38 Years Later, Yankee Training Camp of 1947 Is Remembered
That the first time is always fondly remembered is a truism of baseball writers and spring training.
And so, without further ado, let it be recorded that on Feb. 14, 1947, the plane carrying the New York Yankees and a 21-year old sports writer left LaGuardia Airport for San Juan, P.R., and an adventure still bright in memory 38 years later.
San Juan was only the first stop for the Yankees on this unusual spring training trip planned by Col. Larry MacPhail, part-owner of the club. After two weeks in San Juan, the team was scheduled to visit Caracas, Venezuela, and then stop in Havana, Cuba, before arrival at St. Petersburg, Fla.
MacPhail was an imaginative chap, whose innovations included establishing night baseball in the major leagues over the objections of most other owners. A man who during World War I was involved in a scheme to kidnap the Kaiser, MacPhail even had a sponsor underwriting the trip--a Puerto Rican rum distillery. Therein lay the flaw in the plan.
The Yankees had been in a state of chaos in 1946. Three managers and a third-place finish was not the stuff that built the Yankee dynasty. But MacPhail and his partners thought they had solved the situation when they hired Bucky Harris as the new manager.
Harris was a braker boy on a railroad who grew up to marry a U.S. Senator’s daughter. He was smooth and articulate. He was a gentleman who could be tough in the clutch. Halfway to San Juan, he looked around the plane cabin. Some of the players were reading. Others were playing cards. A couple had gone to the cockpit at the pilot’s invitation. Harris relaxed. He leaned back in his cushioned seat and soon was sleeping peacefully. It was one of the few times he was to achieve that luxury in the next 30 days.
Waiting in San Juan to meet the Yankees were the distillery’s 36 top salesmen of the previous year, headed by the first vice president of the company. Each had been assigned to one of the players as a companion-guide with the mission to be sure each and everyone of the famous visitors “had a good time.” The vice president made that plain. Everybody was to have a good time. Understand?
To get the fun off to a good start, the distillery had arranged to have a case of rum delivered to each player’s room on arrival in mid-afternoon. A few hours later, at dinner time, the VP in charge turned his salesmen loose with the command, “Go to it, lads.” Shortly thereafter the grape was flowing freely and the Yankees were beginning to think MacPhail had hit upon a great idea for spring training.
As the hours sped by and the drinks kept flowing, a debate started over the swimming and diving ability of a certain Yankee rookie. The fellow was built like Johnny Weissmuller in his prime and claimed to be as good a swimmer. Yankee veterans were not impressed and told the rookie to put up or shut up. Soon, people were reaching for their wallets. Harris, it should be noted, was enjoying a quiet scotch and soda in the hotel’s presidential suite, unaware of what was happening three floors below.
At midnight, the bettors and the star of the show assembled. The hotel was constructed in a rectangular shape, three stories high. The inner balcony, which ran around the whole hotel, looked down upon a pool, roughly 100 feet long and 60 feet wide. It was 12 feet deep.
The bet was whether or not the “Yankee Weissmuller” could make the dive successfully from the third story balcony.
At precisely 12:01 a.m., Harris’ peaceful reverie was interrupted by a gigantic roar--the winners cheering and the losers groaning. He rushed from his suite to take in a wild scene. Perhaps never in history have so many people sobered up so fast. Harris made a few thousand points, the most important of which was that there was going to be a club meeting at 9 a.m., the next day.
Harris laid down the law. This was a training camp. The cases of rum must go. The salesmen must be called off. The rules must be obeyed or Harris would take his Yankees and depart, forthwith, to the mainland.
The VP was crushed--but only for a moment. An interesting fact had occurred to him. There were 12 sports writers from New York and New Jersey traveling with the team. He did the obvious. He assigned three salesmen to each of the 12 on a ‘round-the-clock schedule.
Let it be sufficient to say that never have red-blooded American men been so happy or so tired as the day the “chosen 12” left San Juan for Caracas. Little did they know, the distillery had arranged to have the salesmen follow the reporters to Caracas for one more week of parties.
On arriving in Caracas, the Yankees also learned that Venezuelans took their baseball seriously. A week earlier, a Brooklyn Dodger pitching prospect named Ed Chandler had entered the ninth inning leading a Venezuelean League game by a run and had walked the first three batters in the inning. The manager, accompanied by two policemen, had promptly gone to the mound and escorted Chandler to jail.
“This is my kind of town,” barked Manager Leo Durocher of the Dodgers, who were scheduled to play the Yankees three games in Caracas.
He changed his mind 24 hours later when a member of a Carribean All-Star team hit a three-run homer in the first inning, giving the All-Stars a 3-0 lead over a combined team of Yankees and Dodgers. Never did a Ruthian homer set off comparable pandemonium. The fans, who had paid $17.50 a ticket, celebrated the event by setting the stadium’s bleachers on fire.
Elated with the success of the promotion, a Venezuelan businessman named Jospeh Winkleman informed MacPhail that he was going to hold over the Yankees for another week.
“You can’t kidnap the Yankees,” screamed MacPhail.
“What are you going to do about it,” demanded Winkleman, “call the President of the United States?”
“The hell with the president,” roared MacPhail, “I’ll call Gen. MacArthur.”
With Winkleman having come to his senses at the mention of MacArthur’s name, the Yankees moved on to Havana where lurked further disaster.
Ever since A. B. “Happy” Chandler had become commissioner in 1945 he had been warning Durocher to steer clear of a Hollywood “gambling crowd” which included movie star George Raft and known gambler Bugsy Siegal. Durocher had complied, surprisingly, with Chandler’s edicts and also had married Larraine Day, a low-key movie star with none of the “sex queen” characteristics usually associated with the breed.
But on this night, Durocher was sitting on the bench with a couple of newsmen and noticed a known gambler named Memphis Engleberg sitting in MacPhail’s reserved box.
“There’s your double standard,” Durocher said. “If I as much as nodded to that guy, Chandler would try to throw me out of baseball. But MacPhail can invite him to be his guest and get away with it.”
The storm broke the next morning when Durocher’s quotes appeared in mainland newspapers.
The cast of characters was impressive on both sides of the controversy: MacPhail, Del Webb and Dan Topping representing the Yankees and Durocher, Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley fighting for the Dodgers. Six weeks later, after a zillion words of testimony, Chandler made one of the most fantastic decisions in baseball history.
He suspended Durocher, an innocent man for once, for one year.
By then the Yankees, Dodgers and the whole entourage had made it back to the sidewalks of New York and things were settling down.
Even in the household of that 21-year old reporter, an older and a wiser man than the one who had departed from LaGuardia Airport on Feb. 14.
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