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63 Years Later / N.Y. Yankees / Copacabana / N.Y. Times 1 week 6 days ago #390320

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63 Years Later, a Confession in a Legendary Yankees Scandal

By David Margolick / N.Y. Times

Published June 19, 2020

Joey Silvestri didn’t see all those Yankees file into the Copacabana that night. There were six of them, including Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Hank Bauer, plus their wives, all out celebrating Billy Martin’s 29th birthday. It was their third stop of the evening, and they were already well on their way to sloshed.

Nor did he spot the bowling team from Washington Heights, also halfway plastered, who arrived a few minutes later. If he had been working the door, he probably would have turned the bowlers away; part of his job at the Copa was anticipating trouble. Besides, they were wannabes, and they didn’t belong at New York’s classiest nightclub.

“Oxall!” he’d have shouted to his fellow bouncer, Pauly Pappas: that was the signal to stop people at the door. Or if they had already slipped through, he’d have consigned them to the “Burma Road” — the cheap seats far from the stage, and from the ballplayers. Instead, the bowlers were given two tables right next to the Yankees.

Joey was at the Copa all right, but he was laying low. May 15, 1957, was a Wednesday. He was off Wednesdays, which meant he wasn’t supposed to be there at all. Or so Mr. Podell, who ran the place, had decreed; he didn’t want the help fraternizing with the customers. But it was Sammy Davis Jr.’s last night, and Sammy had become Joey’s pal, and he promised Joey that if he showed up, he’d do some of those gun tricks he knew he liked.

So Joey slipped in through the service entrance and took a seat alongside Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier at a table out of Mr. Podell’s line of sight. For further camouflage, he wore a brown suit rather than his usual tuxedo, the get-up that certified his power at the club.

Everybody knew “Joey at the Copa.” He may have been just a 24-year-old street kid from Queens, but he was also the guy who determined who got into the place, and who kept them in line once they were there.

Had he been on duty that night, he might have prevented one of the most notorious scandals in Yankees history, one that consumed the tabloids for weeks and still resonates with baseball fans. He might have spared Billy Martin his banishment from the Bronx, which upended his career and set the stage for his fraught return to the team, and five tortured terms as the Yankees’ manager. And he might have delayed, at least for a few years, the erosion of the Yankees’ squeaky-clean image.

Over the past half century, just what took place at the Copa that night, and who threw the punch that sent one bowler to Roosevelt Hospital with a concussion, a fractured jaw and a broken nose, has been shrouded in controversy, then mystery, then mythology.

“Nobody did nothin’ to nobody” was how Yogi Berra memorably insisted on the Yankees’ innocence. But the bowlers and the crime reporters weren’t buying. Suspicion centered on Hank Bauer, the beefy right fielder. Edwin Jones was the hapless victim, a 42-year-old delicatessen owner (and lifelong Yankee fan) who contended that, as Harvey Aronson of Newsday wrote the next day, he’d gone “down like a tenpin” when Bauer socked him. Or it could have been the famously hotheaded Billy Martin, who was never far from trouble. But Joey Silvestri, now 88, says the ballplayers were in fact quite blameless. “There were no Yankees involved in the fight,” he said recently. “Nobody threw a punch but me.”

“I just knocked him dead with a left hook across the jaw, and broke it,” he said. “His head went into a big brick wall, so there was no give. When a boxer hits the canvas, you see his head bounce. But this guy didn’t bounce. And as he was sliding down, I hit him with the right hand between the eyes — boom! — and busted open his nose. And he was down and out.

“This fight wasn’t a fight,” he added. “It was two punches — over.”

More than merely innocent, Mr. Silvestri insists, the two prime suspects were actually heroes that night. Largely lost in the public memory is that the impetus for the fight was racial: Bauer and Martin had objected when the bowlers taunted Sammy Davis Jr. with epithets. Belatedly sensitized on such matters — the Yankees had integrated only two years earlier, when Elston Howard joined the team — they’d asked the bowlers to cool it, and when they didn’t, things quickly degenerated.

Athletes seem to always be at the vanguard of civil rights, as Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick attest. But heroism can also come in small helpings from unlikely sources. No one was more improbable than Martin, better known for going after Reggie Jackson in the dugout (or a marshmallow salesman in Minneapolis) than for fighting injustice. But that evening at the Copa at least, that’s what he and Bauer did.

“Hank Bauer and Billy Martin have always been maligned, when they’re really the good guys,” Mr. Silvestri said. “They were protecting Sammy Davis that night. If that happened today, they’d build a monument to them.”

Why come clean now, after all these years? Well, the Yankees involved are all dead. So is Pauly Pappas, as is the unlucky bowler, as is Mr. Podell, as are the mob figures for whom he fronted, who’d have been irked had he sung. Eighty-eight is a good age for setting records straight. Of course, he gets to tell it the way he wants — and frequently in the language of a Mickey Spillane novel. In fact, Mr. Silvestri published a memoir last year that touched briefly on the story. Few people seemed to notice.

He wants to make things right with Bauer, a decorated former Marine who died in 2007. Though Bauer was officially cleared of the charge, he never fully escaped suspicion (from Mantle’s wife, among others). “I was booked, fingerprinted and walked down the street with a detective,” he later said, “and it made me feel like a criminal.” The incident followed him around. One time Bauer ran into John F. Kennedy on the Washington-Boston train. “How’s everything at the Copa?” the young senator from Massachusetts shouted at him from across the club car.

Mr. Silvestri is more haunted still about Martin, the Yankees’ scrappy, overachieving second baseman. His punch, he knows, gave the Yankees’ imperious general manager, George Weiss, the excuse he’d long sought to unload Martin, who he felt was leading the young and impressionable Mantle — the future of the franchise — astray. The Yankees did perfectly well without Martin, winning yet another pennant that year, but Martin was never the same player out of pinstripes, and became even more self-destructive than he already was.

Violence was baked into the culture of the Copacabana, the Latin-themed nightspot at 10 East 60th Street, which for 20 years had been New York’s gaudiest. “The great battlefields include Bastogne, Verdun, Gettysburg, and the kitchens of the Copacabana,” wrote Leonard Lyons of The New York Post, who was there that night, and who, like Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen and other Broadway columnists, forever prowled the place for things to write, or at least things that wouldn’t keep them from getting comped.

It flowed from what Mr. Silvestri calls “the three B’s.” “Wherever there’s booze and broads, you’re gonna have brawls,” he said. More than manning the door, his job was “to maintain as much peace as we could,” he said, sometimes by throwing some prophylactic punches of his own. That was nothing new to Mr. Silvestri, who even in retirement on Long Island fondly recalls “a penchant for using my fists.”

“I’d been fighting since I’m 14 or 15 years old,” he said. “I had more fights than, say, Rocky Marciano, for cryin’ out loud.” He turned down more than one offer to box, he said; training camps weren’t for him. He preferred the more spontaneous brawling of the streets and around banquettes.

He began at the Copa a year earlier. He’d been interviewed by Jules Podell himself — “Mr. Podell,” he still calls him, nearly 50 years after his death — who hired him as a waiter, then promoted him, two days and one fistfight later, to “supervisor,” the term he favored over “bouncer.”

Mr. Podell gave him the most sensitive assignments, like standing alongside Joe DiMaggio as he dined. Or sitting on the stage when the young Tom Jones appeared, to keep women from throwing themselves at him. Whenever Frank Sinatra entered or exited, Joey and Pauly flanked him, locking their fists over his head like a tiara. Whenever Sinatra had to relieve himself, Joey went on ahead, chasing out anyone so he could have the place to himself.

When Sinatra had a girl waiting for him at the bar of the Hotel Fourteen next door, Joey escorted him there, too. But he turned down Sinatra’s offer to tour with him, and not just because he had a wife and two children at home. He’d heard Sinatra was mean to his help, and knew, too, that with his sense of justice, he wouldn’t have put up with it. Even for a tough guy, that could have proved perilous.

Though he’d hit it off with Sammy Davis Jr., Mr. Silvestri thought most celebrities were “phonies.” But ballplayers were “regular guys,” and Billy Martin, “super-regular.” Martin reminded him of himself. “He wouldn’t bother you,” he said. “But if you provoked him, you had to be prepared for a fight, and that’s the way I was all my life.” He liked Mantle even more. “Me and Mickey hit it off like we were soul brothers,” he said. Mantle, too, tried hiring him — to run his motel in Oklahoma — another job he’d turned down. “What am I going to do in Oklahoma?” he asked. “I didn’t even know where Oklahoma was.”

While Weiss, the Yankees’ general manager, considered Martin a bad influence on Mantle, Mr. Silvestri contends that he should have thanked Martin for giving the countrified center fielder a crash course in city sophistication. “Mickey learned a lot about life from Billy,” he said. “Billy made him a lot smarter and a lot hipper than he was.”

Mr. Silvestri knew the Yankees were first-class lushes. Though he didn’t drink himself, he’d sometimes accompany Martin and Mantle after closing time to the Harwyn Club on East 52nd Street, and watch them drink still more. And he wasn’t above trying to make a few extra bucks that way, informing bookie friends when the Bombers were bombed so they could bet against them on the afternoon game the next day. But so good were the Yankees of that era, both at holding their liquor and playing ball, that it rarely worked. “Mickey Mantle would hit two home runs, Hank Bauer would go three for four, Whitey Ford would throw a shutout,” he said. “How the hell could I do anything about that?

The six Yankees at the Copa (the other was the pitcher Johnny Kucks) and their five wives (Martin was still single) had started out the night of the brawl at Danny’s Hide-A-Way, a celebrity hangout on East 45th Street (dinner and drinks), then gone to the Waldorf Astoria (birthday cake and drinks) before reaching the Copa, where Davis was about to start his show.

When he came on, the bowlers started up with the vulgarities and racial slurs. Bauer and Martin told them to stop, and the war of words began. “A big, fat guy walked by and said, ‘Don’t trust your luck too far tonight, Yankee,’” Bauer later said, according to a bowdlerized account in The Washington Times. “I told him to” — and here the newspaper paraphrased, in brackets — “[perform an anatomically impossible act].”

Martin backed up Bauer, and when the bowler invited Martin to take it outside, well, as Mantle later said, “you don’t have to tell Billy but once.” The two headed toward the service entrance, their partisans in their wake. Having seen what was unfolding, the lounge manager, Murray Moskowitz, who was in on Joey’s secret that night but knew where he was hiding, went over and told him Pauly needed his help — urgently. For all his fears of being seen and maybe fired, he knew what he had to do. “How could I look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I hadn’t gone to Pauly’s aid, and he got hurt?” he asked.

He followed the drunken parties, installed Bauer (who lost sight of Martin and Mantle) in a chair, then caught up with the combatants. Shoving everyone else, Martin included, to the floor, he spotted one of the bowlers, Edwin Jones, about to sucker-punch Pauly — and unloaded. “I learned early in life, if you’re going to end up in a fight, you got to throw the first punch,” he said. “Those were two of the best punches I ever threw in my life,” he added, while noting that one of his was usually enough.

His job done, Joey took off: he couldn’t let Mr. Podell see him there, or risk arrest. He fled to Sammy Davis Jr.’s hotel room, waiting for Pauly to give him the all-clear. When the phone finally rang, though, it was Mantle — “drunk as a skunk” — on the line. “Oh, Joey, we just had a fight, you shoulda been here!” he gushed. In fact, says Mr. Silvestri, Mantle hadn’t been there himself. The mythologizing had begun.

The Yankees slipped out the rear door. Joey took the subway back to Astoria. Mr. Jones, meantime, went by ambulance to the hospital. And his brother headed to the East 51st police station, where he fingered Bauer — because, Mr. Silvestri speculates, he, too, was wearing a brown suit that night. The next day, pictures of Jones and his battered mug were in all the papers. “I really laughed, it’s sad to say,” Mr. Silvestri recalled. “I said, ‘Holy Christ, what happened to this guy?’”

The police reporters, who never got the chance to cover the sports stars, savored the novelty of a Yankees scandal. So, too, did their editors. “Yankees’ Bauer in Copa Brawl,” blared The Post.

“It broke a wall of silence — the omertà — of nearly half a century, where misbehavior went unreported,” said Marty Appel, a former public relations director for the Yankees and author of “Pinstripe Empire.” “With their travel tabs being picked up by the team, the beat reporters weren’t about to tattle.”

Like all the other Yankees there, Bauer denied any wrongdoing. “I only hit balls, and lately I haven’t been doing so well with that,” said Bauer, who was batting .203 at the time. “Guys like that have to be careful about fighting,” Ernest Hemingway told some visiting American journalists in Havana. “I used to cool a few fellows myself when I was young, but I haven’t hit anybody since I was solvent.”

At the Copa the next day, a mob friend asked Joey whether he’d been involved in the fracas. He gave the answer he thought the higher-ups would appreciate. “I don’t work Wednesday nights,” he said. When Mr. Podell asked the same thing, he got the same answer. The police, well-paid to stay out of the Copa’s internal affairs, never even questioned him.

But for Martin at least, the damage was done. His biographer, Bill Pennington, writes that after the game the following day Martin told Mantle he was returning to his hotel to start packing. “I’m gone, pard,” he said.

“But you didn’t do anything,” Mantle replied.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Martin.

And it didn’t: on June 15, only an hour short of the trading deadline, he was exiled to Kansas City. Ten days later, the case against Bauer went before the grand jury. The two Jones brothers and five Yankees testified; only Bauer, clutching his rosaries outside the room, wasn’t questioned.

Reprimanded for chewing bubble gum as he took the stand, Mantle apologized to the judge, then stuck it beneath his seat. “I was so drunk I didn’t know who threw the first punch,” he reportedly testified. “A body came flying out and landed at my feet. At first I thought it was Billy, so I picked him up. But when I saw it wasn’t, I dropped him back down. It looked like Roy Rogers rode through the Copa on Trigger and Trigger kicked the guy in the face.”

“Never there,” Mr. Silvestri said of Mantle’s account. “Ne-ver there.”

The case against Bauer was quickly dismissed; the grand jurors scurried around the Yankees for autographs.

Last year Mr. Silvestri published his memoir, written with Dennis N. Griffin, “A ‘Family’ Business: The Life and Times of Joey ‘The Fixer’ Silvestri.” In addition to a brief account of what happened at the Copa, it describes his many careers after leaving the nightclub in 1958, supplemented by doing extracurricular “favors” — like collecting debts — for friends. His fists retired in 2004, after decking a kid 50 years his junior who’d cut in line outside Grimaldi’s, the Brooklyn pizzeria Mr. Silvestri managed for a time. The rest of him retired two years later.

His book omits one important moment: his final encounter with Billy Martin. It came in December 1978, when Martin, between his first and second stints managing the Yankees, opened a Western-wear store on East 69th Street. Mr. Silvestri went to the launch party, but with trepidation: after all, he hadn’t seen or spoken to his old pal since that night at the Copa.

“I really, really didn’t know how he was going to react,” he recalled. “In my heart, in my heart, I didn’t think he’d say, ‘Hey, Joey! How are you? Give me a hug!’ But if I thought for one minute he would say, ‘Joe, come on, let’s shake hands,’ oh, man, I would have loved that.”

But the place was crowded, and he couldn’t get anywhere near Martin. So he gave up, turned around and walked out.
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63 Years Later / N.Y. Yankees / Copacabana / N.Y. Times 1 week 6 days ago #390325

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JSJ, thanks for posting this. Nice break from the current events.

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