution Young wrought, found that most baseball news emanated from player interviews. She ruled that requiring Ludtke or any reporter to stand in a tunnel while others worked the clubhouse—as the Yankees had done—was contrary to law under the 14th Amendment.
Five female TV reporters and their crews entered the clubhouse. Yankees outfielder Jay Johnstone yelled vulgarities. Outfielder Paul Blair grumbled, “The more we ignore them, the less we’ll see of them.”
“The players’ wives,” Spencer said, “aren’t going to appreciate this. My wife doesn’t know about this yet.”
Postgame, Lemon allowed the women to ask questions first.
“I don’t mind it,” he said. “It relaxed everyone before the game. There was a lot of laughing. Hey, all the guys talk about women. Why not have them in here?”
Young gave his blessing to the next revolution in baseball, writing, “Women reporters in the Yankee clubhouse aren’t much different than men reporters in the Yankee clubhouse, inasmuch as they figured out that if you want an answer to something, you go to Reggie Jackson.
“So, the women I saw in the Yankee clubhouse on libido liberation day headed straight for Reggie’s locker, microphone in hand, asking him what he thought of it all.
“ ‘How old are you?’ Reggie asked this one chick.
“ ‘Twenty-seven,’ she said, using her baseball age in a baseball situation.
“ ‘Well, then, I don’t suppose you’ll see anything here that you haven’t seen before,’ said Reggie.
“During the trial, in fact, the office of the baseball commissioner asked if I would sign an affidavit opposing the admission of women reporters in the clubhouse. I said I couldn’t do that because I believe in women’s rights to be there.”
T.J. Simers, the beat writer for the Daily Record of Morristown, N.J., marked the occasion with this observation in his account of the historic day: “In the interests of accuracy, even though it will cause the libbers to lip off, a few of the defrocked players drew blushes from the female reporters.”
Saturday, September 30 (99–62, 1 GA with one game to play)
Steinbrenner came up with his own rule now that women were allowed in the clubhouse: reporters would be allowed in after a game for 15 minutes, during which time the players would remain dressed. Then the reporters would have to leave the clubhouse for 30 minutes while players showered and dressed, after which time the reporters would be let back in.
Said Chass, “I’m even more incensed that the Yankees and baseball are trying to force male sportswriters to band together to prevent women from the entering the locker rooms. I totally resent that they are using us.”
Said Young, “It’s childish. The Yankees are merely trying to show who’s boss. They want to spank the press to get even because they lost a judicious decision.”
The Bronx, Sunday, Oct. 1 (99–63, Tied)
The Indians roughed up Hunter 9–2 while Luis Tiant pitched a two-hitter to beat the Blue Jays 5–0, leaving the Yankees and the Red Sox tied after 162 games and creating the second tiebreaker game in AL history.
“How do you think I feel when people in the stands say, ‘You’re a no-good [bleep]?’ ” Jackson said after the game. He drank from a can of beer at his locker. He admitted being mentally fatigued. “I’ll be up [for the game],” Jackson said. “But when it’s over, I’ll be tired. I might curse somebody, break somebody’s arm, slap somebody ...”
At 10 p.m., a week after pulling out of joint negotiations with the News and the Times, the Post reached a tentative deal with the striking pressmen. They agreed to match the terms of the contract eventually decided on by the other two papers. The Post’s presses would roll again in four days.
Monday, Oct. 2 (100–63, 1 GA)
Light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent belted a home run with White’s bat, which was given to him by Rivers. Jackson homered. In rightfield Lou Piniella somehow snagged a base hit he had lost in the sun in the ninth, keeping the ball from rolling to the wall and saving the 5–4 lead. Guidry won again. Gossage got Carl Yastrzemski on a pop-up to end the game.
Forty years later the plays are as familiar as lines from a timeless song.
Hecht, writing for ThePhiladelphia Inquirer, took the glass-half-empty view: “The Red Sox will live with the shame of 1978 for the rest of their lives. They blew it. It’s that simple.”
Sunday, Oct. 15 (Yankees lead Dodgers in World Series, 3–2)
After losing two games in Los Angeles, the Yankees took all three games in New York, the last of which was a 12–2 blowout in which the skittish Dodgers made three errors.
New York City was dense with grit and crime in those days. At the previous World Series, broadcaster Howard Cosell, noting on live national television a fire raging near Yankee Stadium, provided what would become a coda for the era: “The Bronx is burning.” In their sloppy, nervous defeat, the Dodgers melted in this cauldron—the same cauldron that had forged this Yankees team. Turmoil and pressure hardened the Yankees like diamonds.
“The funnest part was the way we used to get on each other,” Chambliss said. “It was just hilarious. If you had a bad day at the ballpark, you were going to get ripped more than anybody else on the bus. We made light of anything bad that was going on.”
During the World Series a report surfaced that several Yankees players may have broken curfew. Lemon was asked about it.
“I call tell you that’s not true,” he said. “And the reason I know it’s not true is I don’t have a curfew.”
The Dodgers could not wait to get out of the Bronx.
“Any of you guys from the Post?” shortstop Bill Russell shouted toward reporters in the Dodgers’ clubhouse after Game 5. “Guys from the Post are no good—just like this town.”
Outfielder Rick Monday complained about the trash thrown at him on the field. Asked to describe what came out of the stands, Monday said, “Take the alphabet and you can match any object they threw on the field for every letter in the alphabet.”
“This city,” said another Dodgers outfielder, Reggie Smith, “is filthy and so are its people.”
“They ought to drop a bomb on this park,” second baseman Davey Lopes said. “Everything is bad about it ... the dimensions, the fans ... the fans are the most vulgar I’ve ever seen.”
Los Angeles, Tuesday, Oct. 17 (Yankees win World Series 4–2)
New York rolled in the clincher 7–2, behind Catfish and Goose. Reggie hit a home run.
“I’ll never forget this,” Gossage says. “When we won the World Series in L.A., it was very subdued in the clubhouse. You would never believe we had won the World Series.
“We were so exhausted. The [stuff] we went through ... everybody was just worn out, mentally and physically, from chasing down the Red Sox and all the pressure we played under for so long. It was the first time I won, and I remember thinking these celebrations were supposed to be louder.”
New York City, Monday, Nov. 6
At 12:22 a.m. the News’s presses began rolling again. Editions of the Times began printing 70 minutes later. The strike was over. The union gained job protection for its 1,508 pressmen through 1984, though management won the right to hasten job reduction through attrition and buyouts.
The Washington Post noted that retail sales held steady during the strike without newspaper advertising, as department stores poured money into TV, radio and magazines. “Theatre and movie attendance went up, restaurants thrived and hotels were jammed,” it reported. “New Yorkers appear to be learning how to live without newspapers.”
On A Train Between New York and Newton, Mass., Sometime in 2004
Klein, then an editor with the Star-Ledger, had been off the beat for 12 years. He could remember the exact time and place when he knew it was time to go: Sept. 8, 1992. The Yankees were in Baltimore and had just called up minor league pitcher Sterling Hitchcock. Klein waited to talk to him in the clubhouse for a story to run in the early edition.
When Hitchcock showed, Klein allowed him some time to find his locker and get settled. Then Klein walked over, introduced himself and asked if he could pose a few questions to him. “I don’t have time for you now,” said Hitchcock.
Nearby, outfielder Mel Hall, shouted, “That’s right. You don’t have to talk to those guys.”
“I actually sat down and made a list of all the things I would miss and all the things I wouldn’t miss,” Klein says. “The things I wouldn’t miss got a lot longer.”
Twelve years later, taking Amtrak to visit a friend, Klein had another epiphany. The car had three free copies of the Times stacked on a table for passengers. He grabbed one and noticed the sharp creases in each of the papers. He was the first to crack one open. He looked around the car.
“And it struck me. Nobody on the train was reading a newspaper,” he said. “They were all on gadgets of one kind or another. It suddenly occurred to me, ‘We’re in trouble. People are not reading newspapers anymore.’
The number of Americans who had read a newspaper the previous day dropped from 76% in 1967, to 63% in 1986, to 41% in 2002 and to 20% in 2016. By ’17, combined circulation for the News, Post and Times had sunk to 1.3 million, a 61% drop from 1978.
Baseball writers long ago stopped traveling on the same flights as the teams they covered. Access to players and managers today is limited to brief periods of “availability.” Cellphones with photo capability long ago put hotel bars off limits to baseball people. Newspapers are rarely found in clubhouses. If any reading material does exist there, it tends to be along the line of Robb Report.
One day in 1978, as Klein boarded the Yankees’ team bus to go from the hotel to the ballpark, Gossage handed him a bag.
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
Inside was a bottle of Dom Perignon. The Yankees had chipped in for a birthday gift for one of their beat writers. “I still have it at home,” Klein says. “I always tell people I was so lucky to have covered the team when I did. Nowadays you couldn’t have those relationships.”
A train is a conveyor belt with a schedule. It takes riders from place to place, with no allowance for improvisation or the desires of an impetuous heart. As it methodically click-clacked Klein, its solitary newspaper reader, toward Newton, its power to move people seemed especially inadequate compared with the power of memories to do so.
Walt Whitman, who cut his writing teeth as a New York City newspaperman, understood this transcendence. A journalist, a baseball fan and most famously a poet, Whitman wrote in his mid-19th-century iconic collection Leaves of Grass:
How sweet the silent backward tracings!
The wanderings as in dreams—the meditation of old times resumed—their loves, joys, persons, voyages.
Young and Pepe, George and Billy, the boozy nights, the shared buses and planes, the clubhouse friendship, the sway newspapers held with a team ... all are dead and gone now. But the Yankees’ season of 1978 endures. Four decades later the clatter of the clubhouse, the clinking of ice in a tumbler, the piercing shrill of 72-point back-page headlines and the funereal silence of Fenway in the gold and gray of an October late afternoon still echo because the Bronx Bombers came from 14 back to win it all. Memory preserves what otherwise is gone. And when we go there, how sweet the silent backward tracings.