Sitting in his office at The Big A in Anaheim in 1974, Angels’ manager Bobby Winkles was asked to describe his star center fielder Mickey Rivers. Reporters surrounding his desk watched in amusement as Winkles stared at his wall, scrunched his face, raised his eyebrows, smiled, stammered, and finally spit out, “He’s beyond description.”
Rivers was a unique individual alright. He had his own off-beat philosophy, his own lexicon, and his own pace. When he strolled to the plate he walked slightly hunched over, taking bird-like steps that made him look like an octogenarian. He almost seemed to be in pain. But when Mick the Quick had to get somewhere fast – he was urgent. He could speed down the first base line as fast as anyone in his prime. His 70 steals in 1975 were the most in the AL since Ty Cobb.
Mickey made being colorful cool in the 1970s. With an amiable personality, a dazzlingly brilliant smile, and his tremendous talent on the diamond, Rivers was a huge fan favorite in each of his three stops in the big leagues over a 15-year career.
“My goals are to hit .300, score 100 runs, and to stay injury-prone,” Rivers famously said in the middle of his career. Rivers was usually able to accomplish two of the three. For his career, the speedster batted .295 and he averaged 87 runs scored per season. But any story about Rivers is not a story about numbers, it’s a story about, well…stories.
There was the time Rivers was playing center field for the Angels in old Comiskey Park in Chicago on a windy afternoon. One especially strong gust blew the slim Rivers so hard that he had to call timeout as he stumbled with the wind pushing him across the green field. “The wind was blowing about 100 degrees,” Mick explained to reporters after the game, in which he collected three hits and two stolen bases.
That was the thing about Rivers – he was flaky and loved to have fun playing the game – but he was a tough competitor as well. In 1976, his first season with the New York Yankees, Mickey finished third in American League Most Valuable Player voting behind only teammate Thurman Munson and Kansas City’s George Brett. Rivers swiped 43 bases, batted .312, and caught everything he could run under in center field for the Yanks, who won their first pennant in a dozen years.
It was in the Big Apple where Rivers met his favorite foil – the Abbott to his Costello, the Lenny to his Squiggy – superstar slugger Reggie Jackson. The loud-mouthed Reggie was known for turning the spotlight his way, and for taking himself way too seriously. Where Reggie had a reputation as a strong, educated black man interested in politics, race, and making money, Mickey played the part of affable country bumpkin. He never met an opportunity to be funny that he didn’t pounce on. The Yankee leadoff man summed up Reginald Martinez Jackson as well as anyone ever has: “No wonder you’re so messed up,” Mickey chirped, “you got a white man’s first name, a Spanish man’s middle name, and a black man’s last name!”
Of another Yankee teammate, behemoth catcher/DH Cliff Johnson, Rivers said, “He’s so ugly he should have to wear an oxygen mask.”
During the 1979 season, when the Yanks were in their typical turmoil, Rivers was traded to the Texas Rangers, a move which surely saddened reporters in New York. With the mediocre Rangers, Rivers had one of his best years in 1980, hitting .333 with 210 hits, but injuries and age caught up with him in the next few seasons. But while he was in Texas he still had time to produce more memorable one-liners, especially about the heat in the Lone Star State.
“It was so hot today,” Mickey groaned, “I saw a dog chasing a cat, and the dog was walkin’.” He also had some things to say about the advanced age of many of his teammates with the Rangers: “These guys are so old, most of them qualify for meals on wheels!”
A valuable member of the 1977-1978 World Series champion New York Yankees, and a speedy leadoff hitter for the California Angels and Texas Rangers, Mickey Rivers was just as memorable for his humor. No one like him has come along since he stole his last base in 1984.