THE STORY YOU KNOW: 40 YEARS AGO, THE YANKEES RALLIED FROM 14 GAMES BACK TO OVERTAKE THE RED SOX. THE ONE YOU DON'T: KEY TO THEIR REVIVAL WAS A NEW YORK NEWSPAPER STRIKE THAT CALMED THE BRONX ZOO, BROUGHT THE TEAM'S FOCUS BACK TO BASEBALL—AND HERALDED A CHANGE IN AMERICAN LIFE
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, 8½ 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.
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."
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, 4½ 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.
The News handed Young his first beat, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946, and he quickly went about changing 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."
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. "[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."
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."
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 Richmond 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, 7½ 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.
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. 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, 11½ 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 12/3 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.
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.