The Book of the Week is “Billy Martin, Baseball’s Flawed Genius” by Bill Pennington, published in 2015. This biography documented not only Martin’s life, but how the culture of American baseball has changed through the decades.
Born in May 1928, Martin grew up in West Berkeley, California. His lower middle-class family consisted of a mother of Italian extraction, a stepfather of Irish extraction, and four siblings. He was passionate about playing baseball from the time he was a young child.
In his teen years, Martin was an amateur boxer at the local community center, and played on his high school basketball team. But he was mentored by minor-league and professional baseball players at his local baseball field, in James Kenney Park. He learned all the tricks, including the unethical ones.
At eighteen years old, the hot-tempered Martin was hired as a member of a minor league team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, thanks to mentor Casey Stengel– a baseball great– who spotted his doggedness and obvious talent. Most of the time, though, rather than play, he was assigned to loudly trash-talk the opposing teams in front of his team’s dugout. This was a valued activity in baseball in the 1940’s and 1950’s, practiced by teenagers all the way up to professionals.
Martin’s dream to play for the New York Yankees came true, starting in 1950. “There was free booze in every clubhouse in the country, and every stadium had a press room lounge where the drinks were complimentary… Players, coaches, reporters and managers” were no stranger to the clubby atmosphere.
Martin was a drinker with his buddies, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. However, Martin developed a reputation for getting into not only barroom brawls, but also fights with umpires– often kicking dirt on them– and getting thrown out of games. Through the years, he had trouble staying employed for more than three seasons at a time, as a player, scout, coach or manager on various teams. As a manager, his expertise lay in turning around losing teams.
In 1972, fans braved subfreezing cold weather overnight outside the stadium, standing in line to buy tickets to the final regular-season game of the Detroit Tigers, who of course made the playoffs, under Martin’s intense, win-at-all-costs management.
Martin taught his players how to steal opposing teams’ signals, and steal bases– even three at a time when the bases were loaded– plus how to bunt.
One edgy trick Martin got away with was executed by his Yankees in the last game of the 1976 World Series. The half-inning ended with a bad call, as a Yankees baseman “… caught the ball in stride [but too late] and then quickly ran off the field before the call was made.” In on the ruse, the team followed. The umpire wrongly called the safe runner out.
Later, the Bronx fans threw things onto the field, at the Kansas City Royals players. That was normal fan behavior into the 1970’s. Ejections by security were few and far between.
Furthermore, just as the last 1977 playoffs game was ending, fans who had run onto the field obstructed the last base runner from scoring until a group of ten police officers surrounded the runner to allow him to get to home plate. Exciting for its time: that player’s game-winning home run was videotaped in color from multiple camera angles.
Yet another bygone aspect of baseball included gratuitous violence. In the 1977 playoffs, “[George] Brett slid hard at third base… propelling him into [Graig] Nettles, whom he also shoved with a forearm to the chest. Nettles responded by kicking Brett in the ribs as he lay on the ground. Brett jumped up and threw a right hand punch that grazed the top of Nettles’ head and knocked off his cap… [unsurprisingly] the benches emptied…”
During the 1980 season, Martin taught his Oakland A’s pitchers how to get away with an illicit spitball. He told them to rub an excessive amount of soap on the inner thigh of their uniform. This would mix with their sweat. Rubbing the ball on it before pitching would give them an edge in striking out batters. At the time, a suspicious umpire would inspect body parts other than the thigh, so the pitcher wouldn’t get caught.
By the end of 1988, George Steinbrenner had owned the Yankees for fifteen years. During that period, he had changed managers fifteen times, five of which involved Billy Martin.
Read the book to learn of numerous episodes of Martin’s shenanigans on and off the field.