CHICAGO — Billy's back. Say it three times fast. What was rumored, whispered and hinted about for weeks spread through the New York Yankee clubhouse in a bolt: George Steinbrenner fired Manager Yogi Berra Sunday and replaced him with Billy Martin. It is the 12th time in his 15 years of ownership of the club that Steinbrenner has changed managers. It is his fourth dance with Martin.
"He's been here four or five times," Rickey Henderson said of Martin. "Why don't they just leave him here?"
Steinbrenner called General Manager Clyde King in the fourth inning of a 4-3 loss to the White Sox Sunday to tell him of the change. Steinbrenner was in Culver, Ind., to visit his son. King said Steinbrenner had decided to fire Berra Saturday night and hoped he would go out a winner Sunday. Berra's last game came 14 days before his 60th birthday.
Steinbrenner was quoted in a release as saying, "This action has been taken by the Yankees and we feel that it is in the best interests of the club." The release said Steinbrenner told King that "he would rather fire 25 players than to fire Yogi, but we all know that that would be impossible."
The Yankees are 6-10 and in last place in the American League East. They have lost three straight games to Chicago and four of their past five games by a total of five runs. Ironically, Berra and the Yankees were losing with advance scouting reports supplied by Martin, who preceded the team to Chicago to scout the White Sox. He was in Texas during the weekend to scout the Rangers, whom the Yankees play Monday night in Arlington, Tex.
In the end, there was little meaning in Berra's solid relationship with his players, his lovable image with the fans and good fortune that has carried him to 21 World Series as player, coach and manager.
"Yogi's no different," Steinbrenner said in recent days. "He has to win like anybody else."
Though Berra lasted 16 games, the firing still didn't set a record for the quickest ax from Steinbrenner. The owner fired Bob Lemon after a 6-8 start in 1982. Then, as he did this spring, Steinbrenner had vowed his manager would last the duration of the season.
King, serving as messenger, delivered the news to Berra in the manager's office after the game. Copies of a four-paragraph release to the media quickly passed from player to player. Many players cursed loudly and openly expressed disbelief. Don Baylor kicked over a large trash barrel. Baylor and Ken Griffey had publicly criticized Martin last year when he was rumored to be replacing Berra then.
Berra's son Dale, who learned earlier in the day that he had a broken finger, now has a broken dream. Wearing only a towel and still dripping from a shower, he immediately made his way into his father's office. He came out crying. Dale would still be wet-eyed an hour later, when he stood facing his locker and wiping the tears from his eyes with the dirty sanitary socks he had worn in the game.
"That's the way the game is today," Dale said. "Sixteen games. What happens if Billy goes 4 and 12?"
Said Yogi: "I told him (Dale) like I told you. Managers are hired to be fired. I know that's an old saying, but it's true."
Yogi appeared to take the loss of his job better than he has taken some of the disheartening defeats that caused his exit. When he met a media throng in his office, he was out of uniform and out of baseball.
When asked what he would do, Berra said: "Go home and play golf." He was asked if he would work in some capacity for Steinbrenner. "I don't know," he said. "He hasn't asked me. My contract doesn't say I have to. I'll still be at the stadium, to see Dale play.
"He's the boss. He can do what he wants. Sixteen games. I still think this club will come around. We had a lot of injuries early. There's two or three guys who are having their spring training now. Billy's a good manager. I wish him all the luck in the world."
Berra visited with each of his coaches and players individually to wish them luck. Gene Michael, whom Steinbrenner fired twice, shook Berra's hand and said softly, "I know how you feel."
Many Yankees were visibly upset and declined to comment on the change. Don Mattingly, near tears, said goodby to his manager with a big hug.
"Nothing surprises me here anymore," said pitcher John Montefusco, who came to the Yankees and played for Martin in 1983. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to take. Yogi is a friend of everyone on this team. If you can't play for Yogi, you can't play for anyone. I guess George felt there had to be a shakeup to get us going. It always falls on the manager's shoulders.
"I know everybody still would rather have Yogi stay here. It's not Yogi's fault."
Martin, when asked about Berra's relationship with the players, said Sunday night, "Yogi's a nice guy and he's been my friend for 35 years. 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? You've got to win to be happy."
Steinbrenner's Managerial Changes
DATE TRANSACTION Jan 1973 George Steinbrenner heads group that buys Yankees from CBS for $10 million Oct 1, 1973 Manager Ralph Houk resigns Jan 3, 1974 Bill Virdon named manager Aug 1, 1975 Virdon fired and replaced by Billy Martin July 25, 1978 Martin resigns under pressure and is replaced by Bo Lemon June 18, 1979 Lemon fired and replaced by Martin Oct 28, 1979 Martin fired and replaced by Dick Howser Nov 21, 1980 Howser resigns and is replaced by Gene Michael Sept 6, 1981 Michael fired and replaced by Lemon April 25, 1982 Lemon fired and replaced by Michael Aug 3, 1982 Michael fired and replaced by Clyde King Jan 11, 1983 King reassigned and replaced by Martin Dec 16, 1983 Martin fired and replaced by Yogi Berra April 28, 1985 Berra fired and replaced by Martin