Zoot, Al & The Mick

This is one of the very first baseball stories I ever wrote and it has jazz content too.  I’ve been wanting to post it for a while and thanks to the miracles of modern digital technology, I was able to retrieve it from a dusty old email archive it had been sitting in for about four years.  I’ll admit I’ve taken some liberties here in filling in the details as best I can; drinking was most definitely involved in the recounting and hearing of the versions of the story told and my memory of them is a little dim as all this happened at least thirty years ago.

Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later comfirmed to me by Jake Hanna, who was at the Half Note as a listener on the night described below.  I didn’t get to know Al Cohn well until after Zoot died in 1984, but Al told me this one too, along with many more about Zoot and others.  I can’t begin to tell you what an honour and pleasure it was to play with these three great musicians and how entertaining it was to hang with them off the bandstand.  They provided me with some of my best laughs and fondest memories and I miss them each and every day.

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I first read about this celebrated ballgame in a collection of Baseball Digest stories – you know, those “Gee-whiz, my greatest thrill as a Yankee” jobs.  In the Digest version, an “ailing and feverish” Mickey Mantle came off the Yankee bench to perform his heroics.  I’m proud to say both Zoot Sims and Al Cohn recounted their version to me, which gave a far different reason for Mickey’s illness that day.  Call me jaded, but I’m going with theirs.

In 1964 the Yankees were still a great team, having won the Series in ’61 and ’62.  However, they were swept by the Dodgers in the ’63 Series (hello Sandy Koufax, come on down Don Drysdale!) and in retrospect if you looked real close, you could see the bloom coming off the rose and rust setting in on the Bronx machine.  Yogi Berra was done as a player and now managing them, Roger Maris had crashed to earth, Mantle was getting old and hobbled by injuries.  Even Whitey Ford was getting on and their fabled farm system wasn’t producing the way it had in the 1950s.  Nobody knew it then, but the next time the Yanks would win the Series would be 1977, when they were owned by George Steinbrenner.  In the interval, America endured the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war, civil rights unrest and violence, another Kennedy assassination, ditto for Martin Luther King, the Chicago Democratic convention riots, Kent State and Watergate.  The days of “hit two today, Mickey!!” were long gone and so was a nation’s innocence.

In 1954, after decades of abysmal incompetence, the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles and by the early ’60s were rounding into shape as a contender, giving the Yanks some competition.  By 1964 they were managed by ex-Yankee great and war hero Hank Bauer (“he had a face like a clenched fist”) and seriously challenging for the pennant (they were two years and one Frank Robinson away from glory.)  In August of 1964, the Orioles and Chicago White Sox were running neck and neck for the AL flag, with the Yankees sitting in third place.

Zoot and Al were in the middle of one of their last long runs at the Half Note in the summer of ’64.  Jazz fans flocked to the friendly Hudson St. jazz club run by the Canterino family, to bathe in their wonderful musical chemistry and to watch them drink Scotch.  The club’s bandstand was directly above the bar and if – make that when – Al or Zoot ran dry during a set they would simply drop their empty glass over the back of the stage and Sonny Canterino would catch it without looking up, refill it and hand it back up.  This alone was worth the price of admission.

In late August the Orioles were in town for a four-game series with the Yankees and took the first two games on Thursday and Friday night to move into first place.  In the Saturday afternoon game, Mantle broke out of a long slump with a homer and a double as the Yankees got a much needed win.  That night, Mickey came to the Half Note with some friends in a good mood after the game.  He greeted Al and Zoot, laid a couple of tickets to Sunday’s game on them, requested “On the Alamo” and got down to some serious partying.

Apparently stingers were his choice of cocktail that night and the Canterinos swear Mick had about 20 or so, “enough to kill a horse”.  Before the night ended, Mickey was out cold and it took both sizable Canterino brothers and two waiters to carry him out to Zoot’s red humpback Volvo and somebody drove him to his apartment and put him to bed.  Back at the club Zoot and Al made plans to meet early the next day for an eye-opener before heading to the game.  “Gee, Mickey seemed kinda loaded, I wonder if he’ll play tomorrow?” wondered Zoot.  Al answered, “Are you kidding me?  He’ll be lucky if he even makes it to the ballpark.”

Feeling none too fresh themselves, Zoot and Al arrived at Yankee Stadium early Sunday afternoon after a pre-game belt.  Al remembered the day as one of those humid, blazingly bright, white-hot ones that make your eyes hurt “even with sunglasses on in the shade.”  Miraculously, Mickey was at the Stadium, but wasn’t going to be playing.  They spotted him in the Yankee dugout, slumped motionless on the bench with a damp towel over his head, his teammates giving him a wide berth.  Al said the heat waves swirling around Mickey looked like rays of agony emanating from his temples.  “It hurt just to look at him” remembered Zoot.  Al told me he was grateful Casey Stengel wasn’t still managing the Yanks as he had a sharp, raspy voice and would have taken nine strips off Mantle at close range.  As in, ”You drunken bum, you’re no fucking Yankee, you couldn’t carry DiMaggio’s jockstrap.  Babe Ruth woulda played through this, you little Okie shit-heel!” etc. etc.

Meanwhile, Al and Zoot nursed their own hangovers with stadium beers and nips from the special “coffee” in Zoot’s thermos.  The Orioles took a good early lead, but the Yanks chipped away at it.  The only motion from Mantle was to accept an occasional fresh towel from a teammate.  By the ninth, the Yankees had whittled the lead down to two runs and had two men on with a single and a walk, which brought in the Orioles’ tiny but effective reliever Stu Miller, who promptly retired two.

There was a stirring on the Yankee bench and Mantle was announced as a pinch-hitter.  “Holy Christ, here comes Mickey after all” croaked Zoot.  “He came out of the dugout like he was walking to his execution.  He was dragging the bat in the dirt behind him like a caveman” Zoot said.  Al told me, “He didn’t take any warm-up swings or anything.  His face was tomato red, sweat was pouring off him and there was a kind of green, furry space where his eyes used to be, as he stumbled up to the plate”.

Mantle recalled later that Johnny Orsino, the Orioles catcher, took one look at him and yelled at the top of his lungs, “OUT ON THE TOWN LAST NIGHT WERE WE MICK? HAD A FEW, DID WE?”  He started to laugh as he ran out to the mound to confer with Miller.  “Listen, Mantle’s still hammered, he reeks of booze, he’s got nothin’.  No fastballs, three breakers and we’re outta here.” 

The first pitch was a curveball which Mantle swung on and missed so violently he fell right on his face.  The next pitch was a wicked slider, Mantle swung and missed, propping himself up with the bat to avoid going down in the dirt again.  Wincing in pain, angry and embarrassed, Mickey shook it off, staggering around a bit before stepping back in.

The third pitch was another curve and Mantle swung from the heels and smashed it on a towering parabola over the right field wall – game over.  The Yankee fans and players went absolutely beserk, Al and Zoot both practically slid out of their seats watching the slowest, wobbliest and most unexpected home run trot they’d ever seen.  After the game, still thrilled by it, Zoot said, “That’s why Mickey’s my favourite player.  Lots of guys can play good sober, but he plays good drunk.”  Nobody, but nobody would know this better than Zoot, believe me.

Some days later Mickey came back to the Half Note again and Al and Zoot asked him how in hell he had managed to hit the homer that day.

“Fellas, I was still kinda drunk and feelin’ so shaky up there I was seein’ three balls on each pitch.  On the third one I just kinda relaxed and aimed at the one in the middle.”

 

Postscript: 

Long after it stopped running, Zoot’s famous old red Volvo sat in his Long Island backyard like a huge, rusty garden ornament.  He said, “Coleman Hawkins and Mickey Mantle rode in that car, how could I get rid of it?”

Mantle’s heroics that day seemed to wake the Yankees up as they went on an unexpected tear in late August and September, winning the AL pennant by one game over the White Sox and two ahead of the Orioles, whose Brooks Robinson won the AL MVP award.  The Yanks lost a thrilling seven-game Series to the surprising Cardinals and promptly fired manager Berra (the ultimate in heartless, corporate back-stabbing), replacing him with victorious Cards’ manager Johnny Keane (!) in a previously arranged secret deal that stunk to high heaven and outraged many.  The next year it was as if the Yankees had stepped into an elevator shaft and they fell fast, sinking abruptly to the second division of the AL where they remained into the early ’70s.

The Half Note closed its doors a few short years later along with quite a few other NY jazz landmarks as jazz went into a prolonged slump of its own – sound familiar?  If there’s a moral in all of this, it would be to enjoy the good times as much as you can while you can, because man, they sure can be over in a hurry, like the blink of an eye.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Zoot, Al & The Mick

  1. I got a chance to hang with Al one night at East 85th. He was dressed to the nines. Told me playing without Zoot around wasn’t that much fun. He sounded great. You may have been on that gig.

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