In the second game of the 1972 American League Championship Series, Oakland A’s shortstop Bert “Campy” Campaneris stepped into the batter’s box against Detroit Tigers reliever Lerrin LaGrow. Campaneris, a thorn in the Tigers’ flesh throughout the early portion of the series, had done considerable damage in his first three at-bats, with three hits, two runs scored, and a pair of stolen bases. At the direction of their manager, Tiger pitchers had thrown fastballs in the general direction of Campy’s legs, in an attempt to brush him back off the plate, or perhaps even injure the Oakland catalyst. Predictably, LaGrow threw his first pitch—a fastball—down and in on Campaneris, hitting the Cuban shortstop in the ankle.
Most of the Oakland players knew that one of the A’s’ batters, given the Tiger struggles in the early part of the series, would eventually become the victim of a deliberate brushback pitch. “I was in the on-deck circle,” said A’s left fielder Joe Rudi, “and I feel the Detroit pitcher threw at him. Campy had run the Tigers ragged in the first two games, and when [Billy] Martin gets his ears pinned down, he’s going to do something about it.”
Other members of the A’s agreed with Rudi’s analysis, including Oakland first baseman Mike Hegan, who observed the fateful pitch from the Oakland dugout. “There’s no question in anybody’s mind,” says Hegan, “and I think if the truth be known, I think we saw something was gonna happen, but didn’t know exactly what it was gonna be. Those orders to Lerrin LaGrow came right from Billy Martin—to start something, to do something. We had won the first game, and I think Billy Martin wanted to light a fire under his ballclub, and Campy was the guy that they were going after because he was the guy that set the table for us. There’s no question that Billy Martin instructed Lerrin LaGrow to throw at Campaneris.”
When LaGrow’s fastball struck the bone of Campaneris’ ankle, the A’s’ shortstop staggered for a moment, glared at the Tiger pitcher, and then, in an unusually violent reaction, flung the bat toward LaGrow. Spiraling about six feet off the ground, the bat helicoptered toward the pitching mound. The six-foot, five-inch LaGrow ducked down, barely avoiding contact with the bat, which ended up a few feet behind the mound.
Almost on cue, Billy Martin led the charge of Tiger players and coaches from the dugout. Martin ran directly toward home plate, but three of the umpires managed to hold back the Tiger manager, preventing him from completing his assault on Campaneris. Nestor Chylak, the home-plate umpire and crew chief, ejected both Campaneris and LaGrow, while attempting to calm an infuriated Martin. “There’s no place for that kind of gutless stuff in baseball,” seethed Martin. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in all my years of baseball… I would respect him if he went out to throw a punch but what he did was the most gutless [thing] of any man to put on a uniform. It was a disgrace to baseball.”
The volatile reaction of a quiet and respected player like Campaneris surprised his Oakland teammates. “Absolutely,” says Hegan. “And I’ve talked to Campy many times [about it] since. He just snapped. He, at that point, got so frustrated that LaGrow kept backing him off and throwing at his feet. It was something that was well out of character for Campy. But he just said that he snapped, and that was the first thing that he could think about, and that’s what he did—unfortunately.”
Why did Campaneris resort to throwing the bat, rather than the standard charging of the mound? “I don’t know why I threw the bat,” Campaneris said later on. “My ankle hurt so bad. I knew he was going to throw at me, but people now tell me it’s better to go and fight. I don’t know. I just lost my temper.” The incident resulted in Campaneris being suspended for the remainder of the Championship Series and the first seven games of the following season. It also left him stigmatized for the balance of his career, branded as an ill-tempered hothead unable to control his emotions under pressure.
As much as Martin despised Campaneris at the moment he hurled his bat toward LaGrow, the Tiger skipper respected the veteran infielder as a fiery, combative sparkplug who always hustled. Evidence of Martin’s regard for Campaneris could be found in 1983, when Campaneris showed up at the Yankees’ spring training camp in Ft. Lauderdale unannounced—and uninvited. The 41-year-old Campaneris, who hadn’t played for any major league team in 1982 and was presumed to be retired by most observers in baseball, desperately sought a job. Knowing that the Yankees needed a middle infielder, Campy approached Martin, the Yankees’ manager at the time, asking for an opportunity to play. Martin, known for maintaining long and intense grudges, would have surprised no one by dismissing Campaneris with a few choice curse words. Instead, Martin responded by challenging Campaneris to make his Opening Day roster.
Most unwittingly, Campaneris became a source of controversy. When Yankees public relations director Ken Nigro heard Martin talking about Campaneris trying to make the team, he thought the manager was kidding. As outlined in Bill Madden’s wonderfully entertaining book, Damned Yankees, Nigro made a disparaging remark about Campaneris. Martin responded angrily to Nigro, wondering why a PR man would have the audacity to offer input on player personnel. “If you don’t mind, pal,” Campaneris said to Nigro, “I’ll make the personnel decisions around here.” Martin with the zinger.
Campaneris proceeded to justify Martin’s faith in him—and prove Nigro wrong. Campy earned the final spot on the 25-man roster, and hit .322 as a backup second baseman and third baseman to Willie Randolph and Graig Nettles, respectively. He also gained a bit of notoriety by playing third base on the Fourth of July—the day that Dave Righetti threw his no-hitter against the Red Sox. And for what it’s worth, he became one of my favorite Yankees, in part because of my fondness for the old Oakland dynasty that Campy had helped assemble nearly a decade earlier.
Although Campaneris came to bat only 143 times in 1983, he did everything the Yankees asked him to do—and did it well. In addition to reaching base at a .355 clip, he showed some of his old speed (though he was inefficient in stealing bases, nailed seven times in 13 attempts), and played reasonably well at both second and third base, two positions with which he had little familiarity. So it was with some level of astonishment that the Yankees chose not to re-sign Campaneris, letting him become a free agent at season’s end.
No one else signed Campaneris, either. Spurned by the 26 major league teams, the fortysomething Campaneris decided to retire, pretty much disappearing from the baseball scene.
A few years ago, while working at the Hall of Fame and Museum here in Cooperstown, a number of staff members were brought into the reading room at the Hall’s Library. We were told that he would meet several former major leaguers who were visiting the Hall. The group included Vernon Law, Tracy Stallard, Billy North—and North’s old Oakland teammate, Campy Campaneris. Amazingly, Campaneris appeared to be so fit that he weighed less than when he topped the scales at about 150 pounds in the early 1980s. Based on his appearance, Campaneris just might be the only former major leaguer who has actually improved his physical conditioning since he retired.
Campy must be about 66 years old these days, if his birth certificate is to be believed. I’m thinking that he might be playing in the upcoming Hall of Fame Classic, the Cooperstown old-timers game that was recently named to replace the Hall of Fame Game. And hey, if anybody needs a utility man willing to try defying the odds… well, you know.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.