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The Yankees 1957 brawl at the Copacabana

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

On this week’s episode I talked about the eventful but tragic career of Billy Martin. Billy was known for being a clutch and gritty player and earned the reputation as a “franchise fixer” as a manager, even though he was fired from every job he had.

The Yankees parted ways with Billy multiple times as a manager and once as a player, in 1957.

The Bronx in Billy

Alfred Manuel Martin Jr. — Billy — hit .257 in 11 big-league seasons for the Yankees, Athletics, Tigers, Indians, Reds, Braves, and Twins. He was a Yankee from 1950 until June 15, 1957, when he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics.

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Billy was never a great player but had great moments, like the time he saved the 1952 World Series with a clutch defensive play in Game 7. Then a year later he set a World Series record with 12 hits, batting .500 for the series with 8 runs-batted in. Martin once said:

My one-for-four would kill ya.

In 105 World Series plate appearances, he hit .333 with 5 home runs — that’s a homer every 21 PA (keep in mind he was a slap hitter who went yard every 58 PA in the regular season). Billy showed up when it mattered most.

Yankees manager Casey Stengel said:

If liking a kid who will never let you down in the clutch is favoritism, then I plead guilty.

Casey and Billy had a father-son relationship which dates back to to their days with the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. Martin played under Stengel in the late ‘40s and they developed a bond. Stengel loved Billy’s hard-nosed attitude, and Billy, who had a rough upbringing with no father figure, looked up to Casey as a mentor. 

Stengel was dead-set on bringing Billy to New York when he got the Yankees job, but not everyone with the Yankees was sold on Martin.

General Manager George Weiss did not like Martin’s reputation of being an on-field instigator and off-field carouser. Weiss tried to bring players to the Yankees that would represent the team well on and off the field. Maybe he could look past Mickey Mantle’s after-hours antics because he was a Triple Crown-level talent. But a .257 hitter? No way.

Casey got Billy to the Bronx anyway and by 1952 he was the starting second baseman.

The Rat Pack vs The Bowlers

Casey was a players’ manager. He turned a blind eye to the Yankees “Rat Pack” — which included Martin, Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Hank Bauer — as long as the team won. And they won almost every freakin’ year.

After a World Series loss in ‘55 and win in ‘56, the Yankees got off to a slow start in ‘57. Weiss had been campaigning behind the scenes to trade Martin but Stengel always stood up for him. Weiss wanted Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek to get more playing time and reportedly warned Martin — whom he viewed as the rat pack’s leader — to stay out of trouble before the season started. The reality was Weiss always warned them to stay out of trouble. They just never listened.

The incident that spelled the end for Billy happened when the gang and their wives were out celebrating his 29th birthday in May. After a booze-filled dinner they went to see Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copacabana nightclub, a spot Yankees players frequented in the ’50s. 

They encountered a bunch of bowlers who were heckling Sammy Davis, and the Yankees players were pissed. There are numerous versions of what actually happened, but here is what I’ve pieced together…

Billy told the guys to stop or they’ll have to “step outside.” They actually ended up going downstairs where they brawled. One of the bowlers, a Bronx deli owner, ended up with a concussion and a broken jaw. Some people thought Martin punched the guy but it was most likely Hank Bauer, and that’s who the eventual lawsuit was brought against.

Bauer denied ever punching the guy and the Yankees players never said who actually hit him. 

In the Billy Martin Yankeography, there’s a story about Leonard Lyons, a New York Post entertainment columnist, who wrote one of the first stories about the incident.

Lyons was at the club and apparently he made a deal with Yogi. Lyons would sneak the Yankees out through a back entrance if he could get the scoop on the story the next day. The next day his column started:

There are now three great battlefields in American history. Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, and the Copacabana nightclub…

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The story gets weirder. Police refused to take action against Bauer, so Edwin Jones (the Deli owner) had Bauer taken into custody on citizen’s arrest. It all led to a trial and the players had to testify before a Grand Jury.

This was terrible press for the team but the opening Weiss needed to oust Martin.

Players were fined and some benched. Whitey Ford was supposed to pitch the next day but Stengel pulled him. He dropped Bauer to 8th in the lineup, but kept Mantle 3rd. When asked why Mickey wasn’t punished, Casey said:

I’m mad at Mantle, too, for being out late. But I’m not mad enough to take a chance on losing a ball game and possibly the pennant.

The case was eventually thrown out for insufficient evidence and Mantle, Yogi, and others laugh about it today.

The fallout from the incident hit Martin the hardest. He was traded on June 15 along with Ralph Terry and two minor-leaguers to KC for Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Ryne Duren and Jim Pisoni.

Pinstripes Passion

The trade worked out well for the Yankees. The minor-league players they traded didn’t amount to anything, Duren was a great relief pitcher for them, and Terry found his way back to the Yankees 2-years later.

Martin was devastated. He didn’t have the same passion for putting on another uniform and bounced from team-to-team, never spending more than a season anywhere.

His first game with the A’s was actually against the Yankees, and in classic Billy fashion he showed up for the big moment — he had a home run and 3-runs scored. But he was never the same player after the trade and his “problems” became even worse. 

In 1960 when he was with Cincinnati, Martin was sued for punching Cubs pitcher Jim Brewer during a benches-clearing brawl. Brewer suffered broken bones in his face, was hospitalized and didn’t pitch the rest of the season. The brawl started because Martin took exception to a pitch near his head from Brewer. Whether Brewer threw at Martin or not, Billy had a long history of instigating on-field brawls so nobody was surprised he was at the center of it. Billy was suspended for five games and fined.

The following year would be his final playing, but he eventually found his calling as a manager.

Podcast – A Brief History: You’re Fired, The Billy Martin Story