har-mon-i-ca: n. 1, a small rectangular instrument consisting of a row of free reeds set back in air. 2, a device that can contribute to the firing of a baseball manager.
The dictionary doesn’t really list the second definition, but 43 years ago today it might as well have.
The lordly New York Yankees, winners of 13 pennants in 15 years, had lost a four-game series to the Chicago White Sox and were third in the American League as their bus left Comiskey Park and headed for O’Hare Airport on Aug. 20, 1964. Understandably, first-year manager Yogi Berra was in a sour mood, totally disinclined to say anything amusing or perhaps even civil.
Then from the back of the bus came an amateurish toot-toot-tooting. Phil Linz, the Yankees’ 25-year-old shortstop, had pulled a harmonica from his pocket and was playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the only tune he knew.
Yogi did not say, “It gets late early out here,” “You can observe a lot by watching” or “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” Instead he turned his head toward the sound and roared, “Knock it off!”
Linz, occupied musically, did not hear Berra. Stopping his rendition momentarily, he asked seatmate Mickey Mantle, “What did he say?”
The Mick, ever helpful, replied, “He said to play it louder.”
So Linz did, and now Berra was storming to the back of the bus, knocking the harmonica from his infielder’s hands and telling him where he could stick it. Instead, according to one version of the story, Linz flipped the instrument in his manager’s face and screamed, “What are you getting on me for? I always give a hundred percent. Why don’t you get on some of the guys who don’t hustle?”
Berra’s reply has been lost in the mists of time, but the ever rapacious New York media made a big deal of the incident, and it ultimately cost Berra his job.
Club owners Del Webb and Dan Topping had named the popular veteran manager when Ralph Houk moved up to become general manager following the 1963 season, but there was widespread doubt whether Yogi could control players who had been his teammates so recently. To Webb, Topping and Houk, the harmonica affair seemed to indicate he couldn’t.
Although the Yankees rebounded to go 30-13 for the rest of the season and sweep past the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles to another pennant, Berra had no chance to survive. The day after losing a seven-game World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Yankees canned him and in a stunning move hired Cardinals manager Johnny Keane for the 1965 season.
In one sense, Linz’s harmonica truly heralded the end of a baseball era. Under Casey Stengel, Houk and Berra, the lordly Yankees won 14 pennants in 16 years, but their key players were getting old, and the farm system had stopped furnishing worthwhile replacements. Under the luckless Keane, they finished sixth in 1965, unbelievably 10th and last in 1966 and didn’t win another pennant until 1976.
Berra, of course, rebounded to win a flag with the New York Mets in 1973, later rejoined the Yankees as manager under George Steinbrenner and endures today as one of baseball’s beloved elder statesmen. To the best of our knowledge, he has never discussed the Linz fiasco, which didn’t exactly fit in with Yogi’s warm and fuzzy, if somewhat manufactured, image.
The party of the other part cut a much narrower swath through baseball history. Linz shared the Yankees shortstop job with Tom Tresh after Tony Kubek was called to active military service, and Phil actually hit two home runs in the 1964 World Series. But during seven seasons with the Yankees and two other teams, he batted just .235 with 11 homers and 96 RBI before disappearing from the bigs.
During the 1964 season, Linz and dapper first baseman Joe Pepitone were regarded as free spirits who didn’t display the proper public dignity for Yankees. Possibly this was a factor in Berra’s eruption because Yogi was a house man to the core.
Linz later described the fateful harmonica hassle this way: “The bus was stuck in heavy traffic, and it was a sticky, humid Chicago summer day. I was bored, so I pulled out my harmonica. I had the learner’s sheet for ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ so I started [playing]. You blow in, you blow out.”
And Yogi blew up.
The Yankees fined Linz $200, but the incident proved profitable for him. The next day, he recalled, a harmonica company called and offered him $5,000 to endorse its product.
“The whole thing became a big joke,” Linz recalled. He batted .250 in 112 games that season, but when he slipped to .207 over 99 games in 1965, the club traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“All my jobs [after baseball] have been because people remember the harmonica,” Linz said in 2004 while working as a title insurance agent. “I’m in all the books [about the Yankees] and all that.”
For years, Linz ran a Manhattan restaurant. In 1991, at age 52, he became a second baseman for the Stamford Athletics in the Connecticut Senior Men’s Baseball League. But in one sense, he remains a kid at heart — just as he was on the Yankees bus that day so long ago.
Recently, Linz, now 68, was asked in an interview whether it wasn’t time to get serious and slow down.
“No, no,” he replied. “I’m too immature to slow down.”