Say what you will about Billy Martin—and many people certainly did—the brash and combative baseballist was indisputably a winner. In his first five seasons with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, the Bombers won five pennants and four World Series, with Martin batting a collective .333 in the Fall Classic. He saved the 1952 Series by snagging Jackie Robinson’s windblown pop-up with the bases full in the seventh game, then stole the show the following October, again against Brooklyn, batting .500 and setting records for most hits and total bases in a six-game series.
The skinny scrapper’s reputation for brawling and carousing with best buddies Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, however, earned him a ticket to Kansas City during the 1957 season. On November 20, 1957, “Billy the Kid” was traded along with four other players to Detroit as part of a 13-player deal. Although KC was considered the Lower Slobbovia of baseball, he initially was unhappy over coming to Detroit. “They just can’t throw us around from one club to another without us having a say-so,” he complained. But they could and they did.
Despite the presence of such stars as Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Charlie Maxwell, Jim Bunning, and Frank Lary, Detroit was regarded as an underachieving team, so Martin was generally viewed as being the right kind of guy to “twist the Tigers’ tail,” as one magazine put it. With smooth-fielding Frank Bolling ensconced at second base, longtime shortstop Kuenn agreed to move to center field, a position he had never played before, to make room for Martin. The changes worked well enough, as Martin had greater range than Kuenn and demonstrated a stronger-than-expected arm. “We lacked a natural leader,” manager Jack Tighe said, “and that’s Martin. We knew we would get him into the lineup some place.”
Martin’s Detroit debut was unimpressive, at least for the first few innings. On opening day at Chicago, he struck out in his first three at-bats against Billy Pierce. In the top of the seventh, however, with the score knotted at three runs apiece, Martin delivered a typically clutch hit, driving in Bunning for the game-winning run with a single off reliever Ray Moore.
The following afternoon, Martin contributed a couple hits as the Tigers scored three runs in the ninth to win again, 5-4. Martin went through the locker room, slapping players on the back and yelling, “Great to be a winner, isn’t it? I told you.”
Sportswriters noticed the newcomer’s impact on the Tigers. For one thing, the club was louder. Martin assumed the role of head bench jockey, and his usually mild-mannered teammates followed his lead. He even led the squad in sing-alongs on bus rides, going so far as to hand out song sheets. “Singing’s a good way to relax,” he explained “and you have to know how to relax.”
“I knew his enthusiasm for the game would rub off on people,” Tighe said. “This fellow talks about winning, and fellows believe him. You can’t instruct him on that.”
After that brief, promising start, the winning and singing petered out. The Tigers, a mediocre club for most of the ‘50s, reverted to form. Tighe was fired and replaced by Bill Norman; collectively they steered the team to a 77-77 record and a fifth-place finish in 1958. Martin turned 30 during the season. Typically slotted second in the batting order, he hit .255, just a couple points below his lifetime average. Hobbled by a torn leg muscle, he played 131 games and led the loop with 13 sacrifice bunts.
After the season, Martin was traded with pitcher Al Cicotte to Cleveland for pitchers Don Mossi and Ray Narleski and shortstop Ossie Alvarez. Martin went on to play for Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minnesota. His final big-league game as a player came against the Tigers. On October 1, 1961, he went 0-for-4 against Paul Foytack as Detroit whipped the Twins, 8-3, in Minnesota.
Martin would re-emerge as a manager—first with the Twins, and then with the Rangers, Tigers, Athletics, and a record four separate stints with the Yankees—creating excitement and winning pennants all along the way. But those are stories for another day. This story will conclude with one of Martin’s quotes from the summer of ’58. “You get used to winning,” he told sportswriter Irv Goodman. “You like it. It’s great feeling. You can’t help feeling it, and you can’t help feeling the comedown.”