CJ is an author and online writer who is passionate about history and the people who make it.
Good Times, Bad Times
The New York Yankees are one of the most successful sports franchises in history. Since the 1920s, they have been Major League Baseball’s white whale. Their greatest players became cultural icons: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Jeter. Owners, executives and managers were also inducted into the Hall of Fame. The team’s 27 World Series Championships are more than double that of any other organization. But like every great institution, there are down years. The 1966 season was one of them. It turned out to be one of the worst of all time: on the field, in the dugout, in the front office and even in the broadcast booth. The glare of the New York media magnified every problem. It was a season many wanted to forget, but it set the stage for an eventual rebirth of their winning ways.
Long Shadow of Success
Between 1947 and 1964, the Yankees appeared in 15 World Series, winning 11. Expectations rose every year. Pressure on both players and management became overwhelming. At the dawn of the '60s, there was no sign of their success abating. Complacency set in with Mantle, Maris, and Ford on the roster. The farm system was put on the back burner, an oversight for which they would pay a high price. Behind the scenes, there was also an ugly aversion to signing African American players. Only one black player, Elston Howard, was on the roster until 1961.
After their loss to the Dodgers in the ’63 Series, manager Ralph Houk was moved upstairs to general manager in order to make room for the recently retired Yogi Berra. He managed to get the limping roster to the World Series once again, only to lose in seven games. In a surprise move, he was fired on October 17. Resentment from Houk and his mishandling of the pitching staff were supposedly the reasons. Though they denied it later, lots of his former teammates quietly grumbled to reporters off the record about Yogi’s inexperience. Yogi called out guys in front of the team; he felt that was motivation enough for any professional. Words of encouragement were not his forte. But times were changing.
Bait and Switch
His replacement, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane, was even more shocking. Keane had heard that the Cards thought about firing him earlier in the season, and felt his job was still in jeopardy. After winning over 300 games with the Cards, he resigned and the Yankees pounced. Reports surfaced later that the Yankees had been speaking to Johnny during the season, sending low-level staffers to contact him. The tampering went unpunished.
It was a ridiculous move for both parties. The players were not happy. Yogi was beloved by fans and at least respected by the players. Keane was a devout Catholic, who had studied for the priesthood and that desire for order led to a rigid management style. His playing career had been cut short by a beaning, after which he entered the Cardinals’ minor league system as a coach. Though only 55, he had an elderly appearance, thin and white-haired, with a heavily-lined face. The years of bus trips, bad food, and desert sun had taken their toll.
Keane also wanted to change the way the Yankees traditionally played, turning them from a team reliant on the three-run homer and strong pitching, to a unit that used small ball. The Cardinals had beaten the Yankees by surprise hit and runs, bunts, and steals. The frenetic style of play had overwhelmed New York. However, Keane was now managing a big-hitting club with short porches down the left and right field lines. The club was built for the stadium. During spring training in 1965, Keane kept using the term, “executing the play.” The guys were mystified. As righthander Hal Reniff put it, “Even pitchers don’t bunt on this team.”
The new skipper did not help himself by getting off to a bad start. 1965 was a disappointment to say the least. Finishing in sixth place, 25 games behind the Twins. It was the first time in 40 years they did not finish above .500.
The team had been owned by CBS since 1964. The network had purchased the team from Dan Topping and Del Webb, who had bought the team in 1945. The new owners kept Topping on to run the team day-to-day. It was a five-year contract. Topping’s son Dan Jr., was the club’s vice president. He had previously served as assistant general manager. After the disappointing ‘65 season, the company got a little nervous about its investment. They moved one of their executives, Michael Burke, over to run the team as President, after a successful stint in Europe. Burke was a colorful character. A former OSS agent during World War II and later a CIA agent, he ended up working for Ringling Brothers prior to CBS. He was as well connected as anyone could get. Burke, Houk, and Topping, along with their Network bosses. would prove a volatile mix.
The Yankee broadcast team for '66, both on TV and radio, was anchored by the legendary Red Barber and included three former players, Phil Rizzuto, Jerry Coleman, and Joe Garagiola. Barber had been the Brooklyn Dodgers play by play for many years before coming over to the Yankees in 1954. Rizzuto and Coleman had been teammates on many of the Yanks’ World Series teams. Phil had spent his entire playing career with the team, retiring in 1956. Garagiola, a former backup catcher with the Cardinals and Pirates, was also a childhood friend of Yogi Berra. Joe was already doing national broadcasts and had called Cardinals games for eight years after his retirement. Barber was not enamored with ex-players in the booth and would often let them know it while on air. His pent-up disgust with the changes would rear its ugly head at the end of the season.
Hope Floats Away
When Spring Training 1966 arrived, there was hope that the team could bounce back. The roster was still filled with veterans leftover from Series past: Besides Mantle and Ford, there was Elston Howard, Clete Boyer, Bobby Richardson, Joe Pepitone, and Tom Tresh. Young pitchers like Mel Stottlemyre, Jim Bouton, and Al Downing anchored the staff. Switch-hitting rookie Roy White looked promising, as did second-year players Horace Clarke and Bobby Murcer. Lefthander Fritz Peterson was called up from AA for spring training and he made the team.
Beneath this façade, trouble brewed. Most of the veterans were on their last leg. Mickey could barely play 100 games a season anymore. Ford would eventually be sent to the bullpen with arm trouble. Maris had hurt his right hand so badly in 1965, that there were worries he would not regain full function. Richardson was on the verge of retirement. Injuries had already forced the retirement of longtime shortstop Tony Kubek. Half the roster would soon fall victim to the kind of nagging pains that affect an aging team. Their negligent team doctors did not help either.
The grizzled Keane still had less than a sympathetic ear. Disliked by the fans and criticized by the media, Keane was even less liked by his team. He was tough on the veterans, riding them like rookies. One thing he did not like was some of the players’ “New York” lifestyle. Mantle was still notorious for late-night carousing and the young Pepitone was emulating him. Houk and Berra knew how to handle those types of guys. They were retired big leaguers and saw the big picture. But Keane was clueless. His devotion to the game was total; any signs of distraction were sins. Mantle was so miserable during 1965 that he threatened to quit after the season. Bouton said it was like "Billy Graham taking over the Hell's Angels."
Mantle was the highest-paid Yankee and still one of the highest-paid players in Baseball. Willie Mays made slightly more at $105,000 while Henry Aaron was making $70,000. The average salary in 1966 was just $19,000 with the minimum at $6,000. The Yankee rookies and other younger players made good money for the era, but had trouble getting in the lineup. Even hobbled, guys like Mantle and Maris received the benefit of the doubt on game day.
- Mickey Mantle $100,000
- Whitey Ford $60,000
- Elston Howard $75,000
- Roger Maris $75,000
- Bobby Richardson $60,000
- Clete Boyer $31,500
Pepitone, Tresh, and Clarke each made $25,000 and surprisingly, Bobby Murcer was signed for $23,000. After Ford, the next two highest-paid starters were Bouton ($27,000) and Stottlemyre ($26,000). Though laughable by today's MLB standards, we have to remember that in 1966, the average family's median income was just over $7,000. However, players frequently received pay cuts in those days as contracts were year to year. Just a slight drop in production could lead to a 2 to 3% cut the next season.
From day one, it was a disaster. On April 12, they opened up against the Detroit Tigers. It was a chilly day, with highs in the mid-'50s. Following the traditional Opening Day ceremonies, Whitey Ford took the mound. In front of 40,000 at Yankee Stadium, he went 8 2/3 innings, giving up 2 runs on six hits only to lose 2-1. Eight Yankees in the lineup had World Series rings, having played in over a dozen Fall Classics. The bats were as cold as the weather, stranding six men on base. In a bad omen, the defense committed two errors. It would be much of the same on the 14th, committing three errors and squandering Stottlemyre’s solid performance. They would get swept by the Tigers and proceed to lose 16 of their first 20 games, which included a seven-game losing streak. A malaise had set in that began turning towards fatalism.
Injuries hit early and hard. Mantle’s hamstring soon went awry. Ford’s once golden arm was constantly sore and he could hardly go five innings. His circulation problem appeared once again and he needed a vein graph in his left arm. New shortstop Ruben Amaro, for whom they had just traded Phil Linz to Philly, was lost that first week in a collision with Tom Tresh. He tore his knee and would be out the rest of the season. It was a devastating blow. Bobby Murcer replaced Amaro at short, but played poorly and was eventually sent down. Keane was lashing out at everyone during his many team meetings. He had lost the team.
Johnny Be Gone
On May 6, after losing 7-4 to the Angels in Anaheim, Keane was fired and replaced by the man who had hired him, Ralph Houk. Bouton, one of the team’s resident oddballs who would go on to write the now-classic Ball Four, liked Keane but felt he was overwhelmed. The team’s aura and the glare of the City were too much. Even in the 60s, it was a 24-hour-a-day job with a press corps that became unforgiving. Keane spent 30 years playing and managing in the minor leagues until 1959 and never quite adjusted to the big-league spotlight. The players had been respectful to Johnny, but behind the scenes, they questioned his managerial skills and did not always play hard. Mantle would tell the press they let Johnny down.
After getting the news, Keane went down to the locker room to say goodbye to the team, addressing them as a group before heading off to pick up his stuff. While rummaging through the office, one by one the players stopped in to say their own personal goodbyes. Many of them felt a deep sense of regret. It was a weird situation, especially for the long-time Yankees. They had not fired a manager mid-season since World War I. Since 1960, the organization had fired three managers, starting with Casey Stengel. The only thing certain about the Yankees now was instability.
Houk walked into a room and was in command. He had been a backup catcher his entire career, a position that lends itself to learning every aspect of the game. Combined with his World War II service in which he survived the Battle of the Bulge, and was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart, he was a natural leader. His nickname “the Major” came from his last rank in the Army. The native Kansan could be both a calming influence and a fiery speechmaker. But he had an existing relationship with the players and this led to the one thing Keane did not have: absolute respect. Mantle and Ford had known him for 15 years.
It wasn’t a warm welcome from every player. Houk had lowballed some of the guys during salary negotiations in the off-season, and there was lingering resentment. But for now, anything was better than Keane.
The team responded, winning three in a row and later in the month went on a five-game win streak, winning 18 of their first 27 under Houk. But soon, they fell back to earth, struggling each day for a win. While they avoided very long losing streaks, the losses still piled up. The injury bug continued to spread. Bats slumped while the team became lethargic once again. There would be another 6-game winning streak in July that included a sweep of the Twins in Minnesota and a 4-game streak in August, but that would be it. Trading a win for a couple of losses was the normal pattern. The final two months of the season were an unending struggle to stay out of last place.
Indicative of this sad state of baseball at the House That Ruth Built was an August 19th game against Kansas City. It was a Friday night and the second game of a doubleheader, with just 12,000 in attendance. A confident Petersen took the mound and pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up just five hits until the 8th. Phil Roof led off with a single, but pitcher Lew Krausse failed in his attempt at a sacrifice, as Roof was forced out at second. Bert Campanaris came up and promptly lashed a ground-rule double for what would have been runners at second and third. But the umpire ruled that a fan reached out and interfered with the play, which brought Krausse home for the game's first run. Though the Yankees managed to tie it up in the bottom half of the 8th, the A's got another run off Pedro Ramos in the 9th to win the game 2-1.
Crash and Burn
On September 7, the Yanks finally fell back to the cellar with a 3-2 loss to the Orioles. They wasted another complete game by Stottlemyre. Mantle returned from another injury to pinch-hit and struck out in the ninth. It was their fifth loss in a row and seventh of their last nine. Disgust now reigned and team discipline began to weaken. Bouton, ever the rebel, broke the unwritten rules by being honest with a reporter. In response to a question by Murray Oldermann about the reasons for the team’s decline, he flatly stated, “We just stink.” It made headlines the next day. Houk called him into the office and asked why he did it. He also told Jim his teammates were angry. He apologized, reluctantly. Being blunt with a reporter is a sin far greater than cheating.
They clawed back to eighth place by sweeping the Red Sox, but on September 18, they fell back to last place permanently.
At Comiskey Park on October 2, Yankees closer Dooley Womack got the White Sox’ Dick Kentworthy to ground out to 3B Mike Ferraro, who tossed it over to Mike Hegan for the final out. Mercifully, the season was over, having only played 159 games due to rainouts. They managed to win their last two games in Chicago, finishing 70-89, 26 ½ games behind the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles. They had been shut out 13 times.