January 7, 2011
Billy Martin Jr.
Love him or hate him, the late Billy Martin was one of the most successful managers in big-league history. He was also no paragon of virtue, which makes him a controversial figure when it comes to his Hall of Fame worthiness. That decision now rests with the veterans’ committee, which thus far has not deemed him worthy of the honor.
Among those championing the tempestuous former skipper’s cause is his son, Billy Martin Jr. The younger Martin recognizes that his father wasn’t exactly a saint, but he likewise knows that his many accomplishments—including 1,253 wins and leading four franchises to division titles—stack up against the game’s best. He also knew the man.
A sports agent living in Texas, Billy Martin Jr. is the co-owner of Pro-Agents, Inc.
David Laurila: How would you describe your late father?
Billy Martin Jr: That’s a hard question to answer, but one perception that is always out there is that he was a winner, and that’s something they get right. But with a lot of people, I think there is too much focus on the negatives, like the drinking and stuff like that. I wish that people would focus more on what he accomplished. He is this close to getting in the Hall of Fame, and I don’t know if I like the process for that.
He won wherever he went. At whatever level, with whatever type of team he had, he won. He truly felt that he could take a Triple-A team that had a lot of heart, and would sell out for him, and win with it. Even with a team wasn’t nearly as talented, he felt that he could beat you. As a manager, that’s what he was all about.
Sometimes I wonder, in this politically-correct day and age, if some guys are managing to win or just trying to keep their jobs. A lot of times, especially in the playoffs, you see managers rarely deviating from the book. They’re going to do what the book says to do, so that they’re not second-guessed. I don’t think my father ever did that.
As far as game-calling, I’ll put him up against anybody in baseball history. And that’s not just me saying that. Ask Tony La Russa—a guy who is going to go into the Hall of Fame—what he thinks. A lot of people concur with what I’m saying to you. My dad was always looking for weaknesses in his opponent. He was trying to out-manage the guy on the other side. He took that real seriously.
Did he go out and get in the tabloids once in awhile? Did he do things he probably shouldn’t have? Well, I guess that’s true too, but do you know what? That’s what endeared him to people. That’s what made him real.
DL: What did he think of the term, “Billyball?”
BM: He didn‘t ever say, at least not to me, but I don’t know how he couldn’t have liked it. It was a tribute to him. And while anybody who is successful has an ego to some degree, one of the things he tried to do was keep himself grounded. He used to say to me all the time, “Remember where you came from, pard.” I’d look at him and laugh, and say, “Yeah, dad. I didn’t have it so tough. My father was a major-league manager for most of my life.” He’d go, “Shut up, you little bastard.” But I knew what he meant, and I know that he never forgot.
He came from a very humble upbringing. He was very poor. I know that this sounds like one of those “I walked seven miles in the snow” stories, but he used to take mustard sandwiches to school. He’d pull sacks out of the trashcan at school so he’d have a clean-looking lunch sack—one that didn’t have somebody’s name on it—and he’d make two mustard sandwiches. Then he’d grab fruit from one of his neighbor’s fruit trees on his way to school, so that his lunch sack would look more full and so that he had enough to eat.
He didn’t forget that, and if you look at some of the things he did… he always went out of his way to be nice to people. He’d be nice to the man on the street, the working man, the elevator operator, the cab driver, the window washer. He would always say hello and be nice to them. If they asked for his autograph, he’d talk to them. Conversely, he kind of thumbed his nose at authority. And I think that’s where that comes from, too.
DL: How was he able to put up with George Steinbrenner, to the extent that he did, for so many years?
BM: Theirs was a true love-hate relationship. Dad… there’s a good story about George. He had a secretary who George had told, “Do not let them put mayonnaise on my sandwich.” Sure enough, after the second sandwich arrived with mayonnaise on it, George fired the girl. Afterward, one of the other girls in the office got the courage to walk into his office and say, “Mr. Steinbrenner, you do know that the only reason she was working here was to put her kid through college?”
George had some qualities that my father really did admire. He had a big heart. He was very loyal, and that might have been one of my dad’s highest-ranking character traits. He really thought that loyalty was important, and that it was something that was dying in the game. George also had the same desire to win that my father did. He took losses as hard as my father did. Except for the fact that George grew up wealthy—that was really the only big difference. Of course, dad wanted to be able to call his own shots and that didn’t always happen with George. Like I said, theirs was a true love-hate relationship.
Going back to the story, he fired that girl and someone told him she worked there because she was trying to put her son through college. George being George, he thought about it and then took the son out to lunch. He told him, “Here’s the deal. If you maintain this grade point average, and keep your nose clean, I’ll continue to pay for your college.” He didn’t hire the mother back. There was no way he was going to do that, because he was very demanding. If he called you at four in the morning, he expected you to get up and answer his questions. That being said, if you were in trouble, even if you did something really stupid, he’d be right there to bail you out.
My dad was the same way. He’d help anybody. The joke around the league was that he was the easiest loan in baseball. He’d give things away. Trophies. Awards. He had a big heart.
DL: According to some of his former players, your father was loyal to a fault if he liked you, but if he didn’t, he would bury you on the bench. Was that true?
BM: I think that’s true with everybody, to some degree. I mean, if a manager doesn’t believe in you, is he going to play you? Look, I think that’s just sour grapes. I think that’s just guys who need to look in the mirror. There are a lot of players out there who said, “He wasn’t fun to play for,” and that just cracks me up. I guess that winning wasn’t fun? If they liked being on one of those below-average teams, so they didn’t have to play all of those extra games in the playoffs, and get all that extra money and accolades—isn’t that the reason you play the damn game?
If he didn’t believe in you, no, he didn’t want you out there. There’s no doubt about that. But I don’t think you’ll find a manager that’s any different from that, even in today’s politically-correct world. Unless the general manager is dictating what the lineup is.
DL: Your father got into more than a few physical altercations. To your knowledge, did he regret any of them?
BM: I think that the Ed Whitson fight was the most confusing situation to him. I mean, the one with the marshmallow salesman—that one was funny. Dad was definitely disappointed that it got into the press, but the guy pretty much begged him to do it. It was real easy. That’s a fight he was proud of, because the guy was asking for it. He was messing with him, so dad dropped him. But the one with Ed Whitson, that was confusion.
In dad’s mind, he was going up to help Ed, who was having an argument with somebody. Dad saw that and he went up to help him. Now, Whitson had been pitching poorly, and I’m sure that dad had let him have it a couple of times, so he was probably mad at my father. So my dad was going over to help him, and Ed turned around and attacked him. He broke his arm. I’m not going to say that he wouldn’t have beat him up anyway, but if dad had been ready, I don’t know. But that wasn’t even the point. He was just so confused about what had happened.
DL: To my understanding, that was a rare occasion of someone getting the best of him in a fight.
BM: Yes, you don’t hear that much. I’m sure that you saw when he pulled Reggie [Jackson] off the field? Reggie bashes him, still. Well, Reggie, my dad got the best out of you.
He did what he had to do to hold that team together, because all that Reggie said when he first got there divided that team. I think that if dad hadn’t gone out of his way to continue to keep Reggie down, he would have lost that whole team. The inmates can’t run the asylum. He was doing that to mess with Reggie, and he was doing it publicly so the team could see, “Hey, we’re not going to let somebody come in here and say that they’re better than the rest of the team.”
Now, dad respected Reggie’s ability to play big in big games. That’s what my father was as a player. He was a .260-hitting second baseman, but he hit .333 in the postseason. If there was a Hall of Fame for World Series players, dad would be in it.
DL: Did he even tell you which season, or which team, he was most proud of?
BM: No, I don’t think that he ever did, but I know what his favorite moment was, and it kind of shocked me. When the Yankees were getting ready to have the ceremony to retire his number, in 1986, I was trying to think of a cool present to get him, something that would be unique. I was in college at the time, at Texas Tech, and I found a man and his wife who made handmade knives. He made the knives, and she did scrimshaw with the ivory handle. So I got a picture of him as a player—it was posed, with him up in the air to turn a double play—and to go with it I also wanted to capture his favorite moment in baseball, so I asked him one day. I was expecting him to tell about something he did in the 1953 World Series, when he was MVP, or maybe making the catch the year before to win that World Series. But it wasn’t anything like that all.
He had been fired in 1978, and he was at the 1979 Old-Timers Game. That was his favorite moment in baseball. DiMaggio was there, and Mickey, and Whitey, and Yogi. All of these former teammates and pals were there for the game. When he trotted out to the field to play second base, Bob Sheppard, the announcer, said, “Now playing second base, and next year’s manager for the New York Yankees, Billy Martin.” Nobody had any clue about that; it was a total surprise. That’s how George told the world. Dad got a 13-minute standing ovation, the longest in Yankees history.
He had his team on the field. And it was so much his team that during the 1978 World Series… I sat with him and watched that World Series in our house here in Texas. Around the third or fourth inning of the first game, he looked over at me and said, “Who in the hell are you cheering for?” I said, “Not the team that fired you.” He looked at me all funny and asked, “What do you mean?” “I said, “Dad, they fired you. I want them to lose every single game.” He said, “No you don‘t. Those are my guys, pal. Those are my guys and we want them to do good.” His Yankees loyalty—here we go again with that word, “loyalty”—was such that he sat there and cheered for them the whole series. All he ever wanted was to be a Yankee.
You brought up Billyball, and that was while he was in Oakland. They had billboards in Oakland that said, “Billyball: Catch It.” That was his hometown; he was born and grew up in Berkeley. I’ll never forget this. The A’s were in town playing the Rangers, and I loved to sit in his office after games and listen to his interviews. He’d be sitting there in his underwear, with his hair all over the place. There were only a few weeks left in the season, and all of the reporters left, except for a guy named Randy Galloway. Dad trusted Randy, because he could tell him things without getting burned, and he told Randy, “I’ve got a little something for you, and in about three weeks you can let this out, but you didn’t hear it from me. You can say that I’m going to be the Yankees’ manager next year.” In unison, Randy and I both asked, “Why?!”
He looked at me like he wanted to kill me, because I asked him why he wanted to put up with the press there, and the owner, and everything. In Oakland he was The Show. It was Billyball. He was the Pope of that town. It was awesome, but he looked at me, so mad. He said, “Because I’m a Yankee, pard. I‘m not happy anywhere else.”
DL: Your father was a master at coming in and turning a team around, but he also seemed to wear out his welcome pretty quickly. Why?
BM: Well, with the Oakland situation, the answer is pretty simple: he wanted to be somewhere else. In New York, he didn’t want to be anywhere else, but he always had limitations put on what he could and couldn’t do. Early on, with Minnesota, beating up Dave Boswell was part of it. At least it was the final straw. I know that he had already had some arguments with the owner, Calvin Griffith. He was fired, even though he had just taken them to the postseason.
He took every team he ever managed to the postseason, except the Texas Rangers. I think that only two managers have taken three teams to the postseason, Dad and La Russa, and Dad is the only one to take four teams. He also did it before they expanded the playoffs. And Texas came very close, in 1974, which was his only full season managing them. They fired Whitey Herzog and hired my father, and he took the same team and almost went to the postseason with it. This was a team that had lost over 100 games the year before.
DL: Does your father belong in the Hall of Fame?
BM: Without a doubt. I know that he didn’t have the long, sustained tenure in one spot, and you can blame him for that or you can blame George for that. Maybe you can blame both of them.
DL: If he were alive today, would he be angry or resentful that he isn’t in the Hall of Fame?
BM: First of all, if he were alive today, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. That’s who gets in with the Old Timers committee, the guys who are alive, because the guys on the committee have to look you in the eye when they see you at the next celebrity golf event, or at the Winter Meetings, or wherever. Baseball is a small world. You’re going to run into those guys, and you have to look them in the eye. If Dad were still alive, he’d be in by now. No doubt. He’d have been in the first time they talked about it.
DL: Do you think he’ll ever get in?
BM: It depends on the Hall of Fame and how they handle this. The system they’re using now, I don’t think… look at Marvin Miller. How does Marvin Miller not get in? Come on. Other than Babe Ruth, is there anyone who has had more impact on the game? Him not being in is a joke.
A lot depends on who is doing the voting. With my dad, you could put together a panel where everyone would vote for him. I suppose you could probably also put one together where no one would.
During his era, my father was the highest-paid manager in baseball. New attendance records were being set everywhere he went. When I was in college, there was actually a textbook in my business law class that had a page on how Billyball was good business. It was smart. If you owned a baseball team, even though he was the highest-paid manager, he was worth every penny and then some because of all the fannies he stuck in the seats. I made a copy and sent it to his agent.
He was on the cover of Time magazine. No manager has been on the cover of Time magazine. He’s been on the cover of Sports Illustrated six or seven times, once as a player and the rest as a manager. We’re talking about the Hall of Fame here, and I don’t know that there was a more famous manager during his era. He’s mentioned in movies. There’s a satirical side to that, admittedly.
But all he did was win. Wherever he went, he won. He won with good teams, but he also won with bad teams. If you look at managerial history, there are guys who won with good teams and guys who turned teams around. How many guys could do both? Was my dad perfect? No. Did he maybe do some things in life that he shouldn’t have? Yes. But was he a winner? Without a doubt.