As you might expect for someone nicknamed “Scrap Iron,” Clint Courtney had the reputation as a “gritty” player. According to FanGraphs, he amassed 10.5 WAR in his career, while putting up a 92 wRC+. Both of those figures are perfectly fine, especially for a catcher in the 1950s. However considering that he had an 11-year career, it was more than just skill keeping him in the big leagues.
His grittiness, toughness, however you want to describe it, would lead Courtney into some scraps, including multiple with the Yankees. Yet before all of that, he had a very brief career in pinstripes.
The Yankees signed the Louisiana-born Courtney in 1947 after he had been discharged from the Army. They sent him into the minors, and he played part of the season in the Arizona-Texas League. There he came up against Billy Martin, who himself was still two years away from joining the Yankees’ organization. Martin was not a fan of an incident where Courtney slid hard into second base, injuring the future manager’s middle infield partner. The two would meet again.
After that, Courtney continued to play across various levels of the minor leagues for the next couple seasons. In 1951, he made the Yankees’ Opening Day roster, only to be sent to Triple-A a couple days into the season without having appeared in a big-league game.
While in Triple-A, Courtney knocked out one player’s front teeth in an incident at second base, while in another instance, he spat on and struck an umpire with a bat. He was suspended indefinitely, but the Yankees would later call him up in September. He made his debut in the penultimate game of the season, going 0-for-2 with a hit-by-pitch. One of his teammates in the Yankees’ lineup that day was Martin.
Courtney was extremely confident in his abilities and believed he could compete for the Yankees’ catcher job. If you know your history, you’re probably aware that him taking the job would be difficult, as that was right in Yogi Berra’s prime. The 1951 season saw Berra win the first of his three MVP awards. They also had multiple players who could be perfectly solid backups. There wasn’t much room for Courtney, so after the season, they traded him to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Jim McDonald.
The Browns would make Courtney their starting catcher for the 1952 season, and he rewarded them with a solid season and a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. However by some accounts, he still wasn’t thrilled at his lack of a chance with the Yankees. If that is true, he sure showed it.
In a game against the Yankees on July 12th, Courtney spiked Martin in a slide at second early in the game. Then in the eighth, the catcher attempted a steal of second only to be easily thrown out. In retaliation, Martin tagged Courtney “in the face,” setting off a brawl.
Early the next season, the Yankees and Browns played a game that went into extra innings. In the top of the 10th, the Yankees took a lead when Gil McDougald managed to knock the ball away from Courtney in a collision during a play at the plate. In the bottom half of the inning, the catcher responded by reaching base and spiking shortstop Phil Rizzuto in a play at second.
A brawl ensued, and here is how Courtney’s SABR page describes said incident:
Umpire John Stevens suffered a dislocated shoulder; fans heaved soda bottles on the field; action was halted for 17 minutes. AL President Will Harridge meted out a total of $850 in fines — including $250 on “instigator” Courtney for “violating all rules of sportsmanship.”
There would be several other fights in Courtney’s career, but no other major notable ones with the Yankees. That being said, it would be hard to top “violating all rules of sportsmanship.”
Courtney would play another couple years with the Browns, and was a member of the team when they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. He also spent a couple years with the Washington Senators, and had a one-game stop with the Athletics before wrapping up his major-league career in Baltimore in 1961.
The catcher played a couple more years in the minors and would eventually parlay that in a role as a manager. He rose through the Braves’ system, and became a finalist for their major-league manager’s job in 1974. He did not get it, and the following year, he died of a heart attack at age 48 while on a road trip with his Richmond Braves’ team.
Clint Courtney’s career in pinstripes was extremely short. However his impact on the team was notable. In some ways, he might’ve helped elevate the profile of Billy Martin.