The hit sitcom Seinfeld appealed greatly to me given Jerry’s obsession for baseball. The love for the game on the show allowed one of its central characters – the ever put-upon George Costanza – to work in the New York Yankees organization. In one episode, George met with owner George Steinbrenner who lectured the round man on how to run a business. He told Costanza that over the years he had to let a few people go. And the script went something like this: “Over the years I’ve had to let a lot of people go. Bob Lemon, Dick Howser, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Gene Michael, Billy Martin, Stump Merrill, Billy Martin, Bucky Dent. Billy Martin…” Billy Martin may not have been on the greatest of terms with management, but he was a terrific field general.
A scrappy ballplayer during his playing days, Martin received his first managerial gig with the 1969 Minnesota Twins. The Twins finished a distant seventh in 1968 but Billy guided them to a first place finish in 1969. The Twins batting average rose a substantial 31 points from the previous season with Billy at the helm. The Twins lost the ALCS and Billy wasn’t asked back to manage the Twins in 1970.
Showing that he had the goods to deliver a winner, Billy was hired by the Detroit Tigers for the 1971 season. Detroit was a sub-.500 team in ’70 but Martin brought them into second place in 1971. Martin’s Tigers were the top slugging team in the American League and he trimmed the staff ERA 46 points from the previous season. His second year in Detroit brought the Tigers an AL East title but his charges were beat in the ALCS by the mighty Oakland Athletics. The Tigers fell to third place in 1973 (with a winning record) and Billy didn’t finish the season as manager.
Billy wasn’t unemployed long. Shortly after his dismissal from Detroit he was signed to pilot the lowly Texas Rangers – the doormat of the American League. Billy Ball elevated baseball in Texas and the Rangers were no longer a laughingstock. Texas jumped up to second place in 1974. The Rangers had the best hitting team in the AL and the staff ERA was trimmed by a whopping 82 points from ’73. He began the 1975 season as the Rangers manager but ended it in the Yankees dugout.
In Martin’s first full year as Yankees manager he brought a pennant to New York while piloting the top pitching staff in the junior circuit. His Yankees took care of the Royals in the ALCS but got the wind knocked out of their sails in a World Series sweep in Cincinnati. But this was only Billy’s first taste of World Series action – he would have more.
Martin’s 1977 Yankees won 100 games thanks to two 30-homer hitters in Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles. Billy got the most out of a lackluster pitching staff headed by an injured Catfish Hunter and a young Ron Guidry. The ’77 Yankees were Martin’s first World Champions. He would cop a second World Title the following year although he wasn’t at the helm of the team when they won the World Series. Billy was forced to resign after making inflammatory comments about self-absorbed, overrated star Reggie Jackson and team owner George Steinbrenner.
The Yankees dugout wasn’t minus Billy for long. He returned in 1979 in the middle of the season but didn’t stick around for more madness in 1980. When he was offered the Oakland job, Billy packed his bags and went back home to California. Oakland had lost 108 games under Jim Marshall in 1979, so Billy had his work cut out for him. Billy did a marvellous job with a young Oakland team, posting a winning record in 1980. He worked wonders with the pitching staff. Under Marshall, the same cast of pitchers had a collective 4.74 ERA. Under Billy, the staff ERA fell drastically to 3.46 (best in the AL). Pitchers Mike Norris (4.81 in ’79, 2.54 in ’80), Rick Langford (4.27 in ’79, 3.26 in ’80) and Matt Keough (5.03 in ’79, 2.92 in ’80) all flourished under Martin.
His Athletics won the AL West in 1981 and fate would have it that his old Yankees won the AL East. His Athletics fell to the Yankees in the ALCS. Oakland floundered in 1982 as the pitchers whose careers Martin turned around in 1980 all suffered through poor seasons in ’82. Oakland let Billy go after the season. His next managerial job came with… you guessed it, the New York Yankees.
The Yankees finished below .500 in 1982 but returned to the top division in 1983 under Martin, finishing 91-71. The fracturous relationship with George Steinbrenner hadn’t mellowed over the years and Billy didn’t return to manage the Bronx Bombers in ’84. Yogi Berra managed the Yankees in 1985 but when Steinbrenner grew tired of Mr. Berra, he canned him and replaced him with Martin. Under Billy, the Yankees finished with an amazing .628 winning percentage.
Billy began the 1988 season as the Yankees manager but was replaced, even though his team sported a 68-40 record at the time of his dismissal. This was to be Martin’s final stab at managing at the Major League level. The following year, on Christmas Night, Martin was killed in a car accident.
W 1,253/L 1,013/PCT .553
3 pennants, two World Series Titles