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Sports Profile:  Billy Martin

This August 10, 2004 will mark the 18th anniversary of Billy Martin Day, a day he deserved, a day his uniform number Number One was  retired.

Back in the 1980s when I was hard at work on one of my baseball books and also writing for Yankees Magazine, I had an appointment to interview Billy Martin. The book was "Baseball's Greatest Managers" and he was one of its chapter subjects.

I walked into his office at Yankee Stadium and he said quietly: "You don't belong here. Our interview appointment is tomorrow."

It was that day, but I said: "Okay, see you tomorrow."

I was there the next day. Martin was not as friendly or as controlled. He snapped. "I have to teach you guys how to do your job. We had an interview appointment for next week." He puffed away on his pipe and said, "See you then."

We never did the interview - my decision, but he did wind up in the book. And when he saw me from time to time, he did smile.      

When he was old enough to listen, Alfred Manuel (Billy) Pesano's  mother told him: "Don't take nothing from nobody. If you can't hit 'em, bite 'em." He never forgot what she said.  There were the two seasons spent as a player with Oakland in the Pacific Coast League where Billy became "Casey's boy." When Stengel took over as Yankee manager in 1949, the two were re-united. Undersized, pugnacious - Martin did not fit the typical Yankee image.

But he was a contributing member of those great Yankee teams of the 1950s, batting .333 lifetime in the World Series, making the 1956 All Star team. In 1957 when "Billy the Kid" was a participant in a melee at the Copacabana nightclub, George Weiss, never a fan of Martin, traded him away to Kansas City.

On Old Timer's Day 1975, after 18 years plus of being away Billy Martin returned, put on the uniform with Number One and took over as Yankee manager. There was a pennant in 1976, another pennant in 1977 and a World Series win. Fans loved Billy Martin and his "Billy Ball," daring and unpredictability.

Then on July 25, 1978, George Steinbrenner fired Billy Martin. Four days later at Old Timers' Day,it was announced that Martin would return as manager in 1980. His return came a bit earlier than announced. On July l9, 1979, the hyper Martin replaced Bob Lemon who had replaced him as manager.  

In his second stint, Martin guided the Yankees to fourth place in the American League East. Key injuries, sub-par hurling by Catfish Hunter, Thurman Munson's death - all contributed to the mediocre performance of 
the team.    Then in October of l979 Martin had a fight with a marshmallow salesman in a Minnesota hotel and was fired for the second time. 

The l98l baseball "split season" was the time of the players' strike.  The Yankees also had a split season with managers. Gene Michael replaced Bob Lemon. The Yankees matched up in the American League Championship Series against Oakland, managed by Billy Martin who had taken control of the moribund franchise in 1980, driven it to a second place finish, won the Manager of the Year award.  

"Bobby Ball" (Bob Lemon) versus "Billy Ball." The Yankees, with just too much talent prevailed. Sweeping Oakland in three games, they had their 33rd pennant.  

The 1982 Yankees finished in fifth place, a game out of last place.  On January 11, l983, the third coming in eight years of Billy Martin was in place. The Yanks were in sixth place on May l6. Attendance was down. Martin was out of control. 

In mid-summer he was suspended for three days for kicking dirt on one umpire, and then suspended for a couple of games for calling another umpire  "a stone liar."  Martin would close himself off in the manager's office. Drinking more and more, his nastiness increased. The l983 Yankees finished in third place.

Coach Don Zimmer, players like Steve Kemp, Ken Griffey and Goose Gossage, made it clear: if Billy returned in 1984, they would not.

On December l6, l983 it was HELLO, YOGI BERRA. GOOD BYE, BILLY MARTIN!  The l985 Yankees added speedy Ricky Henderson to a lineup that included Mattingly, Winfield and Baylor. Off to a 6-l0, the headlines on April 25, l985 blared: "YOGI'S OUT, BILLY'S BACK." 

Despite the MVP season of Don Mattingly, the 20-win season of Ron Guidry, the performances of Winfield, Henderson and Baylor, it was another frustrating season. The Yankees fell two games shy of Toronto in the American League East.  

On October 27, 1985, Martin was fired the fourth time.  On October l9, l987, Billy Martin returned as manager for the fifth time. On June 23, l988, Billy Martin was out as manager. 

In 16 years as a manager with five different franchises, Billy Martin managed 2267 games, winning 1253, losing 1013. But the team he really belonged to was the New York Yankees where he was Number One. His record as Yankee manager was 556 wins, 385 losses, a two American League titles and the one world championship

Five times in the l980s, he was manager of the Yankees. There were those who were waiting for his sixth time in that role. But on Christmas Day l989 Billy Martin, 61, was killed in an automobile accident.              

"We used to tease each other about whose liver would go first," Mickey Mantle said. "I never thought it would end for him this way.


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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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