Oh, that night," Carmen Berra said, recalling Billy Martin's 29th birthday, the last one before you get old. On May 16, 1957, Mantle and Whitey Ford had planned a night on the town with Martin. Lucille and Gil McDougald were invited but had made other plans. Arlene and Elston Howard couldn't get a babysitter. Teammates Andy Carey and Jerry Coleman were also invited. "Who's coming?" Coleman asked. Hearing the guest list, he said, "I think I'll pass."
Bob Cerv and Irv Noren, former teammates in town with the Kansas City A's, joined Carmen and Yogi Berra, Joan and Whitey Ford, Charlene and Hank Bauer, Merlyn and Mickey Mantle, Yankees pitcher Johnny Kucks and Martin for dinner at Danny's Hideaway, where the birthday boy was toasted often and liberally. When everyone else headed to the Waldorf-Astoria for an after-dinner drink or two and Johnnie Ray's 10:30 p.m. show, Cerv and Noren went home to bed.
The pastry chef at the Waldorf had baked a birthday cake, which the Yankees took with them when they decided to go hear Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copacabana. The Copa was a mainstay of New York café society, the nightspot for "stay-outs" and "their pin-ups." It was just off Central Park, at 10 East 60th Street, a sober limestone apartment building with a decorous burgundy awning that gave no hint of the Latin attitudes and latitudes prevailing in the basement. The Copa was the only club in town that bragged "three shows a night, seven nights a week, at 8, 12 and again at 2" and billed itself as "the hottest club north of Havana."
The Yankees and their baked goods arrived in time for the 2 a.m. show. Jules Podell, who ruled the club with an iron fist and a massive gold pinkie ring, was a Yankees fan. "They put a special table for us up front," Carmen said. "We were the kings and queens of New York."
Being of regal stature meant you could disappear below the city streets into a fantasy world (capacity: 670) populated with boldfaced names and the gossip columnists who lavished ink on them. Leonard Lyons, Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Dorothy Kilgallen mingled with talent scouts, casting agents, sports stars and the wise-guy colleagues of the club's very silent owner, mob boss Frank Costello.
Also celebrating that night, at two large tables near the Yankees, were members of an upper Manhattan bowling club, the Republicans, who had begun their evening with dinner at Mama Leone's. There were 19 in their party, among them Edwin Jones, 42, of 600 West 188th Street, a Yankees fan who went over to pay his respects to the players and draped a familiar arm over Martin's shoulder.
What happened after that would remain a matter of dispute. One thing everyone agreed on: They had all had a lot to drink. Words were exchanged between the two parties, and between the bowlers and the stage. And then there were fisticuffs, as reported by eyewitness Leonard Lyons in his column in the New York Post. "The great battlefields include Bastogne, Verdun, Gettysburg and the kitchen of the Copacabana," Lyons wrote. "The nightclub fracas ... was preceded by a racial slur, directed at Sammy Davis Junior's farewell show."
"They were calling Sammy Davis Jr. Little Black Sambo," Merlyn Mantle told me in the summer of 2009. "Four guys came to his aid. They asked the [bowlers] to tone it down."
Hank Bauer, the Yankees' rightfielder, said, "We've got ringside seats, great big round table, and we're drinking B&B and coffee. And this big fat Jewish guy came walking by me." Bauer assumed he was Jewish because he owned a deli.
"He was at a bowling party. He said, 'Don't test your luck too far tonight, Yankee.' I give him my best vocabulary: two words. And now he's down at the end of the table, him and his son-in-law, I think it was. The son-in-law went back to the men's room."