Today in 1979, I believe I was back in Madison after nearly a month camping with my father, Boy Scouts and Scoutmaster in the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
I know I did not watch the Yankees-Brewers game at Milwaukee County Stadium that night. The game was not on TV, because the Brewers didn’t televise home games, feeling it would hurt home attendance, until the Sportsvue subscription TV service debuted in 1984. (Sportsvue then died a year later, in large part because the Brewers chose the 1984 season to crater, just two years after their World Series season and the year after the Brewers contended almost all of the season.)
It’s too bad the Yankees-Brewers game wasn’t on TV, because, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Gary D’Amato, it had everything, including an epic brawl:
The Yankees back then were…well, how to describe them? Think of the team you despise most and multiply it by 10.
“I think there’s always a dislike for the Yankees,” said Sal Bando, then the Brewers’ third baseman. “Being in your own division (the American League East), I think there’s a bigger dislike for them.”
Owner George Steinbrenner was the symbol of big-city, big-spending conceit. Irascible manager Billy Martin had a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Reggie Jackson was the self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink,” with a home-run swing to match his enormous ego.
“They had some characters, some crazy guys on that team,” [first baseman Cecil] Cooper said. “But they had an awesome team with guys like Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson, Reggie, (Mickey) Rivers, (Lou) Piniella.”
The Brewers were coming into their own. After eight consecutive losing seasons (nine counting the franchise’s one year in Seattle), they’d gone 93-69 in 1978 and were en route to winning 95 games in ’79.
Bando and Cooper had arrived in 1977 to join Robin Yount and Don Money. Paul Molitor, Jim Gantner and Charlie Moore were ascending young players. Gorman Thomas had found a home in center field.
“We were a good team,” Bando said. “Oh, yeah, there was no question about it.”
Left-hander Mike Caldwell started the series opener. He was a bit of a character himself, known for carrying an expensive valise, in which he stored one item: a bottle of ketchup.
A crafty veteran who mixed speeds well, Caldwell already was known as the “Yankee Killer,” having shut out New York three times the year before.
“The Yankees always ruled the roost,” Caldwell said. “But I pitched extremely well against them my whole career. They had a lot of left-handers and free swingers in their lineup.”
The Yankees scored a run in the first inning, but Cooper answered in the bottom half with a two-out solo shot off starter Ed Figueroa. The homer earned Cooper a brushback pitch from Figueroa in his next at-bat, in the third.
“Figueroa was a different kind of guy,” Cooper said.
To underscore the point, when approached in the locker room after the game, Figueroa denied not only brushing back Cooper, but his own identity. “I’m not Figueroa,” he said, dismissing reporters while blow-drying his hair.
Jackson led off in the top of the fourth and Caldwell’s first pitch was high and tight and delivered the appropriate message.
“Mike was a hard-nosed, mean, grumpy kind of guy,” Cooper said. “He always stood up for his teammates.”
Jackson said nothing and worked the count to 2-2. On the next pitch, Caldwell again came inside, this time with a rising fastball that buzzed Jackson’s chin, causing the Yankees slugger to topple over backward.
“I’ll tell you exactly what happened, and it is truthful,” Caldwell said. “I wanted to throw Reggie a fastball on the inside part of the plate because he had some holes in his swing there. I was trying to telegraph to him that I was going to throw a curve and the ball slipped ever so slightly on my fingertips and I threw a fastball that was inside and it rode up on him.
“It turned into what you would call a perfect knockdown pitch.”
Jackson got up and dusted himself off. Caldwell then threw a curve and Jackson hit a towering pop-up to Bando at third.
Caldwell moved toward Bando and was pointing to the ball and yelling, “Third!” when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bat coming at him. Jackson, trotting to first base, had expressed his displeasure with Caldwell’s pitch location by flipping his bat toward the mound.
“As I’m waiting for the ball, I hear the fans yelling,” Bando said. “That usually doesn’t happen with a pop-up, so I figured something was going on.”
An angry Caldwell picked up Jackson’s bat by the fat end and slammed it into the ground. Dissatisfied that it didn’t shatter, he took a step or two toward home with the intention of breaking it on the plate. Umpire John Shulock was already coming out to meet him.
“He said, ‘No, Mike, not here,'” Caldwell said.
By then, Bando had caught the ball, Jackson had rounded first and now, shedding his glasses and helmet, was rushing the mound as the dugouts emptied.
“He got his hands around my neck and if you’ve seen pictures of it, it looks like I got killed,” Caldwell said. “His momentum carried him over me and I wound up on top of him. My right arm was pinned under his neck. I had my left arm around the front of his neck and I think I tore two or three gold chains.
“Reggie said, ‘You threw at me!’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t throw at you.’ He said, ‘You swear to God? You swear to God?’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah, I swear to God.'”
It took 10 minutes to restore order but the only casualties were Shulock, who’d gotten in the way of a punch, and Brewers manager George Bamberger, who strained a calf muscle. Jackson was ejected but Caldwell was allowed to stay in the game, none the worse for wear other than a few scratches.
Martin declared that the Yankees were playing the game under protest, and when he returned to the dugout, he was pelted with a few objects and a fair amount of verbal abuse. He started climbing into the stands but was pulled back by players and security guards.
The game finally resumed and after the Yankees went ahead, 3-2, Money drove in a run and Cooper hit a two-out, two-run homer off Ron Davis in the seventh to put the Brewers back on top, 5-3.
Randolph answered in the eighth with a two-run shot off Caldwell to tie the score. Martin brought in the flame-throwing Gossage for the ninth and he quickly retired Molitor on a groundout and Money on a fly to center. Up came Cooper.
“Gossage was one of the toughest guys I ever faced,” Cooper said. “He was a big guy and he had that Fu Manchu mustache. He looked like he could take a big piece of steak and tear it in half.”
Gossage made Cooper look bad on a couple swings and ran the count to 1-2.
The next pitch, however, wound up in Brewers’ lore. Cooper turned on a fastball and the ball traced an arc in the night sky and disappeared over the right-field wall. Cooper hopped and skipped his way around the bases, the roar of “C-o-o-p!” ringing in his ears.
Bud Selig, then the Brewers’ owner and now the outgoing commissioner, called the fans’ reaction to Cooper’s game-winner the greatest he had ever seen at County Stadium.
D’Amato tells the rest of what happened in that series. (Hint: If you were a Brewers fan, you liked the other two games too.)
The 1979 season was the only year between 1976 and 1981 that the Yankees didn’t at least win the AL East. Much of the reason was the absence of Gossage, who three months earlier had broken his thumb when he fell in the Yankee Stadium shower during a fight with teammate Cliff Johnson.
Martin (whose stops as a player included, believe it or not, the Milwaukee Braves) was, well, indescribable. His record says he was one of baseball’s best managers. He had the ability to make bad teams at least competitive; until the Texas Rangers started resembling a baseball team in the 1990s, he was their manager during the Rangers’ best season, a surprise second-place finish. Martin also managed the 1969 Twins, 1972 Tigers and 1980 Athletics to division titles.
But Martin was born, or fated, or perhaps cursed, to be a Yankee. He got the Yankees to the 1976 World Series and won the 1977 World Series, despite, among other things, a televised argument in the Fenway Park dugout with the aforementioned straw who stirs the drink. He started the 1978 season as the Yankees manager before he resigned after his comments about Steinbrenner and Jackson. (Martin said the two deserved each other; “one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.” The latter referred to Steinbrenner’s federal conviction for illegal, as in excessive, campaign contributions to the 1972 Richard Nixon presidential campaign; the former referred to, the most recent conflict between Martin and Jackson.)
Shortly after the resignation, Martin was introduced at a Yankees Old Timers Day, where the Yankees announced that Martin was going to be the Yankees’ manager in 1980, with manager Bob Lemon (who had just been hired after Steinbrenner tried to, believe it or don’t, trade Martin for Lemon) moving to a front-office position. Martin, however, replaced Lemon after the Yankees got off to a bad start in 1979, which is how Martin was in Milwaukee that night.
There was a permanent Yankee loss shortly after this. The Yankees were in Milwaukee on a road trip that ended in Chicago before the Yankees went back to New York. On a day off before the first game of their homestand, Munson, who had gone home to Ohio, decided to take his new jet out and practice takeoffs and landings. Munson’s plane crashed, and Munson died.
Martin — who, remember, was supposed to manage the Yankees in 1980, not 1979 — didn’t get to the 1980 season. He was fired after a fight in a Minneapolis hotel with a marshmallow salesman. Really. Martin returned to manage the Yankees in 1983 (the season with the infamous Pine Tar Game), 1985 (fired again after a late-season fight with pitcher Ed Whitson) and 1988 (canned again).
Martin’s career arc at any one stop was generally (1) get hired, (2) do surprisingly well with young players, (3) get in the playoffs, (4) burn out his young pitchers, then wear out his welcome with (5A) his players or (5B) management and (6) get fired. Martin was reportedly about to be hired by the Yankees again for the 1990 season, but he died in a car crash in late 1989.