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Remembering the firing of Yogi Berra after 16 games

George Steinbrenner had already established himself as a temperamental owner with unusual hiring and firing practices, but the firing of Yogi Berra on April 28th was next level.

Yogi Berra - New York Yankees

Although they won 91 games, the 1983 Yankees couldn’t do better than third place in the AL East, which led George Steinbrenner to unceremoniously part ways with manager Billy Martin (again) at season’s end. Yankee legend Yogi Berra, who had managed the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 Mets to World Series appearances, took over the 1984 squad but got off to a disappointing 17-23 start. That may not seem like the end of the world, but the problem was that the Yanks were already 18 games out of first place, as the Detroit Tigers won 35 of their first 40 games. In the Pre-Wild card era, such a start effectively ended the season for every other AL East team, so despite the Yankees outplaying the eventual champions from that point on, the season was considered a disappointment.

Yet the team entered 1985 with a good roster and high hopes. Mike Pagliarulo, who’d played well in a part-time role in ’84, would take over third base for Toby Harrah, catcher Ron Hassey and left fielder Billy Sample with their strong platoon splits were added to strengthen those positions, and hard-throwing Brian Fisher was acquired, giving the team a formidable one-two punch with Dave Righetti out of the bullpen. Of course, small improvements matter, but they were overshadowed by the off-season trade acquisition of Rickey Henderson, who at age-26 was already a four-time All-Star who’d averaged 7.0 bWAR per season over the previous five years.

With their new star on the IL due to a sprained ankle, the 1985 season began with three consecutive losses in Fenway Park, which is to say the absolute worst possible start for a Steinbrenner-owned team. They rebounded to win six of their next 10, but then lost three in a row to the White Sox to drop to 6-10 on the very young season. Then, on Sunday, April 28th, after only 16 games, Steinbrenner announced by press release via General Manager Clyde King that Yogi Berra had been relieved of his managerial duties, to be replaced by Billy Martin, effective immediately.

Of course, Steinbrenner by that point had already set a pretty high bar for making temperamental and odd decisions. This would be his 12th managerial change in 15 years, and it would be the fourth go-around for Martin in pinstripes. George once had fired then-manager Bob Lemon in 1982 after only 14 games despite stating publicly Lemon would be the manager for the whole season – as he did with Berra prior to the ’85 season. Yet even with Steinbrenner’s track record, this move was particularly eyebrow-raising.

King noted that Steinbrenner had already made the decision to fire Berra before that Sunday’s game, but wanted to give Yogi the opportunity “to go out a winner.” (Imagine thinking the opportunity that Yogi Berra needed was to show he was a “winner”.) What King’s statement failed to mention is that Martin was already in Texas – the Yankees' next stop on the road trip – as he was the team’s advance scout for the upcoming series with the Rangers. If you’re curious, yes, Martin was also the Yankees’ advance scout for the Chicago series in which the Yankees had just been swept. Steinbrenner was concerned about many things in his time, but the appearance of conflicts of interest and behind-the-scenes scheming certainly weren’t among them.

Upon hearing the news of the change in leadership, players in the Yankees’ clubhouse – most of whom played for both Martin in ’83 and Berra in ’84 - didn’t seem to be pleased with the move. Star players Willie Randolph, Dave Winfield, and Don Mattingly declined to comment but the media noted that Mattingly had tears in his eyes. Ken Griffey Sr. and Don Baylor – who both publicly criticized the notion of Martin’s rumored to return in 1984 – declined to comment as well, but Baylor did kick over a trash can in front of the media when he was shown the press release.

Others, like John Montefusco, didn’t mind vocalizing their frustrations. “Nothing surprises me here anymore,” said the pitcher, who also played under both Martin and Berra. He continued by adding “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to take. I know everybody still would rather have Yogi here. It’s not Yogi’s fault.”

Rickey, having played for Martin in Oakland, asked “He’s been here four or five times, why don’t they just leave him here?” Rickey continued by saying, ‘’I played under him for three years and I thought that was enough, too. He’s all right in my book.’’ (Those of us who remembered the Rickey era can confirm that his on-field ability was matched only by his proclivity for making us all ask “Wait…what did he just say?”)

Likely in anticipation of public pushback for not only the questionable change, but for the disrespect and mistreatment of Yankee royalty, King attempted to soften the blow by telling everybody that George would “rather fire 25 players than to fire Yogi, but we all know that that would be impossible.” To my knowledge, nobody followed up by asking if Rickey would have been one of the 25 players to get fired, as the team was 5-5 in his absence, then went 1-5 when he returned.

Martin, never one to ignore a microphone, offered his take on the change by asking, “If all the guys liked him so much, why didn’t they win for him? If you’re a true Yankee, why are you in last place?” Similar to George wanting Yogi to be a “winner”, questioning whether or not Berra was a “true Yankee” brought matters to a surreal level.

You likely remember how the story ends. The absolutely loaded roster went on to win 97 games, which fell just short of a division win. Martin would continue his regular departures from what would be considered normative behavior, including a mid-season drunken brawl with Ed Whitson, and would be fired again at season’s end. (Although he would return in 1988, for a fifth and ultimately final go-around as the Yankees’ manager.)

Yogi wouldn’t manage again and would begin a long separation from everything to do with the Yankees and Yankee Stadium as long as “that guy” was in charge. Given the history of both the Yankees and Berra, in an era with old-timers’ games, former players as spring training coaches, and regular returns of former players for nostalgia purposes, this wasn’t an insignificant divorce. Yet 14 years later (in no small part due to a rather large donation from “that guy” to the Yogi Berra Museum), Yogi returned to Yankee Stadium on July 19th, 1999 for “Yogi Berra Day.” Yogi would catch the ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, the battery of the only perfect game in World Series history. Both would stay and witness David Cone’s perfect game.

37 years later, all of this is just trivia and nostalgia, but since we’re currently at a similar point in the season as the 1985 group was, let it serve as an important reminder: Games count in April just as much as games in September, and divisions can be won and lost early in the season as well as late. That doesn’t mean the big picture should be ignored when making decisions that could have lasting effects on the players, the coaching staff, and the fans.