A Look Back

The Legend of Billy the Kid

This evening (12/14) at 8 pm ET, the MLB Network will be airing a special on the life and times of  Billy Martin (aka Billy the Kid), one of the greatest managers and one of the most troubled persons of his era. It’s appropriately called “MLB Network Presents: Billy”. Bronx Pinstripes had the privilege of an early screening of the 90-minute documentary/biography and I can say the finished product is an excellent look at Martin’s complex life. It’s narrated by actor John Turturro, who played Martin in the 2007 ESPN production of “The Bronx is Burning”.

Among those interviewed are Martin’s ex-wife Gretchen, widow Jill, his son Billy Jr., his lawyer/agent Eddie Sapir, former players Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, and Ron Guidry, Hall of Fame manager and friend Tony La Russa, and former Yankees beat writers Henry Hecht, Moss Klein,  and (biographer) Bill Pennington. They draw an accurate picture of the enigma that was Billy Martin (Pennington’s book “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Most Flawed Genius” is a must-read).

For those Yankees fans that missed out on the Billy Martin era, you missed out on a lot. And, if you became a Yankees fan when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were leading the Yankees to the playoffs every year, you missed out on the years when owner George Steinbrenner was not the mellow fellow that he was in the new millennium. Their relationship was as combustible as it could get. They both loved each other and drove each other crazy until death did they part.

But, long before Alfred Manuel Pesano Jr. became the Yankees manager, who he became was forged in the lower class neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., where he grew up.

Billy’s father abandoned the family shortly after Billy was born. The name “Billy Martin” came about when kids in the neighborhood misunderstood his grandmother, who would refer to him in Italian as “Bello” (beautiful) and thought she said “Billy”. His mother would eventually change the family’s last name to Martin.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Martin quickly developed a reputation for his athleticism, especially baseball, and his fiery temper that he inherited from his mother. Unfortunately, it was that temper that cost him a Major League contract straight out of high school. He was kicked off the baseball team in his senior year after a fight broke out in one of his high school games.

After a stint in the Pioneer League, Martin signed a deal with the minor league Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. His manager was Casey Stengel, who was enamored of Martin’s skills, hustle and grit. It was the beginning of a father/son relationship that eventually ended up in New York.

Prior to the 1949 season, the Yankees hired the “Ol’ Professor” to manage the ballclub and he had the team trade for Martin the following season. Martin was an instant hit in New York and became very close to fellow youngsters Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.

Though he wasn’t much of a hitter during the regular season, Martin quickly solidified his reputation as a big-game player. He excelled in the World Series with both his bat and his glove. The second baseman’s 1952 World Series-saving catch in the 7th Game vs. Brooklyn has lived on in highlight reels for decades. Martin was also the MVP of the 1953 World Series.

In addition to baseball, Martin, Mantle and Ford loved the nightlife, the ladies, and alcoholic beverages. The Three Musketeers were inseparable during the season, often breaking curfew and having to sneak back to their hotel rooms before Stengel caught them. They spent a lot of time together in the offseason as well, hunting and fishing. For the most part, they managed to stay out of trouble. That is until one night in New York City’s Copacabana Club in 1957.

Martin, Mantle, Ford, Yogi Berra and Hank Bauer and their wives were out celebrating Billy the Kid’s 29th birthday. The story goes that Sammy Davis Jr. was performing and was being heckled with racist remarks by a group from a bowling team. The Yankees group told them to pipe down, and soon tempers flared. A short time later, one of the bowlers was out cold on the floor with a broken jaw and a concussion.

Though it was believed that Bauer, a former Marine, threw the damaging punch, it was the last straw for GM George Weiss concerning Martin’s behavior and his perceived influence on Mantle and Ford. In June, Martin was traded to the Kansas City A’s as part of a seven-player deal. It was a huge blow to Martin’s psyche. Not only was he leaving the only place he ever wanted to play but he felt betrayed by Stengel, his father figure, who he thought could have done more to stop the trade. It caused a rift between the pair that lasted for years.

Martin’s career was never the same. He split the next four seasons between five teams and retired after the 1961 season. He spent the next seven years in the Minnesota Twins organization as a scout, third base coach in the Majors, and manager of the team’s Denver affiliate. In 1969, the Twins gave him his first big-league managerial job.

Martin instilled an aggressive baserunning style and confidence in his players. He mentored future Hall of Fame member Rod Carew who, like Martin, played second base. Carew stole home a remarkable seven times that season. The Twins went from 79 wins the year before to 97 wins under Martin, and won the AL West in the first year of divisional play. The team was swept by Baltimore in the best-of-five ALCS, but the future was bright. Only Martin wouldn’t be a part of it.

During the season, Martin and the Twins’ ace, Dave Boswell, did not see eye-to-eye. In August, it came to a head outside of the bar where the team had been drinking. Martin knocked Boswell out and opened a gash that needed 20 stitches to close. Perhaps if the Twins had advanced to the World Series things might have been different, but owner Calvin Griffith fired Martin after the season.

After being out of baseball for a year, Martin was hired to be the skipper of the 1971 Detroit Tigers. Just like the western division Twins, the Tigers of the AL East were coming off of a 79-win season when Billy the Kid came to town. And, just like the Twins, Martin turned the Tigers’ fortune around. The team won 91 games, including 19 of their last 28, to finish in second place. A year later they captured the division with 86 wins in a season shortened by a 13-day players strike in April.

The Tigers lost to the Oakland A’s, 2-1, in a heart-breaking fifth and final game of the ALCS. The A’s won, in part, by taking a page from Martin’s playbook – Reggie Jackson stole home in Game 5.

As so often happened in Martin’s career, he seemed to get bored with his current status and it affected him on and off the field. He began to have rifts with the front office and so after only 71 wins and 137 games in the 1973 season, Martin was fired. But, his unemployment only lasted a week. Texas Rangers’ owner Bob Short fired Whitey Herzog and hired Martin to finish out the last 23 games of the season.

“(Billy)…was the best game manager in the history of the game.” – Tony LaRussa

Though he could be irascible and sullen at times, Martin’s game preparation, strategy, and execution was far above most managers. It’s what kept getting him hired despite some speed bumps along the way. Martin’s magic continued with Texas in 1974, improving from 57 wins to 84 and a second place finish in the AL West. But, trouble, which Martin once said was his middle name, followed him again.

In 1975, Martin clashed with new owner Brad Corbett in the silliest way – Martin wanted “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” played during the 7th inning stretch. Corbett wanted to hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. Martin told the employee who was responsible for taking care of it that he had better play the song he wanted to hear. Corbett went ballistic when the song came on in the 7th inning and fired Martin after 95 games.

But, with Billy Martin, when one managerial window closed, another opened. George Steinbrenner heard about Martin’s firing and responded by firing manager Bill Virdon, who was in his second year with the Yankees.  For Martin, it was a dream come true. His hiring put him back in the uniform he had never wanted to take off and back in the city he had never wanted to leave.

Billy the Kid, Round I

With an improved roster from the prior year, Martin led the 1976 Yankees to their first division title and their first post-season appearance since 1964. Chris Chambliss‘ dramatic home run in the ALCS advanced them to the World Series. But the team encountered the Cincinnati Reds, aka “The Big Red Machine”. A year earlier, the Reds had defeated the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game classic World Series. The Yankees were no match and were swept in four games.

Determined not to lose in the playoffs again, Steinbrenner courted and signed free agent outfielder Reggie Jackson prior to the 1977 season. Martin didn’t want Jackson, preferring contact hitter Joe Rudi instead. Steinbrenner liked Jackson’s tremendous home run power and fan appeal. It was the start of a wild triumvirate that played out in front of millions of fans and the entire country.

The regular season was a bumpy ride, with Martin steadfastly refusing to bat Jackson at cleanup. He pulled Jackson out of right field in the middle of an inning at Fenway Park for what he perceived as a lack of hustle. If not for the coaches and players separating them in the dugout, the two would have fought in front of a national television audience.

Ultimately, the team began winning consistently when Martin relented and moved Jackson to the cleanup spot. The Yankees won 41 of their final 54 games and got back to the World Series. It was then that Jackson earned the moniker “Mr. October” when he hit three home runs in the sixth and decisive game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In defeating their old rivals, the Yankees captured their first championship in 15 years. George, Billy, and Reggie were one big happy family, but good ol’ trouble lurked around the corner.

The Yankees got off to a bad start in the 1978 season and found themselves falling farther and farther behind Boston in the AL East. The tension between Jackson and Martin and between Steinbrenner and Martin continued.  Things came to a head in a game against the White Sox when Martin gave an incredulous Jackson the bunt sign. With two strikes on him, the bunt sign was removed, but Jackson bunted anyway and struck out.

Martin exploded and wanted Jackson suspended. Steinbrenner agreed with his manager and handed Jackson a five-day ban. But upon Jackson’s return to the team, Martin found out that Steinbrenner had talked to White Sox owner Bill Veeck about trading Martin for Chicago’s manager Bob Lemon. In an O’Hare Airport rant, Martin told reporters, “One’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other (Steinbrenner) is convicted.”

Knowing that Martin was about to be fired for his comments, his agent (Sapir) quickly had him resign due to health reasons so that Steinbrenner would have to pay him. Though Martin technically resigned, the fans could read between the lines and sided with the “everyman” Martin. That led to one of the wildest chapters in Yankees history.

On Old Timers’ Day, Martin was introduced to the crowd with the news that he would be returning as the team’s manager in 1980. Martin called it “the greatest moment of his career”. The fans ate it up

Meanwhile, Lemon had been hired by Steinbrenner after Veeck let him go and the Yankees made one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history. After topping the Royals for the third straight year in the ALCS, they defeated the Dodgers in six games for back-to-back World Series titles.

Billy the Kid, Round II

The 1979 season was no picnic in the Bronx. Goose Gossage broke his thumb in a brawl with Cliff Johnson. Lemon’s soul had been crushed when his youngest son had died in an auto accident during the off-season. After a 34-31 start, Steinbrenner decided to bring back Martin early, even though Martin had punched out a reporter.

The team was playing a little better (24-14) under Martin, but on August 2, team captain Thurman Munson was killed while practicing takeoffs and landings with his plane. The remainder of the season didn’t matter to anyone, but Billy wouldn’t get the chance to look forward to Spring Training.

In a Minnesota bar, Martin had the unfortunate luck of running into marshmallow salesman Joseph Cooper. And, it was Cooper’s misfortune to be on the other end of Martin’s fist. Billy the Kid was fired once again.

California Here I Come

Before the Yankees could hire him again, Martin became the manager of his hometown Oakland A’s. With young up-and-coming stars like Rickey Henderson, excitement and fans returned to the Oakland Alameda Coliseum.

The A’s won 54 games in 1979, but under “Billy Ball” the team won 83 in 1980. A year later, in a strike-interrupted season, the team won their first 11 games, made the playoffs and won three straight games over Kanas City in the first round to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees. Martin would have liked nothing better than to exact some revenge, but the Yankees won the best-of-five series in three straight games.

While Martin’s on-field reputation continued to gain strength, so did his off-the-field reputation. He was having trouble with the IRS and while married to a local woman, Heather, he also had a girlfriend (Jill Guiver) who didn’t know Martin was married. (Writers didn’t expose such things back then.) And, there were the usual problems with the front office. He claimed the A’s had verbally agreed to a 10-year contract but were reneging on it. After the 1982 season and only 68 wins, Martin was fired once again.

Billy the Kid, Round III

In January 1983, the George and Billy show was reunited for the third time. Martin’s contract made him the highest paid manager in history. In his third time around as the Yankees head honcho, the team won 91 games, a 12-win improvement from the 1982 season. But, Billy was fired once again.

Contributing to his downfall was the discovery of his wife and girlfriend. He also made Henry Hecht of the NY Daily News his personal whipping boy, not allowing the players to talk with him or they would incur his wrath.

Billy the Kid, Round IV

The Yankees won 87 games under Yogi Berra in 1984, only good enough for third place in the division, but  Steinbrenner assured Yogi he was good to go for the 1985 season. As it turned out, that promise lasted only 13 games, and Billy was back for the fourth time.

Things were different this time around, though. There weren’t many players left from Martin’s previous regimes and the current roster wasn’t happy about the drama they knew followed Martin everywhere. And, Billy had changed too. He took losses even harder than before, and his drinking had reportedly increased.

Pitcher Ed Whitson struggled during the ’85 season and, like Dave Boswell before him, didn’t see eye-to-eye with Martin. It culminated in a brawl that landed Martin with a broken arm. Despite a 97-win season (91 under Martin) and a finish just two games behind Toronto, Steinbrenner let Martin go again.

Lou Piniella was named manager of the 1986 team and Martin became a special assistant to Steinbrenner and a part-time broadcaster. He was also honored with a day at Yankee Stadium in which a plaque was dedicated to him in Monument Park.

Billy the Kid, Round V

It was hard to believe it could happen again, but Billy Martin indeed became the manager of the Yankees for a fifth time in 1988. Piniella was kicked upstairs to the GM position. Martin was married to Jill Guiver, the girlfriend he had on the side during his third marriage. But, some things never changed.

In early May, Martin was reportedly attacked by a pair of men at a bar in Texas and badly beaten. (The account of what happened was later disputed by a witness.) He nearly lost his left ear, which required 40 stitches to close. Before being treated, Martin returned to the team hotel where a fire alarm had gone off earlier. Unfortunately for Martin, everyone was standing outside, including Steinbrenner who was on the trip.

The season went downhill from there. Martin clashed with Piniella and Steinbrenner, openly criticized his players, and had poor relationships with some of them. It all led to his final firing by the Yankees after 68 games.

Billy the Kid, Round VI?

Martin had already been told by Steinbrenner that he was going to hire him once again at the Yankees’ manager for the 1990 season. On Christmas afternoon 1989, he and his good friend Bill Reedy departed the Martins’ farm in upstate New York and went out drinking. As they arrived home, their car slid on the wet roadway and crashed down a ravine right near the farm’s driveway entrance.

Martin’s neck was broken and he died at the scene.  Reedy, who suffered a broken hip, initially said he was the driver. But, Reedy later recanted his story stating that he was trying to protect Billy, whom he didn’t realize had already passed away.

Jill Martin didn’t buy Reedy’s explanation and went to court to prove her husband wasn’t the driver. The outcome of two trials confirmed that Reedy was indeed the driver.

No matter who was behind the wheel, it sadly came as no surprise to Billy’s friends, former players, and colleagues that alcohol played a part in his death. A tragic life had come to a tragic end.

The Yankees retired Martin’s No. 1, but to this day it’s still a mystery why Martin has not been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. No one has given a concrete answer.

Sweeny Murti, the Yankees longtime reporter for WFAN radio, recently commented on Instagram that by now Martin would have been in his 17th go-round as Yankees’ manager. Had Martin not tragically perished, he likely would have donned the Yankees’ uniform as their manager, at least one more time. If not the Yankees, he might have caught on somewhere else. Either way, he left behind quite a legacy.

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