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"At the Copa, Copacabana..."

Billy Martin
1953 Bowman Gum card of Billy Martin (US Public Domain)

No, this is not an article about Barry Manilow’s song--co-written with two others--about the famous Copacabana nightclub in New York City. In the 1978 lyrics, a brawl accompanied by a shooting broke out. Every time I hear the tune, however, I have to wonder if it is loosely based on a particular incident that had occurred in 1957 that has since been written and rewritten many times in different versions by many people and recounted by individuals who were there. Piecing the give-or-take details together, “The Copacabana Incident” went down something like this…

It all started when the New York Yankees finished playing a day game on May 15 against the Kansas City Athletics at Yankee Stadium in New York. While most of the ballplayers headed home to stay for the evening, a few others prepared for a much-anticipated evening out that had been arranged several days before. The event was the twenty-ninth birthday celebration for Billy Martin, their fiery second baseman, whose birthday was actually the next day, May 16. The attendees were catcher Yogi Berra, center fielder Mickey Mantle, right fielder Hank Bauer, pitchers Whitey Ford and Johnny Kucks, and the five wives, along with Martin, the only bachelor. The dressed-to-the-nines troop first met at a classy restaurant called Danny’s Hideaway in Manhattan for a late-dinner of steaks and drinks.

After that, they left for the Waldorf-Astoria to hear the popular Johnny Ray, who had two megahits that year--“Just Walking in the Rain” and “Cry.” There, they had a couple more drinks. With the night still young, they then headed over to the Copa, near Central Park, renowned for great food, A-List entertainers, and three shows a night at 8 P.M., 12 P.M., and 2 A.M. Missing the first two shows, the Yankee entourage arrived a few minutes early for the A.M. performance. The maître d’ set up a special table directly in the front for the Yankees to watch the talented Sammy Davis perform before a packed house of admirers at the “hottest club north of Havana,” as the Copacabana management promoted themselves--an actual line that Manilow sang in his song. Some in the Yankee group ordered more drinks, while others preferred coffee.

Trouble erupted when a congregation of 17 loud, intoxicated bowlers--celebrating an apparent victory of sorts--occupying two tables near the Yankee group started harassing Davis soon after he began his act. One of the bowlers--described as an obnoxious fat man to those there--kept standing up and taunting Davis with racial slurs. Each time he stood, Hank Bauer and one or two of his teammates told the bowler to sit down.

“Hey, we got our wives with us,” Bauer shouted across the floor. “You’re embarrassing them.”

One of the racial remarks was so bad that Davis stopped in mid-performance to reply to the bowling club, “I want to thank you very much for that remark. I’ll remember it.” Still the taunts continued. Davis stopped on another occasion, this time to ask the group to quiet down.

Adding to the mix, Bauer, a tough, ex-World War II South Pacific marine, told the loudmouth: “Shut the hell up or leave!”

“Yeah, make me shut up,” the bowler shot back.

Another drunk in the bowler group (that had now recognized the Yankee players), yelled over, “Don’t test your luck tonight, Yankee.”

Hank Bauer
Exhibit Card of Hank Bauer, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

The goading continued back and forth for another twenty minutes or so, until Billy Martin challenged the bowlers by yelling that the matter should be settled outside, so that the other customers could watch the show. Berra, Bauer, Mantle, and Martin all got up to leave, as did three or four bowlers, with the fat guy leading the way. They all strolled over to the nearest exit, away from the bright lights. Two Copa bouncers headed out also and got there before the players and other bowlers and roughed up the fat guy, enough to leave him bloody and in severe pain on the men’s’ room floor.

The Yankee group now decided that they had better vacate the joint in a flash, and were hustled out by the bouncers through the kitchen, down a passageway, and into the street. But, columnist Leonard Lyons of the New York Post saw it all, and he took the side of the bowlers based on what the fat guy (who ended up with a concussion and broken jaw) said. The guy informed Lyons--who had actually helped whisk the Yankees out of the place--that Hank Bauer was the one who punched him out.

All hell broke loose when the incident made the New York papers next day: In Lyon’s column, “The Lyon’s Den” under the headline “YANKEES BRAWL AT COPA,” while the Daily News had their front-page read “BAUER IN BRAWL IN COPA.” Other newspapers followed with their own catch-phrases. It seemed that the fat guy--a 40-year-old Bronx deli owner named Edwin Jones--was suing the players for a million dollars and the Copa for $250,000. Despite no absolute proof from Jones, Bauer, specifically, was charged with aggravated assault.

That morning through to early afternoon, Yankees GM George Weiss called all six Yankee culprits individually into his Yankee Stadium office for questioning. Bauer insisted he didn’t hit the guy, while Martin, Mantle, and Kucks said they didn’t see any punches thrown, just the guy laid out on the floor. When Berra was questioned, he answered Weiss, shrugging, “Nobody did nothing to nobody.” After the grilling, Weiss sent the players home to rest up the last few hours before for their night game at Yankee Stadium against Kansas City.

Mickey Mantle
Exhibit Card of Mickey Mantle, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

The story needs a little background here. Weiss never liked Billy Martin, a favorite of Casey Stengel who had managed Martin when they were with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast league in 1948. Furthermore, Weiss thought that Martin was nothing but a little smartass, a brawler, and a bad influence on Mickey Mantle, even though the star center fielder was the American League MVP in 1956, compliments of a Triple Crown, and was destined to be the MVP winner again in 1957. Besides, the Yankees won a pennant every year Martin played with them. When he spent 1954 in the Army, they finished second. And in 99 previous World Series at-bats, Martin hit .333, with five homers and 19 RBIs, in 28 games. So what bad influence was Weiss talking about?

A week later, on May 23, Yankees president and co-owner Dan Topping fined Johnny Kucks $500 (Kucks was the youngest and least-paid) and the others $1000 each for their behavior, a lot of money back then. Furthermore, Weiss suspected that Martin was the one who hit the bowler and that the other players were covering for him. Now that 21-year-old Bobby Richardson was coming along quite nicely offensively and defensively at the second base spot and seemed like the future, Martin was now expendable. On June 15, Weiss stunned the team and baseball world by trading Martin to the Kansas City Athletics in a seven-player deal, leaving Stengel nearly in tears from the departure of “his boy.”

Everyone involved in the Copa incident gave their side of the story before the Manhattan Grand Jury in the Criminal Courts Building in Lower Manhattan on June 24, 1957, almost two weeks after the Martin trade. Bauer was still facing his assault charge, and had been free all this time on no bail. When Mantle, the last player to testify, was asked by the District Attorney for his opinion on what had happened, Mantle replied, “I was so drunk I didn’t know who threw the first punch. 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.” The grand jury burst into laughter. Within the hour, the DA threw the case out for lack of evidence.

Ten days later, June 3, Bauer, with the assault charge behind him, turned around and sued Edwin Jones for false arrest, seeking $150,000 in damages. Jones backed away, and disappeared off the front pages forever. By season’s end, Dan Topping decided to return half the fine money to each of the players. The other half--according to Topping--evidently went for lawyer fees.

Did the Copa incident, subsequent fines, and Martin trade kick the stuffing out of the 1957 Yankees? Well, perhaps. The Yankees took their third successive American League pennant that fall, but lost the World Series to the Milwaukee Braves in seven games. But, they turned around and beat the Braves in seven games in 1958.


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