Book Review – Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington

Books, MLB

Which was Billy Martin?

Baseball wizard?

Scrappy, determined firebrand?

Two-fisted drinker and two-fisted puncher?

Egomaniacal, self-conscious, self-destructive innovator?

Generous and kind?

Religious and sorrowful?

Reckless womanizer?

Baiter of players, umpires, beat writers, front office folk, and owners?

All of the above?

The answers and more of what made Billy what he was are clear in Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington.

There’s no need to refer to him as “Martin” as would be generally appropriate in discussing a biography. His first name is all that is required to know who’s being referred to when discussing baseball from the 1950s when he became Casey Stengel’s pet, a post-season star and leader for the perennial champion New York Yankees and onward through time as he made his way as a nomadic and explosive journeyman player and manager from the late 1950s through to his death in 1989.

From a relatively destitute childhood in Oakland, gazing at the far off glory of Major League Baseball while brushing up against it with local big leaguers who still called the area home and Bay Area product, fellow Italian Joe DiMaggio, Billy was not to be denied. If he wasn’t going to be the prototypical bonus baby that big league clubs congregated around offering vast sums of money to sign with them, he’d force his way onto their radar with his hustle, intelligence, intensity and fearlessness.

Those same attributes carried him throughout a notoriously underrated big league playing career in which he was an irreplaceable cog for four pennant winners and three World Series champions.

Of course, Billy’s reputation from his childhood as someone who was ready and willing to stand up for himself – he’d taken boxing lessons as a youth – and a drinker and carouser are also imperative parts of the story that Pennington tells. These are integral to the character that grew to be larger than life and simultaneously sad and proud; pathetic and admirable. While Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford might have gotten into just as much mischief as Billy, it was always that “bad influence” Billy Martin who received the blame if things went wrong. This was evident in the Copacabana incident when, for once, it appeared that Billy was completely innocent but got the blame and a ticket out of New York anyway.

Once his playing career ended, he worked his way up through the ranks as a coach and manager who owners knew would probably help their teams win, but would also force them to fire him for an off-field incident that couldn’t be covered up with ambiguity or a quiet payoff.

No biography about Billy would be complete without discussing the fights. There were the famous ones with Jim Brewer, Dave Boswell, Ed Whitson, the marshmallow salesman, and the Twins’ traveling secretary to name just a few. Then there were the near-fights with Reggie Jackson and dozens of others in which Billy simply walked away because of the war of attrition having a reputation of a brawler relegated him to.

The dichotomy that was Billy Martin is clearly evident in the pages of Pennington’s book. One minute he would be buying drinks for an entire bar full of patrons and the next minute someone would say the wrong thing, make the wrong move and be lying on the floor contemplating an assault charge and a lawsuit against the famous big league manager whose fists were quicker than his temper and shattered the mental dam of hesitating for fear of long-term consequences that most of us have.

The battles with Reggie (another person for whom the first name is enough) take up a substantial part of the narrative with good reason. While it might be seen as a player and manager who didn’t get along and couldn’t stand the sight of each other, it goes deeper than that. Pennington indicates that one of the main reasons they didn’t get along is because they were basically the same personalities with an inevitable clash occurring not as a matter of circumstance, but as a matter of course. Both were egomaniacal, paranoid, self-loathing, self-loving, loud, and exhibited the diametrically opposed combination of being terrified and unafraid.

Billy’s dislike of Reggie was not linked to Reggie’s shortcomings as a player, but his unquenched desire to draw attention to himself at the expense of anyone who stood in his way – including the manager who wanted the credit for what the team accomplished. It certainly didn’t help that Reggie was signed against the wishes of Billy, who preferred Joe Rudi. Nor did the fact that Reggie walked into camp and immediately alienated the veteran working class, team-centric types like Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, and Sparky Lyle with whom Billy had bonded. Billy, considering himself the ultimate team man, was saddled with a player whose main function was to bask in the spotlight by any means necessary. Both men seemed to delight in garnering a reaction from the other and, in the end, perhaps needed one another to a degree that they would be loath to admit.

There’s no pigeonholing Billy. For those who considered him a purely bad guy, they speak from experience. For those, like Rickey Henderson, who consider him a great, caring guy who was a catalyst to their careers because he believed in them when no one else did, they too speak from experience. Much is made of coaching “trees” and managerial strategies that are passed down from one to the other over the decades, but Billy’s lineage is clear in the work that Tony La Russa did in his Hall of Fame career as he learned to concern himself with what was best for the team and not care about the reaction. It’s also evident in the work of Buck Showalter, who Billy took under his wing as a young spring training coach in 1988 during Billy’s final go-round as Yankees’ manager as Showalter was starting his climb from minor league manager to his current status as one of baseball’s best tacticians.

Tactics were the foundation to what made Billy so great as a manager. He spotted weaknesses and exploited them. He was forever going for the deep strike with aggressiveness and tailored his decisions to what the players could do best and what rattled the opponents the the highest degree. On the same token, there was rarely a “tomorrow” with Billy. It was win today; do what’s fun today; get the girl today; go get drunk today; worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

That’s not the blueprint to having a long career.

A common question about him is whether or not his tactics would translate to the new era of mathematical formulas, all-powerful general managers, players with contracts paying them one-third of a billion dollars, a smothering media, know nothing “experts”, bloggers, Twitter and numerous other distractions that make the 1970s and 80s seem like the Sixth Century. The answer is as nuanced as Billy himself. He would likely have adapted to a certain degree while maintaining the principles he learned from in-the-trenches work as a student of the game, but he also would have detonated when the daily questions arose as to why he used X reliever instead of Y reliever; why he batted this player fourth when the numbers indicate that batter should be batting second; and why he decided that ordering a steal of home was a smart move given the low percentage of its success.

Add in a 20-something kid with a degree from Harvard who’d never picked up a baseball in his life walking into his office and telling him that the new algorithm the sabermetrics department developed wasn’t being implemented as he was instructed and it’s hard to see him adapting to the degree that he would have had to to survive. Then again, he never survived in any one place for very long anyway. There might not have been a difference between then and now.

That’s just on the field.

His behaviors away from the park were a source of trouble that he never fully reined in or even tried to tamp down. His turbulent off-field life would have set off thousands of YouTube views whether it was a bar brawl, a drunken escapade, a confrontation with a reporter, or an accusation from one of the multitudes of women he insatiably chased.

He managed for five different organizations and had five different tenures as George Steinbrenner’s field boss. He turned each and every one of those teams around. He also forced the management to fire him for reasons on and off the field. Had he not died, there absolutely would have been at least one more tenure as Yankees’ manager – the book out-and-out says so. Regardless of talent level, attitude and situations, he made winners of all of them with his aggressive style of play. There was also a willing trade-off that his employers made knowing that there was going to be an incident that would make it necessary for them to fire him. Had Billy thought ahead off the field as well as he did on the field, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But that wasn’t his style.

Billy’s son implies that the constant turmoil might have been intentional on the part of his father; that Billy knew he grew complacent if he was in any one place for too long; that he couldn’t live without the action. This can explain why, when so many – almost all – of his publicly known fights occurred when he was sitting and drinking in some bar, he continued going to bars. He went drinking the night he died in that car crash in upstate New York. In a dramatic sense of a story with an unavoidable and expected ending, the crash was the only way Billy’s life could possibly have concluded.

A person who put forethought into what could happen to his future if something were to occur and had even the barest sense of self-preservation would have stopped drinking and quit living life at ten times the speed of everyone else.

Not Billy.

He refused to conform in a similar manner to refusing to alter his managerial style when he knew he was fundamentally right. His competitiveness dictated that he never back down even if it was in his interests to do so. Therefore, he never backed down. It gained him almost everything he earned and it cost him even more. That said, if he had backed down, maybe he never would have made it in the first place. On some level, he knew that and acted accordingly. It made him and it broke him on every conceivable level and made him what he was: a man who couldn’t be placed into a single category not because he tried to be that way, but because he couldn’t be any other way and succeed in the way he did.

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