Billy was known for being a clutch baseball player and gritty manager. He was made famous for his outbursts, his feuds, and his flaws. But Billy is remembered for being hired and fired — a lot.
After Martin retired in 1961, he eventually found his calling: managing.
His first job was managing the Twins in 1969, and that is where his reputation as the “franchise fixer” started. In his first three managerial jobs, he took Minnesota from 7th place to 1st place, a below-.500 Tigers team to division contender three years in a row, and a newly relocated Rangers franchise legitimate. Keep in mind this was all before he managed the Yankees to a championship.
Billy preached fundamentals and discipline. He was seen as an innovator; he embraced the designated hitter when it was established in the American League, his teams often bunted, sacrificed and were aggressive on the base paths, and he utilized platoon players to take advantage of match-ups. This sometimes meant sitting veteran players, a very unpopular thing to do during this era.
His record with the above three teams was 482-410, but he was fired from all three. Why?
With Minnesota he got into a fight with one of his own players! (pitcher Dave Boswell). He kicked former US vice president Hubert Humphrey out of the clubhouse after a loss while he was visiting, embarrassing the Twins owner. He was also seen drinking heavily on road trips.
In Detroit Billy had a well-publicized feud with Tiger slugger Willie Horton. His on-field tirades were becoming more frequent, and even though fans loved them, Tigers ownership did not. He once called out the stadium organist in Oakland for supposedly distracting his players and accused the Baltimore scoreboard operator of stealing signs.
The last straw was when he told his pitchers to throw spitballs because Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry was not being called-out by umpires for throwing spitballs. Martin told the media this after the game and, because that was illegal, he was suspended. He was fired before the suspension was up.
In Texas his drinking got even worse and he was fired after he publicly criticized the owner for not knowing anything about baseball.
Do you realize how much of an a-hole you have to be, to be fired from three different teams in less than 5-years when your winning percentage is .540?
Billy was combative, argumentative, defiant, and especially did not like to be told how to do his job.
But he could manage.
The Yankees: Part I & II
Billy was a Yankee at heart. After he was traded to Kansas City in 1957, his playing career derailed because he just didn’t have the same passion for putting on a uniform without pinstripes. His heart was always in New York.
Steinbrenner wanted a splash managerial hire in the mid-’70s and he got exactly that with Billy.
Martin took over the Yankees during the 1975 season and, like he did at his previous destinations, started to turn the team around.
The Yankees won the pennant for the first time in over a decade in 1976 and won the 1977 World Series. But the Bronx was burning the entire time.
The Yankees’ biggest free agent signing of the ’70s was Reggie Jackson. As soon as Reggie arrived in the Bronx, he and Billy clashed.
Billy had a history of not getting along with his star player for one reason or the other (see Willie Horton in Detroit). Among things they feuded over: Billy refused to bat Reggie cleanup, Reggie was pulled from a game mid-inning at Fenway Park triggering a public dugout scuffle, and Billy did not like the interview Reggie gave to ‘Sport Magazine’ when he said “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”
A divide was created. It was Billy vs Reggie, which turned into Billy vs George.
It hit a boiling point in ’78 after the team fell far behind Boston in the division. The blow-up between Billy and Reggie this season happened after an embarrassing loss to Kansas City in extra innings. With the game tied in the 10th, Billy gave Reggie the bunt signal to advance Munson to second base. After one attempt, Martin reconsidered and took the sign off. Reggie defied his manager and continued to bunt, eventually popping-up his final attempt.
The Yankees lost in the 11th and dropped to 14-games behind Boston in the division. It was a low point for the team, but also the manager. The next day, Martin said:
I was shocked. I understood what he was doing. Here was a player defying me and his teammates. It stinks.
The bunting incident led Martin to suspend Reggie. Steinbrenner actually supported the decision, but a few days later Billy shot his way out of a job with these comments to the media regarding Reggie and George:
The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.
Billy resigned on July 24. He would have been fired had he not. Bob Lemon replaced him.
Billy’s outburst about Reggie made sense. His outburst towards George came out of nowhere because the owner had his back with the Reggie suspension. Steinbrenner said he was shocked to hear Billy’s comments because their working relationship had been so good recently.
Martin was going through some health issues at the time. He had also been upset about a clause in his contract that George insisted be put in that subjected Billy to fines if he made public comments critical of Steinbrenner or the front office.
Perhaps most importantly, Billy feared he lost the players in his clubhouse.
The Yankees epic turnaround began in late July. They stormed back to tie Boston, won the division tiebreaker game, and won the World Series. Billy just wasn’t there to manage it.
The circus surrounding Billy was not over however. Less than a week after resigning, it was announced at Old Timers Day that Martin was returning to manage the Yankees for the 1980 season. Keep in mind this is July 1978! The Yankees were announcing a future managerial hire for a year-and-a-half down the road.
The plan was for Martin to serve as a team advisor and then succeed Bob Lemon in 1980. Lemon would then become the general manager, replacing Cedric Tallis. Tallis was going to return to his previous duties as vice president and director of scouting.
With George, nothing goes to plan… But he loved the spectacle.
The Yankees struggled to start the ’79 season so George fired Lemon and brought back Billy early. Lemon didn’t get much rope for managing the historic ‘78 comeback.
The ‘79 season was sad and difficult. The Yankees finished in 4th place and Munson’s death in August devastated the team, especially Billy who was very close with Thurman.
After the season Martin was fired because he got into a fight with a marshmallow salesman at a hotel in Minneapolis.
According to Martin’s autobiography, the marshmallow man told Martin he didn’t deserve his Manager of the Year award. Martin responded by betting the man $500 he could beat him up. Martin won the bet.
Billy was unfortunately so hot-headed that he let a marshmallow salesman — one of the more ludicrous job titles I’ve ever heard of — get under his skin.
After this firing, Billy and the Yankees went on a brief hiatus.
Oakland hired Billy for the 1980 season and he once again got results.
“Billy Ball” — aggressive baseball with a small-ball twist — was made famous. Martin took the 100-loss A’s to 2nd place his first year, then the ALCS his second. Martin appeared on the cover of Time Magazine for his efforts, a rare feat for a baseball manager.
Although he had his team in the playoffs, the 1981 ALCS loss to the Yankees crushed Billy. The following year he wore-out his hometown welcome and was fired, but he was not out of work long.
The Yankees: Part III, IV & V
Billy was back in the Bronx for the 1983 season. Things got off to a jovial start but it did not last long.
The team finished 3rd despite winning 91-games. The season was highlighted by the George Brett pine tar incident but Billy was also suspended on two separate occasions for umpire abuse. In December Billy was replaced with Yogi.
There was no one incident that led to this firing; there was just general distraction among the team all year and Billy was always at the center.
After the Yankees were subpar under Yogi, Steinbrenner vowed he would at least give him the 1985 season to improve. Always a man of his word, George fired Yogi and replaced him with Billy early that season.
The Yankees were good in 1985. Rickey Henderson was a monster and Don Mattingly won the MVP. The team won 97-games but finished behind Toronto in the division.
Martin was a mess. After a losing streak in September effectively knocked them out of the playoff race, he fought Ed Whitson at a hotel bar in Baltimore. Whitson was well known among Yankees fans as being a great pitcher elsewhere who stunk once the Yankees signed him. In other words, he was the Carl Pavano of the 1980s.
Whitson, who apparently had martial arts training, kicked Billy’s ass, breaking his arm.
Billy was fired from the Yankees for the 4th time after the season.
Of this firing, George said:
The reason I took myself out of this thing was because I was simply fed up with everything that happened with Billy after the season. The barroom stuff was bad enough, but then he demanded to renegotiate his contract and made it sound like I was ungrateful to him.
Who else brought him back to manage four times? Who else paid half of his hotel bills that weren’t paid? Who else gave him a $200,000 loan to pay his back-income taxes? He tried to call my bluff and this is what has happened. I’m sorry it happened, but I just got fed up.
Unfortunately you can probably sense a pattern at this point. Billy clearly had drinking and anger problems and George was enabling him by repeatedly re-hiring him for the most prestigious job in baseball.
It almost ended at Billy 4. Martin remained close to the team as an advisor and in 1986 his number was retired. He said in his speech:
I may not have been the greatest Yankee to ever put on the uniform, but I was the proudest.
I don’t doubt his words.
George couldn’t resist temptation, hiring Billy for a 5th time in 1988. In May he was involved in yet another brawl, this time at a Dallas strip club. He also dealt with more on-field umpire issues and suspensions. A month later Steinbrenner fired him.
There were rumors of Billy VI for the 1990 season but Martin sadly died on Christmas Day 1989 in a drunk driving incident.
In a twisted way, Billy’s death — and George’s suspension from baseball operations — were the best things for the Yankees as an organization. They purged themselves of the 1980s and rebuilt in the 1990s into what we know them as today.
Podcast – A Brief History: You’re Fired, The Billy Martin Story