There’s never been a manager in baseball quite like Billy Martin, and odds are, there’ll never be another one like him ever again. Martin spent two decades being fired by major league clubs, most notably the Yankees, time and time again for offenses that would have quickly gotten him blacklisted by the entire league were he to manage today’s game. Of course, at the same time, major league clubs, most notably the Yankees, kept hiring him to be their manager. There must have been a reason, right?
For all intents and purposes, Martin never should have been allowed to be a manager. During his time as a player, aside from being known as a heavy drinker, Martin was involved in countless fights, both on and off the field. After more than seven years with the Yankees, he was traded following a nightclub incident that also involved Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, even though it was later revealed that Martin may not have actually thrown a punch during the incident.
Regardless, Martin threw plenty of punches in his day. He hospitalized pitcher Jim Brewer for two months with a punch that broke Brewer’s cheekbone after Martin threw his bat and charged the mound. He also had on-field fights as a player with legendary manager Tommy Lasorda, notorious hothead Jimmy Piersall, and others.
Billy Martin makes the game lean a little more toward professional wrestling. He might as well wear a hood and come to the park as the Masked Manager.
Mike Downey, San Francisco Examiner
In today’s game, a player involved in that many fights would have a snowflake’s chance in hell of becoming a big league manager. But in Martin’s day it was possible, and after several years with the Twins as a scout, coach, and minor league manager, Martin took over as manager of the Twins in 1969, immediately leading them to a division title. However, despite the on-field success, Martin was fired after just one season after punching two of his players in an alley outside a bar during the season.
In the years to come, Martin would continue to have a problematic relationship with some of his players. While with the Yankees, Martin had long-standing issues with star player Reggie Jackson, once removing him from a game in the middle of an inning and having to be restrained before he could throw a punch at the Yankee legend. He later suspended Jackson for five games, a move that ultimately forced him to resign before he could be fired, ending his first stint with the Bronx Bombers.
Even away from the dugout, Martin was rarely on his best behavior. He once gave the middle finger while posing for a baseball card, a move that wasn’t discovered until after the card had been published. He once bragged to the press about demanding that his pitchers throw spitballs. Martin also punched a marshmallow salesman after getting into an argument over who should be Manager of the Year. That punch effectively ended his second stint as manager of the Yankees.
People think I hate Billy Martin. I don’t. I hate some of the things he did. And I will say I don’t understand him. Billy Martin is not an intellectual, but there is a cunningness to him that is something to behold.
However, before he would inevitably be fired from every managerial job, Martin almost always led his team to on-field success. He won a division title with the Tigers in his second season with the club, only to be fired midway through his third season. He won a division title with the Athletics in his second season in Oakland but was fired after year three. He also took the Yankees to the World Series in back-to-back years, winning the title in 1977.
I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest.
Martin would go on to have three separate stints with the Yankees in 1983, 1985, and 1988 that all lasted one season or less before being fired by owner George Steinbrenner, but he led the team to a winning record every time. Martin was once again gearing up for what have been his sixth stint as manager of the Yankees ahead of the 1990 season when he died in a car crash.
For better or worse, there will never be another major league manager quite like Bill Martin. For obvious reasons, he never would have survived one day as a manager in today’s game. But in his day, he made his managerial tactics work, at least for a while until his intense approach to the game forced him to burn out like a shooting star. For that, he remains one of the most memorable managers in baseball history, for his vices as much as his virtues.