The Yankees of the 1950’s were known not only for leading the league in home runs and winning pennants but also for leading the league in after game partying in and around New York City. On one of those nights in May 1957, “the crew” decided to celebrate the birthday of one of their own at the Copacabana, which was the leading nightclub in New York City at the time. The rest, as they say, is history.
It was Billy Martin‘s 29th birthday. And his favorite drinking buddy, Mickey Mantle, decided that they should celebrate in style at the ritziest and most exclusive club in New York, the Copacabana. Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, and Johnny Kucks joined the party as well as some of the wives. Before the night was out, all hell would break loose, and Billy Martin would wind up being traded (ostracized might be a better word) to Kansas City. Bauer was taken into custody; hefty fines would be issued by the Yankees, and manager Casey Stengel would get into a shouting match with Yankees owner, George Weiss because his favorite player (Martin) had been traded.
“Nobody Did Nothin’ To Nobody” – Yogi Berra
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Well, that’s Yogi’s version of what happened. But depending on which of the Yankees players is talking, there are just like many other stories about that night as well. This much, we can say is fact. There was a team of bowlers sitting at a nearby table. They were also engaged in some heavy duty libations. Headlining the club that evening, was entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who himself was a standing member of the “Rat Pack” club, whose members included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Hank Bauer, who not only was a former US Marine, but he looked like one overheard the bowlers yelling racial epitaphs at Sammy Davis while he was on stage, and shouting insults at the player’s wives. From here, things get a little murky. But here’s what Bauer remembers as reported in the Washington Times:
“A big, fat guy walked by and said, ‘Don’t trust your luck too far tonight, Yankee.’ I told him to [perform an anatomically impossible act]. Pretty soon another guy goes to the men’s room, and Billy and Whitey followed him there. So Joanie Ford says, ‘Hank, you better go back there and see what’s happening.’
“I go back there and I see bouncers all over the place. Whitey or Yogi grabbed me and said, ‘Get out of here.’ So I did, and we go back to the hotel. It’s 2 or 2:30 in the morning by then, and around 4:30 the phone rings, and a writer tells me, ‘Some guy claims you hit him.’ The next day, Topping gets us in and says, ‘It’ll cost you each $1,000.’”
No one knows for sure what happened back there in the men’s room, and Bauer may have forgotten a few of the details. But, we do know that Edwin Jones, one of the bowlers, subsequently went to Roosevelt Hospital with a broken nose and a broken jaw. Precisely what occurred around about half-past two in the morning remained forever unclear.
Jones, in fact, called the police, who refused to act. Jones then insisted on making a citizens arrest, on which all charges were dropped at a later date. In the interim, however, between court dates, newspapers who wouldn’t let the story go, and Yankees management who raced to defend the integrity of the franchise, the team took a beating.
Mickey Mantle, who had that jocular, boyish, and altar boy way about him, would attempt to play down the incident with self-deprecating humor in the later years of life. Here’s a brief glimpse into his rationalization of the incident.
Editorializing a bit here, the entire episode is not very funny at all. Because as you just heard Mantle say, he and Billy Martin had been warned several times by Yankees management about breaking curfew and showing up at the ballpark the next day half in the bag. In later years, Martin would be killed in an alcohol-related car accident, and Mickey would continue his drinking and carousing ways until it eventually caught up to him when he was stricken with liver cancer. Of the trio, only Whitey Ford was able to escape the death dance, retiring quietly to his home on Long Island where he still lives today.
But that was America in the 1950s. Boys will be boys. Everything gets swept under the rug. You’re a New York Yankee. The town belongs to you. And apparently, we live in a different era now, and ballplayers, on the whole, have adapted along the way to a different lifestyle. The money is too big now. They need to take care of themselves, and most of them do.
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Will we ever see another incident like the one that occurred that night at the Copacabana? Possibly, but not likely. But perhaps an even better question to ask is this one. Would Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle be the same, or different in their personal lives if they were playing today instead of back then…