With the baseball world on hold, we’ve asked some of our reporters to reflect on some of their favorite memories covering baseball. Here’s Mike Lupica with a classic tale of Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees.
There were a lot of crazy Yankees seasons under George Steinbrenner, especially back when the Yankees were known as the Bronx Zoo. None was crazier than 1981, the first strike year in baseball since 1972. That year, Major League Baseball decided to crown divisional winners for the portion of the season before the strike, and then award divisional winners for the second half once the season started up again in August. As a result, we had division series in both leagues, 13 years before series like these would become the norm in baseball.
But there was nothing normal about the ’81 Yankees by the time they played a best-of-five series against the Milwaukee Brewers (still owned by Bud Selig then and still in the American League) to decide the winner of the AL East.
Reggie Jackson, playing his last season for the Yankees, was ordered by Steinbrenner to take a physical in August, including an eye exam. Gene Michael was fired as Yankees manager in August, replaced by Bob Lemon, who’d been manager when the Yankees came from 14 games behind to catch the Red Sox in 1978. Dave Winfield was a Yankee by now, having signed a record 10-year, $23 million contract the previous winter.
“We were,” Reggie said recently, “reality TV before reality TV.”
And then came what turned out to be a five-game series against the Brewers. The Yankees had a chance to close out the Brewers in Game 4, but ended up losing, 2-1. One of the plays that frustrated Mr. Steinbrenner — and that is putting it extremely mildly, since George’s head would nearly explode in the Yankees' clubhouse later — was when catcher Rick Cerone made a wide turn around first after a single to left in the seventh inning, and Larry Milbourne was on his way to third. Cerone got caught in a rundown. But as he was being run back to first, second baseman Jim Gantner turned and threw to third and shortstop Robin Yount, covering the bag, tagged out Milbourne, who’d strayed too far down the line thinking he might sneak home.
Instead of having two runners on with one out, Cerone was still on first when Willie Randolph grounded out to end the inning. Cerone would later strike out to end the game.
Steinbrenner was waiting in the clubhouse when the Yankees got there and began threatening changes if the Yankees didn’t win Game 5. At this point Cerone was tired of listening, and fired back at the owner. And the Yankees were as much the Bronx Zoo as they had ever been, when it wasn’t just Reggie and George Steinbrenner in the room, but Billy Martin (Billy in '81 was managing the A’s, who would be the Yankees’ opponent in the American League Championship Series), too.
By the time the clubhouse doors opened, the Yankees had been told not to talk about the scene they’d all just witnessed. So very few players were in front of their lockers once the media was allowed in. It meant the clubhouse was something it had so rarely been over the past five years:
Reggie’s locker was directly to your left as you came into the clubhouse door at the old Stadium. He’d taped a sign over it that read “Badlands Territory.” By the next October, he’d be playing against the Brewers in the postseason for the California Angels.
I was on my way out of the room and down to the Brewers’ clubhouse when I heard him whisper, “Hey!”
He waved me over to his locker, grinning, but still keeping his voice low.
“Don’t you want to know what happened?” he said.
And he proceeded to take me through it, blow by blow. For once, there had been a scene like this that didn’t involve him and George, or him and Billy.
Then came Game 5 at the Stadium, the Yankees against a right-handed pitcher named Moose Haas. There was a crowd around the batting cage that night when it was time for Reggie to take his swings.
“Well,” he said, “I guess tonight we’ll find out just how much of this Mr. October [stuff] is true.”
He had hit one home run in Milwaukee in Game 2, and really done nothing at the plate since. When he came up in the bottom of the fourth, the Yankees were down two runs to Haas and the Brewers.
At which point Mr. October hit one off the facing of the upper deck to tie the game.
The Yankees ended up winning the game and the series, and would end up beating Billy’s A’s to go to the World Series, where they’d lose to the Dodgers — whom they’d beaten in the Series in ’77 and ’78 — in six games. Again: Game 6 would be the last time Reggie ever played in a Yankees uniform. If you were a writer covering the Yankees in those years, when he left it was like the circus leaving town.
The Yankees had a workout the day after Game 5 against the Brewers. We were all back in Badlands Territory. And we got him talking again about the home run off Haas, which had changed the previous night and saved the Yankees’ season, and tried to put a hole in the facing of the upper deck.
“I didn’t even notice,” I finally said to him, “where the ball landed when it came back on the field.”
“Second [freaking] base,” Reggie Jackson said.