A .257-hitting second baseman for 11 seasons, the most significant of them with the New York Yankees from 1950-57, Martin excelled in the World Series, batting .333. He made a bases-loaded, game-saving, shoe-top catch off Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson in the seventh game in 1952. The next year, his record 12th hit drove in the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 6 as the Yankees won their fifth consecutive Series.
As a manager, Martin developed a reputation as a genius who could turn almost any kind of team into a winner. But he was also considered a long-term disaster whose erratic personal behavior, usually because of drinking too much, and his inability to handle veteran players or young pitchers led to early dismissals.
Besides managing the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Oakland Athletics, he piloted the Yankees — five times. His relationship with owner George Steinbrenner became so self-destructive that it hindered his effectiveness as a pilot. In 16 seasons as a manager, Martin won five division titles (with four franchises), two pennants, and one World Series.
As a player, Martin distinguished himself mostly for an on-field truculence that won him nicknames like “The Brat” and “Billy the Kid” and an off-field penchant for late-night carousing, usually with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in tow. But during Martin’s tenure on the team, the Yankees won. The only season between 1950 and 1957 they failed to take the American League pennant was 1954, when Martin was serving in the military.
Weiss blamed Martin for the infamous altercation at the Copacabana, where several Yankees had gathered to celebrate Martin’s 29th birthday on May 16, 1957. While it was Hank Bauer who decked a patron in the nightclub and Mantle and Ford were hardly unwilling participants in Martin’s nightlife, Weiss dismissed the protestations of manager Casey Stengel and traded Martin to Kansas City a month later.
In his 4½ seasons after leaving New York, Martin bounced from the Athletics to the Tigers to the Indians to the Reds to the Brewers to the Twins. The biggest stir he created was an assault on Jim Brewer that resulted in a broken jaw for the Cubs lefthander and a lawsuit that took nine years to settle.
Alfred Manuel Martin was born on May 16, 1929 in Berkeley, California. His mother, Jenny, was tough and street-wise. His father, also named Alfred Manuel Martin, was a philanderer whom Jenny tossed out of their lives before Billy was born. Martin did not see his father until he was 15 and then only to tell him he wanted nothing to do with him. Martin grew up in the western flatlands of the East Bay city, culturally a million miles from the famous university up the hill. A rough street kid, he found an outlet for his aggressiveness in baseball, which he started playing on the sandlot at nine.
After graduation from Berkeley High School in 1946, he played for Idaho Falls in the Class D Pioneer League, hitting .254 in 32 games.
Late in the 1947 season, Martin joined the Oakland Oaks and played for the first time under Stengel, the team’s manager who was to become his chief advocate and a surrogate for the father he never had. Stengel became the Yankees manager in 1949 and the next year brought Martin to New York, where he hit .250 in 34 games. While Martin’s reputation for brashness preceded him, Joe DiMaggio befriended him.
In 1951, DiMaggio retired, but Mantle had arrived, and the stage was set for the successes and tempestuousness of Martin’s career with the Yankees. His best season was 1953 when he batted .257 and knocked in 75 runs, the only time he surpassed 50 RBI, and then starred in the World Series against Brooklyn.
Martin batted between .242 and .267 in 10 seasons (The exception was 1955, when he hit .300 in only 20 games.). After retiring as a player in 1961, Martin coached with the Twins and managed for a year at Triple-A Denver. Promoted to the parent Twins in 1969, he won a divisional title with a 97-65 record. But he was wasn’t given a second season with Minnesota as he was fired, primarily because he had worked over pitcher Dave Boswell after being accidentally hit while trying to break up a barroom fight. Martin’s next stop was Detroit (1971-73). The Tigers won a divisional title in 1972, but Martin was fired late in his third season for ordering his pitchers to throw at opposing batters in retaliation for Gaylord Perry’s spitballs. Martin finished 1973 in Texas, took the club from last to second in 1974 and was fired in 1975. Then came the Bronx psychodrama starring Martin and Steinbrenner, pitting a manager, whose greatest needs were for approval and wearing a Yankee uniform. and an owner who was a master at manipulating the insecure by withholding approval and had a seemingly compulsive need to fire managers. Martin took over the Yankees for the last 56 games of 1975 and finished third. The next year, he led the Yankees to a 97-62 record and into the World Series, where they were swept by the Reds.
Even though the Yankees had won their first pennant in 12 years, Steinbrenner made several moves over the offseason that Martin didn’t like, chiefly being the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. It was only a matter of time before these giant egos clashed. Jackson blathered about “the magnitude of me” and celebrated himself as “the straw that stirs the drink.” Players plotted against Martin with the front office. The madness in 1977 came to head in Boston when Martin and Jackson had to be restrained . Despite all the troubles, the Yankees won the pennant with a 100-62 record and then took their first World Series in 15 years by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.
In 1978, it was more of the Bronx Zoo, with the Yankees languishing behind Boston, Jackson ignoring signs, Steinbrenner threatening to trade Martin to the White Sox for Bob Lemon, and Martin drinking heavily. The end came in late July after Martin told reporters “the two of them deserve each other – one’s a born liar [Jackson], the other’s convicted [Steinbrenner].”
A tearful Martin resigned the next day. But this was soon followed by an announcement on Old-Timers Day that successor Lemon would move to the front office in 1980, with Martin returning to the dugout.That schedule was moved up, and Martin was back managing for the last 95 games of 1979. In October, he got into a fistfight with a marshmallow salesman named Joseph Cooper and was fired by Steinbrenner for the second time. What ensued was a hiatus in Oakland, where Martin perfected the running game that came to be known as Billyball and won the A.L. West in the split season of 1981. But he fell afoul of management in 1982 and was fired after the team plummeted to 68-94. Martin had overused his young pitchers to the point where they all developed sore arms. He came back to manage the Yankees for all of 1983 (finishing third with a 91-71 record), most of 1985, and almost half of 1988.
He was a special consultant to Steinbrenner when he was killed on Christmas Day 1989 in a one-vehicle accident near his home in Fenton, New York. Billy Martin was 61.