"I’ve always said I could manage Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hirohito. That doesn’t mean I’d like them, but I’d manage them." – Billy Martin
I grew up in New York City and even though I was (and still am) a New York Mets fan, I found it rather hard not appreciate or at least have some laughs at the many (5) comings and goings of Billy Martin at the hands of one George Steinbrenner.
So, what can you say about Billy Martin, the player? Based on his stats, not too much. After all, he only managed to hit .257 over a career that spanned 11 years and 7 teams. The first seven of those years were spent with the New York Yankees
and from 1950
. All they managed to do during that time was win 5 World Series
including four in a row from 1950
and another one in 1956
. I believe his 12 hits in the ’53 Series is a record that still stands today and over his career, he batted .333 for the World Series alone. Pretty clutch if you ask me. (As a matter of fact, the only year the Yankees missed taking the American League
pennant during Martin’s time as a player was in 1954
when he went off to serve in the military.)
Martin had a reputation as fighter both on and off the field and an incident after the 1956 season led to his first banishment from his beloved Yankees. It appears he and some of his teammates (including Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford) were enjoying some cocktails at the Copacabana when they took offense at some comments made by other patrons. Martin, always one to swing first and ask questions later, became involved in an “altercation” that resulted in said patrons getting their asses kicked.
Yankee management took a dim view of his actions and despite the protests of Casey Stengel decided to send him packing. It seems they didn’t want him to “influence” any of their up and coming stars and he was sent of to the (then) Kansas City Athletics. After a short stint, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers, then to the Cleveland Indians, then to the Cincinnati Reds, then to the Milwaukee Brewers and finally to the Minnesota Twins. During that time, he managed to get into a fight with an opposing pitcher from the Chicago Cubs by the name of Jim Brewer. By the time all was said and done, Brewer had a broken jaw and eventually filed a law suit against Martin that took over 9 years to get settled.
I guess Billy figured his days were numbered as a player and after the 1961 season convinced the Minnesota Twins to keep him on as a scout.
After kicking around the Twins organization for about 8 years, he finally got his shot at managing a big league ball club and, lo and behold, he took the Twins from lovable losers to winning their division title in 1969 with a record of 97-65. You would think this would be just the beginning but Martin, in what was to become (if it wasn’t already) an all too familiar pattern, was fired for kicking the shit out of one of his own pitchers while trying to break up a fight that started in the clubhouse bathroom.
From there, Martin took over the helm for the struggling Detroit Tigers. He lasted from 1971 until 1973 and even managed to win a division title in ’72. Anybody wanna guess how his stay there ended?
Late in his third year, he was fired when it became known that he had ordered his pitchers to go headhunting after the Cleveland Indians hitters because he was pissed at then Indian pitcher Gaylord Perry, the king of spitballers.
Martin landed in Texas where he took over the reigns for the Rangers. They had finished last in their division in 1973 but Martin again engineered a turnaround in ’74 and they wound up finishing 2nd. When 1975 rolled around, Martin was fired when he clashed with the new management.
Welcome back to the Bronx, at least for a little while.
During 1975 the Yankees were struggling. Both wins and fans were getting hard to come by and a change was in order. George Steinbrenner, perhaps recognizing that Martin had become an “expert” in turning around teams, hired him on a manager for the last 56 games of the 1975 season. The Yankees managed to finish 3rd.
The next year, Martin worked his magic and led the Yankees to a 97-62 record and eventual trip to the World Series. They were swept in four games by the Big Red Machine.
Many owners would be pleased with a team that made the World Series, especially after what seemed like such a long absence, but then again, many owners are not like George Steinbrenner.
Many changes were made during the off-season without consulting Martin. The most significant of those was the acquisition of one Reggie Jackson. For any of you folks who are familiar with baseball, the Yankees now possessed what was probably the three largest egos in the game if not on the planet. It would only be a matter of time….
The time would occur during a late season game in a heated pennant race against the (who else?) Boston Red Sox. Martin had been plagued by Steinbrenner all year and things finally reached the boiling point. After Reggie failed to hustle after a ball on the field, Martin began shouting at him in the dugout. Reggie, being Reggie, shouted back. Martin, being Martin, shouted even louder and eventually had to be restrained by fellow teammates from going after Jackson. Naturally, all of this unfolded before a national television audience.
Through all of the turmoil, the Yankees played hard and finished the season at 100-62. They went on to the World Series and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in 6 games. It was their first World Series Championship in 15 years.
Perhaps resting on their laurels, the Yankees seemed to take 1978 for granted. Sloppy play and constant threats by management didn’t help and Martin took to boozing pretty heavily. Things came to head in July when Martin, referring to Jackson and Steinbrenner , said to reporters…
”The two of them deserve each other, one’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other is convicted (Steinbrenner).
The next day, perhaps realizing what he said, Martin broke down in tears and announced his resignation. Apparently, his resignation wouldn’t last all that long because on Old Timers Day, the team announced that he would be back to take over for the beginning of the 1980 season.
Perhaps recognizing a need, Steinbrenner moved the schedule up in 1979 when Martin was back in pinstripes for the finals 95 games of the season. In October, he got into a fight with (of all things!) a marshmallow salesman and Steinbrenner fired him again.
He wound up in Oakland with the A’s and invented what became to be known as “Billyball”. At first, it was a huge success and he won the West division title in 1981.
“Billyball” carried a high price though. In 1982 the A’s plummeted to 68-94 and management thought “Billyball” was to blame. Martin, perhaps because of a lousy bullpen, had burned out his pitching staff by leaving them in games for too long. The resulting sore arms and time spent on the disabled list made for a lousy season and Martin was promptly canned.
He was brought back by Steinbrenner to manage the Yankees for all of 1983 and he finished 3rd. He made through about ¾ of the 1985 season before he was once again, fired by Steinbrenner. Rehired in 1988, he lasted about ½ the season before, you know it, he was fired for the last time.
Billy Martin was acting as a “special consultant” to the New York Yankees when his car slid off the road on Christmas Day in 1989. Later autopsy results indicated that he was well over the legal limit at the time of the accident. He was 61 years old and somehow, nobody seemed surprised.
The Yankees, in recognition to Billy Martin, retired his #1 and dedicated a plaque to him in centerfield at Yankee Stadium. It seems he had finally come home.