From his humble roots in Miami, Mickey Rivers made it to the big leagues and ultimately played an important role in the Yankees' success of the late 1970s.
The Yankees acquired "Mick the Quick" and pitcher Ed Figueroa in a December 1975 trade with the California Angels that sent outfielder Bobby Bonds to the West Coast. After an All-Star season in 1976, Rivers batted .326 during the '77 regular season. The consummate tablesetter, Rivers consistently put the team in position to score, while striking out just 45 times that season.
The 5-foot-10 center fielder came up big in the 1977 American League Championship Series, particularly when his team's back was up against the wall. With the Yankees trailing the Kansas City Royals 2 games to 1 in the best-of-five series, Rivers' leadoff double began a four-hit performance in a huge 6-4 win. In the winner-take-all Game 5, Rivers drove in the tying run in the top of the ninth and later came around to score an insurance run in the Yankees' 5-3 victory.
Rivers kept it going in the Fall Classic, sparking the Yankees' offense in a Game 3 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles with three hits, two of which were doubles.
Rivers sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III for lunch at The Todd English Food Hall at The Plaza Hotel and posed for photos in the hotel's iconic Oak Room.
What are your memories of coming to The Plaza -- and the famous Oak Room -- when you played for the Yankees?
We would come down here and enjoy ourselves. We would have dinner here and then go out after that. It was expensive, but they always took care of us because we were Yankees. There's a lot of history in the Oak Room, and there are definitely some ghosts in there.
Before you played for the Yankees, what did you think of the organization's great tradition?
My greatest thrill was meeting Yogi Berra when I was growing up. Back then, it was unheard of for black kids to get a chance to meet baseball heroes like Yogi. But when I was about 13 years old, Yogi came down to Florida to do a Yoo-hoo commercial. I got a chance to talk to him, and that was amazing. Later on, when I was at Miami-Dade College, I was lucky enough to meet Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and even Joe DiMaggio. Those guys used to work out right by where I went to school, and a lot of times, I was out there on the field with them. They were great guys, especially Mickey and Roger, who would tell it like it is. They would tell me exactly what I was doing wrong, and that was cool. So I figured out what that Yankees history was about from people reacting to me telling them I had met those great players. Right there, I knew they were the best team.
What did you think about coming to New York in 1975?
I didn't like the idea at first. But once I got to know guys like Thurman Munson and Roy White, I started to feel good about being with the Yankees. When I first got here, my wife was still teaching in Cleveland, so I was living out of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. One day, Thurman asked me if I wanted to park my car in a spot that he had reserved. I didn't know why I needed to move my car from the lot I had it in. And he said, "Just wait until you get the bill." He was right; it was very expensive. But having guys like him look out for me made me feel better about being in New York. Gene "Stick" Michael also spent time with me. He asked me to go to a bunch of schools and hospitals to visit kids in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem, and he also invited me to a bunch of other functions and dinners with him. He made me realize how important it was to spend time with kids in those areas and motivate them to do the right thing.
How did you like your team's chances to get back to the World Series in 1977 following the loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 Fall Classic?
I knew we were going to win. I told Mr. Steinbrenner that on the plane ride back to New York following the 1976 World Series. I promised him that we were not only going to go back to the World Series in '77, but that we were going to win it.
What made you so confident?
We had the team. Then, we added Reggie [Jackson]. He could hit the ball out of the park in any at-bat, and we didn't have a threat like him before that season. That was the one thing we were missing, but we already had so many great players. Everyone we played was scared to face Sparky Lyle, so if we were winning late in games, we knew it was all over.
What was that first spring training with Reggie Jackson on the team like in '77?
Well, we had a group of guys that always stuck together. No one was going to get in between the group of guys we had on that team. If you weren't in that clique, it didn't matter how good you were. When Reggie got there, he didn't bond with the guys. He was a superstar, so I guess he felt like he didn't have to do that. We all got on each other, but that made everyone better. We would rip each other because we loved each other. But we also had each other's backs. Reggie couldn't do that with the guys. We couldn't get on him if he had a bad at-bat. People took offense to how separate he was from the rest of us, especially when we all got together. I think Reggie tried to fit in after that.
How excited were you when the Yankees made the trade for your childhood friend, Bucky Dent, in April of '77?
It was great to see my home guy come to the team. We met each other when we were kids, and he and his family always meant a lot to me. They were great people. They would take me fishing when we were growing up. When Bucky started playing football, the schools in Hialeah, Fla., weren't even integrated yet, and I wasn't able to join the team because I was black. That's what I wanted to do because it was my dream to play for the Miami Dolphins. Bucky's family made sure that I could get onto the same baseball team as him. Bucky's family bought me the books I needed for college. They got me a job in the school, and they gave me some money when I needed it. We had a strong bond from the time we were young, and it carried over through the time we were on the Yankees together. We went through the good and the bad together, and he's still my homey.
What were your impressions of Billy Martin?
Billy was great to play for. All you had to do was go out there and play hard. If we did that, he was OK with whatever happened on the field, even if we lost. He was great at motivating the bad players, guys who had bad attitudes.
What was your role on that '77 team?
My job on that team was to get on base early in the game and manufacture the first run. If I got on base in the first inning, the guys who came up behind me could drive me in. With the type of starting pitchers we had, that one run could hold up until the fifth or sixth inning. The other teams didn't want me to get on base.
Like so many of your teammates, you played really well in the last two months of the regular season, hitting safely in 41 of your final 49 games. Why do you think it came together for you and your teammates at that time?
We were ready to win. If we were going to make something special out of that season, a lot of us needed to step up. I really wanted to step up because I didn't do anything good in the '76 World Series against Cincinnati. I felt like if I had played even a little better, they never would have swept us. I really wanted to get back to the World Series and redeem myself in '77.
How tough was the Kansas City Royals team that your team faced in the ALCS?
Kansas City had the best team at that time, but we knew we could beat them when we had to. If we played them in the regular season, they would kill us, but when it came down to it, we made sure we played hard enough to beat them.
That series came down to the last inning of the decisive Game 5. What do you remember as you got ready to step up to the plate for the at-bat in which you tied the game?
We knew we could come back in that situation. I just felt like it was our time to shine. Before I walked out of the dugout, I said, "I'll get you guys a hit. I'll get you a run."
What was your mindset going into the '77 World Series?
I had made my mind up that I was going to get it done in that World Series. My teammates depended on me to set the table. I told my teammates that I wasn't going to let them down. I had to get a cortisone shot because my leg was hurting before Game 4 in Los Angeles. I laid down on the training table before that game and didn't take batting practice. I just needed to relax, but I told Billy that I would be ready.
What do you remember from the night you won the World Series?
We hung out at the Sheraton off of Route 17 in New Jersey. Mr. Steinbrenner had a party for us, and we had a great time. We really enjoyed all that we had worked for that season.
Looking back, what does it mean to have won two championships with the Yankees?
From where I came from, I could never have dreamed of that. But I had good people who helped me along the way. The Yankees are the best family in baseball, and I'm so happy to be part of it. It really started for me when I got to meet those legends down in Florida. I felt like I became part of the family when a few of them took me out for a few beers, and I'm still part of the family today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.