Phil Linz, of Yanks harmonica fame, dies at 81

December 13th, 2020

Phil Linz, a light-hitting infielder who played on three Yankees pennant-winning teams but was best known for the "harmonica incident" that might have spurred them to the American League championship in 1964, has died. He was 81.

Linz made his Major League debut in 1962, after five years in the Minors, and recorded the highest batting average in his seven-year big league career (.287) in 129 at-bats, most of them filling in for an injured Clete Boyer at third base early in the season. He appeared in 72 games in '63 and a career-high 112 in '64. He played in all seven World Series games that year, following an injury to shortstop Tony Kubek, and hit two home runs, including one off Bob Gibson in a Game 7 loss to the Cardinals.

But by far, Linz is best remembered for what happened on the team bus on Aug. 20, 1964.

The Yankees, playing for first-year manager Yogi Berra, had just been swept in a four-game series in Chicago and sat in third place, 4 1/2 games behind the first-place White Sox. Here's what happened afterward, as described by teammate Jim Bouton in his epic 1970 bestseller, "Ball Four":

It was hot, we were tied up in Sunday traffic, we'd blown a doubleheader, we'd lost four or five in a row, we were struggling for a pennant and tempers were short. Linz was sitting beside me, stewing because he hadn't played, and all of a sudden he whipped out a harmonica he'd bought that morning and started playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The reason he played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was that it was the only song he knew how to play. He really played very respectfully and quietly; and if "Mary Had a Little Lamb" can sound like a durge, it did.

Yogi, who was in the front of the bus, stood up and said, "Knock it off."

Legend has it that Linz wasn't sure what Berra said, so he turned to Mickey Mantle and asked, "What'd he say?"

"He said play it louder," Mantle explained.

Linz didn't believe that. On the other hand he didn't stop. In a minute Yogi was in the back of the bus, breathing heavily and demanding that Linz shove that thing up his ass.

"You do it," Linz said, flipping the harmonica at him. Yogi swatted at it with his hand and it hit Pepitone in the knee. Immediately he was up doing his act called, "Ooooooh, you hurt my little knee." Pretty soon everybody was laughing, even if you're not supposed to laugh after losing, especially a doubleheader.

It was a Thursday, and the Yankees had played only one game that day, but nonetheless, because reporters had been on the bus, the story had been widely circulated by the time the team arrived in Boston for another four-game series. They dropped the first two games, but they soon went on a 23-6 run, going 30-13 the rest of the way to finish one game ahead of the White Sox and two ahead of the Orioles for the AL pennant. The incident was viewed by some as the turning point, both for the players and for Berra, who had been a longtime teammate of many of them (though it didn't save Berra's job; he was fired after the season).

“It looked like we were out of it. We figured Chicago and Baltimore couldn’t both go into slumps,” Boyer said in the book "Dog Days: The New York Yankees’ Fall from Grace and Return to Glory, 1964-1976."

For his part, Linz received a $10,000 endorsement deal from the Hohner harmonica company and was featured in a back-page ad in the 1965 Yankees yearbook that read, "Play it again, Phil." He reprised his harmonica playing in 2013 at the Baseball Assistance Team's annual dinner, during which Berra was honored.

"I've always been very conscious of the fact that it was disrespectful, even though I didn't realize what I was doing," Linz told the New York Daily News at that event. "I shouldn't have been playing a harmonica after a loss. I did apologize to Yogi and he fined me $250."

Linz was traded to the Phillies for Ruben Amaro following the 1965 season and then dealt to the Mets in '67. He finished his playing career in '68, having batted .235 with 11 homers and 96 RBIs in 519 games.

“If people remember me at all,” Linz told USA Today in 2013, “they remember me as a harmonica player, because I sure wasn’t too good of a baseball player.”