COMMENTARY : A Look Back at Yogi, Whitey, Mick and BBWAA 385
It was a brand-new white Ban-lon shirt I bought for this road trip with the New York Yankees. It was in the summer of ’61, which was before we understood that Ban-Lon shirts were hot as a sauna. But the ballplayers wore them and this was very early in my education.
It was my first season covering the Yankees, the only team in town. I had BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) card 385. It’s No. 28 now.
This was in the lobby of the Muhlebach Hotel in Kansas City, where they had the earliest melon and strawberry in the league in the coffee shop and up the street the kind of burlesque I had only heard about.
Anyhow, I was chatting with several people and all of a sudden Yogi Berra squirts blue ink all over the front of my new Ban-Lon shirt. I mean, what are you supposed to do when it’s your first season on a job you had dreamed of, and this legend does something like that to you?
I had found Yogi to be cordial until I asked him a question and then he’d grump, “How the hell do I know?” Veteran writers like Stan Isaacs and Lenny Shecter had warned me that Yogi’s lovable cartoon image was a fraud. I wanted to learn everything Isaacs and Shecter could teach.
This was beyond what they told me.
And then the ink paled and then faded away completely, and Yogi laughed his heh-heh-heh.
That summer was like a first love: Some things you never forget.
It was the summer of Mantle and Maris, but it was my summer, too. I’d been to spring training for the first time, the Yankees’ last spring in St. Petersburg, where they’d trained since Babe Ruth.
Elston Howard was the only Negro player to attend the annual Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and Bill White of the Cardinals objected that no Negro on his team had been invited. That spring, like all springs before, Negro players -- they weren’t referred to as blacks then -- lived in the Negro section of the city, not at the teams’ hotels. I didn’t quite know how to handle it.
It was a season for me to get to know Maris and Mantle better after covering a handful of games in 1960. Mantle was his own legend with bandaged legs. For a moment he could be witty and wise, especially for columnists Jimmy Cannon or Milton Gross, but I’d ask for introspection and he’d spin on his stool and give me the reddening back of his neck.
Maris didn’t care who the writers were, he was Roger. He had “the R.A.,” as players called the attitude. “Sure,” he said, “I’ve had it all my life.” I’ve been back reading the microfilm. Roger’s statement eventually led to his alienation. Honest and direct as he was, he never did understand what the media were doing.
Joe DiMaggio was invited to camp and every day there’d be whispers that Marilyn Monroe was at this beach or that beach, or she’d been in the grandstand after the writers had left. But a number of the younger Yankees weren’t that interested in the Yankee Clipper.
Maris asked, “What does he think he’s going to do?”
And one of the young Yankees said, “We’ve got our own Joe D. Joe DeMaestri.”
It was fascinating to be on the outer ring of the inner circle for the first time, to see Whitey Ford run across the field to throw a scuffed ball -- “Watch this” -- to coach Jim Hegan. Ford was always acute, courteous and funny. Of course, my family knew him from way back when his picture was on the front pages, being sworn into the Army next to Howard Jacobson, my brother.
Ralph Houk, in his first season as manager, was more intimidating than Casey Stengel had been, but I could understand what he said. He’s been identified as a major, which he became as a matter of procedure the day he was discharged from the Army. Captain was enough. At a party in Los Angeles, he told me about the time he got out of a jeep and saw that his raincoat had a dozen bullet holes.
Ford said he had changed his dog’s name from Casey to Major.
There were at least 13 daily papers covering the Yankees, but not today’s swarm of radio stations, and TV rarely had a camera on the scene. Newsday was an afternoon paper with later deadlines, and the fun and the best work was after the games -- even after California night games. And we had no Sunday paper back then, either.
It was one of the great teams, chewing up the first of the expansion pitching. Mantle was an absolutely stunning player, and watching him wrap his legs to play and force himself up the stairs of a bus was observing tragedy.
I’ve read that Maris’ confidant, Julie Isaacson, a labor union official, said the papers sought a feud between Maris and Mantle. I don’t remember writing that. I know they shared an apartment in Queens with outfielder Bob Cerv for a time that summer. I never saw Mantle and Maris as especially close, but they were always comfortable teammates.
Mantle and Ford were close -- Mantle called him Slick -- but Ford’s family lived in New York. One time Ford had second baseman Bobby Richardson direct Mantle to move his position in centerfield. “Mick came trotting in from second base,” Ford said after the game, pausing between each word. “He said I should take care of the pitching and he would take care of the outfielding.”
I was thrilled to be hearing that stuff and, at the same time, awakened to the self-serving lies and evasions that I now recognize as commonplace in athlete-journalist relations. They aren’t all good guys; pitcher Jim Coates was on that team, for one thing.
It was the year a wave of pitchers adopted the no-windup delivery. Ford became a 20-game winner for the first time and critics called him “a seven-inning pitcher.” After winning his 14th straight, Ford told of taking his sons to a batting range and a fan saying, “Too bad you can’t put in another quarter and bring in Luis Arroyo (the lefthanded reliever who saved most of Ford’s victories that year).”
The assault on Ruth’s record became an everyday item, but newspapers continued to cover the Yankees with one reporter and occasionally a columnist. When the chase got into September, Newsday assigned Isaacs, the grizzled veteran, to the job and I was a spectator.
The crowd around Maris was swelled by the horde of out-of-town reporters. Isaacs single-teamed the climax of Maris and Mantle. He covered the 61st home run by himself as most of the papers did, but then the crowd was only 23,000. Sal Durante caught the ball, and his fiancee’s name was Rose.
There wasn’t even a big follow-up because the World Series was coming up. Mantle, as always, was the star-crossed figure, drained from the duel with history by a terrible abscess on his butt.
He missed the first two games of the Series and left the third after one at-bat with blood soaking through his uniform. He was hitless in one more game but the Yankees didn’t need him, winning in five games. Ford broke Ruth’s record for consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, and Mantle was an inspiration.
When Richardson was spiked at second base and blood soaked into his shoe, he stayed in the game. “How could I come out,” Richardson said, “when he’s played with what he’s got?”
When the fifth game was over, Maris rushed from the crowded Crosley Field clubhouse. The taxi was waiting to take him to the airport. End of legendary season.
Jack Mann, the sports editor, and I lingered one more day for the draft that stocked expansion Houston and the Mets. Cruelly early that morning, the office secretary phoned to confess she had messed up the reservations home.
She was afraid to call the sports editor; I was low man on the list. I was BBWAA 385. Some things you never forget.