By Glen Sparks
The Minnesota Twins gave a 40-year-old, self-made ballplayer his first chance at managing in the majors in 1969.
What did the Twins expect from Billy Martin? He relied on modest tools and battled in every game as a player. The tough guy from Berkeley, Calif., hit .257 over 11 big-league seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees. He knocked 64 career home runs and drove in 75 runs in 1953. Martin played in five World Series while in the Bronx (batting .333, 33-for-99) and made a shoestring catch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the ’52 Series.
Once, he fought Red Sox shortstop Jimmy Piersall underneath the grandstand at Fenway Park. He also duked it out with catcher Clint Courtney of the St. Louis Browns. The word got around: Billy Martin, who did some boxing as a teenager, liked to brawl.
New York shipped Billy out of town midway through the 1957 campaign. Or, about a month after that famous incident at the Copacabana night club in Manhattan. It was Martin’s 29th birthday. He, along with teammate Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, decided to celebrate. The evening turned into a mess. Bauer, for instance, slugged a patron.
Yankee brass blamed Martin for being a bad influence. The team shipped him to the Kansas City A’s, a perennial loser. Over his final 4 ½ years in the majors, Martin played on six teams. He drank and fought and got fined and suspended.
Martin did some scouting and minor-league managing after his playing career ended in 1961. He served as skipper of the Twins’ Triple-A team in Denver before getting the major-league gig. Martin ended up managing five different squads and did five tours as the Yankees skipper. He won five division titles, two pennants and one World Series. Then, there was all that other stuff … Once, he battled it out with a marshmallow salesman.
This is a brief rundown of Billy Martin the manager, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere:
Minnesota Twins (1969): Martin’s squad compiled an admirable 97-65 mark in the skipper’s rookie season, 17 games better than in ’68. The Twins finished in first place after sinking to seventh the previous year. Hamon Killebrew pounded 49 home runs; Tony Oliva slugged 24. Rod Carew hit .332 and won the first of his seven batting titles. Jim Perry (20-6, 2.82 ERA) and Dave Boswell (20-12, 3.23) led the pitching staff.
The Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in three games in the playoffs. Martin started Bob Miller, 5-5 during the regular season, in the final game. Owner Calvin Griffith asked Martin why he would do such a thing. “Because I’m the manager,” Billy replied. Griffith fired him.
Detroit Tigers (1971-73): Detroit, fresh off a 79-83 campaign, hired Martin in the fall of 1971. The new skipper led his squad to 91 victories and to second place in the American League East. The next year, Detroit dropped to 86 wins but still won the division. Veterans like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich led Detroit on the field.
Once again, Martin lost in the playoffs. This team, the Oakland A’s beat him. In Game 2, Bert Campaneris, angry at being hit by a pitch, flung his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Martin practically came out his underwear trying to get to Campy.
Detroit fired Martin on Sept. 2, 1973. The team was 71-63, but Billy was wearing out his welcome, as he would so often do. He already had gotten himself arrested during a public disturbance at spring training. Later in the season, he told reporters that he wanted his pitchers to throw spitballs. He also ripped management, the commissioner and everyone else in the newspapers. Billy was great ink.
Texas Rangers (1973-75): Well, it didn’t take Billy long to find a job. The Rangers nabbed him before the season was up. Martin guided the team to a 9-14 mark in the closing weeks (Texas ended up 57-105 after going 54-100 in 72.). Even better, Texas improved to 84-76 in ’74, good for second place in the A.L. West. Young outfielder Jeff Burroughs hit 25 homers, drove in 118 and hit .301 to win the A.L. MVP award. Future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins won 25 games.
Expectations were high going into ’75. The Rangers, though, struggled. On July 20, with the team 44-51, team owner Brad Corbett fired Martin.
New York Yankees I (1975-78): Once again, Martin didn’t stay out of work for long. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Billy on Aug. 1. The skipper would be going back to his baseball roots. His team went 30-26 to close the season.
The Yankees won the pennant in 1976 and met the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Cincy swept the Yankees in four games. Billy didn’t even have to watch the final out from the dugout. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming tossed him out in the ninth inning after Martin threw a baseball at home-plate ump Bill Deegan.
New York signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent before the 1977 campaign, won 100 games in the regular season and knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Steinbrenner, a.k.a. The Boss, gave Billy a fat bonus and a new car. Everything looked good until midway through ’78. Martin uttered his famous quote on Jackson and George: “One’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other’s convicted (George, who pleaded guilty in 1974 to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign).” Martin resigned July 24. … (Billy kept a mustache for much of his managerial career. He looked a bit like cartoon villain Snidely Whiplash, famed nemesis of Dudley Do-Right.)
New York Yankees II (1979): Well, why stay mad? Steinbrenner hired Billy to right the ship after the Yanks got off to a slow start in ’79. Billy led the team to a 55-40 mark. New York finished 89-71 overall, good but not good enough to make the playoffs. Steinbrenner fired him at the end of the year. (This was the year that Billy clobbered the marshmallow salesman during a bar brawl. The guy, Joseph Cooper, required 15 stiches to close up his injury.)
Oakland A’s (1980-82): Billy, who grew up near Oakland, was going home. Charlie Finley, one of baseball’s most eccentric owners (orange baseballs, a mechanical rabbit that would pop up near home plate and deliver new baseballs to the umpire, etc.) hired him to lead a team filled with talented pitchers like Mike Norris, Brian Langford and Matt Keough. The three combined for 72 complete games in 1980; Oakland finished second at 83-79.
The next year, the split season of 1981, Oakland made the playoffs but got bounced out by the Yankees. Once again, the A’s starters threw a ton of complete games. Following a disappointing 1982 season (68-94, fifth place in the A.L. West), Billy got the boot. The biggest criticism? He burned out those starting pitchers.
New York Yankees III (1983): The third time is a charm, right? Well, sorta. The Yanks did manage to go 91-71. The problem was, that was only good for third place in the division. This was the year of the infamous pine-tar game, by the way. The Kansas City Royals’ George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium to give K.C. the lead. Or, so everyone though. Martin, a stickler for details, knew that Brett liked to lather up the bat with pine-tar, even more so than the rules allowed. The umps agreed, took the runs off the board, and Brett—as the video shows—went berserk. (Baseball later overruled the umps.) Anyway, Steinbrenner canned Martin about a week before Christmas this time.
New York Yankees IV (1985): This is when it got funny. George fired team icon Yogi Berra 16 games into the season and hired Billy. The Yanks got into a groove and went 91-54 under the new/old skipper. They were only 6-10 under Berra, though, and missed the playoffs. This time, Steinbrenner cut Martin loose on Oct. 27, a few days before Halloween. Things were getting scary.
New York Yankees V (1988): This is when it got farcical. Martin replaced Lou Piniella as skipper nearly 100 games into the season, went 40-28 and got fired. Most people didn’t care at this point. It was getting silly.
There was no Billy Martin VI. Martin died Dec. 25, 1989, in a one-vehicle accident in Fenton, N.Y. He was 61 years old. The man who once dubbed himself “the proudest Yankee of them all” is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., not far from the greatest Yankee of them all, Babe Ruth.