This Newsday composite shows former Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage, left,...

This Newsday composite shows former Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage, left, and former Yankees first baseman Cliff Johnson. Credit: Mike Stobe, Getty Images / M. David Leeds

The teammate's punch that fractured Geno Smith's jaw is reminiscent of another headline-grabbing event 36 years ago involving the Yankees.

Ace reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage suffered a broken thumb on his pitching hand on April 19, 1979, after tangling with teammate Cliff Johnson in a clubhouse brawl that resulted in Johnson being traded two months later. They still disagree on exactly how the fight started.

"I really feel awkward and strange recounting it," Johnson, 68, said from his home in San Antonio, Texas. "Bringing it up was something I was never comfortable with. I'm not a pugilist. But a man that's attacked is going to do what a man has to do."

According to Johnson, it all started in the clubhouse after a 6-3 loss to Baltimore when a teammate jokingly asked Gossage, " 'How did Cliff hit you when he faced you [as an opponent]' and Goose replied, 'He didn't. He only swung at what he heard,' or something like that."

Johnson continued, "It went to the latrine. I guess one word led to another. The next thing I know, I'm hit on the back. I guess that ignited it. I would never hit a man first. And there you have it."

Gossage, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has maintained a different version.

"You ever seen a smart fight? Things happen," the 64-year-old Hall of Famer said. "He was ticked off because he wasn't playing. I was joking around and it just escalated into a scuffle. I fell on my thumb and broke it and that was it. He hit me first, he pushed me first, he took my face in his hand and just kind of put it into the bathroom partition. He touched me first. Absolutely. I didn't hit him first."

Gossage was reprimanded by owner George Steinbrenner.

"Oh my God, I was in George's office," Gossage said. "That's the last place you want to be. Oh, hell, he was ticked, he was mad as you get. Breaking my thumb was like, we're done."

Both players reportedly were fined 10 days' pay.

Gossage returned to the team in mid-July. The Yankees finished fourth in the AL East. "The ball felt weird in it for a long time," he said. "It took a year for it to fully heal and for that feeling to go away. The touch of the ball in our fingers is just so important."

Johnson was sent to the Indians at the June 15 trade deadline. "I don't remember thinking, 'Trade him, get rid of him,' " Gossage said. "I wasn't disappointed when he got traded."

Johnson was miffed at being sent away. "From the outside looking in, anybody would cast me as the fall guy,'' he said. "Who got traded?"

The two sorted out their differences over the years as they met at fantasy camps and old-timers events.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say we laughed about it, but we did reconcile and make up," Johnson said. "I know what kind of guy Goose was, Goose knows what kind of guy I was. We got over it."

Gossage agreed -- to a point. "It just happens," he said. "It was very unfortunate. We both feel bad about it. But I did not hit him first."

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