Linz Tunes Up the Yanks

Linz Tunes Up the Yanks

August 20, 1964

1964 marked the last year of a great Yankee dynasty. It also marked the end of harmonica tunes on the Yankee team bus.

Despite winning the pennant in each of the previous four years, the Bronx Bombers spent most of the 1964 season in a slump. The promotion of the always popular Yogi Berra to replace manager Ralph Houk had been well received, but at times, it seemed that Berra garnered more laughs from his players than he did respect.

In mid-August, the Yankees found themselves languishing in third place behind Baltimore and Chicago. But the team ignited down the stretch, winning thirty of their last forty games to take their fifth consecutive pennant. Their spark came from an unlikely source — reserve infielder Phil Linz.

Linz was a career .235 hitter for the Yankees, Phillies, and Mets. Even though he was a tough, aggressive player who loved being a Yankee, he was regarded by some to be an un-Yankeelike young rascal, as were teammates Joe Pepitone and Jim Bouton.

The summer of 1964 was Linz’s most productive season. Injuries to Tony Kubek made the “supersub” a regular: Linz started the majority of the games down the stretch, and every World Series game at short. But his greatest contribution came off the field. When the Yankees hit bottom in late August, his harmonica unwittingly turned the team around.

It was Aug. 20, and a 5-0 shutout at the hands of Chicago’s John Buzhardt had completed a demoralizing four-game sweep by the White Sox. As the Yankees boarded the team bus to O’Hare Airport, Linz pulled out his harmonica and quietly began to toot the only song he knew, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

From the front of the bus, an irate Berra shouted, “Knock it off!” But Linz barely heard him. When asked what their manager had said, Mickey Mantle replied, “Play it louder.” And Linz did just that.

Berra had heard enough. He stormed to the back of the bus and told Linz to “shove that thing” before smacking the instrument out of his hand. The harmonica flew into Joe Pepitone‘s knee and Pepitone jokingly winced in pain. Soon the entire bus — except for Berra — was in stitches.

Once Berra returned to his seat Mantle fetched the harmonica, turned to Yankee ace Whitey Ford and said, “It looks like I’m going to be managing this club pretty soon. You can be my third base coach. And here’s what we’ll do. One toot, that’s a bunt. Two toots, that’s a hit and run.

Coach Frank Crosetti labeled it the “first case of open defiance by a player” and later said it was the worst incident he had seen in his 33 years with the team. Linz was fined $200 — but was said to have received a $20,000 endorsement from a harmonica company.

Mantle once suggested that he had done Berra a favor by inciting the incident. He once wrote, “I’m not trying to brag, but in a way, unintentionally, I may have turned the team around for Yogi.”

Indeed, the Yankees’ new respect for their manager salvaged what had been a disappointing season. The club put together a 22-6 record over the month of September, winning a tight pennant race by one game over the White Sox and two games ahead of the Orioles, led by A.L. MVP Brooks Robinson.

But the Yankees went on to lose the World Series to Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games (despite two home runs from Linz, an unlikely power source) and Berra was unceremoniously released the day after the series ended. His fate had been sealed long before the Yankees fell to St. Louis; club management had already decided they wanted to hire Cards manager Johnny Keane well before the Series began.

Whether or not Linz was liked by the old-timers, he did play hard. And like him or not, he may have salvaged the 1964 season — not with any swing of the bat, but with a few toots out of his harmonica.