Last week in baseball history — harmonics

In August 1964, the New York Yankees’ bid to win five straight pennants (and nine in ten years) was foundering. On August 20, the Chicago White Sox shut out the Bombers to complete a four game series sweep. The loss pushed the Yankees 4.5 games behind Chicago. New York also trailed Baltimore by 4 games.

After the game, on the bus to the airport, infielder Phil Linz broke out his newly purchased harmonica and began playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” According to Jim Bouton, Linz didn’t play it with gaiety; as he recalls, it sounded more like a dirge. If so, this may have been because Linz was just learning to play the instrument.

With the Yankees nearly dead and buried, Yogi Berra, their beleaguered first-year manager, was in the mood for neither gaiety nor funeral music. He called out to the back of the bus, “Shove that harmonica.”

Linz heard his manager yell, but didn’t hear what he said. When he asked his teammates, the always helpful Mickey Mantle replied, “He said play it louder.”

Linz thus continued with his song, only louder, and Berra stormed to the back of the bus. The two exchanged words, and Berra slapped the harmonica out of Linz’s hands. It smacked against Joe Pepitone’s knee, and he winced in imaginary pain.

Berra reportedly had been a source of amusement for the players throughout the season. The harmonica probably added to the sense that he was sometimes a little bit ridiculous in his role as novice manager.

The next day, Berra accepted Linz’s apology but fined him $250. However, Linz received a $10,000 contract from a harmonica manufacturer to endorse its product (accounts vary as to the actual amount, but apparently it was sizable for that time).

Berra never brought the incident up again, and Linz says their relations were always excellent thereafter. In 1967, according to Linz, Berra, now a Mets coach, recommended the deal that brought Linz to Shea Stadium.

After the harmonica incident, the Yankees lost three out their next five games, including the two immediately following. But then, they went on one of their patented late season runs, closing out the year with a record of 27-9. In the end, they edged out the White Sox by one game and the Orioles by two.

Following a World Series lose to the St. Louis Cardinals, however, the Yankees fired Berra. It has been said that the harmonica incident convinced management that Berra had lost control of the team and couldn’t command the players’ respect. But I doubt that this incident caused Berra’s dismissal. Management had time and grounds before the incident to decide to sack Yogi and time and grounds afterwards to decide to retain him.

Ironically, the Yankees replaced Berra with Johnny Keane, who had managed St. Louis to the World Championship. Keane quit St. Louis because they had reportedly been on the verge of firing him in August when his team, like the Yankees, had struggled.

Under Keane, the Yankees finished sixth in 1965, winning 22 fewer games than the previous year under Berra. The Yankees would not return to the World Series for 12 years.

Berra went on to win a pennant in 1973 as manager of the New York Mets. I was working in New York that summer and followed the Mets closely. Berra received heavy press criticism throughout the summer, but it seemed to me that he did a good job guiding the club to first place over a Cardinals team that was arguably superior and a Pirates team that was arguably just as good.

As for Phil Linz, his very name (as Howard Cosell might say) suggests utility player. But in 1964, Linz was more. That season, he played 112 games and had 368 at-bats, both career highs. He batted a credible .250 and played decently at shortstop (so the stats suggest) when filling-in for the injured Tony Kubek.

Unfortunately, Linz never reached .250 again. In fact, .211 was his high-water mark for the period from 1965 through 1968, his last season the Major Leagues.

Linz was one of a number of Yankees, albeit the least of them, on whom management pinned its hopes of staying on top as its core players went over the hill, but who, after promising career starts, came up well short of expectations for various reasons. The list includes Pepitone, Bouton, Tom Tresh, Bill Stafford, Rollie Sheldon, and Al Downing.

These days, Linz says he still regrets the incident and hopes it didn’t cost Berra his job. The two appear together occasionally, and when they do, Linz plays the song and Yogi covers his ears.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned Berra’s return as Yankees’ manager in 1984. That year, they finished 86-76, good for third place.

The next year, George Steinbrenner fired Berra 16 games into the season. The Yanks were 6-10 at the time. After that, they caught fire under Billy Martin, going 91-54 the rest of the way.

Berra was so bitter about the firing that he shunned the Yankees for 14 years, and only after Steinbrenner visited him to apologize.

Replacing Berra with Martin, a great manager, was nothing to apologize for. However, Berra apparently stayed on for the 1985 season only after receiving assurances that we would not be fired. In addition, Steinbrenner didn’t fire Berra in person. He gutlessly dispatched Clyde King to do the deed.

Thus, Berra had good reason to feel aggrieved and Steinbrenner had good reason to apologize.

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