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.