"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Those Were the Days…

Hardly a peep about the Yanks to start the holiday week. The Mets are busy entertaining Billy Wagner and it appears that the Marlins are set to have another tag sale, but all is quiet in the Bronx. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to dig in the archives and pull out something in honor of giving thanks. Thanks for the relative sanity the organization has presented to the fans over the past decade, and thanks for the memories for the wild old days.

The Bronx Zoo Yankees would make for a great movie. It may be redundant to make a fictionalize version of a team that was so theatrical in it’s own right, but that’s okay. If they can make full-length features out of Scooby Doo and Fat Albert, they can make one on the 70′s Yankees too.

I doubt it would ever happen in George’s lifetime, but it’s a cinch for a comedy classic. Too bad that 70′s Retro is now passe. I picture the Bronx Zoo movie to be a cross between “Slap Shot” and “Boogie Nights”; “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Turning Point”; “The Bad News Bears” and “The Poseidan Adventure.” And maybe a dash of “Car Wash” to top it off. It would definitely have to have a “R” rating.

The costumes and soundtrack alone would be worth the price of admission. Get a group of terrific spaz method actors, and you’re set.

Ed Linn’s book “Steinbrenner’s Yankees” details the Billy, George, Reggie years expertly, and provides excellent fodder for a script. Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s “Damned Yankees” is also essential Bronx Zoo reading. (Both books can be had for peanuts on Amazon or Barnes and Nobles used section on-line.)

Here is an example that caught my funny bone: It is spring training, 1977. Reggie Jackson had just brought his star with him to Yankee camp after the Big Red Machine swept the Yankees the year before. Already, the camp was fraught with tension. But Reggie doesn’t appear in this scene…

Cast of Characters:

George: Michael Gambon? No, too British. Mark Holton, who played Francis in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” is more like it.

Gabe Paul: Think William Holden in “Network”

Billy Martin: Harry Dean Stanton

Yogi: Himself

Ed Linn sets the scene:

Billy Martin was fired for the first time a week before the end of spring training, after the Mets had shut out the Yankees 6-0 in St. Petersburg, in a game that was telecast back to New York.

…George had been screaming all along that the team wasn’t prepared to open the season. And not without reason. Billy had always run a loose training camp, but this camp had been, [in the words of the immortal Mick the Quick] well-uh, rid-i-cu-lous. And for a great deal of laxness, George had only himself to blame.

Billy Martin’s marriage had broken up, and he was living a bachelor life several miles away in Boca Raton with his buddy Mickey Mantle. So he would drive to the practice field every morning, not always on time and not always without a lady companion. Gabe Paul had told him at the beginning that the team couldn’t stand that kind of thing, had in fact instructed him to move back into Fort Lauderdale and stay with the team and ride on the team bus. Whereupon Billy went over Gabe’s head to Steinbrenner, and George, being the great guy that he is, told Billy that it was perfectly okay, boys will be boys, enjoy.

With the team going so rotten, George was no longer in a mood to be so indulgent…Most of all, George wanted Billy on the practice field on time, and he wanted him on the team bus with the players.

Well, it was no great issue. The team was living in Tampa now, and Billy was living with them. But, still, he liked to drive back and forth from the ballpark with his coaches, so he could talk things over whiles the coaches made notes.

When George came striding toward the clubhouse after the Mets game, he was ripping mad. The Yankees had not only lost, they had been shut out. Instead of starting Reggie, as Billy had promised to, he had sent him in late in the game as a pinch hitter. Instead of playing the starting lineup all the way, as George had instructed him to, he had finished with a team of substitutes.

But if you want to know what George was really furious about, it was that he had discovered during the game that Billy had driven to the ballpark in a rental car.

Let’s imagine the following confrontation as a scene from The Bronx Zoo movie.

PARKING LOT EXT. BALL PARK. FLORIDA

The Yankee players slowly make their way to the team bus. About half of the team has dragged ass out to the parking lot.

INT. STADIUM HALLWAY

The hallway is empty, but we hear oncoming footsteps.

George (off-screen): I don’t give a fuck. This shit has got to stop right now. Do you hear me, Gabe? I’ve got to stop it right now!

INT. LOCKER ROOM DOORS

George bursts in, followed by Gabe Paul. There are a few players still lingering, the clubhouse man and a few reporters remain as well. Billy is standing in the doorway of the manager’s office.

George: I want to talk to you right now. You lied to me!

Billy: I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear that shit anymore.

George: You heard what I said! That thing is going to stop right now!

Billy: You fat bastard, I don’t give a shit what you say. I’m going to do it my way.

George: You lied to me! You told me you were going to ride on the bus.

Billy: Fuck you, I’m not riding on any fucking buses. Get the fuck out of here.

Gabe: Hey…hey, watch yourself Billy.

(Gabe steps toward Billy. George stands ten feet away, incredulous with fury.)

Don’t…Billy, don’t…

George: (softly, to himself) What did you say? What did you say?

Gabe: Billy, don’t talk to him like that.

Billy: Then you can tell that fat bastard to go fuck himself. Hear me? He can go fuck himself!

George: (Moving in) You don’t talk to me like that, goddammit! You don’t ever talk to me like that.

Billy: I’ll talk to anybody like that.

Billy turns and strides into the trainer’s room. George steams after him, Gabe by his side. We wait a beat and several players in towels, along with a couple of trainers, exit the trainer’s room. But they do not go far; the remaining men in the locker room sit still and enjoy the fireworks.

George: (os) You lied to me, and not only about the bus. You promised to play the starting team all the way today, and you fucking lied about that too.

INTERIOR: TRAINER’S ROOM

George and Billy stand at opposite sides of the trainer’s table in the middle of the room. Paul is behind George.

Billy: Don’t tell me how to manage my ball team, you lying sonofabitch. I’m the manager, and I’ll manage how I want to manage. It was an EXHIBITION game! An ex-hib-i-tion game. This is not a game where you leave your blood and guts on the field to win…There are things I gotta find out now!

George: Well, you should have already figured them out. That is what I’ve been telling you all along! The season begins in a week and you don’t have this goddamn team ready.

Billy: For christsakes George, you don’t prepare for a 162-game season the way you prepare for a 10-game football season.

Billy slams his fist in a bucket of ice water. The ice cubes splash up, and George gets soaked.

George: I ought to fire you! I should fire your ass right now.

George wipes his face and frantically digs ice cubes out of his jacket pockets.

Billy: You want to fire me, fire me! But leave me the fuck alone.

INT: LOCKER ROOM

Gabe Paul exits the trainer’s room and motions to one of the coaches.

INT. TRAINER’S ROOM

Billy and George are standing at opposite sides of the room. Billy is coiled; George fumes. Gabe walks in with Yogi.

George: (to Yogi) You’re the manager.

Yogi: Now take it easy, George.

George: You want to be the manager? You’re the manager.

Yogi: Billy’s a good manager. You don’t want to go doing anything because you’re mad now.

George: The job is yours!

CUT TO:

The Next morning.

INT. HOTEL HALLWAY

We see George; brisk and manicured, walking down the empty hallway. He checks is watch, and knocks on Gabe Paul’s door.

CUT TO:

Gabe lets George in, and Steinbrenner barrels straight passed him.

INT. HOTEL HALLWAY

Billy Martin, pale and disheveled, walks down the same hallway. When he knocks on Gabe’s door, Billy looks around nervously.

CUT TO:

CLOSE UP: Gabe putting the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.

CUT TO:

INTERIOR: YANKEE TEAM BUS

Billy Martin sits in the front seat of the crowded team bus. Art Fowler and Yogi Berra sit behind him.

According to Linn:

From then on, Billy rode the bus. And he never yelled at George in public again. But whenever Billy expected to be fired during the season, he would tell the writers that from the moment those ice cubes hit George’s face, he knew that his days as the manager of the New York Yankees were numbered.

Be that as it may, it was Gabe Paul who wanted to fire him the next time around and George Steinbrenner who saved him.

Cue: Organ Music.

Print It

Oh, and here’s another priceless Billy moment, the one via Bob Klapisch and John Harper’s book about the Mets, “The Worst Team Money Could Buy”:

Little by little, the Mets were becoming the old Yankees, the original press haters. Billy Martin had been the leader, a virtual dictator, even after he’d been humbled so many times by George Steinbrenner. Norman MacLean, then of the United Press International, once walked into Matin’s office and asked him for a few minutes’ time.

“Get lost, Norman,” Billy said pleasantly.

“Just a quick couple of sentences,” MacLean persisted.

“Norman, get the fuck out of here,” Billy said, his face darkening.

“Look, all I need is three sentences,” MacLean said, panicking.

Softening, Martin smiled and said, “Okay. You want three sentences? Turn on your tape recorder.” When MacLean obliged, Martin leaned into the microphone and said, “Fuck you. You’re an asshole. Get out of here.” Billy leaned back in his chair and said, “How’s that Norman?”

That’s pretty good.

We Didn’t Forget the Gravy

How can a trip down memory lane be complete without a Reggie story? Well, just about the best one ever was the day that Martin yanked Jackson from the field at Fenway Park when he thought Reggie was loafing after a ball. The two exchanged heated words in the dugout–Elston Howard coming between the two men–fortunately for Martin as Jackson would have wiped the floor with Billy, I don’t care what kind of crazy brawler Martin was.

After disaster was averted in the dugout that day in Boston, 1977, Martin almost lost his job. Gabe Paul, who was not a Martin fan, prevented George from canning Billy the Kid, cause it would look like Jackson was running the team if the manager was fired right then and there. Ray Negron made sure Reggie left the locker room before Martin arrived.

Later that night, two reporters came up to Reggie’s room to talk—Paul Montgomery of the New York Times, and Phil Pepe of the Daily News.

Back to Ed Linn for an account of Reggie in rare form:

As the interview began, Reggie was sitting on the floor, bare-chested except for a gold cross and two gold medallions. A blonde was in the shower, a local girlfriend. Mike Torrez was sitting in a chair alongside Reggie with a bottle of white wine. “If I go too far,” he hold Torrez before he began, “stop me.”

His memory during the interview was that he hadn’t said anything when he came back to the dugout, but had merely held his arms open in that “What did I do wrong?” gesture. “The man took a position today to show me up on national television. Everyone could see that.”

At one point he became so upset that he retreated to the edge of the bed and began to read the Bible. He was a born-again Christian, he told them, and quite often went to the Bible for solace.

Once he had himself back under control, he resumed his position on the floor and went right back to the company line. “I don’t know anything about managing, but I’ll take the heat for whatever the manger says.”

And then he began to come apart. “If the press keeps messing with me,” he sobbed, “I’ll hit thirty homers and maybe ninety ribbys and hit .270. If they leave me alone, I’ll have forty homers, one hundred and twenty ribbys, and I’ll be hitting .300.”

For the record, the press didn’t leave Reggie alone—he didn’t give them a chance to—and he ended up hitting .286, with 32 homers and 110 RBI.

His eyes filled up, and began speaking with rising emotion about the way he was being treated on the ballclub. “I’m just a black man to them who doesn’t know how to be subservient. I’m a black buck with an IQ of 160, and making $700,00 a year. They’ve never had anyone like me on their team before.” Except for Steinbrenner. “I love that man, he treats me like I’m somebody.”

His voice broke, and he came rising up on his haunches. “The rest of them treat me like I’m dirt.” There were tears running down his cheeks now. “I’m a Christian,” he screamed, “and they’re fucking with me because I’m a nigger, and they don’t like niggers on this team. The Yankee pinstripes are Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. I’ve got an IQ of 160, they can’t mess with me…” He was a man so clearly out of control, a man in such terrible torment, that Mike Torrez stood up and told the writers, “I think you’d better leave.”

Ah, the good old days…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver