This is a story I heard recently as told by Rick Cerone, a former catcher for the Bronx Bombers in the 1980's.
The Yankees of the late 70's and early 80's were a rough-and-tumble bunch, known for clubhouse 'spats' (see Cliff Johnson v. Goose Gossage - 1979) and public fisticuffs (see Reggie Jackson v. Billy Martin in 1978). So, this story would not come as a complete shock to most familiar with this talented if hot-headed squad.
The 1981 MLB season was interrupted by the players strike and led to a decision to add an extra round to the playoffs (novel idea) between the winners of each 'half' of the 81 season. The Yankees ousted the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round in a hard-fought five game series and then were matched up against the Oakland A's whom they dispatched in a tidy three-game sweep. All is well, correct? Not exactly.
While Reggie Jackson is famous for his October heroics, 563 career homers, and Hall of Fame resume he is obviously also well-known for his “Straw That Stirs The Drink” mentality which didn’t go over too well with his Yankee teammates. At all. Many have speculated on the causes of the strife in the clubhouse. Reggie and Billy? Reggie and Munson? Reggie and everyone? While the last question is mostly the right one to ask, it turns out the real resentment for Reggie’s me-first attitude started with none other than this writer’s favorite childhood player: Graig Nettles. He never liked the show, the act, the pomp-and-circumstance and he was backed up on this stance by almost all of his teammates.
So, after winning Game 3 in Oakland to complete the sweep in ‘81 the Yankees are celebrating in their customary way – drinking beers and champagne, hooting and hollering. Some good old-fashioned blowing off of steam after a stressful AL playoff run and a return to the World Series which they all felt was their rightful place, having been to three and winning two just a few years prior.
Amidst the celebration, Reggie and Nettles come face-to-face in what could end in a harmless handshake and a “congratulations”. ‘Twas not to be. Instead, Reggie throws his arms up and says “What? You have a problem with me?” and in the process knocks the beer out of Nettles’ hand and onto the floor, spilling every drop. Big mistake. Before you can say ‘pinstripes’ the two of them are on the floor rolling around trying to tear each other apart and everyone is simply looking on, likely rooting for the star third-baseman. (That little scene at the end of the comedy film Major League between Roger Dorn [Corbin Bernsen] and Ricky Vaughn [Charlie Sheen] seems awfully familiar, doesn’t it?).
That is until George “The Boss” Steinbrenner catches a glimpse of the activity. He proceeds to jump on the floor, trying to break the two of them up and is imploring various coaches and players to help him break up the fight.
Everyone was laughing so hard at the sight of the portly Steinbrenner rolling around trying to break up the two players, that no one wanted to step in to stop the show. In the end, it was broken up without major issue, no one was hurt, the Yankees moved on to the World Series…and lost…to the LA Dodgers four games to two.
Nowadays, this would be posted all over various news outlets, would be Sportscenter’s lead story, and would result in public apologies, press conferences, suspensions and speculation on who to trade, ad nauseum.
Listen, I’m all for the inside scoop and for progress in covering sports but every once in a while it’s funny to hear a story about the good ‘old days and about how my childhood sports hero punched Reggie Jackson…and got away with it.