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November 22, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Billy and George

by Jay Jaffe

 

The pairing is straight out of the classic Miller Light TV commercial, the most famous Odd Couple of their era in baseball, a poor street tough from a broken home and a child of privilege and wealth, united by their volatility and their indomitable will to win but unable to coexist in each other's company long enough to share the fruits of victory more than once. Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner share space on the new Expansion Era Hall of Fame ballot to be voted upon at the upcoming Winter Meetings, and it's no stretch to suggest that both men, now deceased, could join the ranks of the Cooperstown immortals together.

To review: The 12 candidates on the ballot—Martin, Steinbrenner, Marvin Miller and Pat Gillick as well as eight former players—will be voted upon by a 16-member panel reminiscent of the old Veterans Committtee which was phased out with a radical expansion in 2001 and then revived this past summer with an announcement which explicitly avoided the term "Veterans Committee." The panel includes Hall of Fame members (Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith), major league executives past and present (Bill Giles, David Glass, Andy MacPhail and Jerry Reinsdorf), and media members (Bob Elliot, Tim Kurkjian, Ross Newhan and Tom Verducci). To gain entry, candidates need to receive at least 75 percent of the vote. Nowhere in the rules is there mention limiting the number of candidates for whom an individual can vote.

Best known for his five stints (!) with the Yankees, Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin managed four other teams as well during a career spread of 16 (sometimes partial) seasons spread out over 20 years from 1969-88. During that time, he compiled a 1,253-1,013 record, good for a .553 winning percentage, reached the playoffs five times, and won two pennants and one World Series. He was a master at turning teams around on a dime, as well as a strategic genius whose style differed radically from, say, Earl Weaver, but he invariably wore out his welcome thanks to a tempestuous nature exacerbated by alcoholism, triggering verbal battles with owners and players (most notably Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson), some of which spilled into actual brawls. 

After an 11-year big-league career as a player which began in the Bronx in 1950 and ended in Minnesota in 1961, Martin joined the Twins organization, first as a scout (1962-64), and then as a coach (1965-68) before taking over the job of managing the team's Triple-A Denver Bears affiliate early in the 1968 season. He graduated to the Twins' managerial job in 1969, and won a division title in his inaugural season, piloting a club that featured future Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew as well as other talented notables like Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Jim Perry. Yet Martin was dismissed following the season because he'd beaten up ace pitcher Dave Boswell to the point that the latter needed 20 stitches.

After sitting out the 1970 season, Martin was hired by the Tigers, whom he pushed to 91 wins, 12 more than the year before, in his first year on the job. He won a division title in his second year, one where the players' strike ate up the first week of the season, which was never replayed, causing the 85-70 Red Sox to fall half a game short of the 86-70 Tigers, the single worst scheduling screw job in baseball history. Martin was fired late in 1973 after ordering his pitchers to throw at Indians hitters in retaliation for Gaylord Perry's spitballs.

Almost immediately he landed a job with the Rangers, who'd gone 48-91 under Herzog and his interim replacement, and while the team finished a godawful 57-105, they vaulted to 84-76 the next season, their first winning campaign since moving from Washington to Texas. Again, by the middle of the next season, Martin was gone as the team underperformed, and again, he landed a job almost immediately, this time with the Yankees, who had fired Bill Virdon in-season. In the view of Mike Shropshire, who covered the Rangers beat for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during the mid-'70s and later distilled his accounts into the hilarious tomes Seasons in Hell and The Last Real Season, once Martin saw the writing on the wall for Virdon, he deliberately exacerbated conflicts with his players in Texas in an effort to free himself to come home to the Bronx and the one job that mattered more to him than any other: manager of the Yankees. Martin had spent the bulk of his playing career in pinstripes, and it was for the Yankees he'd enjoyed his brightest moments, particularly when it mattered: he hit .333/.371/.566 with five homers in the four World Series in which he had an at-bat (he was limited to a pinch-running appearance in the other in 1951). The Yankees won three of those four series, and had a series MVP award been given back then (it began in 1955), he'd have won at least one.

Martin's task was to restore glory to a franchise which hadn't been in a World Series since 1964, and he did so in short order, taking the Yankees to the AL pennant in 1976 and winning the World Series the following year. He resigned in mid-1978 after taking an unsuccessful swing at Jackson in the dugout during a nationally televised game; under Bob Lemon, the Yankees would overcome their 10-game deficit behind the Red Sox and go on to repeat as champions. In a twisted love-hate relationship with Steinbrenner, Martin would go on to be hired and fired four more times by the Yankees (1979, 1983, 1985, 1988), completing just one full season and never taking them to another postseason despite racking up 91 wins twice (once in just 145 games). Amid that turmoil, he spent three years at the helm of the Athletics, turning a 54-108 last-place sad sack into an 83-79 dynamo in his first year in 1980 at the expense of his starting pitchers' arms; that team completed 94 games, the highest total since integration (1947 onward) and one of the 12 highest totals of the live ball era (1920 onward). During the strike-torn 1981 season, the A's made the playoffs, but they sank to 68-94 the following season when the pitchers he'd ridden so hard in the previous two years began breaking down.

Among the skippers who managed at least 1,500 games in the big leagues—a cutoff which incorporates every Hall of Fame manager in baseball history save for the Negro Leagues' Rube Foster—Martin ranks 16th all-time in winning percentage. Twelve of the men above him are Hall of Famers, three (Frank Chance, Cap Anson and Fred Clarke) as much for what they did as players as managers. Eleven Hall of Fame skippers, including contemporaries Sparky Anderson, Herzog, Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams, have lower winning percentages; Weaver is the only enshrined contemporary with a higher one. Raise the bar to 2,000 games, a level of experience only 50 other skippers reached, and Martin rises to 13th, with 10 Hall of Famers (including Anson and Clarke) above him; Davey Johnson and Bobby Cox are the other two; the latter is a lock for Cooperstown. Right there is a strong argument for Martin belonging in Cooperstown.

Furthermore, at 240 games above .500, Martin ranks 20th all-time, with 14 Hall of Famers (including Anson, Clarke, Chance and Charles Comiskey, whose credentials also incorporate his playing and ownership careers) above him and nine manager-only Hall of Famers below him. Everybody else above him who's not already in the Hall of Fame is headed there eventually except perhaps for Johnson: Cox, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, all active this past season, though both Cox and Torre have since retired. Among Martin's contemporaries, again Weaver is above him, as is Anderson. Still, his standing in this category has to be taken as a point in Martin's favor.

Martin's managerial career exactly coincided with the dawn of division play, which doubled the number of playoff teams per league from one to two; as late as 1968, the team with the best record in the league went to the World Series, and the rest went golfing or hunting or whatever. Martin's teams made five postseasons while he was still at the helm—1969 with the Twins, 1972 with the Tigers, 1976 and 1977 with the Yankees, and 1981 with the A's, in a year cleaved in two by the players' strike with the field of post-season teams thus doubled. Martin's 1978 Yankees won the World Series, but only after he was fired in midseason with his team 10 games above .500 (52-42) but 10 games back. They were 14 back earlier that week before winning five straight; in any event, that one isn't counted in his total.

Overall, those five playoff appearances are tied for 15th. Anderson (seven in 26 seasons), Lasorda (seven in 21), Weaver (six in 17) and Herzog (six in 18) had more, Williams (five in 21) had as many. All managed longer, some of them considerably so, because they were all more successful in the art of job keeping. All of them won more pennants than Martin's two, and only Herzog and Weaver had as few as one world championship.

Martin's inability to keep a job is the big strike against him, but the effect he had on clubs was indisputable. The 1968 Twins, 1970 Tigers, 1973 Rangers, 1975 Yankees and 1979 A's combined for a .429 winning percentage in the season before or in which Martin took over (not including his own stints). In his first full season on the job, those teams won at a .571 clip—the equivalent of a 23-win improvement—with two of the five making the playoffs. In the second season, they won at a .563 clip, with three of the five making the playoffs. In the third season, or the part he managed, they slumped to .490. There was never any fourth season at any stop.

Focusing on his various Yankees stints from 1975-88, Martin won at a .591 clip, while the other managers in his midst—Virdon before him, and then Lemon, Dick Hoswer, Gene Michael, Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella and Clyde King in his various wakes—won at a .548 clip, a  difference equivalent to seven wins per year. Excluding the first stint, which is incorporated into the data in the previous paragraph, the difference is slightly wider: .589 for Martin, .543 for the rest.

How did Martin do it? Where Weaver played for the big inning, Martin was a master of one-run tactics. He loved to play for that first run, for it meant that his opponents would have to score at least twice to beat him, and so he used the hit-and-run, the stolen base and the sacrifice bunt with frequency. He taught Carew to steal home in 1969; Carew did it seven times that year, the most since 1946. Martin let Rickey Henderson set a record with 130 steals in 1982. Sportswriter Thomas Boswell described his outside-the-box strategy in Ken Burns' Baseball:

 

Billy Martin proved what a powerful strategic tool paranoia is. He believed that everyone was against him. And so he spent every waking moment figuring out how imaginary enemies could be defeated in their nefarious plots. And sometimes he not only created strategies to defend against things that would never be done against him, but he realized that those attacks were in themselves novel and he would then try those attacks that he had already dreamed up a defense for. That's why he was so wonderful at suicide bunts and double steals and any way that you could humiliate or psychologically defeat the other team, he was sure that's how the world reacted to him. He was sure the world hated him. And so he turned that really raw, frightened paranoia into wonderful strategic intelligence.

 

Which isn't to say that Martin's teams couldn't bash; his 1969 Twins led the AL in scoring and were fourth in homers, his 1971 Tigers led the league in both, his 1972 Tigers were in the top five in both, his 1976 and 1977 Yankees in the top four in both, his 1981 A's—the stop where the "Billy Ball" tag really stuck—led the league in homers while running fourth in steals and fifth in sacs.

Martin's inability to keep a job is a hindrance when it comes to comparing him to peers like Weaver, Lasorda and Anderson, who spent long stretches with one or two teams, but overall, his is a unique and impressive track record. He was a tormented son of a bitch, but for all of his personal failings, he could give a ballclub the kick in the ass it sorely needed to win like perhaps no other manager before or since. That's a Hall of Fame skipper.

As for Martin's frequent employer and occasional tormentor, George Michael Steinbrenner III was often a bully, and sometimes a buffoon, but unequivocally "The Boss." A football player at Williams College and an assistant coach at Northwestern and Purdue, he fully subscribed to Vince Lombardi's "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" ethos, often failing to understand that running a baseball team on a daily basis required a subtler touch and a deeper reserve of patience than his gridiron sensibility could muster.

Nonetheless, aside from Connie Mack and Walter O'Malley, perhaps no other owner in baseball history was as influential or successful over such a long period as Steinbrenner. Beyond the latter, who uprooted the Dodgers from Brooklyn, none gave more ammunition to his detractors, or unified so many in their hatred. Steinbrenner spent much of his tenure as a cartoon villain, and was suspended from baseball not once, but twice. Even in absentia, he had the foresight to embrace the dawn of the free agent era, not only spending top dollar to stock his team with the market's marquee players but also reinvesting his considerable profits back into the team. For all of his tyrannical meddling—hiring and firing 21 managers in his first 20 years, burning through general managers at a similarly absurd clip—he stayed out of the way of what his baseball men built in his absences long enough to preside over four pennant winners and two world champions from 1976-81, and six more pennants and four world champs from 1996-2003, adding one final title in October 2009. In the end, the Cleveland shipbuilding magnate who had spearheaded the purchase of the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for less than $10 million was the benevolent despot who restored the luster to the franchise. When he passed away back in July, the Yankees were the most valuable property in professional sports, worth an estimated $1.6 billion.

Having traced the arc of Steinbrenner's career just a few months back when he died, I'll save the space and cut to the chase. The question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame is a thorny one, because for starters, the ranks of owners in Cooperstown, like those of general manager, are underrepresented. Only four non-playing owners—and four very different men—are in the Hall: Barney Dreyfuss, O'Malley, Bill Veeck, Jr., and Tom Yawkey. Dreyfuss was the Smartest Man in Baseball during his time, a man in the middle of every important decision about the game for four decades dating from the 1890s to the early 1930s. O'Malley was the game's ultimate power broker, the man whose sneeze gave the entire National League a cold. Veeck was the game's ultimate iconoclast, someone who thumbed his nose at baseball's establishment on matters both fun and serious. Yawkey… well, he was an open racist who ran his team like a country club and spent lavishly in pursuit of a championship that never came; what the hell he's doing in the Hall of Fame is utterly baffling. Also occupying Cooperstown's executive class are Comiskey, Clark Griffith, Mack, and Albert Spalding; all owned teams, but they all had playing and managing careers as well, and their contributions were of particular importance during the game's infancy, so it's tough to measure Steinbrenner against them.

The most glaring absence from the ranks of enshrined owners is that of Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees for 24 years (1915-39), a span during which they won their first 10 pennants and seven world championships. Ruppert and partner Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (who would sell his share of the team in 1922) would purchase the contract of Babe Ruth, build Yankee Stadium, and hire Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow, the architect of those winning teams. Dan Topping, who co-owned the Yankees from 1945-64, a span that included 15 pennants and seven world championships, has a strong case as well. An incomplete list of other owners with reasonable cases would at the very least include Sam Breadon, August Busch, Jr., Charlie Finley, John W. Galbreath, Ewing Kaufmann and Ted Turner, and I'm sure I've left off others.

Those owners aren't under consideration on this ballot, so this panel cannot remedy their oversights. Instead, the committee is limited to deciding whether the positive aspects of Steinbrenner's case outweigh the negatives. On the one hand, he was undeniably one of the game's foremost power brokers. His teams had stretches of great success in part because he was a visionary when it came to surviving in the post-Messersmith-McNally world. He was a singular personality who used his team's financial might to best advantage, a marked contrast to today's often-anonymous corporate bean counters demonstrably more concerned with profits than championships. Steinbrenner put his money where his mouth was, time after time, and in doing so he built the Yankees into what they are today.

On the other hand, Steinbrenner's pursuit of free agents helped to drive up salaries considerably, which in turn played a part in widening the gulf between the game's haves and have-nots. His preference for seasoned and often over-the-hill veterans resulted in many a bad contract, and cost the team hordes of quality prospects over the decades, players who may have brought home even more glory had they been permitted to develop in the Bronx. He flaunted the rules by participating at least somewhat in the behind-the-scenes operation of the Yankees during his two suspensions, the first of which, owing to a conviction related to illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, had nothing to do with baseball but the second of which, paying a known gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, did. He bullied his employees—general managers, managers, players, secretaries, et cetera—when it suited him, and at his worst made their lives living hell.

That's a lot to weigh, and the relative proximity of his passing doesn't make it any easier. Ultimately, Steinbrenner is something of a Rorschach Test for baseball's economic expansion in the free agency era. Some can look at him and see History's Greatest Monster, others a particularly savvy businessman whose mellowing with age was an important part of his success. I do think the specifics of Steinbrenner's third act—his evolution during the success enjoyed by the Yankees under the relative stability of the Joe Torre/Brian Cashman era—may be enough to sway voters. But I'm not sure it's a bad idea to table the decision on his candidacy for another cycle to let the emotions surrounding his legacy settle.

So, having completed the roundup of the Expansion Era ballot, it's safe to say that all four non-playing candidates—Martin, Steinbrenner, Miller and Gillick—have stronger cases for enshrinement than the ex-players—Vida Blue, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons and Rusty Staub—do. We'll find out who's in on December 6.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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