As the New York Yankees schlepped into Syracuse last Monday for one of those nobless-oblige exhibition games, they had more troubles than Little Orphan Annie.
The Yanks had slipped five games behind the Red Sox. Their manager, accused of lying again by their owner, was resigned to being fired.They had the two highest-paid pitchers in the world, but No. 1 was throwing longer and longer home runs while No. 2 was refusing to talk about not talking about his disabled elbow. There was, by the deep-throated estimate of "a prominent Yankee," only one happy player on the team.
So what was the shop talk on the uptight flight from Seattle? Well, leaping lizards, what will the general manager say when he sees the stubble the catcher is cultivating on his chin, in defiance of the owner's cleancut policy?
We may never know. After the Syracuse experience catcher Thurman Munson, whose MVP award might well have stood for most voluble player at certain times this year, announced that he was "not going to talk to one reporter the rest of the year." Which one?
"He meant any reporter," said Murray Chass of the New York Times. "I think."
Daily reading of his newspaper had led to the assumption that Chass had done a gadfly job on the Yankees, to come up with all those scenarios, frantic and farcical. ("Gilbert and Sullivan, applied by the Marx Brothers," says Steve Jacobson of Newsday.)
"It would be difficult not to come up with them," Chass said, and described the coming-forward of that prominent Yankee who charged that owner George Steinbrenner was "dictating" the batting order to manager Bill Martin.
"Jacobson and I were leaving the hotel in Baltimore on July 11) when this player came up to us and started talking," Chass said. The player, allowed anonymity, said Steinbrenner had "demeaned" players like Roy White and Mickey Rivers by having them benched, that he had reduced manager Martin to "a nothing," that he was "ignorantly impressed" by Cliff Johnson's hitting, and so on and on.
The glamourous craft of the itinerant baseball "writer" gets sooner old than most fans could be persuaded to believe and it has never been a way to affluence. Giants' manager Bill Terry was right on the money, so to speak, circa 1937 when he disdainfully spurned the advices of "$30-a-week" reporters. But its perks made the baseball beat worth the switch-blading sometimes required to get it. Had interviewing shortstops not been somehow legitimized as work, it would have been much later, if ever, that this paragraph trouper would catch the trotters at Maywood Park, the rays at Palm Springs or the sail boats off Sausahto.
It was a relatively honest man must confess, a hell of a lot of fun. "Not with the Yankees," said Chass."Not anymore," said Jacobson, who came to the Yankees the same year as Roger Maris. This is the hardest I've ever worked. You're always looking over your shoulder, wondering who's going to be next to say what about whom, anticipating that 2 a.m. call from your office asking why the hell you don't have the story - or the non-story."
"You just can't leave your hotel for the day, to play golf or go to the beach," Chass said. "You've got to be working all the way around the clock. In Anaheim we were on the way to Disneyland, across the street, when we heard Billy Martin on the phone. He was talking to New York, his voice rising. It was the day he was fined $2,500."
That fine was for popping off publicly about a management that sent Martin an outfielder, of which he had too many, when he needed a catcher to relieve the battered, overworked Munson.
Steinbrenner of course denied each and every allegation of his "dictating" to Martin. Not since the second trial of Alger Hiss have journalists been at such pains to choose between diametrically opposing accounts of the facts as the Yankee correspondents have been since. . .
Well, say it began in Hamilton, Ontario, in February, when MVP Munson said Steinbrenner had promised him he would remain the highest-paid of the Yankees' non-pitchers, then given Reggie Jackson an armored car of money.
Next, possibly, was the broken hand of Mickey Klutts, who was going to be the shortstop. In a tradition established in the 1950s, Yankee management announced the double fracture as "a jammed sprain" - the easier, you see, not to appear needy while trying to trade for a new shortstop. The bottom line of this brouhaha was Martin's ban of reporters from the clubhouse before games.
After games the Yankees ban themselves from the press. "In the '60s," Jacobson recalled. "Maris and Mantle and maybe a couple of other guys would hide out in the trainer's room, which was off limits. Then it would be the waiting game, to see if they'd come out before your deadline."
"Now the clubhouse looks like a deserted street," Chass said. "Maybe five guys don't go hide in the players' lounge. On the road they still use the trainer's room."
And on the road, Jacobson says, the nep Yankees play what he calls "the second-city game."
"They can't wait to get to another town, talk to other reporters and blame it on the New York press," Jacobson said. "Reggie Jackson used to be a beautiful interview but now he's thoroughly uptight. He went on television and said the press was unfair in New York because we were unable to accept the idea of a black man being smarter than we are. Frankly I'm getting a little tired of hearing about his 160 IQ."
One of Jackson's problems, said Bill North, who played in the outfield with him at Oakland, is the enormity of New York and its communications. "We had incidents in Oakland," North said, "and if one was really interesting it might make the papers in L.A.; that was as far as it went." Another of Jackson's problems, North said, is that he's aware the Yankees gave him all that money to hit, so he's become a little untidy about his fielding. That was why manager Martin wanted to punch out Jackson in Boston on June 18.
One of Jackson's comments in Oakland this season didn't go as far as L.A. But it reached the visiting clubhouse, where reporters were listening. The New York press had "created" Yankee problems, Jackson said on a radio show that was audible in the clubhouse, by writing material that was 90 per cent untrue. "If I knew you guys were listening," Jackson said upon confrontation, "I wouldn't have said that."
It's supposed to be great to be young and a Yankee and Ron Guidry, the lefthanded pitcher, is not quite 27. He was winning a game in Baltimore when manager Martin relieved him. "An old ankle injury," Martin said, was causing Guidry discomfort.
Guidry told his interviewers what another Yankee functionary had told him to say: "No, I wasn't hurting. I just pooped out."
Told his manager's explanation, Guidry blanched. "I guess it's obvious," he said, "that one of us is not telling the truth."
Oh, what a tangled web.