Monday, May 17, 2004

“Nobody did nothing to nobody.”

— Yogi Berra, May 17, 1957

For once, the New York Yankees’ star catcher had nothing funny (or grammatical) to say when club owner Dan Topping hauled him onto the carpet in that unmerry month of May. There had been a brawl involving the Yankees the previous evening at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub, and Topping wanted to learn the truth.

He also wanted to get rid of Billy Martin, who was one of six Yankees and five of their wives at the club to celebrate Martin’s 29th birthday. Although Billy might have been a bystander this time, Topping, co-owner Del Webb and especially general manager George Weiss felt the hard-drinking, hot-tempered second baseman was a bad influence on young superstar Mickey Mantle. So Martin had to go.

Ironically, the primary culprit might have been Hank Bauer, the normally stolid outfielder, whose temper flared when a Copa patron who reportedly owned a delicatessen in the Bronx began tossing racial epithets at entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. When the deli owner went to the men’s room, according to one contemporary account, Bauer followed. Pretty soon the man lay on the floor with a broken nose. Upon arising, he went to the police station and swore out a warrant for Bauer’s arrest.

Questioned by the police, Bauer, batting .203, produced the only amusing comment of the whole affair: “I didn’t hit him. I ain’t hit anybody all year.”

Two weeks later, the players involved were called before a grand jury that decided a Copa bouncer, not Bauer, had assaulted the deli owner. The charges were dropped, but the Yankees upheld fines against each player — Martin, Mantle, Berra, Bauer and pitchers Whitey Ford and Johnny Kucks — presumably for breaking curfew and tarnishing the club’s dignified image.

Martin paid the biggest price. A month after the fracas, he was traded to the second-division Kansas City Athletics in a six-player deal. It didn’t matter that manager Casey Stengel loved his self-confidence and brash manner. Now the Yankees’ front office had an excuse for dumping Billy.

Upset at losing his favorite player, Stengel was uncharacteristically lucid when the New York Times asked him about the incident. Said Casey: “I can’t understand the big fuss. They’re trying to make a big scandal over this because we’re the Yanks.”

Martin was a hustling if marginally skilled player with a talent for rising to occasions; his batting average for five World Series was .333 compared with his lifetime regular-season mark of .257. In 1952, he had saved the Series for the Yankees in Game 7 by sprinting in to make a desperation grab of a popup near the pitcher’s mound with two out in the seventh inning, New York leading 4-3 and the basepaths full of dashing Dodgers. The following year, he banged 12 hits in six games, batted .500 and drove in the Series-winning run as the Yankees again beat Brooklyn. But he hardly fit the dignified image the club wished to project.

People said rooting for the haughty Yankees, who had won seven pennants and six World Series in Stengel’s first eight seasons, was like rooting for U.S. Steel. That was an insult to U.S. Steel. By comparison to the Bronx Bombers, U.S. Steel was warm and fuzzy.

“I needed Casey this one time in my life, and he let me down,” Martin told pals Mantle and Ford the day after the Copa imbroglio. “I’m gone.”

And so he was, beginning an odyssey that saw him play for six teams in the next six seasons although all he ever wanted was to be a Yankee and wear pinstriped uniform No.1 on his back.

So what really happened at the Copa, which quickly became one of New York’s most prominent and colorful nightclubs when it opened on Manhattan’s West Side in 1940 before moving to 10 East 60th Street?

Who knows?

Other accounts said several members of a well-juiced bowling team had been heckling the Yankees players and their wives. Said ex-Marine Bauer, who went on to manage the Baltimore Orioles to their first World Series title in 1966: “A big, fat guy walked by and said, ‘Don’t trust your luck too far tonight, Yankee.’ I told him to [perform an anatomically impossible act]. Pretty soon another guy goes to the men’s room, and Billy and Whitey followed him there. So Joanie Ford says, ‘Hank, you better go back there and see what’s happening.’

“I go back there and I see bouncers all over the place. Whitey or Yogi grabbed me and said, ‘Get out of here.’ So I did, and we go back to the hotel. It’s 2 or 2:30 in the morning by then, and around 4:30 the phone rings, and a writer tells me, ‘Some guy claims you hit him.’ The next day, Topping gets us in and says, ‘It’ll cost you each $1,000.’”

Mantle’s version was somewhat different, possibly because he admittedly was well under the influence.

“The bowling guys kept standing up and calling Sammy Davis [names] and stuff like that,” Mantle said. “Billy and Hank kept telling them to sit down. The next thing I knew, the place was filled with people swinging. I was so drunk, I didn’t know who threw the first punch. A body landed at my feet. It looked like Roy Rogers rode through on Trigger, and Trigger kicked the guy in the face.”

The next day, Stengel dropped Bauer to eighth in the batting order but left Mantle in his usual third spot. “I’m mad at him, too, for being out late,” Case said. “But I’m not mad enough to take a chance on losing a ballgame and possibly the pennant.”

Fat chance. The Yankees won the 1957 American League pennant by eight games as Mantle batted a career-high .365 (finishing second by 23 points to Boston’s 39-year-old Ted Williams). Bauer got his average up to .259 by season’s end. Martin batted 16 points higher with the A’s than he had with the Yankees, finishing at .251 overall. Kansas City straggled home seventh with a 73-81 record.

In retrospect, the Copacabana brawl had relatively little effect other than starting Billy Martin on a path of self-destruction that lasted the rest of his life. When Martin became a manager with Minnesota in 1969, he immediately won a divisional championship, but his drinking and brawling continued until his death in an auto accident on Christmas Day 1989.

Billy meant trouble — a fact deduced by Topping, Webb and Weiss decades before George Steinbrenner and other employers began hiring and firing him. Martin’s lifetime winning percentage of .553 ranks him with the best managers in history, but when it came to being destroyed by his own demons, Alfred Manuel Martin literally was No.1.

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