Billy & Reggie’s Brouhaha
June 18, 1977
“I am the straw that stirs the drink,” Reggie Jackson announced after signing with the Yankees in 1977. “Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.”
Never mind that the Yankees were the defending AL champions and team captain Thurman Munson was the reigning AL MVP. Jackson acted like a man determined to steal the New York spotlight from anyone who challenged him. Only one person stood in his way: Yankee skipper Billy Martin.
Like Jackson, Martin had a knack for stirring up trouble, except Martin let his fists — not his mouth — do the talking. As a player, Martin was best known for charging Jim Brewer in 1960 after the Cubs hurler dared to brush him back. Martin’s sucker punch to the eye landed Brewer in the hospital for two months.
But when it came to winning ballgames, Martin’s grit was invaluable. After attention-starved owner George Steinbrenner hired him in August 1975, Martin led the Yanks to their first AL pennant in twelve years in 1976.
Martin did not take kindly to the bombastic Jackson, whom Steinbrenner signed to a five-year deal after the Yankees were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Perhaps out to show “The Boss” who was in charge, Martin started the year with Jackson batting fifth. Jackson, who considered himself a cleanup hitter, was deeply offended.
All might have been forgiven had the Yankees been winning. But with the Yankees struggling mightily to live up to expectations in the first half of 1977, the simmering circle of resentment that began when Jackson pompously proclaimed his leadership in spring training finally boiled over on June 18 in Fenway Park.
The Yankees trailed Boston by three runs in the bottom of the sixth when Jim Rice hit a checked-swing fly ball to right field. But rather than charging the ball and making an easy catch, Jackson allowed it to drop in for a base hit. To make matters worse, he lazily picked it up and tossed it towards the pitchers’ mound as Rice coasted into second base with a surprisingly cheap double.
Incensed, Martin immediately yanked his sensitive slugger in favor of defensive whiz Paul Blair. With NBC cameras zooming in on the action, Jackson ran into the Yankee dugout. “What’s going on? What did I do?” he screamed at his manager. “You didn’t hustle,” replied Martin. “You have to be crazy to embarrass me in front of 50 million people,” Jackson yelled. “You’re not a man. Don’t you ever show me up again, you [bleep].”
Martin had enough. He charged toward Jackson, but before Martin could land a punch Yankee coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard had pinned his arms behind his back. Moments later, while being escorted to the clubhouse, Jackson turned around and yelled at Martin, “You never did want me on the ballclub. I’m here to stay, so you better start liking me!”
Having witnessed the entire debacle on television from his hometown of Cleveland, Steinbrenner (who already had gone through three managers in four years) was determined to rid himself of Martin. Without waiting for the game to end, Steinbrenner reportedly called Boston and ordered team president Gabe Paul to fire Martin. After much haggling, Steinbrenner relented, not wanting to make it appear as if Jackson ran the club.
After the game (which the Yanks lost 10-4) Jackson retreated back to his hotel room as Martin held center-stage in the clubhouse. “I ask only one thing of a player — hustle,” Martin remarked. “If a player doesn’t hustle, it shows the club up and I show the player up.” Later that night, a clearly battered Jackson, thumbing through a Bible in his hotel room, said, “It makes me cry the way they treat me on this team. The Yankee pinstripes are Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle. I’m just a black man to them who doesn’t know how to be subservient.”
By Aug. 9, the mutinous Yanks had fallen to third place, five games behind the Red Sox when Martin announced that Jackson would bat fourth. Sparked by rookie Ron Guidry‘s eight straight wins, the Bombers won 23 of their next 26 games; during that stretch, Jackson smashed 13 homers and drove in 49 runs. The club finished the year in first place with 100 wins, and thanks to three consecutive homers by Jackson in Game Six of the World Series, won its first championship since 1962.
But the acrimony in the Yankee clubhouse cut short the celebratory period of tranquility that usually accompanies a World Series victory. The following season, Martin ordered Jackson to bunt with a July game against the Royals on the line. Jackson squared to bunt, and took the pitch for a ball. Seeing the Royals pull their infield in, Martin took off the bunt sign. Jackson, in his final act of defiance, tried to drop down three consecutive bunts. All failed, and Jackson was suspended by the club for five games.
A few days later, after remarking to Murray Chass of The New York Times that Steinbrenner and Jackson deserved each other because, “One’s a born liar [and] the other’s been convicted,” Martin resigned as manager of the Yankees.
Under Bob Lemon, the Bronx Bombers again rallied from a disappointing first half in 1978, besting the Red Sox in a one-game playoff before once again topping the Dodgers in the World Series. Over the next decade (before his untimely death in 1989) Martin managed the Yanks on four more separate occasions. Jackson signed with the Angels after the 1981 season, retired with 563 career home runs in 1987 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1993.