by Kasey Caminiti | May 4, 2015 8:14 am
Billy Martin is one of baseball’s most famous figures, a “big city, bright lights manager” praised for his ability to turn failing teams into World Series champions but vilified for his temper as he threw dirt at umpires and screamed at both players and team owners. Howard Cosell once said: “Some love him, some despise him. But he’s the best. Maybe ever.”
Born into “a broken home surrounded by a shantytown” in Northern California, Martin was a professional baseball player and then a team manager, but his most famous job was “five loud stints as a central character in George Steinbrenner’s 1970s and 1980s mix of follies and championships.” Twenty-five years after Martin’s death in a car accident, award-winning sportswriter Bill Pennington decided to write about the manager “because I saw the fascination in people’s eyes when I told stories about him….Billy was beloved because he represented a traditional American dream: freedom. He lived independent from the rules. He bucked the system.” In this excerpt, Pennington describes the dawn of Martin’s epic career with the Yankees.
By the middle of 1975, Billy Martin had already resurrected downtrodden major league baseball teams in Minnesota, Detroit and Texas. He was widely viewed as a miracle worker and dugout genius, and yet each team he revived ultimately fired him for warring with management. Every dismissal devastated Martin, but losing the Texas job left him especially disconsolate.
Asked about his future in the Texas locker room, Billy wiped tears from his eyes and answered: “I have no idea. I love this game; baseball is my life. But at this very moment, I feel like telling the game to shove it.”
Billy escaped to the mountains of western Colorado, where he went fishing with his wife, Gretchen, and their son, Billy Joe. For days, the phone at their Texas home rang unanswered.
It was Gabe Paul, the general manager of the New York Yankees.
Paul was acting on orders from George Steinbrenner, the team’s owner of two years. Steinbrenner had been suspended from baseball after he pled guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s election campaign. Officially, Steinbrenner could not conduct Yankee business. But when it came to picking the manager, he was still unquestionably running the show.
The Yankees’ phone calls eventually made their way to Billy’s Colorado fishing lodge, but he refused to come to the phone. As Gretchen said nearly 40 years later, “He had built three winning teams and got fired three times. He was the reigning manager of the year and yet he still got fired. He just wanted to fish right then and that’s all.”
The Yankees were insistent.
At the Denver airport hotel where Billy finally agreed to a face-to-face meeting, contract negotiations moved quickly. At one juncture, there was a squabble over a behavioral clause—“a good boy clause,” as Billy’s legal advisor called it. George Steinbrenner got on the phone and said, “Let’s face it, Billy, this is the job you’ve always wanted. I’m giving it to you.”
It was not the last time that George would hold a carrot in front of Billy and demand that he take it.
On August 2, 12 days after he was fired by the Rangers, Billy Martin was named Yankees manager. In a press conference in New York, Billy, his face flushed and his voice cracking, said the day was a dream come true. “This was the only job I ever wanted,” he told reporters. Eighteen years earlier, Billy, then the Yankees second baseman and the inspirational leader of five World Series-winning teams, had been banished from New York baseball after one too many barroom brawls. Now in middle age, three years short of 50, he was back as the Yankees manager.
Billy had returned to Manhattan, but everything around him was different. In the mid-1970s, the Wall Street area was in decay, reflecting a faltering national economy. Times Square was no longer a place of panache and glitz but of peep shows, strip clubs and whorehouses. The city’s police force had been exposed as corrupt by former detective Frank Serpico. Strikes had damaged the public schools and services. Central Park rarely saw a pedestrian after 3 p.m.; people were afraid of being mugged.
That was the year New York officials turned to the federal government for help with a fiscal crisis. President Gerald Ford announced he would veto any bailout. As the headline in the New York Daily News said in huge bold type: “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”
Yankee Stadium, once a majestic symbol of the city itself, had been shuttered for renovations. That forced the Yankees to play the 1974 and 1975 seasons at Shea Stadium, squeezing in games whenever the Mets were on the road. Renting space from a fledgling baseball colleague was humiliating to the franchise of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. The Yankees were dressing in another team’s locker room. And the ceiling leaked.
“I had heard so much growing up about the Yankees and New York and then I got there and it was like we were playing in some minor league place, like Toledo or something,” said Lou Piniella, who the Yankees traded for in 1974.
The Yankees that Billy inherited were not going to catch first-place Boston, a team thick with young talent. Billy’s goal was preparing for 1976. With Steinbrenner not allowed at the ballpark or the team offices, Billy developed a good working relationship with Gabe Paul. They agreed on a plan to completely remake the roster. The central goal was to give Billy some youth and quickness in the lineup.
“I remember leaving the clubhouse after our last game in 1975,” Piniella said. “I had an awful season and I was hurt. Billy was standing at the door and he says to me, ‘Lou, don’t worry about it. Go home and get healthy. We’re going to win the pennant next year.’
“He told the other guys that, too, and we believed him. And those who didn’t believe him, it’s like he knew who they were because by the time we got to spring training, they were off the team.”
Billy went to Florida early for spring training. He could not wait for the players to trickle in, to feel the presence of a team forming as a unit. Steinbrenner, who Billy did not know very well but of whom he was suspicious, was far away. His suspension from baseball was to extend until November 23.
Late in the previous season, Steinbrenner had taken to taping pep talks for his players on an audio cassette. Prohibited from going into the locker room, George ordered Gabe Paul to have the speeches played for the team before certain games as a way to motivate them.
The cassette player would be placed on a stool in the middle of the clubhouse with the volume turned high.
The first speech was just two minutes long. The next one a week later was a little longer. When the third speech went on for more than four minutes, Billy emerged from his office, stalked toward the middle of the clubhouse and kicked over the stool. Then he pushed the “stop” button on the cassette.
The players roared their approval.
NEXT: “Billy just kept everyone on edge.”
About 10 days into the 1976 spring training, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn abruptly shortened Steinbrenner’s suspension and reinstated the owner immediately. Billy’s life as Yankees manager would never be the same. He knew that now Steinbrenner could deliver his speeches in person—and there would be no stop button to push.
“George just loved to be seen and to be involved, and truthfully, I think he thought he was helping,” said Piniella. “At first I think it just amused Billy. George would come strutting by and say something like, ‘OK, Piniella, now let’s whip that bat around.’ Or he would watch the infielders and shout, ‘Step lively boys.’
“And Billy would be standing there with his hands in his back pocket biting his lip. Then George would walk to the next field and Billy would wait a minute and say, ‘You heard the man, step lively boys.’ And everyone would start laughing, turning away so no one could see.”
But Steinbrenner was not just a buffoon the Yankees appeased. The players appreciated that he spent money on the roster. One of Steinbrenner’s first acts was to upgrade the Yankees’ travel arrangements. The team now had newer jets to transport them around the continent. Whatever the city, they stayed in the best hotels.
“George was obsessed with the Yankees always looking first class,” said Bill “Killer” Kane, the Yankees traveling secretary from 1976 to the mid-1980s. “So we had to have the best planes, the best buses, the best bus drivers, the best made uniforms. Billy, meanwhile, wanted to make sure the players’ lives were easy and that they felt special. One of the first things he told me was that he wanted Chivas as the only Scotch served on the planes when we traveled. We had good food, too—shrimp cocktail, steak, you name it.”
Kane, who smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and closed many a hotel bar, was in a unique position to assess the thorny, benevolent, multifarious relationship between Billy and George Steinbrenner. “They had a lot of affection for each other,” he said in 2012. “They were like two cousins who loved each other but couldn’t stop fighting. They rubbed each other the wrong way without even trying.” But Steinbrenner had brought Billy in to deliver the Yankees a pennant, and for the time being, he would get out of the way.
Before the opening game of the 1976 season in Milwaukee, Billy assembled the team for a clubhouse speech.
“He didn’t say much,” said Piniella. “The first thing was ‘We’re winning the division this year and then we’re winning the pennant.’
“Then the next thing he said was, ‘The only way that doesn’t happen is if you don’t believe in what I’m going to ask you to do. We’re going to scare the shit out of the whole league if you buy into what I’m trying to do. Trust me, you do that, and we’ll win.’ And then he walked out the clubhouse door and headed for the dugout.“
The second game of the 1976 baseball season sealed Martin’s hold on the players. Milwaukee had just won the game on a ninth-inning grand slam and the dejected Yankees began to trudge off the field. But Billy, eyes narrowing, roared out from the dugout and headed for first base umpire Jim McKean.
“You called time out just before the pitch,” Billy was yelling.
McKean had no response. Billy started screaming, “I saw you raise your hand—you were calling time out.”
After conferring with the other umpires—and with the crowd watching uneasily—McKean conceded. No one, it appeared, had seen the gesture except Billy, who always claimed he could see the entire field in one glance. But the grand slam was nullified. The game resumed, and the Yankees won, 9-7.
After the game, Billy nodded at his Yankees and said to Kane: “I’ve got them now.”
Day by day, Billy challenged the rest of the American League to stop his refurbished, hard-charging Yankees. They ran the other teams ragged, stealing bases with abandon. Slides into bases were hard and tags were forceful. Pitchers weren’t afraid to throw inside. Billy worked the umpires from the dugout ceaselessly.
“Billy just kept everyone on edge,” trainer Gene Monahan said. “Right from the first inning, if he didn’t like an umpire’s call, he’d be on him. He’d yell, ‘OK, pal, that’s it. You’re off the Christmas card list. You owe me one now. You don’t get back on the Christmas card list until I get that call back.’ ”
Most of the American League still considered the Boston Red Sox the team to beat. The Red Sox came to Yankee Stadium with the swagger of champions. In the first game of the series, a violent collision at home plate evolved into a brawl so vicious the Boston starting pitcher ended up with torn shoulder ligaments. The Yankees had a 10-game lead over the Red Sox by the Fourth of July and never looked back.
The team drew two million fans for the first time since 1950, Billy’s rookie year. The boost in attendance was in part due to what everyone now called the new Yankee Stadium. It had some features rare at the time, like escalators to whisk fans to their upper deck seats and air-conditioned dugouts. The Yankees felt like kings in their new palace.
Manhattan’s elite was not left out. From Billy Joel to Cheryl Tiegs to Gloria Vanderbilt, the bold-print set made regular appearances at Yankees games. It was the surest way to get into the gossip pages of the city’s tabloids. People did anything to be near the Yankees and the center of it all was No. 1: Billy Martin.
After the team clinched the Eastern division and returned to New York from
Detroit, more than 1,000 fans awaited them at LaGuardia Airport. One woman held aloft a sign that said, “Today is the First Day of the Second Yankees Dynasty.”
The Yankees’ American League championship series against the Kansas City Royals underscored the cultural divide in America. The Yankees were the moneyed blueprint of the future and Steinbrenner was the ultimate wealthy urban bully. He, and everything his team stood for, was reviled in Middle America.
“It was like Billy said, ‘Watch this, I’m going to turn the pressure up a notch,’ ” Piniella said. “And he did.” When the Kansas City fans jeered Billy, he doffed his cap and blew kisses. A fierce, bitter struggle unfolded with the teams converging on Yankee Stadium October 14th for the fifth and final game of the series. An early Yankee lead was erased by an eighth inning home run by Kansas City’s George Brett, which tied the game. Billy had his pitcher hurl his next pitch at the head of the subsequent Kansas City batter. The game was not over.
Leading off the ninth inning, in what has become an indelible moment in New York baseball history, Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss lofted an inside fastball over the right field fence to win the game and series. Fans flooded the field, knocking Chambliss down before he could reach second base. After retreating to the dugout, Chambliss needed a 10-man police escort to fight his way back onto the field so he could touch home plate.
Throughout the city, fans celebrated. Times Square filled like it was New Year’s Eve. Inside Yankee Stadium, in front of a national television audience, Billy doused George Steinbrenner with a bottle of champagne.
Emotionally spent, the Yankees were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series. But the team did win the series in 1977, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers after such an incendiary summer that was turned into a book called The Bronx Is Burning. A year later, Billy Martin’s feuds with both Steinbrenner and his new star player Reggie Jackson raged. Billy was ultimately forced to resign the only job he ever wanted. He would be re-hired and dismissed by Steinbrenner another four times. A fifth comeback for Billy was in the works when he died.
But in the summer of 1976, Martin and Steinbrenner, dominant sports personalities, peaceably combined to rebuild a storied New York institution. The Yankees have since won seven world championships, restoring the luster to a celebrated franchise.
It began with a phone call to a fishing lodge in western Colorado.
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