Before Mickey Callaway apologized Monday for his outburst against a Newsday reporter, the Mets manager attempted to explain his actions by saying, “Billy Martin punched a reporter one time. It’s just part of this game.”
But the sports reporter who was on the receiving end of that Billy Martin punch — Ray Hagar of Reno, Nevada — said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that his altercation more than 40 years ago is “totally different” than what transpired between Callaway and Newsday’s Tim Healey on Sunday in Chicago.
Callaway’s tirade took place in the Mets’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field following a tough loss to the Cubs in which the manager’s decision-making came under question. Hagar’s altercation with Martin took place in the offseason while he was interviewing the on-again, off-again Yankees manager in a Reno bar. Four months earlier, Martin tearfully resigned after blowups with George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson.
“Trying to reference these two situations together is comparing apples to oranges,” Hagar said from his Reno home. “It’s two different things, two totally different situations.”
Hagar, 66, retired in 2015 after a 38-year career capped by 15 years covering politics and education in Nevada. He said it took a long time for him to move beyond the November 1978 incident with Martin that resulted in the photo of his bruised face on the cover of many newspapers.
Then a 25-year-old high school sports reporter for the Reno Evening Gazette and the Nevada State Journal, Hagar was assigned to interview Martin, who was making a rare visit to Reno to help promote the debut of a professional basketball team coached by one of Martin’s friends.
“The interview was set up for me by the team, but when I found Billy that day and introduced myself, he told me to get the [expletive] away from him and that he wasn’t going to talk to me,” Hagar said. “He was already so drunk. So I called my office and I said, ‘Hey, this guy’s really drunk. What do you want me to do?’ They said, ‘We want you to interview him! How often does Billy Martin come to Reno?’ ”
So Hagar said he went looking for Martin again and eventually found him in a bar by the arena. This time, Martin was more welcoming of Hagar’s request for an interview.
Well, at least at first.
“The thing that really set him off, I think, was that my first question was about Sparky Lyle getting traded,” Hagar said. “I don’t think Martin knew. It just happened, I just saw the news about it come over on the old Teletype machine before I started that day. I can’t remember what he said. He was just kind of brooding.”
Hagar said he then asked another question about coexisting with Jackson. Martin gave a rambling response that ultimately led to complaining about how he was being treated by sportswriters in New York.
What really incensed Martin, Hagar said, was when he saw Hagar writing his words on paper.
“He said, ‘I’ve given you a good interview, now I’m taking it away,’ and then he grabbed for my notes,” Hagar said. “I said, ‘You’re not getting my notes,’ and I put them behind my back and held them there. That’s when he looked away for a half second and came back with the roundhouse and punched me. I was totally thrown.”
Hagar was trying to make sense of what was happening when suddenly Martin punched him again, this time knocking him down in what Hagar described as dramatic fashion.
“They had these small bar tables and I went over it like a Wild West movie,” he said. “Everything happened so fast. I was really dazed. He nailed me pretty good. I didn’t know what to think.”
Photos of Hagar’s bruised face appeared in newspapers the next day, and Martin was quoted as saying Hagar provoked the fight. Hagar insisted that wasn’t true and filed a lawsuit against Martin. He dropped it six months later when Martin agreed to return to Reno to publicly apologize at a news conference.
According to news accounts, Martin said at the May 1979 news conference, “I’m sorry I hit Ray. We’re good friends now.” At the time Martin was the Yankees’ manager-in-waiting, and Steinbrenner had told him he needed to rectify the Reno bar incident before he could return to the dugout.
Hagar was just happy to put the incident behind him.
“There was many a time in my younger days when I closed my eyes and wished I could have done that differently, because this followed me for a while,” Hagar said. “But you know what saved me? [In October 1979] Billy Martin got into another fight, this time with the marshmallow salesman.”
That next fight took place in a hotel lobby in Minnesota. The marshmallow salesman, identified by police in news accounts as Joseph Cooper, received more than a dozen stitches to his lip. That incident led the Yankees to fire Martin, again.
“After that, no one paid attention to me anymore.”