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Card Corner--Mick The Quick
2007-08-03 11:53
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.
 

We’re halfway through the ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, an engaging look at the circus-like 1977 Yankees amidst the backdrop of a decaying New York City. As visiting author Charlie Vascellaro told me over the weekend here in Cooperstown, "The series is over the top, but those 1977 Yankees were over the top, too. It’s just wonderfully entertaining."

Aside from George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson, the man who provided much of the comic relief for the ‘77 Yankees was the team’s center fielder, the free-swinging Mickey Rivers. Rivers was known by several nicknames, including "Mick the Quick," "The Chancellor," and his own creation, "Gozzlehead." Those nicknames referred to Rivers’ footspeed, his questionable intelligence, and his lack of physical beauty, respectively.

The legend of Mickey Rivers began during his college days at Miami-Dade Community College. During his days at Miami-Dade, Rivers popularized the custom of addressing everyone as "Gozzlehead." It was a habit that Rivers had acquired while growing up in the Miami area. Although no direct translation exists for the word, Gozzlehead usually referred to someone who was physically unattractive. Rivers also came up with alternative words to Gozzlehead, such as "Warplehead" and "Mailboxhead."

While at Miami-Dade, Rivers emerged as one of the stars of the baseball team, but suddenly went AWOL just moments before the start of one particular game. His teammates and coaches later discovered his where he had gone. Rivers had fallen asleep under a nearby tree, in full uniform no less, making him an updated version of Casey Stengel. That was classic Rivers—and a sign of things to come.

Rivers eventually brought his unusual habits and greetings to the major leagues. Drafted and signed by the Atlanta Braves’ organization in 1969, Rivers never did make it to the Braves, sparing the likes of Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro from having to deal with a most unusual teammate. In September of 1969, the Braves traded him to the California Angels, for whom he made his big league debut in 1971. Arriving in Southern California, Rivers brought with him an unusual style of walking toward home plate. Stooped over like an old man, Rivers hobbled from the on-deck circle toward the batter’s box, his feet appearing to be in extreme pain with each step. Rivers’ staggering walk toward the plate belied his true footspeed; in the early 1970s, some observers considered Mick the Quick the fastest runner in the game. It wasn’t until Willie Wilson made his debut for the Kansas City Royals that Rivers would have to relinquish the crown as baseball’s fastest man.

After the 1975 season, the Angels traded Rivers to the Yankees. The timing could not have been better for Rivers, what with the Yankees about to win three consecutive American League pennants. Rivers fit smoothly into a volatile Yankee environment that came to be known as the "Bronx Zoo." Though not as controversial as some of his teammates, Rivers sure had his fair share of moments. He liked to bet on horses at the racetrack. As depicted in The Bronx Is Burning, he often tried to borrow money from more financially stable teammates, including Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent. During the 1978 season, the Yankees actually removed the telephone from the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium in order to prevent Rivers from calling in his bets to the track. Still, Rivers managed to lose large sums of money on the horses.

Sometimes the financial defeats at the horse track left Rivers so upset that he failed to hustle on the field. At other times, he simply felt too depressed to play. Word of Rivers’ depression would circulate the clubhouse until it eventually reached the office of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. "The Boss" would then slip some money into a white envelope and have it delivered to Rivers, whose depression would give way to a renewed enthusiasm in playing that day. Those "white envelopes" became an infamous part of Yankee lore in the 1970s.

Such payments, which actually represented advances in his salary, usually maintained Rivers’ presence in the lineup. An exception almost took place in the fifth and final game of the 1977 American League Championship Series against the Royals. Prior to the game, Rivers remained in the trainer’s room, refusing to play after Yankee general manager Gabe Paul had turned down his latest request for a salary advance. Rivers would have missed the game, if not for some last minute negotiating by backup catcher Fran Healy. (Healy was just about Jackson’s only friend on the 1977 Yankees, a role for which he should have received double his normal salary.) Ever the peacemaker, Healy convinced Rivers to play. That was a good thing, since Rivers ended up delivering the game-winning run with a crucial single in the ninth inning.

When Rivers wasn’t sulking about his sinking financial situation, he was offering his own unique perspective on life with the Yankees. He particularly liked to agitate Jackson, who had the largest ego of any player on the team. When Jackson bragged about having an IQ of 160, Rivers couldn’t resist taking a jab. "Out of what? A thousand? You can’t even spell IQ." Rivers’ remark thrilled teammates and became a memorable moment in the legend and lore of the Bronx Zoo.

Rivers’ tenure in the Bronx produced other classic quotations. One of his most famous occurred when he tried to explain the dynamics of the Yankees, who featured a controversial owner in Steinbrenner and a contentious manager in Billy Martin. "Me and George and Billy," Rivers said, "we’re two of a kind."

Ultimately, Rivers’ lapses in hustle and his frequent lateness resulted in his being traded. Even after his Yankee days, Rivers remained an entertainingly colorful character, becoming a popular member of a free-spirited group of Texas Rangers. An avid participant in card games, Rivers served as the unofficial "dealer" in the Rangers’ clubhouse. He also liked to challenge his teammates to impromptu 40-yard dashes. Even in his thirties, the fleet Rivers won most of those races.

In the spring of 1983, the Rangers released the aging Rivers, which proved to be an unpopular decision with many of his teammates. "He made bad days livable," said Buddy Bell, the Rangers’ starting third baseman. Mick the Quick also made those 1977 Yankees a bit more loveable at a time when people like Jackson, Steinbrenner, and Martin were awfully hard to like.

 

Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books, including The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pirates. He also writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. Bruce lives in Cooperstown, NY, with his wife Sue and their daughter Madeline.

Comments
2007-08-03 12:49:56
1.   JL25and3
One of my all-time favorites, and with the unlikely name of John Milton Rivers. (Belongs on a team with "Percy Bysshe" Shelley Duncan.) Rivers was one of the best high-ball hitters I've seen, rivalling Alfonso Soriano; Mick didn't have Sori's power, but he regularly hit line drive singles on eye-level pitches. When he missed a pitch, he had a better, much faster bat flip than Leyritz. He covered a huge amount of ground in center - I have a vivid image of him running like hell, back to the plate, and suddenly just flipping his glove hand up to snag the ball. His arm was awful, but he partly compensated with a quick, accurate release - a very idiosyncratic way of throwing, all arm and no body.

No shortage of great Rivers quote. He also told Jackson, "Reginald Martinez Jackson...you've got a white man's first name, a Spanish man's second name and a black man's third name. No wonder you are so mixed up." That's how it's always quoted, anyway, though I doubt those were quite the words Mick used. Talking about Danny Napoleon (though I'm not sure why): "He's so ugly, when you walked by him your pants wrinkle. He's so ugly he made fly balls curve foul." In spring training one year: "My goals are to hit .300, score 100 runs, and stay injury-prone."

I loved the guy.

2007-08-03 13:13:36
2.   Schteeve
The first time I ever heard the word "suck" used to describe something or someone in a negative way was when one of my friends in 3rd grade said "Mickey Rivers sucks until he's blue in the face."
2007-08-03 13:17:02
3.   MainLineYankee
What a great article, and great memories, too. I especially remember the hobbling. You would never think he could get out of the batter's box. Those Yankees were characters but they were scary and they knew they were better than everyone else.
2007-08-03 13:55:10
4.   Alex Belth
Yeah, that is a great line, except Mickey didn't say "messed up." I also like when Reggie said he had an IQ of 160 and Rivers said, "Yeah, out of a thousand?"

Rivers would be a guy who would be KILLED today. Forget about the fact that he mailed it in too often, but can you imagine the uproar in New York if a guy who walked that infrequently was leading off (and who didn't have the pop that Soriano had)?

2007-08-03 15:07:52
5.   Cliff Corcoran
4 1978 OBP: .302. Ouch.

He was great for them in '77 (.326/.350/.439), but despite that speed he was meat on the bases (only 61% successful).

His best season for the Yanks was actually '76: .312/.327/.432, which was a 123 OPS+ that year (higher than his OPS+ in '77, believe it or not), and 86% on the bases. Mick was an All-Star (only time in his career) and third in the MVP vote in 1976 (behind only Thurman, who won it, and George Brett).

Hard to believe those were his only full seasons with the Yanks.

2007-08-03 15:50:58
6.   joe in boston
What a great article - thanks Bruce. It deserves more than 6 responses !
2007-08-03 15:57:39
7.   joejoejoe
I loved Mickey Rivers as a kid. The bat flip, the triples, the nickname - he was the coolest player on the team. I idolized Guidry, mythologized Munson ("the Captain of the Yankees") but with Rivers it all about fun. In looking up some of Mickey's quotes on Google I found he co-authored a book in 2003 'Ain't No Sense Worryin': The Wisdom of Mick "the Quick" Rivers'. It looks fun and used copies are available for about six bucks on Amazon.
2007-08-04 03:04:15
8.   tidrowsmustache
I seem to remember another tic of his where he'd combine the bat flip with some hilarious near-spastic movement of his mouth wherein he'd bear his teeth and his mouth would open wide and shut rapidly, like a ventriloquist's dummy's mouth with the strings tangled. I know I didn't imagine this as I remember my sibling's cracking up alongside me.

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