Billy and George: It was sick and zany
- Blog Post by: Patrick Reusse
- July 14, 2013 - 10:57 PM
There was a nice reception for Saturday's piece on lost traditions of baseball from readers, which was appreciated. "Oldtimers Day'' was among the nine traditions that made the list. There were a few paragraphs devoted in that section to the events of July 29, 1978 at Yankee Stadium.
The Twins happened to be the visitors in the stadium on that Saturday afternoon. I was there in my duties as tbe Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul newspapers.
It was a sunny afternoon in the Bronx and there was a crowd of 46,000 to watch the greats from Monument Park come alive.
This was not the first opportunity to see legends when making a trip to Yankee Stadium. The Twins were also the opponents on April 15, 1976, when "old'' Yankee Stadium was reopened after a two-year reconstruction. The Bronx Bombers had played in Queens at Shea Stadium in 1974 and 1975.
The pregame introductions on that Thursday afternoon took over 30 minutes and no one was complaining, It was a parade of not only the great Yankees, but also of men who played football and had fights there -- Red Grange standing next to Jack Dempsey. The widows, Claire Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig, were also introduced to fantastic ovations.
How do you top that? Leave it to George Steinbrenner.
Oldtimers Day in 1978 was being held aftter what had been several chaotic weeks with the "Bronx Zoo.'' It would provide the impetus for third baseman Graig Nettles' quote: "When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees I have accomplished both.''
Manager Billy Martin had conducted his famous feud with Reggie Jackson. Martin had convinced Steinbrenner to suspend Jackson for ignoring a bunt sign, When he returned, Martin didn't want to play him and said Reggie was "a liar'' and that his owner, Steinbrenner, was a "convicted liar.''
Steinbrenner had been convicted in 1974 of an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign. He was suspended briefly by major league baseball. The Boss raged over the "convicted liar'' quote and forced Martin's resignation on July 24, 1978.
Eventually, Billy would serve five terms as the Yankees' manager, and the forceouts became routine, but this was the first. Yankee fans still saw Billy as a feisty and great manager, not as the demon-filled alcoholic that he was.
There was an enormous backlash among Yankee fans to the departure of Martin. Immediately, a fan group started a boycott movement of Yankees games.. Steinbrenner knew he would be facing much venom from the crowd at Oldtimers Day.
As it turned out,. Steinbrenner contacted Martin on July 26 and started developing a strategy that would have Billy back in Yankee Stadium for Oldtimers Day.
I was in the press box, filling out the lineup in my scorebook, chcking stats and game notes, and watching the introductions. PA announcer Bob Sheppard introduced Bob Lemon, Martin's replacement as manager, and added that Lemon had signed to manage the Yankees through the 1979 season.
The crowd booed lustily. Sheppard asked for quiet. As the legendary "Voice of God,'' he was the only PA announcer with the prestige to get what he wanted. He added that Lemon would become the general manager in 1980 and, after quieting more boos, Sheppard said:
"Your attention please, your attention please ... the Yankees would like to announce at this time, introduce and announce at the same moment, that the manager for the 1980 season, and hopefully many years to come after, will be No. 1 ...''
That's all it took. Before Sheppard could say, "Billy Martin,'' the crowd was nuts, standing, screaming, stomping, as the little man came jogging from the dugout. It was 15 minutes before the crowd could be quieted and the ceremony concluded.
Then, the sportswriters were hustled downstars -- including the Twin Cities guys, since we had to see this for ourselves --to have George and Billy explain what was going on.
According to The Boss, Billy had agreed to publicly apologize for the "convicted liar'' quote and also to work closely with the front office (the astute team president, Al Rosen, couldn't stand Martin). Here was the best part: Billy also had promised to quit drinking "hard liquor.''
Apparenlty, the negotiations came down to whether Billy could keep guzzling any booze he wanted, or just beer and wine.
Martin was back by mid-season in 1979 when Lemon was dumped as manager, and then was fired during the 1980 season, and on and on it went -- this sick need for the autocrat and the alcoholic to punish one another.
Of all the Billy stories, of all his craziness, my favorite remains a brief Associated Press story that surfaced one night about Martin being found by police on the front lawn of a woman's home in southern California, drunk, and "screaming about a horse.''
I quit drinking in 1981. So far, it's stuck, and I say it's because of fear that if I were to get back on the gin, I might be found drunk on someone's lawn, screaming about a horse.
© 2015 Star Tribune