In the 1950's-1960's there was no better place to see and be seen than at the Copacabana night club in NYC, 10 East 60th street. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tom Jones, were among the headliners that entertained New Yorkers in post midnight shows.
Of the many famous events at the Copa, none match the night of May 17, 1957, when six NY Yankees out celebrating pugnacious Second Baseman Billy Martin's 29th birthday, brawled with a Washington Heights Bowling Team. NY Deli Owner and Bowler Eddie Jones ended up in the hospital with a busted nose and broken jaw.
The fight captivated the NY dallies for weeks and ended up giving NY Yankee GM George Weiss the excuse he was looking for to trade the street-wise Billy Martin whom he felt was corrupting Mickey Mantle, the innocent home-run slugging kid from Oklahoma.
The fight started when Sammy took the stage and the bowlers began shouting racial slurs, which upset both the Yankees and Harry Belafonte Jr., and Sidney Poitier, who were sitting next to the Yanks. Hank Bauer, a big beefy slugging right-fielder and decorated Marine, told the Bowlers to cool it.
In the aftermath, Bauer was interviewed by the NY Times: "A big fat guy told me 'Don't trust your luck too far tonight Yankee'. I told him to Go--------yourself." The NY Times, in the sensitivity of the times reported that Bauer suggested the portly fellow perform an anatomically impossible act.
Billy Martin, a pugnacious guy who never backed down from anyone, despite his diminutive size (once, on National TV, as Yankee Manager, it took four guys to hold him back from socking Reggie Jackson, who was easily twice his size and half his age) backed up his buddy Bauer. Jones, the Deli guy-bowler, invited Martin to discuss the matter with him outside in the alley. Martin did not need to be asked twice. But before they reached the alley someone socked Jones, who according to newspaper reporter Harvey Arronson of Newsday, "went down like a ten-pin." Such was the fun reporting of the times.
Violence was not new to the Copa, which had, according to a popular saying at the time, "the three B's:": Booze, broads, and brawls." NY Post columnist Leonard Lyons once wrote that the famous battlefields "include Gettysburg, Bastogne, Verdun, and the kitchens of the Copacabana."
Suspicion centered on Hank Bauer. A Grand Jury was convened. Yogi Berra, true to form said "nobody did nuthin to nobody." Bauer said "I only hit balls and lately I haven't been doing that too well." Bauer was hitting .208 at the time. Mickey Mantle was called to testify. He apologized to the judge for chewing gum, stuck it under the witness chair, and said he was so drunk he couldn't remember anything." Mantle did see someone on the floor: "It looked like Roy Rogers rode Trigger through the Copa and Trigger kicked the guy in the face."
No True Bill was returned and the Grand Jurors raced out to get autographs from the Yankees. But the damager was done. Bauer was haunted for years. The young Senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, on seeing Bauer in a train a few years later asked him how things were going at the Copa. Billy Martin was soon traded from the Yankees, and his ball-playing career tanked.
So who clocked the deli-owner-bowler?
Enter Joey Silvestri, now 88, but at the time, a 24 year old street-wise kid from Queens, who knew how to use his fist. Joey was known for decades as "Joey at the Copa" because he ran the door and nobody got in without Joey's approval. On the night of the brawl, Joey was off, and the owner of the Copa had a hard rule that when the staff was off they could not hang out at the Copa with guests. But this was the last night of Sammy Davis, Jr.s set, and Sammy and Joey had become friends and Davis had invited Joey to attend. So Joey and Davis arranged for a table near the stage, out of the sight of the owner, and Joey sat with Belafonte and Poitier and heard and saw it all. The Bowlers mouthing off. The Yankees telling them to cool it And as Martin walked out to the alleyway prepared to fight, the kid from Queens stepped in and threw two punches to protect his friends and good customers. First Joey "hit him dead with a left hook to the jaw. It knocked him into a brick wall and the wall didn't give. On the way down I socked him a right hand between the eyes and busted his nose."
Now 88, with just about everyone involved having passed on to another Copa, Joey decided to set the record straight. Bauer told the truth. He didn't hit the Deli-owner. Martin never had the chance to hit him. And Joey was constrained by the fact that he was forbidden to have been in the club that night to begin with. That, along with the fact that there was a large mob influence at the Copa, and the rule was nobody talked about nuttin, Joey was forced to remain silent even though he could have exonerated Bauer and perhaps saved Martin's job and career.
The moral of the story is that although Bauer was the prime suspect, and everyone thought he did it because he was following Martin out to protect his friend and as a Marine, he didn't take crap from anyone, nobody saw him throw a punch because he didn't- he was innocent.
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