Phil Linz died last month, and I meant to write about it but did not. He was a baseball player that only baseball fans remembered, and fewer as time went on, yet he was deemed worthy of a long obituary in the New York Times, among other publications. There is a reason, and the reason ultimately reduces to a favorite topic here, moral luck. That, of course, isn’t mentioned in any of the obituaries.
I saw Phil Linz play many times. His New York Yankees team was the perennial pennant winner that dominated the American League from 1961 to 1964; Linz joined the team in 1962. By current day standards he was a terrible hitter, but he could play many positions well, and those Yankee teams were hardly short of offense. Still, utility infielders with light bats are usually fungible and forgettable. Baseball Reference.com lists the most similar players to Linz as Robert Andino, Augie Ojeda, Manny Alexander, Clyde Beck and Rusty Peters.
Unlike any of those nonentities, however, Linz had a moment of fame. On the afternoon of Aug. 20, 1964, the Yankees were riding the team bus to O’Hare after losing four straight games to the White Sox. Yankee manager Yogi Berra, seated in the front, was in a foul mood: the team was looking like it might finish in second place, something just not tolerated by Yankee management. Linz had recently bought a harmonica, and was practicing in the back of the bus by playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” over and over. Yogi couldn’t stand it, and shouted from his seat to Linz, “Shove that harmonica up!” Between the harmonica and the other noise, Linz didn’t know what his manager had said, so he asked the teammate sitting by him, Mickey Mantle, what Yogi had shouted. The Mick, who was a practical joke aficionado, told him that Berra wanted him to play louder. So Linz did.
Berra, thinking that the player was deliberately defying him, charged Linz, who dropped the instrument. The next day, even after apologizing to Berra, the low-paid aspiring musician was fined $250, nearly 2% of his income for the year. (If Mookie Betts, baseball’s current top salaries player, got a 2% fine, he would pay over six million bucks.)
The story of the harmonica uproar amused the New York sportswriters on the Yankee bus. They wrote about it, the Associated Press made it national newspaper fodder, comedians made jokes about it, and suddenly Phil Linz was famous. Two weeks later, Hohner, the harmonica company, paid Linz $10,000 to endorse its products. Although Linz would never reach the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, his harmonica did (above). In the end, Mickey Mantle’s joke worked out well for everyone.
It didn’t have to, however. Some managers with their team in a losing streak would have made an example of Linz, and released him, misunderstanding or not. Others—Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams comes to mind—would have put Linz in his “doghouse,” and refused to play him for weeks. Mantle, a superstar who could count on The King’s Pass, could have probably played the tuba on that bus without suffering any adverse consequences. Linz, as Mantle well understood, was barely holding on as a major league player. Berra might have gotten into a fight with Linz, as many managers had done with other players they regarded as disrespectful. The episode might have caused dissension on the team, even cost the Yankees their fifth straight trip to the World Series (and their last for twelve long years). It might not have been reported by the baseball writers. Maybe no one at Hohner would have thought up the stunt of using Linz’s gaffe as a marketing ploy.
Mickey Mantle’s thoughtless gag was not made after calculating the odds of any of this. He could have ruined Linz’s career, and hurt the Yankees. That he didn’t was pure moral luck. By purest chance, Mantle’s joke is viewed today as benign, and just a footnote in the Linz story
Incidentally, Mickey didn’t pay Linz’s fine.