Sorry, Harvey

By Murray Chass

July 19, 2008

Once upon a time there was a television commercial for a brand of tuna fish that featured a talking fish. The punch line was “sorry, Charlie.”

But updating the line for these purposes, it’s “sorry, Harvey,” because Harvey Araton, a Sports of the Times columnist for The New York Times, wrote a fishy column. Well, the entire column wasn’t fishy, but one part of it was. In fact, it was fictional.

In a column about Dave Winfield and George Steinbrenner, Araton mentioned the 1981 World Series, in which Winfield had one hit in 22 at-bats. He wrote about “a bad performance by Winfield, a worse one by Steinbrenner.”

“I got rid of Mr. October,” Araton quoted Steinbrenner as saying of Jackson, “and got Mr. May.”

The problem is that’s not what Steinbrenner said, and, worse, when he said something similar he did it four years later.

Contrary to the belief of many people, Steinbrenner did not call Winfield Mr. May because of his poor performance in the 1981 World Series. He created Mr. May because of Winfield’s poor performance in a September series against the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985.

I know because Steinbrenner made the comment to me after plopping down in an empty seat next to me in the Yankee Stadium press box. The Yankees were in the process of losing their second of three games with the Blue Jays and tumbling three and a half games behind them.

Waving a sheet showing the poor series statistics of Winfield, Ken Griffey and Don Baylor, the owner said, ”Where is Reggie Jackson? We need a Mr. October or a Mr. September. Winfield is Mr. May. My big guys are not coming through. The guys who are supposed to carry the team are not carrying the team. They aren’t producing. If I don’t get big performances out of Winfield, Griffey and Baylor, we can’t win.”

Further evidence that Steinbrenner didn’t make his Mr. May remark about the 1981 World Series was Araton’s inclusion of Jackson in the purported quote. Araton had Steinbrenner lamenting the absence of Jackson, but Jackson was still with the Yankees in 1981. He had 4 hits in 12 at-bats in the World Series.

Araton is by far not the only reporter or columnist to believe Steinbrenner made the remark about the World Series. The incorrect timing of the owner’s comment has been a frequent misconception.

It’s like the popular misconception of the Yankees’ greatest distance behind the Red Sox in the 1978 division race. For some reason, people have often recalled it as 14 ½ games. It was 14. Not a big difference, but what was is better than what was imagined or remembered incorrectly.

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