Prompted by his wife, Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean confronted a critic and initiated an argument that escalated into a brawl inside a crowded hotel lobby.
The principals in what became known as the Battle of Tampa were Dean, teammate Joe Medwick and journalists Jack Miley of the New York Daily News and Irv Kupcinet of the Chicago Daily Times.
Though the fisticuffs were real, the biggest blows may have been those that inflicted bruises to the egos of the participants.
The melee occurred 80 years ago, on April 2, 1937, at the Tampa Terrace Hotel after the Cardinals lost to the Reds in a spring training game.
The seeds for the showdown were sown about a month earlier.
Holding out for a more lucrative contract offer, Dean didn’t report when the 1937 Cardinals opened spring training camp at Daytona Beach, Fla.
Miley, a columnist, scolded the pitcher. According to The Sporting News, he wrote: “For a guy who was picking cotton for 50 cents a day a few years ago, Diz has an amusing idea of his own importance.”
While Dean stayed with his wife Patricia at their house in Bradenton, Fla., during the contract holdout, journalists camped out in the town, hoping for comments from the colorful Cardinals ace.
In “Diz,” a 1992 biography of Dean, author Robert Gregory wrote that when reporters cornered Dizzy and his wife at a post office, seeking an interview, Patricia “cursed them and stomped to the car, honking the horn every few seconds until he joined her.”
When Dizzy later agreed to pose for news photographers, Patricia kept the cameramen waiting five hours before allowing her husband to cooperate.
Miley went on the attack in his column. According to Gregory, Miley called Patricia “a plump, dominating cotton queen” and described Dizzy as a “hen-pecked, fat-between-the-ears sharecropper.”
Dizzy shrugged off such remarks, Gregory said, but Patricia vowed revenge.
War of words
When the Cardinals played the Reds at Tampa, Patricia spotted Miley at the ballpark.
After the game, the Cardinals went to the hotel and, still in uniform, gathered in the lobby, awaiting room keys. Most of the Cardinals carried their spikes to keep from tearing up the lobby carpets.
Dizzy and Patricia were the first from the Cardinals group to get a room key. As they entered the elevator, Patricia saw Miley in the lobby _ just as Miley and Kupcinet emerged from the hotel bar, according to Gregory _ and urged her husband to confront the writer.
In the lobby were 18 Cardinals, about 20 other hotel guests and some hotel employees.
Dean stepped out of the elevator and approached Miley.
In piecing together accounts written by Miley, Gregory, J. Roy Stockton of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and George Kirksey of United Press, here is what happened next:
Dizzy: “Is your name Miley?”
Dizzy: “I wish you would not write those things about me. You said some terrible things about me.”
As the conversation continued, about 10 of Dizzy’s teammates gathered around him.
Dizzy: “You $125-a-month writers make me sick. Don’t you never mention me and my wife in one of them damned columns of yours again.”
Miley: “That’s a pleasure. I hate to write about bush leaguers anyway.”
Dizzy: “Just remember what I told you. I warned you. That’s from the horse’s mouth.”
Miley: “I say it’s from a hillbilly horse’s ass. What are you going to do about it?”
Dizzy: “I’ll show you…”
Hit or miss
Kupcinet, a 6-foot, 195-pound former college quarterback at North Dakota, stepped between Dean and the rotund (5 feet 6, 250-pound) Miley.
“Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size,” Kupcinet said to the pitcher.
Dean replied: “Stay out of my way, you New York Jew.”
Dizzy unleashed a wild punch _ “a ladylike left hook,” Miley called it _ that either missed or grazed Miley’s head.
Mike Ryba, a Cardinals pitcher, reached over Dean’s shoulder and swung his spikes, cracking Miley in the forehead and opening a cut above his right eye. The blow knocked Miley to the floor.
As Kupcinet reached for Dean, Medwick landed a crunching punch to Kupcinet’s left cheekbone.
Kupcinet went sprawling into a potted palm tree “that swooshed backward and started a chain reaction, knocking down floor lamps, plants and four other palms,” Gregory wrote.
Dean scampered for cover under an overturned sofa.
As other players moved in on the fallen writers, Mike Gonzales, a Cardinals coach, stopped the brawl from continuing.
In the Post-Dispatch, Stockton said of the spectacle, “Cigar girls and bell boys were very much excited, but no serious harm had been done.”
As Dean strutted back to the elevator, he crowed, “There ain’t no doubt about it _ It’s still the Gas House Gang.”
Kupcinet shouted at Dean: “I’ll fight you any place, any time you want to. Just name it.”
Miley said to Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch: “What’s the matter, Francis, can’t you control those ballplayers of yours?”
Replied Frisch: “No, I can’t.”
Kupcinet told a colleague, “Dean started the whole trouble, but when the fight started he didn’t get in it himself. They’re the Gas House Gang all right, but they won’t fight unless they know they’ve got the edge on you.”
The Cardinals paid the hotel for the damages, Gregory reported.
Ford Frick, National League president, said he wasn’t inclined to take action because the fight didn’t occur on the baseball field.
Among media reaction:
_ Joe Williams, columnist for the New York World-Telegram, said of Patricia Dean: “There’s a lady for you, chums. I wouldn’t say she is hard-bitten, but Mr. Miley is lucky she wasn’t in there swinging.”
_ The Sporting News editorialized: “There is no defense for ganging up on a man. Only mobs, hysteria-crazed and cowards adopt that method … The Cardinals players who participated in that hotel scene have put themselves in the position of public scorn.”
A week later, Dizzy told the Associated Press he was “sorry” about the incident. “It’s the first time I ever had any trouble with a sports writer and you can take it from ol’ Diz it will be the last time,” he said.
In October 1937, The Sporting News reported, Miley left the New York Daily News “after a disagreement with Jimmy Powers, sports editor.” Miley joined King Features syndicate and then the New York Post.
Dean was traded to the Cubs in 1938. Kupcinet, still with the Chicago Daily Times, and Dean patched their differences, posed for a Page 1 photo and became friends, Gregory said.
In retelling the story, Dean denied he’d been in the fight and blamed Medwick for instigating it. In response, Medwick, in a letter to the Chicago Daily Times, wrote: “Dean’s right in one respect. He wasn’t in the fight once punches started to fly. He usually does a crawfish act when that happens.”
Kupcinet began writing a celebrity gossip column for the Chicago Daily Times in January 1943. It was widely read and he became an influential figure in Chicago. Kupcinet continued writing the column for the Chicago Sun-Times until the week he died at 91 in 2003.
Previously: How Dizzy Dean survived an armed robbery