In getting to know Ray Negron, nothing surprised me more than his portrait of Billy Martin as a loyal, big-hearted friend. As much as I admire Martin’s talents as a manager, I’ve generally subscribed to John Schulian’s classic description of Martin as a rat studying to be a mouse. Schulian has been a newspaper man in Chicago and Baltimore and Washington D.C., a magazine writer for S.I. and GQ, a script writer for “L.A. Law,” and is the creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” the pop Lesbian icon. Recently, I came across his review of Peter Golenbock’s second Martin book (Golenbock ghosted Martin’s best-selling autobiography, “Number 1”), “Wild, High and Tight.” He doesn’t mince words:
One reads of the mess Billy Martin called his life and wonders how he ever found time for baseball. He was a relentless boozer, a sucker puncher and a chippy chaser, and the sum of his personal ugliness overwhelmed whatever good he did for the New York Yankees.
Even after Martin died in a drunken-driving accident on Christmas Day, 1989, his evil could still be felt. He had anticipated his demise, it seems, by plotting against a sister who had somehow offended him. If she dared to show up at his funeral, he wanted his daughter to spit in her face.
He reveled in his public image as a stand-up guy who backed down to no man. But that was all part of the testosterone-fueled myth that consumed the feral creature who was born Alfred Manuel Martin Jr. If you make it through Peter Golenbock’s Wild, High and Tight, you will find a decidedly different Martin, one who lacked the strength to prevent his own emasculation at the hands of a tyrannical boss and a scheming wife.
His boss was George Steinbrenner, who got nailed for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and reigns as the most hated man in New York sports for his boorish ownership of the Yankees. Steinbrenner hired and fired Martin five times as the Yanks’ manager, all the while maintaining that he was trying to help poor Billy and succeeding only in establishing a certain sickness in both of them.
Martin changed wives as if they were socks until he got to his fourth, a photographer and equestrian who beguiled him with her sexual prowess and turned what Steinbrenner had left of his mind to pudding.
Martin deserved her. He deserved Steinbrenner, too. He even deserved Wild, High and Tight, and that may be the cruelest thing anyone can say of the man.
For this is an unpleasant, artless piece of business, bloated in the extreme at 544 pages and devoid of literary or journalistic merit except for the case Golenbock makes that Martin was driving the day he died, not the buddy who lived to take the fall for him. The rest of the time, Golenbock proves just what he has in each of his 14 previous books: He is a writer only because he has a tape recorder that works.
Which brings me to my favorite Martin story from “Number One,” about how his mother threw his father out of the house when she was pregnant because she found out that he was fooling around with a 15-year old girl.
“To this day, and she’s older than eighty, she hasn’t forgiven him. She told me, ‘I’m going to outlive that son of a bitch, and when they bury him, I’m going to the funeral, and in front of all his friends and relatives, I’m going to pull up my dress and piss on his grave.”
That’s no lady…that’s me muddah.