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A BUNT THAT WENT BOOM!

July 31, 1978
July 31, 1978

Table of Contents
July 31, 1978

Yankee Turmoil
Karpov-Korchnoi
Dennis Conner
Money In Sports: Part 3
Baseball
Golf
Boxing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A BUNT THAT WENT BOOM!

For bunting when Manager Billy Martin ordered him to swing away, Reggie Jackson was suspended, and so began a chain of tumultuous events that culminated in Martin's resignation

It ended for Billy Martin on Monday afternoon. He would no longer have to deal with George Steinbrenner, his least favorite owner. He would no longer have to pencil the name of Reggie Jackson, his least favorite player, on the New York Yankee lineup card. And he could forget the run he wanted so much to make at the division-leading Boston Red Sox, but that hardly mattered. Martin's stormy—but successful—three-year stint with the Yankees was over. And, predictably, the fiery manager had gone down in flames as if he were fulfilling a death wish.

This is an article from the July 31, 1978 issue Original Layout

Martin's resignation came less than 24 hours after he had lambasted Jackson and Steinbrenner in Chicago's O'Hare airport while the Yankees were waiting to board a plane to Kansas City. "The two men deserve each other," Martin told reporters early Sunday evening. "One's a born liar, the other's convicted."

The diatribe followed Jackson's return to the Yankees that afternoon after a five-day suspension and Martin's discovery of what he believed to be an attempt by Steinbrenner a month ago to trade him for Bob Lemon, then the manager of the White Sox and now Martin's replacement in New York. Although both Steinbrenner and Bill Veeck of the Sox denied there was any "direct communication" between them on the subject, Martin felt the trade, whether it was seriously contemplated or not, was an indication that Steinbrenner intended to go back on a promise he had made several weeks before that Martin would be the Yankee manager at least for the rest of the season.

Martin leaves New York having won the last two American League pennants and the 1977 World Series. But he was also embroiled in a number of bitter controversies involving Steinbrenner, Jackson and other Yankee players. Thus, despite New York's accomplishments on the field, Martin was forever on the verge of being fired. That he was finally done in by his own hand this time suggests that he had taken all he could stand. Resignation had been in his mind for some time, but he had intended to wait until the end of the season "because I wanted to give the Red Sox a run."

That the Yankees finally appeared to be making a run at Boston was one of the reasons that on Saturday Martin had been laughing, joking, telling tales of life in the bush leagues. He seemed happy. But before Sunday's game he was dark, sullen. It was as if the arrival of Jackson had changed not only his mood but also his whole outlook on life. Jackson and Martin do that to each other.

Unlike last year, when the Yankees bickered and won, this season, until Jackson's suspension, they had maintained their equilibrium in the clubhouse but fallen in the standings. And nobody had suffered more during the team's slide than Martin. In various ways, Steinbrenner, Jackson, fate—and the Red Sox—all worked against him. He got sympathy and drew his strength only from the New York fans, with whom he remained immensely popular.

"Injury after injury have broken us down," Martin argued. Steinbrenner agreed, but he suspected that poor preparation and conditioning in spring training were as much to blame as plain rotten luck. And he criticized Martin for that poor preparation.

It would not be fair to say that Martin was in better spirits while Jackson was away simply because Jackson was away. After all, the Yankees did win four straight games after Reggie's departure, and another on Sunday when Jackson was in uniform but did not play. And Martin did catch 10 bass during a fishing excursion in Minnesota. But certainly Jackson's absence was a factor. Martin's decision to suspend him was endorsed by Steinbrenner and supported by his players. Martin had seldom enjoyed that kind of unanimous backing.

The incident that caused the suspension occurred in the 10th inning of the Monday, July 17 night game in New York against Kansas City. Jackson tried to bunt when he was told to hit away, and the Yankees eventually lost the game. But the incident involved more than that. It was a confrontation of giant egos and willful spirits. And it came at a time that was particularly bleak for both men.

In the preceding days Martin had been faced with published reports of his own declining health and with the specter of the Yankees settling in for the rest of the season as a fourth-place—perhaps even a fifth-place—team. Sore shoulders, pulled hamstrings and hairline fractures have put 10 Yankees on the disabled list this year, and put unknowns like Damaso Garcia, Brian Doyle and Mike Heath on the roster and, frequently, in the starting lineup. In recent weeks the ill health or ineffectiveness of Pitchers Ed Figueroa, Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Dick Tidrow and Andy Messersmith had forced Martin to give work to guys named Bob Kammeyer, Larry McCall and Dave Rajsich. It is axiomatic in baseball that a team cannot win championships without strength up the middle, and that truth had certainly applied in New York's case. Centerfielder Mickey Rivers, Second Baseman Willie Randolph, Shortstop Bucky Dent and four starting pitchers had been on the disabled list one or more times each. And the regular catcher, Thurman Munson, had suddenly taken over Jackson's old spot in rightfield, principally to save wear and tear on a body badly bruised from working behind the plate.

Martin had been ailing—he has a rebellious liver—right along with his team. Precisely how serious the condition is remains something of a mystery, but there is no doubt about two things: Martin's psyche could never take too much losing and his liver can no longer take too much drinking.

Jackson, of course, could never take too much Martin. During July, when he had not been hitting all that well, Reggie had been shuttled in and out of the lineup, yo-yoed up and down the batting order and finally banished from rightfield to become, in essence, a part-time designated hitter who played only against righthanded pitchers.

A year ago Martin tried to duke it out with Jackson during a game in Boston. On the night of the bunting incident, Jackson seemed likely to provoke another round of fisticuffs. When Munson led off the 10th with a single, Martin flashed the bunt sign to Third-Base Coach Dick Howser. Howser duly relayed the message to Jackson. That was fine with Reggie. Never mind that he had not executed a successful sacrifice since 1972 or that he had felt insulted when Martin had asked him to lay one down in the past—this time he wanted to bunt. Jackson had even told Munson in the on-deck circle that he planned to do it when Munson got on base. "Don't get ahead of yourself," Munson had responded. "I've got to get there first." And Munson did, lashing his hit to centerfield. So, after taking the first pitch for a ball, here was Jackson trying to bunt and failing.

In the dugout, Martin changed his mind. Third Baseman George Brett had moved in. Martin to Howser to Jackson: hit away. But Jackson, who later said he misread the sign, tried to bunt again. Foul ball. Howser walked in toward the plate and summoned Jackson to him. "Billy says to hit away," said the coach. "I want to bunt," said Reggie. "Billy says to hit away." "I want to bunt," said Reggie. Al Hrabosky threw his next pitch, Jackson's hand slipped up the bat and he popped a bunt into foul territory for an automatic out.

Martin was furious. "That's the maddest I've ever been in my life," he says. Jackson knew he was in trouble. He walked to the bench, sat down, laid his glasses beside him and waited for Martin to arrive from the other end of the dugout. During their 1977 set-to in Boston, when Martin pulled Jackson out of a game for failing to hustle, the two had exchanged words, and Martin had launched a roundhouse punch that missed. Martin should have been fired, suspended, fined—something—but he wasn't. So what prevented Martin from attacking Jackson this time? "No player has ever challenged me the way Reggie did," he says. "I know what I would have done in private. First I'm a man, then I'm a manager." On this occasion, Martin the manager controlled the worst instincts of Martin the man. He sent Coach Gene Michael to tell Jackson that he was out of the game.

After Kansas City won in the 11th inning Martin went into a rage, smashing a soft-drink bottle against his office wall and heaving his clock radio into the hall. Then, following a conference with Steinbrenner and Yankee President Al Rosen, an indefinite suspension was announced. Jackson's term subsequently was set at five days. The suspension cost Jackson $9,273 in salary, but to get their money the Yankees must await Jackson's personal check, because he receives his annual $332,000 stipend in advance. Martin had hoped to contribute Jackson's payment to a pension fund for old ballplayers.

Why did Jackson disobey his manager's orders? "That's the mystery," says Martin. "He'd been working hard all year and didn't have a chip on his shoulder. We had talked the day before, and I had told him that I liked him no matter what he had heard and that I would give him a chance to play rightfield some."

Martin's soothing words had come too late and rang too hollow for Jackson. He knew where he stood with his manager. Forget that they had embraced after the Yankees won the 1977 World Series; they did not mean it. To Martin, Jackson was George's boy, not one of Billy's. In Martin's mind, Jackson was also a player with more money than talent, more flash than consistency. Realizing this, Jackson had gone to Steinbrenner the day after hearing Martin's friendly words and laid his gripes out: he was unhappy playing in New York; he did not consider the criticism of him by Martin and Rosen to be fair; he wanted the respect and treatment that his hard work and productive performance deserved. Indeed, despite his .189 average and solitary homer in July, Jackson was first or second on the Yankees in virtually every important offensive category—RBIs, runs, home runs and stolen bases—and had cut his errors from seven at this point last year to three this season.

Steinbrenner listened to Jackson for an hour and a half. He is Jackson's friend, so he gave him sympathy. But he is also Jackson's boss, so he gave him the facts. "I don't think you're a very good outfielder," Steinbrenner said. Clearly Steinbrenner agreed with Martin that Jackson should be used primarily as a DH, a job Reggie considers the lot of the aged, inept or infirm.

From Steinbrenner's office, Jackson went down to the clubhouse. He was quiet and sullen. He says now that he had felt all day that something was about to happen but he didn't know what. In the 10th inning he found out.

Afterward, Jackson pleaded innocent to outright defiance, and after coming off suspension he detailed his reasons for bunting. "I had not been playing regularly and I wasn't swinging the bat very well," he told a mob of reporters in Chicago. "I thought under the circumstances that bunting was the best thing I could do. Even after Howser spoke to me, I didn't realize exactly what the consequences would be. I didn't consider it an act of defiance, and I don't feel I did anything wrong. I would even do it again if I didn't know what the consequences would be. For that reason, it would have been better if I had struck out swinging and avoided the hassle."

Although Steinbrenner believes that one of Jackson's motives for bunting might have been to help the team, he also thinks that defiance was a more compelling reason for Reggie's action. Perhaps the best explanation comes from young Outfielder Gary Thomasson, a recent New York acquisition from the A's. "I tried to understand how it happened," Thomasson says. "I said to myself, 'I'm Reggie Jackson. I've done a lot in baseball and signed my last contract. Why would I get overly excited or overly depressed about things?' Then I decided the answer was ego or pride. Sometimes ego and pride can be your worst enemies."

The Yankee locker room is a storehouse of ego and pride, a lot of it bruised these days. Jackson says he is not sure if he wants to play next year or where, but at least he is leaving open the possibility of another season in New York. Other Yankees have no hesitations. Munson wants out. Roy White wants out. Sparky Lyle wants out. Figueroa wants out. Cliff Johnson wants out. Jim Spencer wants out. Several of them are likely to be accommodated. Martin probably wanted out, too, but he had not foreseen his departure coming as early as it did. Steinbrenner had guaranteed Billy his job for the rest of the season, but two weeks ago, when he learned about Martin's liver condition, he offered him a lucrative and graceful way to retire immediately. Although Martin turned down this offer, he was almost certainly aware at the time that only two things could have prevented his firing at the end of the season: the Yankees pulling out the division title, which was highly unlikely, or Martin quitting before Steinbrenner could give him a pink slip.

It seemed eminently logical that if Jackson stayed, Martin wouldn't. If Martin stayed, Jackson shouldn't. Steinbrenner's preference was for Jackson, because George and Billy always seemed to have too much in common to stay together. In the opinion of each, the other is untrustworthy, is disliked by the players and, unkindest cut of all, is "not a true Yankee."

How can anyone say Martin is not a true Yankee? He sitteth himself on the right hand of his idol, Casey Stengel. "I came here three years ago to help put the Yankees back on top," Martin said three days before his resignation. "I've done that. It was nothing but fun in '76, and it was nothing but aggravation last year, but we did it. When I leave here, I'll think about all my years with the Yankees and I'll cry."

Nobody was crying for Jackson last week. The Yankees played well and cut four games off Boston's lead. They also nosed past the Orioles and back into third, five games behind the hot second-place Brewers. And Third Baseman Graig Nettles said it sure was peaceful with Jackson gone.

Back home in Oakland, Reggie was enjoying his first summer vacation in years. He went out to dinner, saw a movie (Damien—Omen II), tinkered with his cars and listened to people tell him what he should do next. His attorney, Steve Kay, suggested a brief statement of contrition on ABC. Reggie said no. He did not want to talk to anybody. But still it upset him to read so many negative reports about himself in the papers. The president of the Confectionery Division of Standard Brands, the company that manufactures the gooey REGGIE! candy bar, flew to Oakland and conferred with Jackson. Standard Brands does not want Reggie to make any more enemies than necessary, and the company also wants him to stay in New York. High visibility equals lots of candy bars sold. Sales last week were way up, probably because the furor surrounding Jackson coincided with the kickoff of the advertising and promotional campaign for the bar. No, no, it's not what you think. The sales push had long ago been scheduled for mid-July.

Last Saturday night, after he arrived in Chicago, Jackson watched the Yankee game on his hotel-room television set. He knew what it would be like tomorrow, he said. The reporters, the cameras, the crowds, all wanting to get a piece of him. And then Martin came on the tube, to reflect on the victory, to praise his battling team, to say that New York was still not out of it. Maybe it's because nobody asked, but not once did he mention Jackson's name.

But when Jackson returned to the Yankee clubhouse Sunday and refused to admit to reporters that he intended defiance, there was no way that Reggie's name would not come to Martin's lips. "I'm saying shut up," the manager said at the airport. "We don't need none of your stuff. We're winning without you. We don't need you coming in and making all 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."

Forty-five minutes later, Martin resumed his outburst, throwing in his double-barreled "liar" comment for good measure. Although he did not mention Steinbrenner by name, the reference was obvious because the owner had pleaded guilty on Aug. 23, 1974 to one count of conspiring to violate the campaign-funding law and to another count of attempting to cover up the donations.

Steinbrenner, who was at his home in Tampa, was shocked when he learned of the outburst. He responded by sending Rosen to Kansas City to meet with Martin. The manager had made his decision to quit even before Rosen arrived and even though he denied he made the comments attributed to him. Regardless of what Martin may have said—and The New York Times' Murray Chass, who covered Billy's outburst, is one of the most reliable reporters around—there can be no doubt that he was thinking along the lines described in newspaper reports. He made similar comments to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer in his clubhouse shortly after Sunday's game.

Martin's tirade brought into the open his dislike for Steinbrenner and Jackson, even though his relationship with the two men had improved this year. And it also jeopardized Martin's income for the next year and a half, because there is a special provision in his contract stating that it can be terminated if Billy openly criticizes Steinbrenner.

The owner believed the resignation was for the best—for Billy, for the club and for himself. Certainly it may have been best for Martin. Yankee management had indicated that if Martin coupled his resignation with an apology, he would still be paid by the Yankees until the end of the 1979 season. As late as Sunday afternoon, just a few hours before the airport blowup, Martin had said, "I've got to be careful what I say about George. I need the money." He said that speaking out would cost him his salary, which is about $80,000 for 1979.

Whether Martin picks up his 80 grand, plus his salary for the remainder of this season, depended on how Steinbrenner viewed Billy's resignation statement that "I'm sorry about some things that were printed. I did not say them." Steinbrenner accepted Martin's denial, instead of seeing it as stonewalling, as he well might have. Certainly the walls of Martin's kingdom had come crumbling down around him. A few seconds after making his denial, Billy was overcome by emotion. The man who minutes before had opened his press conference by proudly saying, "I'm a Yankee," tearfully left the room, a Yankee no more.

FOUR PHOTOSBunt sign off, Jackson tried to sacrifice (upper left), then was told by Coach Dick Howser to take a full cut, and finally struck out when another bunt popped foul.PHOTOSteinbrenner sided with Martin in the bunt controversy, but he was outraged by Sunday's outburst.PHOTOMartin and Jackson once mugged (or the cameras, but last week they all but mugged each other.PHOTOWhen Munson replaced Jackson in right field, Reggie's simmering disaffection began to boil over.