Rivalries between teams are surely fun. But so are rivalries among teammates, and the Yankees are certainly no strangers to that brand of battle. So in honor of Rivalry Week here at Pinstripe Alley, let’s take a look at some of the infighting and palace intrigue that have become part of Yankees lore.
Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson
In 1976, the Yankees were on the upswing. Catcher Thurman Munson was named team captain heading into the season and validated the honor by winning the American League MVP. The club also returned to the World Series for the first time since 1964. But they were swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and the prevailing wisdom was that they were one piece away from a championship.
Enter Reggie Jackson, the free agent outfielder with three World Series rings to his name and a penchant for big-game dramatics. Reggie opening up shop in the Bronx seemed fated, but his relationship with his new team captain got off to a rocky start. In June 1977, Jackson was famously quoted in Sport magazine as saying: “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad.”
That left Munson fuming. Backup catcher Fran Healy recounted to Newsday last year (subsscription required) how he attempted to defuse the situation, speculating that Jackson might have been taken out of context. “For six (expletive) pages?!” Munson retorted. Jackson has repeatedly denied uttering the quote, saying the writer, Robert Ward, had been trying to feed it to him. Ward, for his part, has stood by the accuracy of his story.
Let’s just say the pair’s relationship was icy after that, though winning World Series titles in 1977 and 1978 appeared to thaw it. Some form of emotional bond was on display in August 1979 when, in a pregame ceremony following Munson’s tragic death in a plane crash, Jackson could be seen in the outfield wiping away tears.
“It was a tough situation when he passed,’’ Jackson told Newsday in May 2019. “I think it hit me hard. I don’t know if we ever hated each other. I think that’s too strong a word. I never hated Thurman. I don’t even know if I disliked him. I don’t know that Thurman Munson hated Reggie Jackson. Thurman Munson didn’t hate anybody.’’
George Steinbrenner and Dave Winfield
George Steinbrenner loved stars. He’d made pricey free agent splashes in the 1970s with the additions of Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson and championships followed. Eager to maintain the same formula in the 1980s, Steinbrenner netted the premier free agent prior to the ’81 season in Dave Winfield, inking the mammoth 29-year-old outfielder to a record 10-year, $15 million pact.
Things went downhill almost immediately. As Joel Sherman noted in the New York Post last month, Steinbrenner apparently misunderstood the fine print of the deal, which included cost of living increases that would ultimately bring the deal up to $23 million. This caused Steinbrenner to lash out at his star repeatedly over the years, dubbing him “Mr. May” while lamenting the fact that he’d gotten rid of “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson, after the ’81 season.
Part of Winfield’s contract also called for Steinbrenner to make annual $300,000 payments to Winfield’s charitable foundation. Steinbrenner began withholding those payments, leading to lawsuits and counter-suits between owner and player, Sherman recounted.
Steinbrenner’s petty antics culminated in him paying Howie Spira, a Bronx gambler, for dirt on Winfield that didn’t exist in an effort to disgrace him. The disgrace fell upon Steinbrenner, who was banned in 1990 from running the Yankees’ day-to-day operations by MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent. The supposed lifetime punishment was lifted by Vincent’s successor, Bud Selig, in 1993.
Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle
They were two iconic Yankees center fielders forever linked in the lineage of franchise greats. Joe DiMaggio accepted the torch from Lou Gehrig in 1936, then passed it along to rookie Mickey Mantle in 1951.
But the two never really hit it off. One key moment in their complicated relationship came during Game Two of the 1951 World Series against the New York Giants. With DiMaggio in center and Mantle in right, rookie Willie Mays (talk about a history-drenched moment) hit a fly ball to right-center. Both players converged, with DiMaggio calling for the ball at the last moment. Mantle, looking to avoid a collision, tried to stop short, but caught a spike on the covering of a drain pipe and collapsed in a heap. He’d torn multiple ligaments in his knee and would require surgery.
In subsequent years, fans recounting the anecdote would claim that DiMaggio called for the ball so late because he didn’t want to risk the embarrassment of calling for it and failing to make the catch. In any event, Mantle’s surgically repaired knee would become a chronic problem over the years, leaving many to wonder how his already prolific career would have turned out on two good legs.
But beyond that play, there was a frostiness evident between the two men, with DiMaggio seemingly offended by Mantle’s greater popularity among a newer generation of fans.
In their 2017 book Dinner with DiMaggio, Dr. Rock Postiano, who became friends with the Yankee Clipper in 1990, and his son John Postiano shed some light on the pair’s dynamic, recounting DiMaggio’s reaction in 1995 to Mantle’s terminal liver cancer.
“As Mickey Mantle was dying of cancer, I thought Joe would relent. It didn’t happen. Joe never forgave Mantle for replacing him in center field and not taking his advice about how to conduct himself as a Yankee. Despite getting updates on Mickey’s condition, which was bad and worsening, Joe would not soften.”
Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez
They started out as youthful buddies: two top prospects who became fast friends on their respective rocket ships to baseball stardom. Derek Jeter, playing a marquee position for baseball’s flagship franchise, basked in October glory while Alex Rodriguez put up gaudy numbers for the Seattle Mariners, obviously ascending to be one of baseball’s top players but doing so on a decidedly smaller stage.
Then the relationship fractured when A-Rod began opening his mouth in the media, revealing a degree of jealousy over the attention Jeter and his World Series rings had received. In 2000, after signing a then-record deal with the Texas Rangers, Rodriguez threw some shade at Jeter, telling ESPN: “He just doesn’t do the power numbers. And defensively, he just doesn’t do all those things.”
The following year, he told Esquire:
“Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him. He’s never had to lead. He can just go and play and have fun. And he hits second – that’s totally different than third and fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O’Neill. You never say, ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.”
That essentially closed the book on their friendship, despite Rodriguez’s attempts to apologize that spring. When they became teammates in 2004, they maintained a public cordiality, but Jeter’s iciness toward Rodriguez was apparent to observers, a situation made all the more awkward by the media’s repeated questions to each about their relationship.
According to Ian O’Connor’s 2011 book The Captain, general manager Brian Cashman had to tell Jeter to “fake” a good relationship with A-Rod in 2006. And in 2007, Rodriguez admitted to reporters that things between them “obviously weren’t as great as they used to be.”
But at least they had the 2009 World Series to soothe the tension.