On the heels of all the news reports about the Yanks’ reunion (of sorts) with Joe Torre, I wanted to make an attempt to put Torre’s bitter divorce in some context. While the Torre situation certainly seemed unique at the time, the fact of the matter is that many great Yankee players and managers have had similarly acrimonious exits, from the Steinbrenner era and going all the way back to the days of Jacob Ruppert. I’m going to list some of the more prominent examples, detail what went down, and how or if it was ever resolved. Here’s my list, in chronological order:
Babe Ruth-As his playing days waned, Ruth made no secret of his desire to replace Joe McCarthy as manager of the Yankees. Having dealt with the Babe and all of his off field antics for many years, the Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert would have none of it. He soon coined the famous phrase “He can barely manage himself, how will he manage a group of men?” The Yanks did offer Babe the position of manager for their top farm team The Newark Bears for the 1934 season, but his wife (who was also his business manager) recommended that he pass and so Ruth declined. He went on to play one more season for the moribund Boston Braves, and was out of Baseball soon thereafter. More than a decade later, he returned to Yankee Stadium for “Babe Ruth Day” on April 27, 1947. He was already suffering from the throat cancer that he eventually succumbed to, and Ruth died on August 16th of the following year.
Casey Stengel-After the 1960 World Series loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that featured Bill Mazerowski’s famous HR, Casey was let go by the Yankees. The Yanks thought they lost to an inferior team and were unhappy with how he managed that series, especially holding his best pitcher Whitey Ford back until Game 3, a move that meant he could only pitch twice in the series. The team also felt that Casey was simply too old at age 70, and wanted to develop their younger players with a younger manager. When Stengel was informed that he was fired for being 70 years old, he quipped that he would “never make that mistake again.” A media furor ensued for the popular Stengel, citing his resume from 1949–1960 of ten pennants and seven world championships, missing the World Series only twice in his term. After taking a year off, Stengel managed the infamous 1962 Mets and stayed with the team for 4 seasons. The Yankees retired his number 37 on August 8, 1970, he died September 29, 1975 and the team dedicated a plaque in Monument Park in his memory on July 30, 1976.
Roger Maris-Despite the glory and tumult of the 1961 season where Roger hit 61 HRs and broke Babe Ruth’s single season record, the remainder of his Yankee days were often strained. He never again approached the lofty numbers he put up in that season, and was often beset by injuries that limited his playing time. In 1965, a broken bone in his hand was misdiagnosed and he played much of the season hurt, batting .239 with 8 HRs in just 46 games. The local Yankee beat writers and columnists, who never liked him going back to his run at Ruth’s record, thought he was dogging it and labeled him a “malingerer”. With the team’s fortunes failing along with his image, the Yankees traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1966 season for Charley Smith. He had initially refused to report, not out of loyalty to the Yanks but because he was so mad at the team. The breakup was ugly, the Yanks questioned Maris’ courage and Maris left angry, vowing never to return. Long after his playing days, Roger was still bitter about how the 1961 season played out, saying this during an interview at the 1980 All-Star game:
They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.
George Steinbrenner wooed him back by giving him a day where the Yankees retired his number 9 on Old-Timers’ Day, July 21, 1984, and dedicated a plaque in Maris’ honor to hang in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Roger was sick at the time, and died a year later.
Yogi Berra-Berra was named manager before the 1984 season, and had agreed to stay on for 1985 after receiving assurances from George Steinbrenner that he would not be fired. Not only did Yogi get fired, but it was after just the 16th game of the season. Futher, George didn’t have the guts to tell him personally, so he dispatched Clyde King to deliver the news to Yogi. This caused a rift between the two men that was not mended for almost 15 years. Berra did not even show up when he and Bill Dickey were honored with plaques in Monument Park in August of 1988. After a meeting brokered by then-WFAN Yankee beat reporter Suzyn Waldman at Yogi’s newly minted Baseball Museum (that was broadcast on the station) George publicly apologized and Yogi agreed to end the rift. He finally returned to Yankee Stadium on July 18, 1999, for “Yogi Berra Day”. He caught the first pitch from Don Larsen, and the two men sat in the owners box and watched Yankees pitcher David Cone pitch a perfect game of his own.
Dave Winfield-Going all the way back to the 1981 World Series, George had his issues with Dave Winfield. He signed him to an unheard of 10 year/23 mil contract before the season started, and with Reggie Jackson aging he was supposed to be the one to assume the mantle of Mr October. But Winfield proceeded to go 1-22 in that series, and George dubbed him “Mr May”. The relationship was strained throughout, with George often leaking stories (mostly untrue) to the NY media. George frequently tried to trade him, but Winfield’s status as a 10-and-5 player meant he could not be traded without his consent. Despite this, Winfield put up excellent numbers annually with the Yankees and was selected to play in the All-Star Game every season he played in pinstripes. In 1990, the feud between Steinbrenner and Winfield had escalated to the point where Steinbrenner was banned from Baseball by commissioner Fay Vincent because of his connections to Howie Spira, who George had paid $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield’s charitable foundation. On May 11th of 1990, Winfield was traded to the California Angels for pitcher Mike Witt. He retired after the 1995 season, and didn’t return to the stadium until 2008, when he participated in both the final Old Timer’s Day ceremony at the old Yankee Stadium and Final Game ceremony.
Mel Stottlemyre-Yankee fans may recall that it took some convincing to get Mel to be Joe Torre’s pitching coach when he took over the manager’s job in 1996. That stemmed back to a contract dispute he had with George Stienbrenner. George had bought the team in 1974, when Mel was rehabbing from a shoulder injury (rotator cuff) and was promised a contract for the season by the previous ownership group. George reneged and the team released him, and Mel held a grudge that was never totally smoothed over, even after he returned. When Mel decided to quit as Yankee pitching coach, it didn’t take much to push him out the door. Stottlemyre resigned as coach in 2005, following the Yankees’ 1st round loss the Angels. He cited personal disagreements with Steinbrenner, among his reasons for leaving he cited Steinbrenner’s comment where he had congratulated Angels manager Mike Scioscia and not Torre. Stottlemyre said: “My first thought was, ‘What about Joe?’ Joe did a hell of a job, too. To congratulate the other manager and not congratulate your own, after what he’s done this year, I laughed.”
Bernie Williams-Bernie’s contract expired at the end of the 2006 season, and he had hoped to return to the Yanks the following year. He was willing to accept a role as a bench player, but the Yankee brass had some reservations about how well he would perform in that role, feeling he needed regular ABs to be effective. The Yankees offered Bernie a spring training invite as a non-roster invitee, giving him an opportunity to compete for a job. But Bernie wanted a guaranteed roster spot and turned them down. He was noticeably absent from Old Timer’s Day and other Yankee ceremonies in the subsequent two seasons. But on September 21, 2008, Williams made his first return to Yankee Stadium for the ceremonies preceding the final game at the stadium. He was the last former player to be introduced and received a standing ovation that lasted a minute and 42 seconds. The Yanks have also made overtures that they will give him a day and retire his number once Bernie makes his retirement official, but Bernie still thinks he can play and has declined to formally retire from Baseball.