To Berra's ears, Linz was off key

July 04, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Baseball never had a bizarre episode quite like it: The only time an impromptu musical interlude temporarily upstaged a pennant race. The New York Yankees had lost four straight to the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park and the team bus was quiet as the players, showered and dressed, waited for manager Yogi Berra to climb aboard.

Meanwhile, Phil Linz, the perennially happy-go-lucky infielder, began to play his self-taught version of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on a harmonica he had bought that afternoon while walking the aisles of a Neiman Marcus department store.

Berra, now inside the bus and about to take a seat up front, screamed: "Cut that out. You lose four straight and act like we won the pennant." Linz, intent on making music, or a reasonable facsimile, asked, "What did he say?" And Mickey Mantle, seated nearby, obliged by answering, "He said to play louder."

The Yankees began to enjoy the stirring confrontation, but to Berra it wasn't a laughing matter. Linz hollered, "Don't pick on me. I give you 100 percent and it's not my fault." Berra countered by telling him, "Put that thing in your pocket." End of concert.

The next day, Linz apologized to Berra, who told him, almost as if he didn't want to do it, "I got to fine you. How does $250 sound?"

To the reporters, many of whom were riding the Yankees' bus, Linz explained: "I had the fine coming. Whatever I get, I deserve. You should never challenge authority."

Meanwhile, the story became a cause celebre. America's sports page readers were enjoying the amusing details.

And the Hohner Harmonica Co. wasn't deaf to the incident, paying Linz $5,000 for an advertisement on the back of the Yankees' yearbook that showed him with a harmonica and an attention-getting line that read, "Play It Again Phil."

Linz was in demand on the winter banquet circuit. In his native Baltimore, at the "Tops In Sport" event, director Lou Grasmick distributed a gross of harmonicas throughout the ballroom.

When Phil was introduced, the audience gave him a cacophonous welcome. He smiled and, not missing a note, told the gathering, "You're all fined $250."

When he signed his next contract, even Yankees management joined in the revelry. They paid him a $20,000 salary and general manager Ralph Houk handed him another $250 to "pay for music lessons."

The Linz family has strong roots in Baltimore. "We are all related," he says. "I always thought one of us should run for mayor. The Linz vote alone would have been enough to win."

Phil, now with Kaye Insurance Associates, lives in Stamford, Conn., with his wife Lyn and a son, a former all-state shortstop.

Two sisters, Rose Marie Michael and Lorraine Fowler, are in the Baltimore area and are still amused their fun-loving brother attained a certain celebrity status with, of all things, a harmonica while playing for the most famous of baseball teams, the Yankees.

Linz graduated from Calvert Hall and signed with the Yankees for a $4,000 bonus in 1957 after the Orioles would go no higher than $2,200 because they were aware he had poor vision. But Yankees scouts Johnny Neun and Benny Artigiani never doubted his ability.

During five years in the minors, Linz won two batting championships -- in the Texas League and Carolina League -- while on his way to the Yankees. Not known for power, Linz's first hit in the majors was a surprise, a mammoth shot over 400 feet off Dan Pfister of the Kansas City A's.

"It was a high slider," he remembers, "and it took me seven years to get 10 more homers."

Yet in the World Series of 1964, he homered twice against the St. Louis Cardinals, connecting for long-distance shots over the faraway left field barrier of Sportsman's Park, pulling a Bob Gibson fastball and also driving a Barney Schultz knuckleball over the fence.

For four years, Linz dressed alongside Mantle in the Yankees' locker room.

"All he cared about was winning," Linz said with the utmost respect. "Sometimes he was moody and didn't want to give autographs. But he honestly never understood the adulation.

"When he hit home runs, Mickey didn't stand there to admire them. In fact, he ran with his head down and almost seemed embarrassed. He never wanted to show up a pitcher.

"His drinking was no different than what went on with most of the rest of us. It was more or less what everybody did. After baseball, when he had to entertain for business purposes, the drinking became a serious problem."

It's hard to imagine a more popular player among the Yankees than Linz.

When he was traded to the Philadelphia Phils, sportswriter Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote a farewell tribute in which he said, "A blithe spirit by nature, Linz had the happy faculty of raising spirits and bolstering morale because his own constant joyousness was so communicable."

Mantle always said: "Phil is one of my all-time favorites."

Such a comment reflected the way other Yankees felt about the enthusiastic youngster they called "Super Sub."

The personality of Linz, a kid with a smile and an effervescent outlook, made him more than just another infielder. Life was good, but he was good for life.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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