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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 395


This is the grave of Billy Martin.

Born into a dysfunctional family in Oakland in 1928, Alfred Martin’s parents split when he was a baby. His stepfather was the most positive mentor in his life. He was known as Billy from a young age because his Italian immigrant grandmother, who did not speak English, called him “bello” all the time, so Billy stuck. His older brother was friends with Cubs outfielder Augie Galan, who came back to Oakland in the offseason to train. Seeing the skill of his friend’s kid brother, he taught Billy the finer points of the game. He also liked to fight. In fact, he was suspended from his high school team his senior year for fighting in games. This made a bunch of teams hesitant to sign him. And it was not a major league team who would pull the trigger, but rather the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, managed by Casey Stengel in 1946. At this point, some minor league teams had low-level minor league affiliates of their own. Stengel was interested in Martin, signed him, and sent him to the Class D Idaho Falls Russets. He was pretty terrible that year, but got a promotion to the Class C Phoenix Senators in 1947. Martin dominated that year. Moreover, he was a real student of the game and whenever he was around Stengel, would pepper him with questions, greatly impressing the older manager. In 1948, he played with Oakland but didn’t get on the field much. Instead, he sat next to Stengel in the dugout and learned the nuances of the game from the master. When Stengel got hired by the Yankees, he talked up Martin and they bought his contract from Oakland after the 1949 season.

Martin was a pretty marginal player, a tough gritty second basemen who could do a lot of things OK, but none of them particularly well. Some of this was that he was hurt a lot, but his best seasons were 1952 and 1953, when he put up a WAR (by Baseball Reference’s calculations) of 2.7 and 1.6. The latter got a little more play because he hit 15 home runs that year, but he was basically a slap hitter who didn’t walk enough. He missed 1954 when he was drafted, came back to the Yankees through mid-season 1957, then became a journeyman. Between 1957 and his retirement in 1961, he played for the A’s, Tigers, Indians, Reds, Braves, and Twins. But his real reputation came from being a drunk and a fighter who other players hated and, for the Yankees anyway, was a threat to Mickey Mantle being healthy and sober enough to play well. Martin and Mantle went out after games and didn’t get back to the hotel until well into the morning. Before the 1957 season, Martin and Mantle intentionally rammed golf carts into each other, hurting both of them. This infuriated the Yankees, who were ready to be done with their troubled second basemen and thus started his late career journeyman status.

In 1961, Martin retired. Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who had recently moved the Senators from Washington, hired Martin as a scout and as a distributor for his Grain Belt beer in local bars, which allowed him to promote the new Twins locally. He always had an eye for talent, urging Griffith to sign Jim Palmer, but the old man was too cheap and he signed with the Orioles instead. He was made the Twins third base coach in 1965 and mentored Zoilo Versalles to the MVP the next year. And then he got in a fight with the Twins traveling secretary and burned any chance he had of getting the team’s managerial position. He finally got that job in 1969 after going to AAA to manage the Denver Bears for a year. He was fired after one year, mostly because Griffith was an idiot than because of anything Martin did after winning a division title, but kicking Hubert Humphrey out of the locker room after a game did not help.

Such would be Martin’s whole managerial career–a really great manager undermined by his own demons. Most of this is remembered in his notorious relationship with George Steinbrenner, but he managed both the Tigers and Rangers for short stints before he ever got hired by the Yankees. He was fired by the Rangers after making the team play “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” instead of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch, but really after a whole season of being a complete jerk to everyone. He managed the Yankees in 1976 and 1977, nearly got into a fight with Reggie Jackson in the dugout, was fired, returned in 1979, was fired again, was hired by the As from 1980-82, then was hired and fired three more times by the Yankees. Steinbrenner actually was about to hire Martin yet again to replace Bucky Dent in 1990. Dent was pretty terrible (of course those Yankees teams of that era were awful generally) and Steinbrenner was prepared to toss Dent if the 90 team was bad and bring back Billy. As Bill James once noted, Martin improved every single team he managed in the first year by huge margins, but was so personally unacceptable that he needed to be fired immediately after before the team blew up.

That did not happen because, not surprisingly, Billy Martin died in a drunk driving accident on Christmas Day of 1989. His friend claimed he was driving and only changed his story after he found out Martin died, wanting to protect his friend. It’s never been truly determined what is true here, but it doesn’t really matter either.

Here’s some Martin highlights, if we want to call them that.

Billy Martin is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

If you would like this series to cover some of the managers who replaced Billy Martin, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dick Howser is in Tallahassee, Florida and Yogi Berra is in East Hanover, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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