NOTHING TO ATONE FOR
ON THE EARLY EVENING of October 1, 1978, after six months of roistering with an intensity unmatched in the long history of hyperkinetic, high-proof roistering that so enriches the annals of American baseball, the New York Yankees found themselves tied for first place. The team had won 99 of 162 games, a commendable winning percentage of .611, but so had their traditional rivals, the Boston Red Sox. Autumn had taken hold along the eastern seaboard, bringing bright clear skies and quickening winds. The regular season of '78 was history. Still, in a sense, the teams found themselves just where they had been some six months earlier on Opening Day, April 8-tied, toe to toe, and glowering. As nature is said to abhor a vacuum, baseball abhors a tie, so now the Yankees were going to have to fly to Boston and meet the Red Sox yet again in a single-game playoff on October 2. As more than one sportswriter pointed out, the entire season for the two teams was coming down to one game. The regular season had ended and it had not ended. (In an interesting theory advanced by the author W. P. Kinsella, a ball game can stretch from the first inning clear to infinity. Uniquely among team sports, baseball proceeds outside of time. There is no clock.)
By every reasonable standard, the 1978 Yankees should have been terminally exhausted. Their opening-day manager, Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin, had been drinking so heavily that his personality, none too tranquil when he was sober, had erupted with repeated explosions of anger, hatred, and paranoia, until he had finally gotten himself "resigned" back in July. While his great predecessor, Casey Stengel, mellowed with drink, booze turned Martin into a human Gatling gun. "You always wanted to be around Billy for the first drink," suggests Gene Michael, then the Yankees first-base coach. "You never wanted to be around him for the last one."
I knew Martin when he was a young infielder for Stengel's Yankees. He was a winning ball player who could be fine, if somewhat raucous, fun. But he also had an unpleasant, combative side. During spring training in 1953 he turned to the late Ben Epstein, a genial reporter for Hearst's tabloid Daily Mirror, and said, "I hear you used to be a wrestler."
"Yeah," Epstein said. Years earlier he had earned a living in his home state of Arkansas by wrestling as "Pat Rollo, the Undefeated Middleweight Champion of Bulgaria." Standing in the marble lobby of the Hotel Soreno, Martin said, "I'll show you some holds." Epstein said fine, although Martin was twenty-five years younger than he. "How's this?" Martin said, hoisting Epstein and starting an airplane-propeller twist. "Off," Epstein said, no longer quite so genial. Martin dropped Epstein to the lobby floor, believing that he was terminating the episode. But Epstein rallied, applied one of his Bulgarian flips, and left his opponent helpless. With Allie Reynolds and a few other Yankees watching, Epstein applied a Bulgarian twist. Martin cried out in pain. Epstein said, "Had enough?"
"Okay," Martin shouted. "Anything you want. Lemme loose." Epstein told me some time afterward, "I remember two things about the match. First, the only thing that got damaged was my watch, and Reynolds fixed it for me right away. Second, when I said 'Had enough?' that was the first time Pat Rollo, the Undefeated Middleweight Champion of Bulgaria, had ever spoken in English." This episode foreshadowed the more visceral confrontation of July 1978 when Martin, talking while intoxicated, threw down another challenge quite beyond his strength and pretty much forced his boss to fire him.
The boss-George Michael Steinbrenner III of Bay Village, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; and the South Bronx-is said to be the only owner in baseball who walks into his clubhouse humming the theme from Patton. He is famously a hard-fisted businessman who shouts and rants and cultivates a climate of creative terrorism. As I write these lines, Steinbrenner is a vigorous, vastly wealthy character just past seventy who speaks to the press infrequently, ignores rumors he has undergone a face-lift, and employs a high-powered New York public relations firm to protect his image. Back in 1978, he was available to the press and public more or less on whim.
When the late Ed Linn began work on a book about Steinbrenner and his team, George telephoned me and made a troubling request. Would I arrange for him to see the manuscript before publication so he could "check it out for accuracy"? Steinbrenner knew that Linn had collaborated on books with Bill Veeck, then running the Chicago White Sox, and the two-Steinbrenner and Veeck-regarded each other with loathing. Steinbrenner's deep concern, it seemed to me, was that Linn would write the book with a hatchet sharpened by Veeck. Linn was a friend of mine. I certainly liked (and like) Steinbrenner. What to do? I simply relayed George's request to Linn, who was working in his cluttered basement office on Long Island. Linn thought for a while, then called me back and said, "Fine. Tell him he can read every passage in the book that isn't about him."
The role of telephonic go-between enlivened my life for several weeks, but failed to produce anything approaching accord. Aside from the Veeck element, Steinbrenner had serious grounds for concern. He didn't know Linn and had brushed off several interview requests more casually than he might have with better advice. His background, which Linn intended to explore, contained more than one disquieting episode. Within six months of the day Steinbrenner acquired control of the Yankees (January 3, 1973), he had pleaded guilty to two felony charges, for essentially making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign. With great intensity and in fine detail, Steinbrenner explained to me afterward that he considered himself an independent Democrat and that he had been victimized by Nixon and Nixon's henchmen. (We will consider that story at length later on.) Working on his own from other sources, Linn categorically rejected Steinbrenner's explanation. His book portrays Steinbrenner as an arrogant, law-breaking manipulator. In Linn's version only a shrewd lawyer and a plea bargain saved Steinbrenner from a prison sentence and probable expulsion from baseball. Such accusations-they were around before Linn wrote them-cut deeply. "Owning the Yankees is just unique," George remarked to me once with distinct tenderness. "I've had lots of offers to sell. No way. Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa."
The Steinbrenner of 1978 was relatively new to both baseball and New York City, and he still was close to the humiliating felony rap, which among other things cost him his right to vote. (President Reagan restored that with a pardon.) Back then he was decidedly more frantic than the seasoned, confident, mostly triumphant, sometimes guarded swashbuckler one encounters today. He wanted very much to become a sporting presence, a social presence, and a power beyond baseball in the business world. He ran with Bill Fugazy, the limousine king; wined Barbara Walters, the television queen; and huddled with Lee Iacocca, the commandant at Chrysler. After one lunch at the 21 Club, on 52nd Street, Steinbrenner and Walters made a bet: Which of the two would be recognized by more passersby as they walked the quarter block from the gates of the elegant restaurant to Fifth Avenue? (My understanding is that nobody recognized either.)
Operating his baseball team in the South Bronx and surfing the fast life in Manhattan, the kid from Bay Village reached back toward his Ohio roots that, beneath the charm and bluster and bravado, he seemed to need for security, as the savage wrestler Antaeus in Greek mythology needed the earth for strength. Steinbrenner lured Al Rosen away from an executive position at Las ...