PART 2: WILLIE … ALMOST MICKEY … AND THE DUKE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Subbing for the Cashman part of the song, “Willie, Almost Mickey and the Duke.”

I never came close to chatting with The Mick. I’d only seen him play in person a couple times. That came in 1968, his final season, but only because the Oakland A’s had moved to the Bay Area. It meant the Yankees had a few stops to make out there.

About a decade later, during the 1977 season in Oakland, I got myself a press pass to a mid-week afternoon game with the visiting Yankees, a team managed by Billy Martin. These were the Reggie Jackson Yankees who, incidentally, wasn’t in the lineup against his old team.

Billymartin1
For some reason, Billy Martin, one of baseball’s fiercest managers, showed up in Redlands sometime in the early 1980s (Photo by Wikipedia Commons).

It was Vida Blue against Ron Guidry.

The world champion A’s had long since been disbanded – trades, free agency, you name it. The Yankees, meanwhile, had picked up Jackson and Catfish Hunter from those old A’s teams.

Guidry, leading 2-0, had tamed the A’s for 8 1/3 innings before he gave up ninth inning home runs to Manny Sanguillan and Dick Allen to knot the score at 2-2. Martin replaced Guidry with Sparkly Lyle, who was the Cy Young Award winner the season before.

The game went 15 innings. Blue lasted 13. Finally, in the 15th, the Yankees broke through for three runs, winning, 5-2. There weren’t even 10,000 fans in the stands that day.

I couldn’t wait for the post-game chat in the clubhouse. I wasn’t really working for anyone. I’d gotten a media credential through my college, Chabot. There was no difficulty getting a pass – not like it is today.

As a budding reporter, I wanted to watch the New York reporters talk about the game with Martin. I wanted to experience the give and take between media and manager. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. I figured that was part of my “education.”

With Martin, the media discussed Guidry’s brilliant game, despite giving up the ninth inning HRs. There was the expected second-guessing: Why didn’t you bring Lyle in to start the ninth. Martin, a little annoyed, told them he felt Guidry had “enough gas left.”

There was some discussion of Jackson not being in the lineup on his return to Oakland. He’d played the day before and struck out three times. Martin said, “We just wanted to give him a day off.”

Vida Blue, he told reporters, looked sharp and strong.

The chat lasted, maybe, 20 to 30 minutes. It started to break up. Guys had deadlines. Martin probably had plans, too, especially since he was a Bay Area guy. I was one of about a dozen guys that circulated in the visitor’s office.

I won’t ever forget how he looked right at me, saying, “Something I can do for you, son?”

In all honesty, I had a couple questions for him. I’d hesitated to ask. After all, I was a nobody.

“That play (Graig) Nettles made on a double play,” I said, “was unbelievable. Went to his left. Sort of a semi dive. That bailed Lyle out of a tough spot.”

It came in the ninth. Sanguillan and Allen had homered. Wayne Gross drew a one-out walk off Lyle. Earl Williams, a home-run hitting catcher, was looking to drive one out, too. But he cracked a shot into the hole toward left field. Nettles, reacting quickly, got the ball to Willie Randolph at second in a hurry.

Double play, ending the threat.

I also asked him about a couple of steal attempts that catcher Thurman Munson had shut down. A’s speedster Bill North was one of those. There was some dispute on the call at second by North, but he was called out.

There were a couple other plays I wanted to ask about, but I didn’t want to press my luck.

Martin took those questions on with a full head of steam. Those N.Y. reporters ready to depart instead hung around. On Nettles and Munson, Martin rhapsodized about how “this game wouldn’t have been won without those plays. Big keys to the game.”

Was I done? He wanted to know. Yeah, I said.

“You know, we’ve got a lot of high-priced talent here from New York that didn’t even pick up on those plays,” said Martin. “You keep asking questions like that, young man, you’re going to go a long way in this business.”

Where was my Mom? My friends? A tape recorder?

I couldn’t believe this.

Billy Martin said that to me? In later years, I wondered if he was just picking away at his regular press corps.

SHOWING UP AT A REDLANDS AMERICAN LEGION

No more than seven or eight years later, I was sitting in my Redlands newsroom office. I got a call from an area baseball-lover, Fred Long. Guy had been a scout for Montreal, maybe Kansas City or Milwaukee. Can’t remember.

“O.B.,” he said, “Billy Martin’s here.”

He was drinking beer at a local American Legion Post.

What the hell was Billy Martin doing in Redlands?

I dropped everything. Rushed over to the legion post. Sure enough, there was Billy Martin, a beer in front of him, four guys sitting around. Talking baseball. I snuck myself into the mix, listening, hearing the chat back and forth.

For nearly three hours, I watched him down one beer after another. He never cracked. Kept talking baseball. There was talk of Mickey Mantle, his good buddy. “No one,” said Martin, “could come close to his power … or speed.”

How he shouldn’t have lost his jobs in Minnesota or Texas or even the Yankees. He’d just gotten finished managing in Oakland, of all places – Billy Ball!

He was in the Redlands area because he’d married a gal who had Yucaipa connections. Yucaipa was the city just east of Redlands. While she was visiting, Billy visited the legion post. He’d had a little military in his background. He felt comfortable in such a place.

Finally, when I felt comfortable enough, I mentioned that Yankees-A’s game in Oakland from a few years earlier. How he’d been real classy to me in the clubhouse after the game. I asked him, despite all the beer he’d downed, if he’d remembered.

He stared right at me. Took a swig of beer. He even grabbed a pretzel and stuck it into his mouth, kind of smiling as he thought. I figured he was getting ready to say he’d remembered.

“No,” he finally said, “I can’t quite remember anything like that. It’s been a few years, right?”

Oh, yeah.

Said Martin: “A lot’s happened since then.”

To this day, I still wonder if he remembered me.

Part 3 of Willie, Almost Mickey and The Duke next week.

PART 1: “WILLIE … ALMOST MICKEY … AND THE DUKE”

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Talkin’ baseball. Terry Cashman. His song, released in 1981, seemed to summarize a special part of baseball. A musical contribution to baseball history. It surrounded the great center fielders in three New York boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Cashman wrote about … “Willlieeeeee … Mickey … and The Duke.”

Duke Snider came to Redlands.

Mickey Mantle came to … well, as far as anyone knows, he didn’t come to Redlands. But his longtime friend, Billy Martin, showed up here at least once.

Then there was Willie Mays. I can’t honestly say that the “Say Hey Kid” ever set foot on Redlands soil. But the sports editor from Redlands took part in a rare discussion that probably never came up in baseball circles.

It would’ve made a nice little change in Cashman’s song, “Willie … Almost Mickey … and the Duke …”

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Willie_Mays_cropped
Willie Mays talked about a “trade” that could’ve happened regarding a Dodger pitcher named Koufax? (Wikipedia Commons photo)

It was in the early 1980s. Bob Hope Desert Classic. Coachella Valley. Willie Mays, a golf lover, was playing in the celebrity Pro-Am, along with plenty of others from music, film and sports.

There we were in the VIP tent. Food was being served. It was the middle of the day. Willie had played his round. I was talking a break. Other than the serving staff, no one else seemed to be around.

Sitting at a table near him, I could just feel the opportunity. I grew up in the Bay Area watching this guy play in the twilight of his career in the late 1960s.

What should I ask him?

“Willie,” I said, “tell me something about your career that didn’t get much attention.”

He responded crudely, which shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. In sports, you often run into replies like that. In the clubhouse. In a locker room. On a field or court. Willie had probably been approached by thousands of media guys looking for something – stories, opinions, recollections, you name it.

He wouldn’t be talking – at least to me. It’s okay. I tried. No big deal.

Suddenly, out of the blue, he blurted, “We almost got Koufax.”

Huh? What? Say that again!

Yeah, he said. A year, or two, before Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax really hit his Hall of Fame stride, the fireballing southpaw was stewing about how the Dodgers were using him.

Translation: Or not using him.

Apparently in Willie’s presence in San Francisco – likely at Seals Stadium – Koufax approached team general manager Buzzie Bavasi to request a trade.

Said Willie: “He told Bavasi, ‘you’re not using me. Why even keep me? It’s better to let me go. Trade me somewhere so I can pitch.’ ”

Willie said he jumped right into the discussion. “Trade him to the Giants,” he remembers telling Bavasi. “Trade him to us.”

There was some discussion. Wow! The Giants’ star player was discussing a trade with the GM of their chief rival, the Dodgers.

Willie was told by Bavasi to tell Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner who made all deals for the San Francisco-based team.

“Did you do it?” I asked him.

He nodded. “I talked to Mr. Stoneham. Didn’t hear much about it for awhile.”

Willie was chewing his food. Some guys were entering the VIP tent. Hoping that it wasn’t people looking for Willie – which would interrupt our chat – I prodded him a little.

“Any discussions take place about Koufax going to the Giants?”

Willie Mays nodded again. He was chewing. Swallowing. Didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to answer.

“They wanted Cepeda.”

Orlando Cepeda, one of baseball’s younger star sluggers, was a San Francisco favorite. He was an established star.

Koufax had yet to reach that portion of his career that would get everyone’s attention. At that time, Cepeda-for- Koufax might not have seemed logical for San Francisco.

(Funny thing, though, was in 1966, the Giants sent Cepeda to St. Louis for southpaw Ray Sadecki – not quite the same caliber of pitcher that Koufax had been. At least Sadecki had won 20 games a couple years earlier.)

Koufax had a little success in his early years, but had yet to really hit his consistently great stride. In his mind, apparently, the Dodgers weren’t treating him respectfully.

Between 1961 and his final season, 1966, Koufax was unhittable, unforgettable and, evidently, untradeable.

I summarized this for Willie Mays.

“Are you telling me that you guys almost had Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry on the same pitching staff?” It would have been a couple of years before Perry joined the Giants’ staff.

Wow!

Willie didn’t answer. Just kept chewing. I wasn’t all that much of an interest to him. At the moment, though, I was the only one sitting near him to chat about this remarkable trade possibility.

“How close do you think this came to happening?”

I should mention this: During this entire chat, Willie Mays never looked at me. Not once. Didn’t have to, though. This was more than I’d bargained for. I don’t even know if he had even heard that last question.

At that point, more people started entering the tent. Food was being served. Willie Mays acknowledged some of the people he’d played golf with that day. My time with him was apparently over.

It was exciting, to say the least. I was practically finished with my sandwich and potato salad. I was nursing my drink when Willie Mays got up to leave. My heart kind of sank. I’d have really liked to get more conversation with him.

I watched him shake hands with a few guys.

“Nice to see you again, Willie.”

“Thanks, Willie.”

“Let’s get together soon, Willie.”

You know, typical sendoff lines.

Willie Mays was leaving. He’d walk right behind where I was sitting. When he walked past me, he said into my good ear (I only hear out of one ear), “Stoneham would’ve never traded Cepeda.”

One-third of the Cashman song – done.

Part 2 of Willie … Almost Mickey … and The Duke next week.