The following is excerpted from Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, by Jason Turbow. The book is available now on Amazon. Jason will be joining us later today to take your questions, and chat about the book.
It was late May when the A’s reached Arlington Stadium, the new home of the Texas Rangers, freshly relocated from Washington, DC, and things were terrific. With Vida recently back, Oakland was 23-11, two games up in the American League West. It was the start of a 14-game road trip, and as players filtered into the clubhouse they began to settle into their travel routines. The team’s pass lists sat atop a picnic table at the far side of the room: a blue sheet for players to leave tickets for family members (the better seats), and a white sheet for friends. Reggie Jackson hovered above them, eyes squinting in scrutiny, until one name in particular caught his eye. “Berman?” he asked, perusing the blue list. “Who put down for these?” Per Rangers policy, players were allowed four seats from the blue list and only two from the white, so first baseman Mike Epstein had used his family passes for friends of his father—the delightfully named Sherman Berman and family—to ensure that they sat together. This was not unusual practice.
“I did,” said the slugger, “and it’s none of your business.”
“I’m appointing it my business,” replied Jackson.
Epstein had arrived in the middle of the 1971 season, along with reliever Darold Knowles, via a trade with Washington. The six-foot-three, 230-pounder had hit 30 home runs for the Senators in 1969, but soon thereafter fell into platoon use, during which time he was increasingly described as temperamental. (“Moodiness,” Epstein rationalized in response, “is an outgrowth of pride in a person.”) Still, he was just what the A’s needed, slugging 18 home runs in 104 games after coming over, and becoming a staple in the heart of their order. Now he was in a stare-down with the team’s biggest star. “Don’t buy more than you can handle,” Epstein warned.
Years’ worth of proximity enabled the players who came up with Jackson—Duncan, Rudi, Bando—to differentiate his confrontational, bark-not-bite nature from something actually nefarious. For guys like Epstein who were new to the team, however, such distinctions were not always so easy.
Most of the players had only just arrived at the ballpark and were still dressing when the exchange took place. Watching the brewing confrontation warily, Joe Rudi was the first to pipe up. “Back off,” he sternly warned Reggie. “Don’t mess with him.”
Reggie did not back off. “Those are family tickets, and there ain’t no Jews in Texas,” he said, invoking Epstein’s Semitic heritage. With that, he grabbed a pen and crossed out the names, one by one. Epstein, a former fullback on the Cal football team, flew off his seat as if at a tackling dummy. Reggie had no chance. “This was not a typical baseball fight,” recalled Ken Holtzman, who watched it go down from his nearby locker. “This was a fight fight.”
Epstein threw Jackson to the floor, straddling him and peppering him with punches. When he grabbed Reggie by the throat and began choking him, traveling secretary Tom Corwin raced to get Dick Williams, and players jumped up to intercede. First to the fray was Gene Tenace, hardly a diminutive figure, who found himself entirely unable to budge the irate behemoth. “Reggie’s eyes are spinning around in his head and I think, this ain’t working,” said Tenace, looking back. “I’ve got to get his hands off of Reggie. How am I going to do that?” Eventually the catcher wrapped his forearm around Epstein’s windpipe and, with full force, pulled. Epstein fell backward onto Tenace, sending both men tumbling to the floor. With all three players on the ground, Williams burst into the room.
“When Dick came out, it must have looked like Mike and I were taking out Reggie,” recalled Tenace. “Reggie’s laying over there on the floor, and Mike is laying on my chest. I’m exhausted from pulling this stinking animal off of Reggie, and then all of a sudden here comes Dick, and Dick’s screaming at me and Mike. I’m going, ‘Why is he screaming at me?’”
Tenace’s response—“Man, if I wasn’t here you might not have a right fielder”—bought him little goodwill. Williams ordered all three players into his office. Reggie—“cross-eyed and half out of it,” according to Tenace—took one of two chairs, Epstein the other. Tenace leaned against a wall. When Williams began to yell, the catcher piped up.
“Hey, Skip, wait a second,” he said. “You’ve got this all wrong. First of all . . .”
Williams wanted no part of it. “Shut up!” he shouted. “I’ll ask the questions!”
By that point the entire team had gathered outside the closed office door, trying to catch snippets of conversation. The manager’s anger—a hail of proclamations, curses, and threats—was directed primarily at Tenace and Epstein, until Epstein interrupted. “Gene is right,” he said. “He’s the one who got me off of Reggie. He wasn’t even involved.”
Williams eyed Tenace warily. “Get your ass out of here, Geno,” he spat.
Never one to miss an opening, Tenace piped up. “You sure you want me to leave you in here with these two guys?” he grinned.
“Get your ass out of here, Geno!” Williams screamed.
When Tenace opened the office door, he found himself nose to nose with half the roster. “Screw it,” he thought to himself. “If something else goes down, they’ll take care of it.”
Eventually, Williams talked Epstein and Jackson into agreeing that they could hate each other without killing each other. Clubhouse opinion, meanwhile, was divided. Those who came up with Jackson understood the delicacy of his personality, but some of the younger players were less forgiving. As Hunter walked by the whirlpool later in the day, rookie George Hendrick, having a soak, called him over. “Who the hell grabbed Epstein and broke up the fight?” he asked, angry at the intervention. “I wanted to see Epstein kick the shit out of Reggie.”
Drama or no, upon leaving Texas, Oakland won nine of ten games. If anything, the fight solidified their ability to derive strength from strife, and served to illustrate that no matter how much the players might loathe one another, there was always one guy in the equation they loathed even more. Enter Finley.
The Owner had enjoined Reggie in repeated battles of will ever since the slugger reached the big leagues in 1967. Now, however, he surprised many by taking Jackson’s side. Maybe it was that despite Reggie’s faults he was still Finley’s guy—drafted and raised and nurtured into stardom by the Owner—while Epstein was an outsider. Or maybe Finley simply wanted to break somebody new. Before the following day’s game he got Epstein on the phone and cut to the chase. “Who the fuck do you think you are, beating up my star player?” he shouted.
“Excuse me?” said Epstein.
“I traded for you,” Finley said. “You’re not one of my players. I could get you back to Washington just as fast as a phone call. You’re the apple that’s going to spoil the bunch. You’re ruining this team!”
Epstein was uncowed. “You’ve got it reversed,” he said. “The guy who’s the problem is the guy that I knocked out on the floor. I did you a favor.” Then he cut to his own chase: “Why don’t you just trade me now?” he asked.
Finley was angry, but he was not stupid. Epstein was a key cog. A trade could wait until after the season, Finley told the first baseman, at which point he’d be good as gone.
After the season, he was.
From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. Copyright 2017, Jason Turbow. Excerpted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.