I wonder if anybody in baseball has ever referred to Mickey Rivers by his given first and middle names of “John Milton.” Somehow, I doubt it. That omission is probably appropriate, since Rivers was never as well versed in the English language as the famed British poet, not by several longshots. Rivers was a lot more entertaining, however, at least to those accustomed to the offbeat and childlike humor of a baseball clubhouse.
The legend of Mick the Quick began during his amateur days at Miami-Dade Community College. An exceedingly fast and athletic outfielder, Rivers emerged as one of the stars of the baseball team, but suddenly went AWOL just moments before the start of a game. His teammates and coaches later discovered his whereabouts. Rivers had fallen asleep under a nearby tree—in full uniform no less.
During his days at Miami-Dade, Rivers popularized his custom of addressing everyone as “Gozzlehead,” a word that came out of Mickey’s fertile imagination. It was a habit that Rivers had acquired while growing up in the Miami area. Although no direct translation exists for the word, Gozzlehead usually referred to someone who was physically unattractive. Rivers also came up with alternative words such as “Warplehead” and “Mailboxhead.” Like John Milton, Rivers had found a way to stretch the limits of the English language.
Rivers eventually brought his unusual greetings and habits to the major leagues. Drafted and signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1969, Rivers never did make it to Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, depriving the likes of Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro of a most unusual teammate. In September of 1969, the Braves traded Rivers to the California Angels as part of a deal for Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm.
Making his major league debut with the Angels in 1971, Rivers brought with him an unusual style of walking toward home plate. Stooped over like an old man, Rivers hobbled from the on-deck circle toward the batter’s box, his feet appearing to be in extreme pain with each step. Rivers’ staggering walk toward the plate belied his true foot speed; in the early 1970s, some observers considered Mick the Quick the fastest runner in the game. It wasn’t until Willie Wilson debuted for the Kansas City Royals in 1976 that Rivers would have to relinquish the crown as baseball’s fastest man.
After the 1975 season, the Angels traded Rivers and right-hander Ed Figueroa to the Yankees in a blockbuster deal for Bobby Bonds. The timing could not have been better for Rivers, who was joining a Yankee franchise on the verge of three consecutive American League pennants. The Yankees installed Rivers as their starting center fielder and leadoff man. Not only did Rivers make his first and only All-Star Game appearance in 1976, but he also fit smoothly into an unstable Yankee universe that earned the nickname of “Bronx Zoo” from pitcher-turned-author Sparky Lyle.
Though not as controversial as some of his teammates, Rivers had his moments. He liked to bet on horses at the racetrack, an unfortunate habit that led to some heavy financial losses. During the 1978 season, the Yankees actually removed the telephone from the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium to prevent Rivers from calling in his bets to the track.
Sometimes the financial defeats at the horse track left Rivers so upset that he failed to hustle on the field. At other times, he simply felt too depressed to play. Word of Rivers’ sudden “depression” would circulate the clubhouse until it eventually reached the office of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” would then slip some money into a white envelope and have it delivered to Rivers, whose depression would give way to a renewed enthusiasm in playing that day. Those “white envelopes” became an infamous (and humorous) part of Yankees lore in the 1970s.
The payments, which acted as advances in salary, usually maintained Rivers’ presence in the lineup. An untimely exception almost took place in the fifth and final game of the 1977 American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. Before the game, Rivers remained in the trainer’s room, refusing to play after Yankee general manager Gabe Paul had turned down his latest request for a salary advance. Rivers would have missed the game if not for some las-minute negotiating by backup catcher Fran Healy. Ever the peacemaker—one who was known for being Reggie Jackson’s only ally in the 1977 clubhouse—Healy convinced Rivers to play. Rivers ended up delivering the game-winning run with a crucial single in the ninth inning.
When Rivers wasn’t sulking about his financial situation, he was offering his own unique perspective on life in pinstripes. He particularly liked to agitate Jackson, who played next to him in the Yankees outfield and owned arguably the largest ego of any player on the team. When Jackson bragged about having an IQ of 160, Rivers couldn’t resist taking a jab: “Out of what? A thousand? You can’t even spell IQ.” Rivers’ remark thrilled teammates, especially those who resented Reggie’s pomposity, and became a memorable moment in the legend and lore of the Bronx Zoo.
Rivers’ tenure in the Bronx produced other classic quotations, as when he tried to explain the bizarre dynamics of the Yankees, who featured a controversial owner in Steinbrenner and a contentious manager in Billy Martin. “Me and George and Billy,” Rivers said, “we’re two of a kind.”
As much as the Yankees enjoyed his flair with the spoken word, his lapses in hustle and his frequent lateness resulted in his being traded. During a tumultuous 1979 season, the Yankees sent Rivers to the Texas Rangers for a package headlined by another kindred free spirit, Oscar Gamble. Rivers blended in well with the Rangers, who already owned their fair share of colorful characters. An avid participant in clubhouse card games, Rivers served as the unofficial “dealer” for the Rangers. He also liked to challenge his teammates to impromptu 40-yard dashes. Even in his 30s, Rivers won most of those races.
Rivers remained with the Rangers until the spring of 1983, by which time, at 34, his declining speed and defensive skills had rendered him a liability. In an unpopular move, the Rangers released Rivers, much to the chagrin of many of his Texas teammates.
The comments of veteran third baseman Buddy Bell, which appeared in The Sporting News, summarized the good feelings many Rangers had about Rivers. “He made bad days livable,” said Bell, “and good days great.”
And in a game that is supposed to be fun, that’s about all that can you ask. In that respect, Mickey Rivers gave back plenty.