Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 5, 2015

Book Review: Billy The Best, Billy The Beast

To a dwindling number of fans who are old enough to recall the decade following World War II, when seven of ten World Series were contested entirely within the limits of three of Gotham’s boroughs, he is still remembered as the wiry second baseman invariably described by the New York tabloids as the “sparkplug” of the Yankees from the day he arrived in 1950 until his trade to Kansas City seven seasons later.

To long-time supporters of the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, A’s and of course the Yankees, he is still revered as a managerial genius who had a phenomenal ability to motivate players and to perceive great talent where others saw only journeymen. To these fans he will forever be the architect of “Billy Ball,” an aggressive style of play that in many ways foreshadowed the sport’s modern reliance on advanced metrics.

And to many casual fans of the Great Game, he is remembered as little more than a lout; a drunk and a womanizer with an unpredictable and explosive temper who made as many headlines for his barroom brawls as for any accomplishments either on the field or in the dugout.

None of those simple caricatures fully describe Billy Martin, because each of them is an accurate depiction of just one facet of a baseball lifer who was both complex and all too human. Now just in time for Opening Day, veteran sportswriter Bill Pennington is out with a comprehensive and ultimately sympathetic biography, “Billy Martin – Baseball’s Flawed Genius.” Unlike some previous attempts to chronicle Martin’s life, this one is written by an author who saw his subject up close during his lifetime.

Early in his award-winning career in journalism, Pennington was the Yankees beat reporter for Bergen County’s The Record. In his introduction Pennington recalls those days and the nature of his subject, writing “I had traveled all over the country with Billy. I had been threatened by him, almost beaten up by him. I had also been charmed by him, benefited from his natural graciousness, and enjoyed being in his charismatic presence for countless hours on the baseball trail….In that time I discovered that Billy was without question one of the most magnetic, entertaining, sensitive, humane, brilliant, generous, insecure, paranoid, dangerous, irrational, and unhinged people I had ever met.”

While most fans think immediately of his four turns as manager of the Yankees in the 70s and 80s whenever Martin’s name is mentioned, Pennington covers all of Martin’s life, beginning with an impoverished childhood from which his father was largely absent and in which his domineering and foul-mouthed mother played an outsized role. Born in 1928, Martin grew up in the hardscrabble streets of West Berkeley. He could look up at the surrounding hillsides of Berkeley and neighboring San Francisco and see green lawns and middle class homes, but for the young Martin and his friends about the only escape was the ball field at nearby Kenney Park. At a time when the Cardinals in St. Louis represented the Great Game’s westernmost outpost, Martin declared from an early age his determination to one day play for the New York Yankees.

In time he did just that, after starring for his high school team and then apprenticing in the minors, eventually in nearby Oakland, where he first fell under the sway of Casey Stengel. Stengel managed the Oakland Oaks to the Pacific Coast League title in 1948, and the 20-year old Martin was by his side whenever he wasn’t playing second base, soaking up all of the baseball knowledge that he could. His success earned Stengel a contract to manage the Yankees in 1949, and one year later his protégé followed him across the country to the Bronx.

While Martin’s career numbers as a player appear no better than average, he excelled in the postseason. In 28 World Series games he batted .333 with 19 RBIs and 5 home runs. His World Series slugging percentage was .566. His teammate and close friend Mickey Mantle, by way of comparison, had a career World Series slugging percentage of .535. Martin made but a single error at second base in the postseason. He saved Game 7 of the 1952 Series with a shoestring catch of a pop fly off the bat of Jackie Robinson, and was named MVP of the 1953 Series after batting .500.

But he also partied hard, and was involved in altercations both on and off the field. Fearing damage to the team’s image, Yankee management traded Martin to Kansas City in 1957, and his playing career began a downward slide. It ended in Minnesota in 1961, where he immediately moved into a new roles, first as a scout, then as a coach, and eventually as a minor league manager.

His first major league management opportunity came with the Twins in 1969. There he turned a team that had finished below .500 the previous season into the Western Division champions. But there he also got into a bar fight with two of his players, which ultimately cost him his job. He worked similar magic with the Detroit Tigers from 1971 to 1973 and with the Oakland A’s in 1981. He took the moribund Texas Rangers from last place to second in 1974. But at every stop there were umpire baiting incidents and disagreements with players on the field, and repeated altercations off it, that eventually led to Martin’s dismissal.

Pennington covers all of that, and of course devotes much of the book to Billy I through Billy IV, as the New York tabloids came to describe the surreal relationship between Martin and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, which led to the serial hiring and firing of the man who wore uniform number one as New York’s skipper. The author’s copious research allows him to document discussions between the two men early in the winter of 1989 that appeared to presage a Billy V sometime during the following season. But within weeks Martin was dead, killed in an alcohol-fueled auto accident on Christmas Day.

In addition to interviewing more than 225 sources Pennington received unprecedented cooperation from Martin’s family. Both of his children and all four of his wives spoke with the author. His widow Jill, who is still warmly welcomed at every Old Timers’ Day in the Bronx, agreed to repeated and detailed interviews. The result is a thorough and nuanced examination of Billy Martin. If Pennington is ultimately a sympathetic chronicler of his subject’s life, he still tells the full story; and does so with a style that is both compelling and enjoyable.

It is a tale at once great and ghastly. It is the story of a ball player who rose from poverty to live out his dream on the diamond; an account of a man who was an unparalleled master in the dugout, but also a man ultimately unable to master his own demons.

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Responses

  1. Great review. Billy Martin always fascinated me. I’ll have to go pick this one up.
    Nicely done,
    -Bill


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