After quickly establishing himself as one of the scrappiest members of the New York Yankees in the 1950’s, infielder Billy Martin helped lead the perennial champions to four World Series titles in 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1956.
However, Martin is most remembered for his 16-year managerial career marked by headline making off the field skirmishes as a manager for the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, Athletics, and especially the New York Yankees where he won two American League pennants, a World Championship in 1977, and was hired and fired five times by the equally mercurial owner George Steinbrenner.
To his credit, Martin’s legacy includes being the first manager to have led four different teams to the postseason, a feat that would not be matched until 2012 nor bettered until 2020.
In 1988, the Elias Sports Bureau concluded that he was the best manager in major league history, based on modeling that found that Martin’s teams won 7.45 more games per year than they should have as predicted by statistics, higher than any other manager.
But the fiery skipper also developed a pattern where he would briefly and brilliantly turn around his team as one of the best managers in the game but then self-destruct after battling umpires, his own players, management, fans, and the bottle before being fired.
Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James once noted that “Billy Martin, of course, improved every team he ever managed in his first year in control, usually by huge margins. Within a year or two, all of those teams were ready to get rid of him.”
It happened in Detroit for his second major league managerial job after serving as skipper for just one year with the Minnesota Twins in 1969.
Although Martin brilliantly turned the Twins into a playoff team with his aggressive baseball strategy, the manager’s drinking and temper became his undoing. As a coach he punched out the Minnesota’s traveling secretary and in August of 1969 Martin KO’d his pitcher Dave Boswell outside of the Lindell AC bar in Detroit. After losing to the Orioles in the playoffs, and despite being hugely popular with Minnesota fans, the Twins fired Martin principally because of his off the field behavior.
A day after of the final game of the 1970 season when it was announced that Tiger manager Mayo Smith would not be returning, on October 2, 1971 GM Jim Campbell announced that 42 year-old Billy Martin had been hired on a two year contract to see if he could squeeze one more championship out of aging veterans Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich and Dick McAuliffe.
Former Tiger beat writer Jim Hawkins told me that “years later the Twins front office had warned the Tigers not to hire Martin.” Hawkins further said that “the players were tired of (Tiger manager) Mayo Smith who had quit on him and Billy had a reputation as a good manager with veterans.”
At first, Billy worked his magic in Detroit while becoming wildly popular with Tiger fans who loved his on-field tirades when arguing with umpires.
For a while it was quite a honeymoon.
In 1971 the Martin had led the Tigers to a second place, 91-71 record thanks in part to Cy Young runner up Mickey Lolich’s brilliant year and fellow All-Star Norm Cash who was rejuvenated while belting 32 homers and 91 RBIs before being selected as the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year. Tiger management was more than pleased with Martin since Tiger Stadium attendance had increased by 90,000 fans.
And then in 1972 Martin’s Tigers gave fans tremendous thrills when they won the division by beating out Boston by half a game before falling to the Oakland A’s in the playoffs.
But Martin, who was already widely known as a bad drunk in the evenings began to wear out his welcome.
“Billy was out imbibing virtually every night,” Hawkins told me. “ Showing up late for a ballgame the next day was as common as me showing up to the ballpark with a typewriter.”
During the off-season Martin argued constantly with Campbell about veteran players he wanted traded and younger ones he didn’t want. When the ’73 spring training commenced Billy continued to present problems.
On March 27th Martin was arrested along with recently demoted outfielder Ike Blessitt for using profanity in public during a skirmish outside of a local nightspot. Days later Martin clashed with Willie Horton and Campbell in the GM’s office after Horton left a spring training game early and quit the team, which lasted just one day.
Hawkins said that once between games of a doubleheader on a very hot Chicago day, Martin went into his office, closed the door, turned up the air conditioning, and fell asleep and then told me what happened.
“Jim Campbell was sitting behind me in the press box and in the first inning he said, ‘do you see our manager in the dugout?’” When I said I didn’t he called the Tiger dugout and told Dick Tracewski, ‘if I don’t see Billy in the dugout in five minutes you can tell him he’s been fired!’”
The final straw occurred when American League President Joe Cronin suspended Martin for three games at the end of August after the manager bragged that he had ordered pitchers Joe Coleman and Fred Scherman to throw spitballs to the Indians because Gaylord Perry had not been ejected for throwing greased balls.
Tiger GM Jim Campbell finally had enough.
On September 2, 1973, he fired Martin, with one year left on a reported $65,000 annual contract before telling the Detroit Free Press:
“From foul line to foul line Billy has done a good job. I have never once been critical of Billy’s managing and I’m not sorry I hired him. Billy made a contribution to our club and I appreciate that. But there were a lot of other extenuating circumstances.”
In his three years leading the Tigers, Martin compiled 248 victories and 204 losses for a .549 winning percentage.
Within a week Martin was hired to manage the Texas Rangers where he continued his colorful, roller coaster career at the helm.
Martin apparently never held grudges against Jim Campbell for his firing, and even donned the Olde English D a few years later when played himself during the filming at Tiger Stadium for the made for TV movie, “One in A Million: The Ron LeFlore Story.”
Ten years after his firing by Jim Campbell, Martin spoke fondly of his time in Detroit when he was interviewed Free Press sports columnist Mike Downey.
“What I remember most is the day we clinched the division (1972) when the fans broke down the right field screen and came storming onto the field. That’s my big memory of Detroit. Those great fans, busting down that fence. Hell yes, I remember Detroit. That place was good to me. If anything bad happened to me there, well, I’d just as soon pretend it didn’t.”
After his fifth firing by the Yankees in 1988, he remained on the team’s payroll as a special consultant while rumors began to circulate that Billy might return to manage the Yankees yet again in 1990.
But in the end, sadly Martin’s alcohol over indulgence likely proved fatal.
In the early evening hours of Christmas Day1989, Martin’s pickup truck skidded off an icy road near his country home in Fenton, New York, and plummeted 300 feet down an embankment, flipping over and landing on its right side. The 61-year-old Martin was killed in the accident, while his Detroit drinking buddy, bar owner Bill Reedy, was seriously injured. The two had been tipping a few at a local bar and it is still disputed as to who actually drove the truck that night.
If you are looking for an excellent Billy Martin biography, I highly recommend the New York Times bestseller, Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington.