Billy Martin was one of baseball’s most fascinating characters from the time he left the tough side of Berkeley, California, and entered pro ball in 1946. Martin played for Casey Stengel with the Oakland Oaks in 1948. Stengel loved him like the son he never had and admired his aggressive play. When Stengel became manager in New York, he had the Yankees obtain Martin.
Martin’s Yankee career began in 1950 and ended abruptly on June 15, 1957, and Stengel couldn’t do anything to save him. The trading of Martin and several other players to Kansas City on that date followed a highly publicized nightclub scuffle involving several Yankee stars, including Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer. Martin was blamed for the mess.
Martin was a fine Yankee second baseman and Stengel’s sparkplug. He lacked the ability of close friends Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, but he did whatever it took to win. The only year New York didn’t win the pennant while Martin was a Yankee was the year he was in the Army, 1954. His alertness saved the seventh game of the 1952 World Series for New York, 4-2. With two outs in the seventh and the bases full of Dodgers, Jackie Robinson lifted a pop-up near the pitcher’s mound that seemed to freeze the Yankee infield – until Martin raced in to make a lunging catch.
In the Yankees-Dodgers rematch in 1953, Martin was the World Series MVP. He hit .500, set a six-game Series record with 12 hits, and singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in the finale.
He enjoyed his best season in 1956, making the All-Star team and setting personal highs in homers (15) and RBI (75). He bounced around – and brawled around – the majors for four years after his 1957 Yankee departure. While playing for the Reds in 1960, Martin attacked Cubs rookie Jim Brewer during a game and broke Brewer’s cheekbone.
Martin was with Minnesota when he retired as a player. He remained in the Minnesota organization, becoming the Twins’ third-base coach and then, in 1969, their manager. He beat up Twins pitcher Dave Boswell and ignored owner Calvin Griffith, and he got himself fired in spite of winning the AL West title.
Martin repeated the pattern with Detroit (1971-73), winning the AL East in 1972, and Texas (1973-75), where he finished an amazing second in 1974 to capture the first of his four Manager of the Year awards. But maintaining the affection of management was a problem for him.
By the time Martin got to New York in August 1975, he was recognized as one of the best managers in the game, and he led the Yankees to a surprisingly easy 1976 pennant. Then owner George Steinbrenner signed Reggie Jackson, and the relative peace of the Yankee clubhouse became imperiled. During a series in Boston, Martin and Jackson almost came to blows as a national TV audience watched. But the Yankees won the 1977 World Championship all the same.
In July 1978, however, Martin suspended Jackson for bunting against orders, and later told the press that Jackson and Steinbrenner were liars. Martin was forced to resign. He returned to the Yankee helm in July 1979, only to be fired again in October after punching out a marshmallow salesman.
Martin then managed at Oakland (1980-82), where his “Billy Ball” – characterized as featuring the running game, the hit-and-run, and the suicide squeeze, but also including a league-leading total of home runs – revived an A’s franchise that in 1981 won the AL West.
Martin was fired by the A’s, hired by the Yankees (1983), fired by the Yankees, hired by the Yankees (1985), fired by the Yankees, hired by the Yankees (1988), and – after yet another nightclub brawl – fired by the Yankees once again. The five terms managing one club tied the major league record.