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Billy Martin, Hall of Famer?


By now, everyone has heard the list of names featured on the Hall of Fame’s player ballot for 2008. Several ex-Yankees highlight the first-year eligibles, including Tim "Rock" Raines, David Justice, and Chuck Knoblauch. Raines should be elected, but won’t be, simply because too many writers lack an appreciation of on-base percentage and the rest of Raines’ well-rounded game. Justice and Knoblauch obviously don’t deserve election to Cooperstown in spite of being fine everyday players and key contributors to the most recent Yankee dynasty.

In my mind, a far more interesting Yankee candidacy can be found on the other ballot—the managers/umpires ballot being considered by the Veterans Committee this Sunday. Of the seven managers on that ballot, perhaps the most fascinating and controversial storyline involves Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin. Best remembered for being the five-time skipper of the Yankees, Martin also made numerous headlines during his stops in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and Oakland. Does "Billy the Kid" deserve election to the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a closer look.

There’s a tendency to underrate Billy Martin as a player and overrate him as a manager. Perhaps that’s because most of the images that the 50-and-under crowd retains of Martin are from his combative, fiery, and turbulent tenure as a field manager. Yet, in examining his Hall of Fame candidacy, we should consider the entirety of his baseball career, including his significant accomplishments as a scrappy, overachieving player for a lasting baseball dynasty.

It’s easy to forget that Martin’s playing days spanned the entire decade of the 1950s, lasting a total of 11 seasons. A favorite of Yankee manager Casey Stengel, Martin became the team’s semi-regular second baseman during the first half of the decade. In 1952, ’53, and ’56, he played more games at second base than any other Yankee; at other times, he filled in at shortstop and third base, giving Stengel depth and flexibility on the infield. A good fielder with occasional power who twice reached double figures in home runs, Martin sometimes struggled to reach base and lacked the speed to steal bases. Though never one of the best players on his own team, he did make the All-Star steam in 1956 and emerged as a decent complimentary player on teams filled with heavy-hitting stars from top to bottom.

The postseason, however, saw Martin transform himself from ordinary player to clutch-hitting hero and defensive stalwart. In the 1952 World Series, he helped the Yankees preserve a two-run lead in Game Seven by catching a wind-blown pop-up that normally would have been handled by the first baseman or the catcher. He fared even better in the ’53 World Series, batting an even .500 with two home runs and eight RBIs, numbers that earned him the Series’ Most Valuable Player Award. Even in later Series, Martin continued to play well, hitting .320 in 1955 and .296 in 1956. For those who consider the postseason a crapshoot, Martin’s numbers might not mean much; for others, they represent a gritty player who performed his best when the games meant the most.

After his playing career ended, Martin spent eight seasons preparing for what would become his true calling—managing in the major leagues. Working as a scout, third base coach, and minor league skipper in the Twins’ organization, Martin finally earned his first big league managing job in 1969. The Twins promoted him from their Triple-A farm team and promptly watched the rookie manager lead the team to the postseason in the first year of divisional play. In winning 97 games, the Twins improved by 17 games over their 1968 finish. Martin extracted the most from role players like Rich Reese and Cesar Tovar, watched stars Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva thrive in the top half of the Minnesota lineup, and helped develop two 20-game winners.

Just as quickly as it blossomed, Martin’s tenure in Minnesota turned sour. The Twins lost three straight games to the Orioles in the playoffs and team owner Calvin Griffith became disenchanted with his temperamental skipper, who had beaten up one of his 20-game winners in August. Regarding those problems as more significant than the sum of Martin’s work during the regular season, Griffith fired Martin. There would be no opportunity for a Martin encore in Minnesota.

Instead, Martin sat out the 1970 season and awaited his next opportunity. That would come in 1971, when the Tigers fired the venerable Mayo Smith and brought in the younger, more energetic Martin. Despite having an aging team that paled in comparison with the 1968 World Championship club, Martin guided the Tigers to a strike-shortened AL East title in 1972. The Tigers then extended a vastly superior A’s team to a decisive fifth game in the ALCS, losing by just one run. Given the team’s age, it should not have come as a surprise that Martin’s Tigers would stumble in 1973. Perhaps prematurely and almost certainly unfairly, the Tigers gave Martin the boot in mid-season.

Having managed mostly veteran teams in Minnesota and Detroit, Martin then showed his ability to handle young talent at his next stop. The Rangers, looking for a fulltime successor to Whitey Herzog, gave Martin a call during the second half of the ’73 season. Well on their way to 105 losses, the Rangers had no chance to salvage the season, but hoped that Martin could work some magic the following summer. Martin did just that, leading Texas to a remarkable 27-game improvement, good for second place in the AL West. Overcoming a shocking lack of power (only 99 home runs for the season), Martin encouraged the Rangers to run wild on the bases. (Martin loved an aggressive approach to the game; if his team had speed, he used it.) As for his pitching staff, Martin had only one reliable reliever in the bullpen, so he relied heavily on Jim Bibby and Fergie Jenkins to soak up innings. The net result? In spite of a large disparity in talent, the Rangers finished within five games of the World Champion A’s.

Unfortunately, the Rangers may have improved too much too quickly, creating unrealistically high expectations. The pattern of "season-after" dismissals continued in 1975, when the Rangers regressed badly (in other words, back to reality) and the front office responded by blaming Martin. They sacked Martin in mid-summer, just as the Tigers had done in 1973. The latest firing set the stage for what would become the most famed part of Martin’s career.

On the prowl for a high-profile manager, George Steinbrenner offered Martin the Yankees’ job in the middle of the 1975 season. With a talented team on the verge of contention and an owner willing to spend money for top-flight talent, Martin found himself in the most attractive managerial situation of his career. It was also the most dangerous, given Steinbrenner’s penchant for meddling, a bubbling New York media that forever in search of soap opera storylines, and Martin’s own combustible personality.

In 1976, Martin took the Yankees as far as they should have gone—a league pennant and a four-game World Series loss to Cincinnati’s vastly superior "Big Red Machine." The following year, expectations for New York grew with the signing of Reggie Jackson, whom Martin didn’t like. Stubbornly, Martin refused to bat Jackson cleanup for most of the summer, then finally relented when faced with the loss of his job. Battling the egos of Jackson and Steinbrenner throughout the year, along with his own continuing struggle with alcoholism, Martin steered the Yankee ship—sometimes unsteadily—after a faulty start. In spite of a chaotic clubhouse and frenzied front office atmosphere, Martin and the Yankees won the World Series, defeating two very good teams (the Royals and Dodgers) along the way.

Predictably, Martin’s first marriage with New York ended the following summer. With the Yankees underachieving and Martin having disparaged Reggie and George as "born and convicted liars," the Yankees laid the axe to Martin’s neck. He would return during the ill-fated 1979 season, only to take the fall again, this time at season’s end.

Then came the most astonishing work of Martin’s career. He became the manager of the A’s, who had long since fallen into disarray under the penny-pinching ownership of Charlie Finley. Playing an aggressive style that emphasized the use of the stolen base, the hit-and-run, and a variety of trick plays, Martin’s philosophy became known as "Billy Ball." Knowing that he had little talent in his bullpen, Martin asked his starting pitchers to complete games at a time when most other managers pulled their starters in favor of long, middle, and closing relievers. In the short term, Martin’s strategies worked.Paced by an astonishing 94 complete games in 1980, Martin’s A’s jumped 29 games in the standings, from 7th to 2nd place. After overachieving to open the 1981 season with a record of 17-1, the A’s made the postseason, defeating the Royals in the Division Series before falling to the Yankees in the League Championship Series. That the A’s made it that far without a standout in the bullpen (Dave Beard and Jeff Jones tied for the team lead with three saves) and without anything approximating a quality infield (featuring the immortal double play combination of Shooty Babitt and Rob Picciolo) remains a testament to Martin’s in-game managerial brilliance.

Like the A’s, all of Martin’s teams showed significant improvement over their immediate predecessors—no matter how mediocre the talent on hand. Unfortunately, none of the turnarounds endured in the long run. By the third season, Martin had usually clashed with the front office or alienated too many of his players, with several taking residence in his ever-expanding doghouse. In the case of the A’s, he blew out the arms of overused starters Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, and Steve McCatty, whose careers all short-circuited.

Late in his career, during his final tours of duty with the Yankees, Martin’s managing started to show additional cracks. Oh, he still won games at a clip well over .500, but employed some bizarre pieces of strategy. During a 1985 game in Detroit, Martin ordered Yankee third baseman Mike Pagliarulo to bat right-handed against Tigers left-hander Mickey Mahler. A stunned Pagliarulo, who hadn’t switch-hit in years, proceeded to strike out feebly against Mahler. And then, during Martin’s final managerial go-round in 1988, he made a number of ill-advised tactical decisions. He mishandled closer Dave Righetti, concocted a seven-man rotation at one juncture, and even used pitcher Rick Rhoden as a designated hitter despite the fact that the veteran right-hander suffered from a bad back. If anything, Martin’s two final managerial terms damaged his Hall of Fame chances; his resume might look stronger without those ill-fated stints in pinstripes.

So how do we assess the winding, checkered career of Martin, featuring nine stops with five different franchises along the way? The bottom line adds up to two league pennants and one World Championship, which are relatively light numbers for a Hall of Famer. On the other hand, his winning percentage of .553 puts him in the company of Walter Alston (.558) and above Sparky Anderson (.545). Martin also deserves some credit for five division titles, some of which were accomplished with severely flawed teams. Let’s also give him extra credit for his miraculous work in Texas and Oakland, succeeding where nothing short of managerial genius would have sufficed. And, of course, let’s not forget his accomplishments as a player, particularly as a contributor to Stengel’s Yankee dynasty.

In the short term, few managers have ever done better than Martin. Given one game to win, I doubt that I would pick anyone other than "Billy the Kid." A brilliant in-game strategist, Martin understood how to make out a lineup card, usually stacking his best hitters at the top of the order. He also played to the strength of his pitching staff. If his bullpen didn’t have quality arms, he avoided it. If it did, he tried to ride the hot hand in the late innings.

Unfortunately, Martin cannot be fully assessed without looking at his chronic off-the-field problems. As much as some analysts don’t like their inclusion in the debate, character and integrity are part of the criteria for the Hall of Fame. This is where Martin failed badly, fueled largely by his problems with alcohol. He repeatedly fought with others, from perfect strangers (including the famed marshmallow salesman) to his own players (Boswell and Ed Whitson). He frequently bullied members of the press or lesser employees in the front office. These incidents didn’t represent merely a flaw in Martin’s character; they prevented him from achieving more lasting legacies with each of his teams. After all, some of those conflicts resulted in his early firings, preventing him from achieving the kind of long-term success that might have resulted in additional pennants or World Championships. It’s that lack of sustained excellence, the inability to produce repeatedly good results in any stop outside of New York, that ultimately make Martin fall just short of the lofty Hall of Fame standard.

Bruce Markusen is the author of the upcoming book, Out of Left Field: Unusual Characters in Baseball History, which features an entry on Billy Martin. He also writes Cooperstown Confidential for MLB.com. Please send feedback to bmark@telenet.net.


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