In August 1964, the Yankees were in trouble, the kind of trouble they find themselves in today. They had won four consecutive pennants from 1960-63 but things were not looking good for a fifth. They sat in third place, 5½ games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox.
Things came to a head in late August. The Yankees dropped a four-game series to the White Sox in much the same way the Yankees got swept in Chicago this week. Injuries plagued them. Mickey Mantle, the heart and soul of the team, was out with a knee injury. Tony Kubek, the steady-as-a-rock shortstop, missed most of the Chicago series with a bad back. Things weren’t looking good.
After the Chicago series, the team took the bus to the airport. It was hot, humid and the team was in a foul mood. For players used to winning, being in third place in August was not something to relish. In the back of the bus, Phil Linz, a reserve infielder who had been playing in Kubek’s absence, started fooling around with a harmonica he had recently bought. Linz was not a skilled musician and played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" like a dirge. This didn’t amuse manager Yogi Berra, who gave Linz the same advice that Brian Cashman recently gave Alex Rodriguez: STFU.
Linz, busy playing the harmonica, didn’t hear Berra and asked Mantle what Berra had said. Ever the wiseguy, Mantle said, "He said play it louder," and Linz did. This was too much for the usually even-tempered Berra. He stormed down the aisle at Linz and suggested, "Why don’t you stick that g----n harmonica up your ass?" Linz flipped it towards Berra, who swatted it away. The flying harmonica hit first-baseman Joe Pepitone, who grabbed his knee and called for a corpsman. Frank Crosetti, the coach who had been with the Yankees since the days of Babe Ruth, yelled, "That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen."
Shortly thereafter, the Yankees caught fire. Maybe it was anger. Maybe it was muscle memory. Maybe it was coincidence. At one point, they went on an 11-game winning streak and finished the season on a 19-3 run. They won the pennant with a 99-63 record, finishing one game ahead of the White Sox and two games ahead of Baltimore. The World Series did not go as well. Whitey Ford blew out his arm in the first game. Kubek, too, missed the Series with a wrist injury that occurred when he smacked a clubhouse door in frustration. Linz replaced Kubek and batted .226 for the Series, and the St. Louis Cardinal won the Series in seven games. Most fans feel, however, that the Yankees would have won if Ford and Kubek had stayed healthy.
GM Ralph Houk fired Berra after the World Series and, in a bizarre twist worthy of George Steinbrenner, replaced him with Johnny Keane, the manager who had just beaten them in the Series. Many believe that Houk fired Berra because he felt Berra had lost control of the team. What few remember, however, is that during the stretch run and the World Series, Berra had the guts to move Mantle from center field to right field because he felt that Mantle could no longer cover center field. The Yankees did not reach the post-season again for 12 years, and no member of the 1964 Yankee team ever played another post-season game as a Yankee.
Despite the Series outcome, the 1964 Yankees stand out for their heroic stretch drive to snatch a pennant that no one except themselves thought they could win. MEMO TO BRIAN CASHMAN: Here’s the website for the Hohner harmonica company: http://us.playhohner.com/ Give them a call.