As I avidly followed baseball in the early 1980s, some of my favorite ballplayers did not happen to play for the Yankees. One of those players was Billy Sample. He was playing for the Rangers at the time, a team with which I’ve never had any kind of affiliation. Sample wasn’t a star. He was a pretty good ballplayer, though, a speedy defensive left fielder who stole bases, hit for a decent average, and launched an occasional longball. In other words, he was a role player, one who had to overcome the stigma that comes with being five feet, nine inches tall. I’ve always liked role players, in part because they have to struggle—just like us. Little comes easy to them, but they find a way to contribute in tangible and important ways.
One winter day in 1984, I was doing some broadcasting for WHCL, the radio station for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. As I was preparing my afternoon sports report, I noticed a transaction on the AP wire. It involved the Yankees. They had made a wintertime trade, sending an over-the-hill Toby Harrah to the Rangers—for Billy Sample. Yes!
I immediately began to think of what role Sample might play for the Yankees in 1984. Left field looked like the logical destination, perhaps in a platoon with the elder Ken Griffey. You see, the Yankees collected outfielders in the early 1980s the way that Adrian Monk collects phobias. Only stars played every day in the Yankee outfield back then, Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. A player like Sample, a complementary role player, appeared destined to platoon in pinstripes.
Even so, a timeshare in left field looked appealing to Sample, who was glad to be out of Texas, a team that had lost 92 games. He also looked forward to playing for a new leader in Yogi Berra, a man with a reputation for being the consummate player’s manager. Unfortunately, no one could have anticipated that Berra would manage the Yankees for a mere 16 games in 1985. An early managerial changeover brought the worst of possible successors for Sample—the fourth pinstriped tenure of Billy Martin.
For reasons that remain unknown to this day, Billy Martin despised the likeable Sample with the same kind of passion he once reserved for Jim Brewer, Dave Boswell, and marshmallow salesmen. (All of those men had experienced Martin’s wrath, either on the ballfield or in bars.) Martin’s dislike for Sample had first manifested itself in 1978, which happened to be Goose Gossage’s first season in pinstripes. During Gossage’s first meeting with Martin in spring training, the manager instructed his new relief ace to hit Sample with a pitch—preferably in the head. Not wanting to participate in a case of on-field murder, Gossage refused the assignment, drawing Martin’s fury, but allowing Sample to continue his major league career.
With Martin now back at the Yankee helm in 1985, Sample saw his Bronx future doomed. Although the Yankees faced 60 left-handed starters that season, Sample came to bat only 139 times, playing sporadically for a manager who did not want him, and one who had alternatives in Griffey and a promising Dan Pasqua. Sample finished out his first and only season in New York before receiving a reprieve—in the form of a trade to Atlanta. Sample played productively as a backup for the Braves, even reaching a career-high in slugging percentage, but decided to call it quits after one season in the south.
Most players struggle in making the transition to life-after-baseball, but not so with Sample. He was a natural fit to become a broadcaster—articulate, thoughtful, and insightful. And unlike many former athletes, he brought little ego to the booth. The Braves hired him to work games for SuperStation WTBS, where he eagerly learned at the feet of Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, and Ernie Johnson. Smooth enough to handle play-by-play and analytical enough to provide color commentary, Sample became an instant hit on the Ted Turner network.
Sample announced games for the Braves and then the Angels, before finding his way to the fledgling MLB Radio network (a division of MLB.com) in the year 2000. It was at MLB Radio that this writer actually crossed paths with William Amos Sample. In 2001, I received a chance to co-host MLB’s new weekly show, the “Hall of Fame Hour.” With Sample anchoring the program in New York and me contributing from Cooperstown, we worked together on the show for three years.
Oftentimes, the opportunity to meet (or work with) people you once idolized produces only disappointment. Billy did not disappoint. Always easygoing, accommodating, and encouraging, Billy gave me plenty of room to roam; he treated me like I was the former big league outfielder. He also taught me about the inner workings of those Ranger and Yankee teams, giving me vivid portrayals of some of the more colorful characters that populated the clubhouses, from Martin to Mickey Rivers to Willie Montanez.
On a Friday afternoon in December, Billy and 19 other employees were called into the offices of MLB.com. They were tinformed that they had been “unconditionally released,” to use a baseball term, ostensibly the victims of the economy and some preemptive cost-cutting measures. Sample, one of the longest serving employees of the company, volunteered to work the winter meetings before officially clearing out of the MLB offices.
For the moment, Billy is out of baseball. If there’s any justice in the world of sports broadcasting, he’ll be in front of a microphone soon. Someone out there can use a man of Sample’s abilities, a versatile talent who can deliver play-by-play, provide analysis, or host a talk show—sometimes all in the same day. It’s just another reason why Billy Martin was dead wrong about Billy Sample.
Bruce Markusen, author of Cooperstown Confidential, can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.