Obituary: Phil Linz (1939-2020)

RIP to Phil Linz, who became one of the most famous utility infielders in baseball thanks to an off-field incident involving, of all things, a harmonica. He died on December 9 at the age of 81. Friend, former teammate and former business partner Art Shamsky broke the news on Twitter, calling Linz “a terrific player & even more importantly a great friend.” The Baltimore Sun reported that Linz had been in poor health since suffering a stroke five years ago. Linz played for the New York Yankees (1962-65), Philadelphia Phillies (1966-67) and New York Mets (1967-68).

Philip Francis Linz was born in Baltimore on June 4, 1939. Linz played on a number of baseball teams in his youth, from Gordon’s Stores’ amateur team to the Sacred Heart “midget” team to Calvert Hall, a private college prep high school in Baltimore. He hit in the .430s in his final two years there and was named to the All-Maryland Scholastic Association baseball team in June of 1957, the same year he graduated from high school. He immediately signed with the New York Yankees, who beat out a few other teams to sign the 18-year-old shortstop. While not a slugger, he was considered an excellent defensive shortstop.

The hometown Orioles were not interested in Linz, but they had some inside information. “The reason the Orioles didn’t sign me is that their scout, Walter Youse, also my coach at Calvert Hall, was the only one who knew I couldn’t see. I’m about 20-50. But I didn’t wear glasses then because I was vain,” Linz later explained. He eventually donned his signature glasses once he reached the minors.

Linz adjusted slowly to professional baseball, batting .230 for the Class-D Kearney Yankees of the Nebraska State League. After that, he adapted fairly quickly and batted in the .280s or higher for most of his time in the minors. His power never really developed, as he never hit more than 6 home runs in a single season in the minors. His defense at shortstop wasn’t particularly good either; considering he became a pretty fair fielder in the majors, his low, low fielding percentages could be chalked up to his inexperience or shoddy minor-league infields.

Yankees manager Ralph Houk (top) with his sluggers Joe Pepitone (left) and Phil Linz. Linz is holding the baseball from his first MLB hit — a 2-run homer.

Linz hit .283 for Auburn, another Class-D team in the New York-Penn League, in 1958, and was brought up to the Class-A Binghamton Triplets as a reinforcement for the playoffs. He promptly cracked a home run in the first game of the playoff series against Lancaster — it was the first homer he hit all season. He also drove in the go-ahead runs of the championship-winning game with a bases-loaded single.

Linz worked his way through the low minors, hitting .321 for Greenshoro of the Carolina League in 1960. Technically, he was at .3207, which gave him the Carolina League batting title by .0002 points over the runner-up. Linz moved up to AAA Birmingham in 1961, but he was on the same team as up-and-coming shortstop Tom Tresh, who took much of the playing time. Linz moved to third base to accommodate him but struggled with the bat, so he was moved down to the Amarillo Gold Sox, a AA team, where he could play shortstop every day. He hit .349 there to win his second straight batting title and a trip to the major leagues.

Linz and Tresh spent the 1962 spring training to see who would take the starting shortstop job and replace Tony Kubek, who was away in the military. Tresh won the job and moved to left field when Kubek returned to claim his starting role. With an infield that also included Moose Skowron, Bobby Richardson and Clete Boyer, Linz filled in whenever he was needed, including a couple of games in right field. Most of his action came as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner, though. Of his 71 games, he only played in the field in 35 of them. After spending most of the first month coming off the bench to either hit or run for a teammate, Linz entered a game against the Kansas City A’s on May 23 when third baseman Boyer was hit on the wrist by a Dan Pfister pitch and had to leave the game. Linz hit a 2-run homer off Pfister in the seventh inning for his first MLB hit and also rapped a 2-run single off Bob Grim in the eighth inning. The Yankees won 13-7 and Linz drove in 4 of those runs with his 2 hits. He finished the year with a .287 average, with 14 RBIs and 37 hits in 136 plate appearances. He did not play in the World Series, which the Yankees won over the San Francisco Giants..

The 1963 season was more of the same. Linz was a man without a position and subbed in where he was needed. He batted .269 in 72 games. He tried to ditch his eyeglasses for contact lenses, but he struggled with them. “Maybe I was seeing the ball too good,” he reasoned. “They told me they would improve my vision. But all these years I’ve been accustomed to hitting a pea. All of a sudden I was seeing a grapefruit.”

Phil Linz lounges in actress Julie Newmar’s bed. He and a couple of friends subleased her apartment while she was in Europe for six months. Source: The Baltimore Sun, September 20, 1964.

The Yankees again won the AL pennant but were swept in the ’63 World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Linz made three pinch-hit appearances and singled off Sandy Koufax in Game Four.

Linz’ 1964 season was notable for two things. For one, he played in a career-high 112 games, and though his batting average was just .250, he reached career highs in pretty much every offensive category, including doubles (21), home runs (5), RBIs (25), runs scored (63) and hits (92). And then, there was the harmonica thing. The following is pieced together from contemporary reports and the Baltimore Sun‘s account in Linz’s obituary.

It was in Chicago on August 20. The Yankees had just been swept by the White Sox in a 4-game series, leaving them mired deeper in third place in the AL. On the bus to the airport, Linz, seated toward the back, decided to take out the harmonica he had just bought and try to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Ordinarily, treating teammates to a beginner harmonica concert after a 4-game sweep might not be the best decision, but Linz was pretty free-spirited (teammate Jim Bouton called him a nut — affectionately, I think). Sure enough, after a couple of toots, manager Yogi Berra turned around and shouted, “Put that thing back in your pocket!”

Linz didn’t hear Berra clearly and asked Mickey Mantle, seated nearby, what the manager said.

“Play it louder,” Mantle replied. So Linz did, and Berra rushed to the back of the bus, slapped the harmonica out of Linz’s hand, and said, “I said to put it away! You think you just won four straight.” Linz protested, saying that he gave 100% on the field and should be able to do what he wanted off the field. “I’ll take care of you,” Berra warned before heading back to his seat. Yankees Coach Frankie Crosetti, who called it the “worst incident” he had seen in his 33 years with the team, chewed out Linz as well until the infielder told him to stay out of the argument.

As some point, Mantle picked up the harmonica and told Whitey Ford that he was going to take over the team once Berra got fired. “Mickey says, ‘Whitey, you’re going to be my first base coach and here’s the sign for the hit-and-run,’ and he toots the harmonica once. Then he says here’s the bunt sign and toots twice,” said eyewitness Kubek. That eased up the tension.

General manager Ralph Houk traveled from Boston just to meet with Berra and Linz in New York. Linz was fined $200 but not suspended. Elston Howard said that the whole mess “might light a fire under is, might shake us up. On the other hand, it could hurt the team. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The Yankees went on a hot streak and jumped into first place by mid-September. They finished with 99 wins and the AL pennant. Linz got a $5,000 endorsement deal from harmonica-maker Hohner, so he ended up $4,800 ahead. Houk later gave him $200 for music lessons, which he never took. Berra, showing that all was forgiven, made Linz the starting shortstop in the World Series because Kubek had a sprained wrist. He hit .226 as the leadoff hitter in the seven-game loss to the Cardinals, but he hit two solo home runs off Barney Schultz and Bob Gibson.

Linz takes a practice swing in front of a mirrored wall at Newmar’s apartment. The broken panel was from when he swung a little too hard. Source: The Baltimore Sun.

By the end of the season, Linz was the most famous utility infielder in baseball. Along with the endorsement deal, he commanded good fees as a speaker on the winter banquet circuit. “I sure get a lot of publicity for doing nothing,” he quipped. “I’m even a sub in the winter. When Elston Howard can’t make a banquet appearance, they ask me.”

Linz had his routine down and would break out his harmonica again for laughs at those dinners. He learned just enough to play a couple lines of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” “One thing about Berra, he isn’t a music lover,” he would quip.

Linz made the most of his time in New York City. He, Mets pitcher Tracy Stallard and another friend subleased a penthouse apartment in New Yotk’s East Side from actress Julie Newmar. Soon after moving in, Linz was practicing his swing in front of a mirrored wall with what was described in the newspaper as an “African voodoo stick belonging to Julie” when he smashed one of the mirrored panels. Newmar stopped by the apartment, saw the damage and said, “Boys will be boys. But don’t forget to get it fixed.” It cost Linz another $250 of his harmonica money to replace the panel.

Unfortunately, Linz’s productivity couldn’t keep up with his popularity. He hit .207 in 1965 and was traded after the season to the Philadelphia Phillies for infielder Ruben Amaro. Linz was in the process of opening a restaurant in New York City called Mr. Laffs when he got the news.

Linz couldn’t find much playing time in Philadelphia, with the likes of Dick Groat, Cookie Rojas, Tony Taylor and Dick Allen in the infield. In a season and a half with the team, he appeared in a total of 63 games and hit .205 in 88 at-bats. He was traded in July of 1967 for second baseman Chuck Hiller. At least he went out with a bang — his last hit with the Phillies was a pinch homer against the Cardinals. When he left the team, he had more RBIs (5) than hits (4).

Linz and Berra were reunited with the New York Mets, where Berra was a coach when Linz was a second baseman.

Linz played a little more with the Mets, as their regular second baseman Jerry Buchek was hitting for a low average. However, he couldn’t get his own batting average much higher than .200 either. He was released by the Mets at the end of 1967 but rejoined them in ’68. He still wanted to play ball, and — more importantly — his partner at Mr. Laffs thought it would be good for business. Linz Spent 1968 as the right-handed half of a second base platoon with Ken Boswell. He batted .209 in 78 games in his final season in the major leagues. Rather than go back down to the minor leagues, the 29-year-old opted to retire instead.

In seven seasons in the majors, Linz slashed .235/.295/.311, with 185 hits that included 64 doubles, 4 triples and 11 home runs. He had 96 RBIs, stole 13 bases and was caught an equal number of times. He had a .952 fielding percentage at shortstop, .967 at second base and .958 at third base. He also played in 22 games in the outfield and never made an error at and of the three positions.

Linz said he wanted to last five years in the majors, so he beat his goal by a couple of seasons. He jokingly blamed Kubek for his shortened career. “He got hurt once and I had to play five weeks. By the last week, I was going downhill,” he said.

Linz owned and operated Mr. Laffs for 23 years, as well as a couple of other restaurants in New York. He and Shamsky were partners in a discotheque called The Marshmallow. Linz and his family moved to Stamford, Conn., in 1978, and he worked for a title insurance company.

In a 1966 Dick Young column in the Daily News, it was revealed that the original Linz harmonica that was knocked out of his hand by Berra ended up with Whitey Ford. When Linz asked for it back, Ford said, “Nothing doing. My kids always play it, and I tell them to leave it alone. It’ll be worth a lot of money some day.”

For more information: Baltimore Sun

12 thoughts on “Obituary: Phil Linz (1939-2020)

  1. I grew up with Phil i was four years younger we use to have choose up games when were kids, he would choose me for his team.
    My sister had a crush on him in the 8th grade at Sacred Heart of Jesus school in Highlandtown.
    i use to watch him play for Johnny’s at Patterson Park. Phil was one of the players to make it to the big leagues, besides Al Kaline.
    He was just a great guy i went to see him play when he was with the Mets.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phil was at our annual autograph show in Waterloo, Iowa in 2014. A great guest and an even better person. I enjoyed hearing all the stories about his Yankee days, especially the harmonica incident. I remember his flight being canceled and we drove him to Cedar Rapids to catch another flight and he was so appreciative. Will remember Phil fondly always. In our thoughts and prayers! RIP


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