Classic Yankee: Billy Martin (player edition)

One day, someone may write the definitive biography on Billy Martin. Maybe it’ll be someone like Jane Leavy, who has already written two books, one on Sandy Koufax, and another on Mickey Mantle, that are excellent.  There is a catch, though. There are so many sides to Billy Martin. To capture them all in one opus would be difficult.

There was the Berkeley street kid with the perpetual chip on his shoulder that made Mickey Mantle state that “Billy could HEAR you giving him the finger,” who, when asked how many fights he got into, replied that there were probably nine unreported for each that people knew about.

There was the womanizer who went through four wives and who had one daughter get into drug trouble in a foreign country.

There was the man who had problems with alcohol, and who died in part because of that problem.

There was the manager who could turn teams around quickly, but who would wear out his welcome just as quickly, who had five separate terms as Yankees manager.

Finally, there was the Billy Martin that I’ll concentrate on here in this piece. Maybe I’ll get to the manager at another time. In this piece, I’ll concentrate on Billy Martin the player (and not in the dating terminology).

Billy, after graduating high school, played minor league ball in Idaho Falls in 1946 and then for Phoenix in 1947. At the end of 1947 and throughout 1948, Billy played for Casey Stengel in Oakland, which then had a minor league team in the Oakland Oaks. Although Martin didn’t put up great numbers, Stengel took a shine to the kid, and admired his aggressiveness, hustle, and pluck. When Stengel went to NY in 1949, he remembered Martin, and asked the front office to bring up “Billy the Kid.”

Martin spent all of 1949 with Oakland, but made his MLB debut in 1950. He went 9 for 36 in 34 games, .250-1-8, OPS+ 73. He didn’t play in the postseason.

In his major league debut, on April 18, 1950, the Yanks were losing 9-4 to Boston at Fenway when Martin entered the game in the bottom of the sixth. By the time he came to bat in the top of the 8th, the score was 10-4 Boston. In his first MLB at bat, with one out and two on, Martin doubled in a run. It was the start of a nine-run inning that saw Martin bat again in that inning. With two out and the bases loaded, Martin singled in two runs. The Yankees wound up winning the game 15-10. Martin, in his MLB debut, got two hits and 3 RBI in the same inning, those hits coming in his first two MLB at bats!

Martin served in the Army from November 1950 to March 1951, when he was released due to hardship and dependency issues. He had four dependents at the time. Martin’s Army issues weren’t over, though.

In 1951, Martin played in 51 games, getting just 58 at bats. He hit .259-0-2, OPS+ 85. Besides being a second baseman, Martin also played some SS and 3B in his career, and in 1951, one game in CF. He appeared in one game in the WS as a pinch-runner and scored a run. That game was Game 2 of the WS, the same game in which Mickey Mantle was injured catching his spikes on an outfield drain. Martin, who began a life-long friendship with Mantle that season, was one of those who carried Mickey off the field on a stretcher. Click on the link to see a photo of that.

In 1952, second baseman Jerry Coleman went into military service because of the Korean conflict. As a result, Martin got regular playing time. In 109 games, “Casey’s boy” hit .267-3-33, OPS+ 91. In the WS, Martin hit .217-1-4, but still, as Martin pointed out, outhit and outplayed Jackie Robinson. Martin pointed out that in each Series, if you compared the players, he was always judged (and rightly so) inferior to the Hall-of-Famer, but in each series, it was Martin who wound up with the better numbers.

Martin’s HR, and all four of his RBI, came in Game 2 at Ebbets Field, a 7-1 Yankees win that evened up the Series. Martin however, made the play of the Series in Game 7. With the Yanks up 4-2 in the bottom of the 7th, the Dodgers had the bases loaded and two out. Robinson popped up, but no one moved for the ball. Finally, at the last minute, while the runners were all running around the bases, Martin came sprinting in to make a last-second, lunging basket catch around his knees to keep three runs from scoring on a popup near the mound. The Dodgers could have taken the lead on that play, but instead, the Yanks held on to that 4-2 score and won their fourth consecutive WS.

In 1953, they made it five in a row, a record that appears safe forever. Martin was the regular second baseman, and had the best season of his career despite personal issues that put him on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  He hit .257-15-75, OPS+ 94, and finished 25th in the MVP balloting. He then went on to have one of the greatest WS performances by any individual. In six games, Martin hit .500, going 12 for 24 with 1 double, 2 triples, 2 HR and 8 RBI. His last hit of the Series ended the Series. It was a walk off single up the middle in Game Six. There was no official MVP award then, but Martin was named the winner of the Babe Ruth Award, which at that time was the closest thing to WS MVP.

Then the Army called. Martin was reclassified, and lost all of 1954 and most of 1955 to serving in the Army. The Yanks missed him. Yes, the Yanks won 103 games in 1954, and it’s hard to improve on that. Despite the 103-51 record, they finished second, eight games behind Cleveland for the pennant. With 103 wins, you wonder how much Martin might have helped. One thing is for certain. The 1954 Yanks were hurting up the middle. Coleman, back from Korea, hit just .217. Rizzuto hit only .195. Gil McDougald had to leave 3B and go to 2B because of the offensive woes. Andy Carey took over at 3B. Maybe if Martin were around, McDougald could have gone to SS and Coleman and Rizzuto both would have gone to the bench, or worse. We’ll never know, and besides, they DID win 103. But without Billy, they finished second.

Martin finally got out of the Army late in 1955, and got into just twenty games, hitting .300-1-9 in 70 at bats. OPS+ 97. Despite the lack of PT, he played in all seven WS games, hitting .320 (8 for 25) with a double, triple, and 4 RBI. He was on second when Sandy Amoros made his WS saving catch off of Yogi Berra. Amoros then threw to Reese and Reese doubled up McDougald who was on first. After the Series, Martin cried, stating that it was unfair for that man—Stengel—to lose.

 Martin got his full-time job back in 1956, and was an All-Star for the only time in his career, hitting .264-9-49, OPS+ 89. He hit 8 for 27, .296, in the WS, with 2 HR and 3 RBI. In the famous photograph of Don Larsen throwing the final pitch of his pe0rfect game it is Martin, hands on knees, who is the second baseman. Martin had a solo HR in Game 1, another in Game 3. It would be his fourth WS ring as a player, and his last (1951, 1952, 1953, and 1956. Of course, he managed the Yanks to the 1977 title).

In WS play, Martin hit .333, with 5 HR and 19 RBI in 28 games. His only blemish was being 1 for 6 in SB attempts.

In 1957, Martin was out with teammates celebrating his birthday when, at the last stop, a brawl developed at the Copacabana. Martin was no stranger to fights. He had had on-field brawls with Clint Courtney (twice. Once stepping on Courtney’s glasses), Jimmy Piersall, Matt Batts, and Tommy LaSorda. Of course, it was LaSorda who was Martin’s opposing manager when Billy won his only WS as manager in 1977.

GM George Weiss never cared much for Martin and Martin’s nightlife, and feared Martin’s influence on Mantle. The Copa incident gave Weiss an excuse to dump Billy, and there wasn’t much Stengel could do to stop it. Martin held it against Casey, and the two didn’t speak for years. Although Coleman was on his way out at the time, Bobby Richardson was on his way up, along with Tony Kubek. Between them, Carey and the versatile McDougald, the Yanks were covered. Billy was gone.

When traded to the KC A’s (a month after the Copa incident), Martin was hitting .241-1-12 for the Yanks, OPS+ just 59. With KC, he hit .257-9-27, OPS+ 92. Combined, his 1957 stats were .251-10-39, OPS+ 80. But a lot of Billy’s heart remained in NY. In his very first game for KC, the A’s were at home facing the Yankees. Billy went 2 for 5 with a HR.

The A’s traded Martin to the Tigers, for whom Martin played in 1958. He hit .255-7-42, OPS+ 65. He led the league in sac bunts.

1959 saw Billy on the move again, this time in Cleveland. In just 73 games, Martin hit .260-9-24 for the Indians, OPS+ 91. The Indians finished second. They wouldn’t finish that high again for about 35 years.

1960 and Billy was on the move again. This time he went to Cincinnati, where he hit .246-3-16, OPS+ 74, and got into more trouble. From Wikipedia:

On August 4, 1960, Martin, then playing for the Reds, charged the mound in the second inning after receiving a brush back pitch from Chicago Cubs pitcher Jim Brewer. Martin threw his bat at Brewer, who picked up the bat and started to hand it to Martin as he approached. Martin punched Brewer in the right eye, breaking his cheekbone. Brewer was hospitalized for two months and Martin served a five-day suspension. The Cubs sued Martin for $1,000,000 ($7,856,018 as of 2012), for the loss of Brewer’s services. While the Cubs dropped their case, Brewer pursued his, and in 1969, a judge ordered Martin to pay $10,000 ($63,376 as of 2012) in damages. When informed of the judgment by the press, he asked sarcastically, “How do they want it? Cash or check?”

Martin’s playing career ended in 1961 at the age of 33. He went 0 for 6 in six games with the Milwaukee Braves, and then finished his career with the Minnesota Twins, hitting .246-6-36, OPS+ 66. For the season, Martin hit .242-6-36, OPS+ 63.

For his career, Billy was a.257 hitter, OPS+ only 81. His 162 g. average was .257-10-53, but check again that WS mark of .333 with 5 HR and 19 RBI in 28 games. When it was all on the line, Billy stepped up his game.

As we all know, Billy’s #1 was retired by the Yanks in 1986, and he served five separate terms as Yankees manager, winning the pennant in 1976 and the WS in 1977. Besides managing the Yanks, he also managed the Twins to a division title in 1969, the Tigers to a division title in 1972, the Rangers to a second place finish in the AL West in 1974, and he took the A’s to the ALCS in 1981. He died on Christmas Day, 1989, in a truck accident, in which alcohol was the culprit. 61 at the time, and having financial difficulties, there were rumors upon his death that had he not been killed in the accident that he was being considered to replace Bucky Dent as manager, which would have made it six separate Yankees managerial stints.

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