It was a warm Sunday afternoon at County Stadium in Milwaukee, and the New York Yankees had won nine of their last 15. The year was 1983. Billy Martin was in the third of his five incarnations as the team's manager. Amazingly, all was quiet.
The tranquillity was appreciated by the press. After years of off-the-field high jinks that had frequently led deadline-pressed sports reporters to late-night interviews with bartenders and patrons at the site of the latest Martin brawl, the Fourth Estate was grateful to be writing about baseball.
Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger and Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wanted nothing more than for this peace to be preserved, but as Yankee-beat veterans of eight and five years, respectively, they knew better. In Damned Yankees, a book about the decline of the team, authors Klein and Madden recount events of that afternoon in '83 that led to yet another spate of tabloid stories.
In the press box during the game, reporters could not help but notice a woman in shorts and a halter top who was sitting in the box next to the Yankee dugout. The beat writers recognized the woman as Jill Guiver, Martin's girlfriend (and, later, his wife). The barefoot Guiver was passing notes, gripped in her toes, over the fence to the Yankee skipper, who sat on the top step of the dugout, smiling and apparently unperturbed as his team suffered a 6-5 loss. After the game, the writers called a meeting in the press box and made a pact: No one would write of Martin's behavior. The rationale was articulated by one of the beat writers in the following manner: "The club is going fairly well. Billy, to this point, had been acting fairly sane. Why stir up a lot of [stuff] that would make associating with Martin unbearable for the rest of the season?"
It was Madden himself who broke the pact. He did so when he became convinced that an evening paper was about to scoop his morning tabloid. But, no matter, in Damned Yankees the authors conclude that any attempt by the writers to downplay another Martin indiscretion would have been doomed to failure: "Alas, they should have known you can never make pacts of that sort involving Billy Martin, because in Billy's case, things never go unnoticed."
And though it sometimes seems as if nothing has gone unnoticed since George Steinbrenner came on the scene in 1973, Damned Yankees is proof that there are still tales to be told. The Yanks won their last World Series in 1978, an achievement chronicled by relief pitcher Sparky Lyle and author Peter Golenbock in The Bronx Zoo. Now, Klein and Madden provide an insightful and funny (unless you're a Yankee fan) look into the cages since that championship season.
The authors examine the parade of Yankee managers, from Martin to Bob Lemon, Dick Howser, Gene Michael, Clyde King, Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella (Parts I and II) and Dallas Green. Only Howser and Berra are credited by the authors as leaving Steinbrenner's employ with their reputations and pride intact. Howser, who led the Yankees to 103 victories and a division title in 1980—and was rewarded with a pink slip-went on to vindicate himself by taking the Kansas City Royals to the 1985 world championship. Berra was fired only 16 games into that same season, after he had led the Yanks to a third-place finish in 1984. Since he was cashiered, Berra has not returned to Yankee Stadium—not even for an Old-Timers' Game or for the ceremony on Aug. 21, 1988, when the Yankees planned to honor him with a plaque. Berra says that so long as Steinbrenner is the Yankees' owner, he will have nothing to do with the team he played for from 1946 to 1963.
In a chapter entitled "The Misfits," Klein and Madden describe some of the less renowned yet still colorful players who have worn pinstripes for Steinbrenner. Like pitcher Joe Cowley, who once told Martin when Billy came out to the mound, "Don't feel bad, Skip. You're making the right move getting me out of here."
Listed in a chapter called "The Survivors" are those men who gave back as well as they got from the Boss. Here, the names are more familiar, but the stories of how they goaded the Boss are fresh. Such as the time third baseman Graig Nettles spotted Steinbrenner sitting on a stool in front of his locker and loudly proclaimed, "George is right, Nettles is getting fat."
Klein and Madden accurately convey the schizophrenic life of a beat reporter, who must be, at one and the same time, both part of the scene and a detached observer of the scene. Only the latter aspect is allowed to be displayed in newsprint; in the pages of Damned Yankees, the former comes to the fore. Unlike the team it chronicles, Damned Yankees is a book headed for a winning season.
WALTER IOOSS JR.