Here’s something to keep you warm on a cold winter day, the late George Kimball’s essay from our book “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories.” It’s all about the old ballpark, Billy Martin, finks and phonies, brawling, and, of course, drinking with Bill Lee.
By George Kimball
There are things you learned about the old Yankee Stadium once it became your place of work that never would have occurred to you as a kid going to watch a game there. Making your way from the visiting- to the home-team dugout, or to the pressroom where they fed us and the adjacent quarters where we wrote our stories after games, involved negotiating an elaborate system of labyrinthine tunnels that could have been a large-scale Skinner box. A dim-witted scribe could spend hours trying to find his way around down there, but once he did figure it out, he’d be rewarded with supper, or maybe a beer after the game.
And since we only made two or three trips a year to New York, we were always making wrong turns, ones that inevitably brought us face-to-face with one of New York’s finest on a security detail. Some of the cops had been drawing this plum assignment for years. Others, newer to the job, couldn’t tell you how to get from A to B any better than another sportswriter could. They should have handed out road maps with the press credentials.
But the overriding memory of all those hours spent wandering around beneath the House That Ruth Built remains the smell. If you grew up in suburbia, it wouldn’t have meant much to you at all, but if you’d spent much time in a big-city tenement or in the stockroom of a grocery store or ever wandered beneath street level in a restaurant that abuts a subway line, the permeating odor of Decon, the rat poison, would have been familiar.
My friend, John Schulian, must have recognized that smell too, because at some point in the late 1970s, he came up with a description of Billy Martin so apt that it should have been chiseled on Billy’s gravestone: A rat studying to be a mouse.
The funny part of it was that, while Martin had carefully cultivated an image of a guy ready to fight at the drop of a hat, he wasn’t actually very good at it. If you look at the fights he won, they were usually against marshmallow salesmen or mental cripples (Jimmy Piersall was just months away from the loony bin when Martin beat him up under the stands at Fenway in 1952) or a guy who was even drunker than he was (Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC in 1969). Sometimes he’d gain the advantage with a well-timed sucker punch, and sometimes he’d just think he had the advantage, as was the case in St. Louis in 1953, when he picked a fight with a short guy wearing glasses. (The guy, Clint “Scrap-Iron” Courtney, turned out to run against stereotype.)
If you watched him carefully over the years, he was careful to pick his spots. When Martin went at it with somebody bigger or tougher than he was, it was usually in a setting where he knew it would get broken up right away. In fair fights—and there weren’t many of them—he almost always got his ass kicked. (See: Martin vs. Ed Whitson at the Cross Keys Inn, Baltimore, 1985.)
I’d been at Yankee Stadium the night Thad Tillotson bounced a pitch off Joe Foy’s helmet in 1967. “Watch this,” I told my then-wife when Tillotson came to bat a couple of innings later. Sure enough, Jim Lonborg drilled him in the back, both benches emptied, and when they finally pulled them apart, there were Joe Pepitone and Rico Petrocelli rolling around in the dirt.
I was also at Fenway Park the day in 1973 when Stick Michael missed a bunt on a suicide squeeze. With Thurman Munson barreling in from third toward Carlton Fisk, whom he didn’t like much anyway, the result was somewhat predictable. Both benches emptied after the collision, and even as they dragged Munson away, Fisk and Michael were going at it. Boston lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee said the whole thing looked like a bunch of hookers swinging their purses at each other. Everyone save Thurman Munson thought that was pretty funny.
So, by the time Billy Martin came back to manage his old team, Red Sox–Yankee rhubarbs were nothing new. Their history long predated the return of Number One. I’d seen them start for good reasons and for bad reasons, and sometimes they’d started just because they were Yankees and Red Sox. So, when another one broke out on May 20, 1976, I wasn’t surprised. You could see this one coming a mile down the road. It was like watching a fight develop in slow motion.
Lee had a 1–0 lead with two out in the bottom of the sixth. Lou Piniella, at second, represented the tying run; Graig Nettles was on first. With the count 2–1 on Otto Velez, Spaceman threw a sinker on the outside of the plate, and Velez stroked it into the opposite field. It was hit so hard that when Dwight Evans grabbed it on one hop, it briefly crossed my mind that he might even have a play on Nettles at second. That’s when I looked down and saw Piniella rounding third, and he didn’t seem to be slowing down.
Evans may have had the best arm in the American League back then, and not even a good base runner would have challenged him in this situation, but Piniella was, at this point, committed and kept on coming. Evans threw in one fluid motion, a strike to the plate, and had him by at least ten feet. If it had somehow been a closer play, maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all, but now it was inevitable. Out by a mile, Piniella’s only chance was to run right over Fisk, barreling into him so hard that he might dislodge the ball. Fisk, aware of this, was determined to make the experience painful enough that Lou would think twice before he ever tried it again.
As tags go, it was pretty aggressive. Fisk may even have tried to tag him in the nuts—and with his fist, not his glove, holding the ball. Naturally, Lou came up swinging, and in what seemed barely an instant, there were fifty or sixty guys in uniform going at it in the middle of the infield. Or that’s the way it seemed. Actually, some of them took a bit longer getting there than others. Traditional baseball protocol in these situations calls for the occupants of both bullpens, even the ones intent on serving as peacemakers, to make a mad dash all the way to the infield, where they are to then grab one of their opposite numbers and wrestle for a while until the smoke clears.
Logic would suggest that it would be a lot simpler to just pair off out in the bullpen, particularly since, in its new configuration, Yankee Stadium’s bullpens shared a common gate. So, when the fight started, everybody from both bullpens jumped up simultaneously to race in to where the action was. Tom House, then a Boston reliever, told me that when he got to the gate, Catfish Hunter was gallantly holding it open for him.
“See ya in there, kid,” said Catfish as House trotted past.
Fisk and Piniella were rolling around on the ground following the collision when Lee, who’d been backing up the plate on the play, spotted Velez trying to be third man in.
The first guy to hit Lee was actually Mickey Rivers, who must have been taking boxing lessons from Billy Martin. Mick was running up and down behind the scrum, looking like a guy playing Whack-A-Mole as he lashed out at the back of every Boston cap he could spot. (Somebody watching on television later told me that Ken Harrelson, in his blow-by-blow call on a Boston station, said “Rivers is just basically just running around sucker-punching everybody!”)
The next thing I saw was Nettles grabbing Spaceman from behind, seemingly lifting him over his head, and body-slamming him. I don’t know for a fact that he was trying to throw Lee on his left shoulder, but that’s how he landed. (Nettles claimed later that he was just trying to drag Lee off Velez, since Rivers’ punch hadn’t done the job.) Lee was 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, almost the exact dimensions of Muhammad Ali, but truth be told, he couldn’t fight any better than Billy Martin could, even though he did have an impressive one-punch KO on his résumé.
That had occurred in a winter league game down in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, several years earlier. When Eliseo Rodriguez charged the mound, Lee reflexively stuck his hand out in self-defense and, to his own surprise, knocked Rodriguez cold. Only when he read the next morning’s papers did he realize that he’d knocked out the island’s former Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champion.
The return bout took place in Caguas a week later. Rodriguez and two of his relatives were waiting when Spaceman got off the team bus. They beat him up and rammed his face into a light pole for good measure.
“I did get a nice new set of teeth out of the deal,” said Spaceman.
With Lee now apparently out of commission, Fisk and Piniella separated and Rivers dragged away by several Yankees, things seemed to calm down in a hurry. That’s when Lee made the mistake of getting up.
In his college days at USC, Bill had played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners with Nettles’ brother. Until a few moments earlier, he had considered Graig a friend. Now, he was screaming incomprehensibly as he staggered toward the New York third baseman.
“I think,” Lee said later, “it might have been the word ‘asshole’ that set him off.”
In Nettles’ defense, what he probably saw was just a crazy man charging at him. In any case, when Lee got close enough, Nettles cut loose with a right cross, and when Lee tried to block it with his left, he discovered that he couldn’t lift his arm above his waist. The punch caught Spaceman flush in the face and dropped him in his tracks.
A few months later, Ali and Ken Norton fought in almost exactly the same spot, and in fifteen rounds neither one of them landed a punch as hard as that one.
Oddly, I don’t remember Billy Martin throwing a single punch in that brawl. Maybe he found Don Zimmer and the two of them sat it out.
Once order was restored, both Nettles and Lee were ejected. (Neither Fisk nor Piniella were.) In Lee’s case, it was somewhat moot. Before the Red Sox finished batting in the next inning, he was on his way to the hospital.
He would later describe the episode by saying “I was attacked by Billy Martin’s brown shirts.”
There was clearly no love lost between the dope-smoking Spaceman and the whiskey-swilling Fiery Genius. There were unconfirmed rumors, before and since, that Martin had personally placed a bounty on Lee, but there were enough Yankees players who intensely disliked Lee that they probably didn’t need any encouragement from Billy Martin.
Obviously, the fight hadn’t been started just to get at him, said Lee, “but once it did start, it sure seemed like there were a lot of guys in pinstripes trying to find me.”
It might be noted here that, going into that game, Lee ranked as the number three Yankee-killer of all time, with a lifetime percentage against the Bronx Bombers bettered only by those of Babe Ruth and Dickie Kerr. Ruth, of course, had stopped pitching even before Harry Frazee sold his contract to Colonel Ruppert, and Kerr, pointed out Lee, may have accomplished the greatest pitching feat of all time—winning two games in the 1919 World Series with five guys playing behind him who were trying to lose.
Bill Lee’s career didn’t end that night, but it’s fair to say he was never the same pitcher again. He had won seventeen games in each of the previous three years, but he never won as many in a season again. He had torn ligaments and a separated left shoulder, and nearly two months would go by before he pitched again. Between 1973 and 1975 Lee had thrown fifty-one complete games. In 1976 he would throw just one.
Nobody knew this that night at that ballpark, of course. All we knew was that Lee had been taken away in an ambulance, but when the team bus pulled up in front of the New York Sheraton an hour and a half after the last out, there was Spaceman, waiting in the lobby.
Since I was then writing for a weekly and didn’t face a postgame deadline, Lee and I had earlier made plans to terrorize a saloon or two in Greenwich Village that night, and now, with his arm and a sling and sporting a black eye, he was determined to keep the appointment.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re still going to the Lion’s Head, aren’t we?”
Stan Williams, the Red Sox’s pitching coach, had other ideas. “Come on, big boy,” he said to Lee as he grabbed his good arm. “No curfew for you tonight.”
So, with Stanley as our tour guide, we went bouncing on the Upper East Side. I vaguely remember visiting a gin mill with a hospital motif—the ER? the Recovery Room?—where the waitresses were all dressed like nurses, or dressed like nurses wearing white miniskirts, anyway.
Either the sight of a bona fide patient had scared all the nurses away or we’d moved on to another joint. Thirty-three years later, all I can swear to is that, a bit after 3 AM, we were the last three customers in the bar, and Lee had been chasing shots of VO with the Demerol they’d given him in the real hospital, or maybe it was the other way around, but anyway, just then the saloon door swings open and who comes walking in but—think about the odds of this for a moment—Lou Piniella, all by himself.
As soon as he saw us he was all over Lee like a long-lost brother: “Gee, Bill, I’m so sorry. If I’d ever known this was going to happen . . .” I think tears may even have welled up in his eyes. And, of course, he bought us all a drink, and then another one.
The sun was coming up by the time we left, Sweet Lou in one direction, and Bill, Stan, and I back to the hotel. In the cab, I remarked to Lee that Piniella was a pretty nice guy after all, and that he had seemed properly contrite over the outcome of the affair he’d initiated at home plate that night.
“What else was he going to say?” Spaceman sighed wearily.
“There were three of us and one of him.”
Out on an early morning foraging run, a solitary rat darted across the sidewalk. We all saw him, but nobody said a word.