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Boys of Arlington: Lenny Randle vs. Frank Lucchesi

(Texas Rangers)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back to over 37 years ago when Rangers third baseman Lenny Randle assaulted manager Frank Lucchesi before a spring training game.

This story relies on the original reporting of Jim Reeves and the late Bob Lindley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Times Herald and Randy Galloway of the Dallas Morning News. Sullivan was in high school in Fort Rucker, Ala., at the time.

 

The sequence was all so incredibly swift, maybe four, five seconds at the most, and yet in afterthought, it hung there suspended in time, like slow motion or instant replay or the old newsreel films of the Hindenburg breaking apart in the dark Jersey skies.

— Blackie Sherrod, Dallas Times Herald

 

Frank Lucchesi and Lenny Randle.

They were both bright, friendly and personable. They both loved baseball.

Lucchesi was an Italian-American through and through, growing up in the same North Beach neighborhood as the DiMaggio family. He was one year older than Joe, but the 5-foot-7 outfielder never made it to the big leagues until 1970 when he became manager of the Phillies.

Randle was straight out of Compton, the tough, low-income African-American neighborhood south of Los Angeles. He was an All-American at Arizona State and earned a Bachelor of Science degree. After his MLB career was over, he became the first American to play in Italy. He eventually became fluent in five languages, ran sports camps and tried his hand in comedy clubs and as a funk musician.

They were two of the most unlikely guys to clash in one of the most sordid incidents in Rangers history. Even 47 years later it seems unimaginable what happened on the morning of March 28, 1977, when Randle and Lucchesi were talking behind the batting cage before a Rangers spring training game in Orlando, Fla.

Suddenly, without warning, Randle attacked and pummeled his manager with at least four solid blows to the face.

Baseball has seen plenty of brawls throughout history, but this wasn’t one of them.

“It wasn’t a fight,” Lucchesi’s son Brian told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram many years later. “It was a premeditated assault.”

Randle was the assaulter, Lucchesi the unwitting victim. Randle’s legal consequences were minimal while Lucchesi suffered serious physical injuries. Less than three months later, Lucchesi was unemployed, and Randle was enjoying a terrific season as the Mets’ third baseman and leadoff hitter.

“My only wish,” Lucchesi told Galloway from his hospital bed, “is that I was 10 years younger so I could handle this situation myself.”

Lucchesi had Italian friends in San Francisco and Philadelphia who volunteered to deal with Randle. He declined. Later, when a civil suit went to trial, Lucchesi got a threatening phone call strongly suggesting he drop the matter.

Yeah, in 1977, the spring training battle over who would be the Rangers’ second baseman almost turned into all-out mob warfare. Then, in 1992, the two men shook hands at Comiskey Park and asked about each other’s families.

But Lucchesi, who passed away in 2019, never really did forgive and forget.

The manager

Lucchesi spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues, beginning in 1945 when he was 19 and playing for Portland in the Pacific Coast League. Over his career, he stole 151 bases and hit 35 home runs. In 1956, the Phillies hired him to manage in their farm system, and he did so for 14 seasons. He won six pennants and was a five-time manager of the year.

In 1970, he was hired as Phillies manager, a move that was a big hit with Philadelphia’s Italian-American population. The problem was the Phillies had gone 63-99 the year before and were beginning a major rebuilding program. The Phillies improved to 73-89 under Lucchesi, then dropped to 67-95 in 1971. A 26-50 start in 1972 doomed Lucchesi, and he was fired.

“There is an axiom in sports, in politics, in war and everything else,” Phillies president Bob Carpenter said. “You can’t change the army, so you change the general.”

Lucchesi spent the 1973 season managing Triple A Oklahoma City in the Indians organization. When that season was over, he was immediately hired by Rangers manager Billy Martin to be on his coaching staff. Martin, recently hired by the Rangers, was also from the Bay Area, having grown up across the Bay in Berkeley.

Martin managed the final 23 games of the 1973 season as the Rangers finished 57-105. The next year he guided them to an 84-76 record and second place in the division. Multiple outlets named him Manager of the Year. The next season, after multiple clashes with owner Brad Corbett and GM Dan O’Brien Sr., Martin was fired after 95 games.

Lucchesi was hired even though Martin warned him, “You’re crazy if you take this job, Frank.”

The infielder

Lenny Randle was one of the reasons why the Rangers had such a great season in 1974. Drafted by the Washington Senators in 1970, Randle hit .205 over parts of three seasons in 1973. But he flourished in 1974 under Martin, hitting .302 with 26 stolen bases. He played 89 games at third base, 40 at second and 21 in the outfield.

(Getty Images)

“Lenny just did everything for me,” Martin said in his autobiography. “He played wherever I needed him to play, including catcher one day, and he was aggressive, and he had so many tools to help us in so many ways.”

Randle had another strong year in 1975, this time playing in 156 games and hitting .276 with 85 runs scored. This time he played 79 games at second base, 66 in the outfield (61 in center) and 17 at third base. Shortstop was also an option, but Toby Harrah was an All-Star and played every day.

Still, a switch-hitter who can play all over the field? That’s invaluable. In the one game he caught, he threw out a runner trying to steal. He said he could pitch if needed. If you go by WAR, Randle was the fifth-best player on the Rangers in 1974 and 1975.

That’s the bizarre twist to this whole story. If the Rangers and Randle had both been satisfied with him filling a versatile utility role, everything would have been fine.

But neither side lived happily ever after.

Randle played 113 games at second base in 1976 and another 30 in the outfield. But he also fell off at the plate, hitting just .224. He stole 30 bases, somewhat of a miracle considering he had a .286 on-base percentage. But a .273 slugging percentage suggests when he got on base, it was mostly first base.

The Rangers suffered through a second straight losing season and decided it was time for some changes and young blood.

Now playing second base …

Bump Wills had baseball blood in him. Royal blood. His father was Maury Wills, the legendary shortstop and base-stealing king of the Dodgers in the 1960s. Like Randle, he was a switch-hitting infielder who was a star at Arizona State.

He broke his leg right before the 1974 draft and had to go play for his father in the Mexican League that winter to prove he was healthy. Wills was drafted by the Rangers in the January 1975 Secondary Phase Draft. By the spring of 1977, the Rangers were convinced he was ready to play in the big leagues.

Wills spent 1976 at Triple A Sacramento, hitting .324 with 26 home runs. 95 RBIs and a .579 slugging percentage. Of course, it must be pointed out Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium was a notoriously favorable hitter’s park.

No matter. Wills went to spring training looking like the Rangers’ new second baseman. Sports Illustrated thought so. Wills was on the cover of the magazine for a story written by Peter Gammons about baseball’s exciting crop of rookies.

Randle didn’t think so. He made his feelings loud and clear to the writers the day he showed up to camp in Pompano Beach. Star-Telegram reporter Jim Reeves was among them, and his lead story had plenty of juicy quotes.

“No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more turning the other cheek. I’m not going to hold it in anymore. If they don’t want to play me, I’ll ask to be traded. I’m not going to be a bench warmer or a cheerleader.”

“The second base job should be earned on the field, not in the papers or in Triple A. In most cases, a starter’s job is his until someone takes it away. No one’s done that yet — except the front office. I hope I get a fair shake or get traded.”

“I think [Wills] has got to prove he can do it in the major leagues. If he does it, fine. I always tried to make something happen when I played.”

Revo’s story ended with this quote.

“Now I’ll try to make something happen with a different attitude.”

The storm was upon the Rangers.

The gathering storm

On March 16, Randle went off again, saying, “I just wish somebody would cut all the bull. Let’s cut all this dark glasses, cloak and dagger stuff and be honest with each other.”

Randle wasn’t the only infielder in a foul mood. The Rangers had signed free-agent shortstop Bert Campaneris that winter and moved Harrah to third base. That displaced third baseman Roy Howell, and he was yammering to be traded.

On March 24, Randle came to the ballpark with his suitcase packed. He was ready to have it out with Lucchesi, but the two never met before the Rangers’ exhibition game against the Royals. Lucchesi was on the phone in his office and never saw Randle with his suitcase.

Other players did, and they convinced Randle not to act rashly. Randle heeded their advice and avoided Lucchesi.

The writers did not. They met with Lucchese after a 5-3 loss to the Royals and told him about Randle and the suitcase. This time it was Lucchesi who went off with Bob Lindley covering it for the Star-Telegram.

“If Lenny Randle, or any other player for that matter, wants to come in with his bags packed and tell me he’s leaving, then I reach over and shake his hand, ask him what time his plane leaves and wish him luck,” Lucchesi said. “There’s no way that Frank Lucchesi is going to kiss anybody’s ass or ask them to stay in camp.”

Lucchesi said, “I’ll tell you about this play-me-or-trade-me garbage. Lenny Randle’s stock has gone down with other clubs after the year he had last year. Now he can be of value as a utility man because of his versatility, but his stock has gone down considerably.

“Now don’t get me wrong. Lenny Randle is a fine young man. I have never seen him loaf on the field. And I don’t blame any player for wanting to play on a regular basis. But this is a bunch of crap about threatening to leave because he’s not happy with the situation.”

According to reports out of South Florida, Lucchesi said, “I’m sick and tired of some punks making $80,000 moaning and groaning about their jobs.”

The next day general manager Dan O’Brien met with Randle and calmed him down.

“It was just an impetuous thing,” O’Brien said. “It’s over now.”

On March 27, Randle told Channel 4’s Allen Stone, “I’m a volcano ready to erupt.”

But Stone later added, “He was smiling when he said it.”

All hell breaks loose

The Rangers were at Tinker Field in Orlando to play the Twins on March 28. Lucchesi showed up on the field in street clothes during batting practice and was talking to a Baltimore scout when Randle approached to talk with him.

According to Randle, “I walked up and told Frank I wanted to talk to him, and he said, ‘What do you want to talk to me about, punk?'”

(The Associated Press)

Lucchesi said he never used the word “punk.”

“That’s a lie,” he said.

According to Lucchesi, Randle said, “You’re not giving me a fair shake.

Lucchesi said he responded by saying, “Let’s go over by the screen and talk about it.”

They talked quietly for a few minutes. Then, with no warning …

Randle delivered a right land punch solidly to the face. Then a left connected to Lucchesi’s right cheekbone and fractured it. Lucchesi went down, landing on his right hip while lifting his left arm to ward off the blows, and Randle kept swinging until Campaneris raced over to break it up.

Blackie Sherrod watched it first-hand and wrote in the Times Herald he had seen, “the hand speed of Sugar Ray Robinson and the cobra strikes of Muhammad Ali, but the flurry of Randle’s punches, all landing on the manager’s face, must have broken all speed records.”

Said outfielder Tom Grieve, who was also at the scene, “I was sick to my stomach.”

Outfielder Ken Henderson had to be restrained by coach Fred Koenig from going after Randle.

“There’s no reason for the attack,” Henderson said.

While medical personnel tended to the manager, Randle went to the dugout and grabbed a bat to hit, then dropped it and went out to the outfield to run wind sprints. Then, he was escorted off the field by O’Brien.

Lucchesi’s right eye was already turning blue, and blood was trickling from his mouth. Equipment manager Joe Macko drove him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured cheekbone, a cerebral concussion and a laceration of the lip. Lucchesi also felt significant back pain that took a long time to heal.

What happened next

Lucchesi underwent surgery the next day on the cheekbone, and Randle flew to Phoenix to meet with Dick Moss, legal counsel for the players association. O’Brien said the Rangers would investigate the possibility that the attack was premeditated. Third-base coach Connie Ryan ran the team in Lucchesi’s absence.

Out in Phoenix, Randle talked to the Phoenix Gazette and said, “I’m a religious person. I’ve never done anything like this before. It was just something impulsive. I just became outraged. I am a very proud and sensitive person, and felt I was being lied to.”

Insisting he did not want to be a backup, Randle gave the paper a great quote he first said to Rangers vice president Eddie Robinson.

“If I wanted to be a reserve, I would have joined the National Guard,” Randle said.

Randle sent a telegram to Lucchesi with an apology. A similar telegram was sent to his teammates. Lucchesi, still in the hospital, wouldn’t accept it.

“I don’t have the slightest intention of listening to a personal apology, not now, not anytime,” Lucchesi told Lindley.

Lucchesi spent six days in the hospital while recovering from a triple fracture of the right cheekbone. While he was there, an Osceola County sheriff photographer visited him and took pictures of his injury, confirming an official investigation was underway.

Finally, on April 4, the Rangers announced Randle had been suspended without pay for 30 days and fined $10,000. The Rangers were also engaged in several trade talks, including one involving Oakland left-hander Vida Blue. That deal fell through April 5 on the eve of Opening Day against the Orioles in Baltimore.

The Rangers won that game 2-1 in 10 innings. Wills drove in the game-winning run with a single in his MLB debut. Lucchesi was in uniform managing the team.

That same day, Randle dropped his appeal and accepted his suspension rather than going before a three-man grievance committee. Lucchesi wasn’t happy about that, insisting he wanted to clear the record about using the word “punk.”

On April 26, just as the suspension was about to end, Randle was traded to the Mets for cash and a player to be named. That player would turn out to be utility infielder Rick Auerbach, a player nowhere near Randle’s value. He was eventually sold to the Reds.

On the same day he was traded, Randle was also charged by Osceola County with aggravated battery. That didn’t deter the Mets.

“We feel what he did was a one-time thing aggravated by the fact that he thought he was losing his job,” Mets owner Donald Grant told Newsday. “The Lord gives a second chance, so should we. We checked out Lenny pretty carefully and decided in his favor. He lost his head once, and I don’t think it will ever happen again.”

Grant was right. Randle never beat the shit out of another manager again. He took over as the Mets’ third baseman and had an excellent year, hitting .304. He pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battery and was fined $1,050, closing out the criminal investigation.

The Rangers started 31-31 under Lucchesi, and he was fired on June 22. The Rangers ran through Eddie Stanky and Ryan before Billy Hunter took over and led them to a 94-77 record during the famous Year of Four Managers. Robinson later said what many felt: Lucchesi never really did get over the attack.

Lucchesi, disappointed Major League Baseball didn’t punish Randle further, filed a civil suit against Randle, seeking up to $200,000 in damages. The trial was held in December of 1978 in Orlando. After three days of testimony, the two sides agreed to settle out of court for $20,000.

Afterward, they addressed the media by reading prepared statements. Both men had tears in their eyes as they talked, according to Lindley covering it for the Star-Telegram.

“Obviously, this was very trying for both parties,” Lucchesi said. “I want you to know I don’t wish him bad luck in the future. I’m sorry it happened, for his family and mine. I only hope something like this never happens again in baseball.”

If it did, Lucchesi suggested, the player should be banned for life.

“This has been a very trying time for all of us, but now we can return to the game we’ve dedicated our lives to,” Randle said. “I think this proves people of all colors and from all walks of life can settle their differences.”

Randle looked at Lucchesi and said, “I guess there is nothing to do now but shake hands so I can go hide my tears and you can hide yours.”

They shook hands and shared a quick embrace. Lucchesi later claimed he got a mysterious phone call during the trial suggesting he drop the suit.

(The Associated Press)

According to Lucchesi, the voice on the other end said, “You come to Detroit sometimes, don’t you? You’ve got three kids, don’t you?”

Lucchesi said he started shaking so badly he couldn’t hold the phone.

The meeting in Chicago

Lucchesi returned as a coach for the Rangers in 1979-80 under Pat Corrales. In 1987, he was serving as the “eye in the sky” for the Cubs, a fad going around baseball where a coach sat in the press box and used a walkie-talkie to relay information to the dugout.

Lucchesi took over as interim manager with 25 games to go when Gene Michael stepped down, but he did not seek the job full time. His last managing job was with Triple A Nashville in the Reds organization in 1988 and 1989.

Randle was released by the Mets in 1978, then finished out his big-league career with the Yankees in 1979, Cubs in 1980 and Mariners in 1981 and 19882. In 1983, he signed with the Nettuno Baseball Club in the Italian League and won the batting title. In 1989 and 1990, Randle played for the St. Petersburg Pelicans in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

In 1992, Lucchesi and Randle met again at an Old-Timers Game at Comiskey Park before the Rangers game against the White Sox. They shook hands and were cordial to each other. Jim Reeves talked to both guys for a front-page story in the Star-Telegram.

“I guess if Gorbachev can come to America and make peace, we can too,” Randle said.

Or not.

“I’m a forgiving person, a second-chance kind of guy,” Lucchesi said. “If he were insane, or on drugs or drunk or something, I can understand. But not when it was premeditated. I’m not vindictive. I’d forgive anybody, but this … this was too hard on my family.”

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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1 Comment

  1. John Moore June 28, 2024

    I met Lenny Randle one time at the Parks Mall signing autographs at some store in full uniform. Probably about 25 years ago

    Reply

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