There have certainly never been any Yankees quite like Billy Martin in their long history. He might be the most hilarious yet tortured person they've ever employed, Sergio Mitre jokes aside. His personal demons seemed to get the best of him every time, but there was no denying that he had tremendous baseball acumen and that it was a damn shame that he died so tragically. Let's take a look at what Martin did during his five tenures as manager of the Yankees because he was a much more interesting person than any other manager since his mentor, Casey Stengel. Whereas we get banal, vanilla quotes from Joe Girardi on an everyday basis about the state of the team and the games, Martin could certainly be a loon at times, and it must have been fascinating to view from an outsider's perspective. As a disclaimer, I am more than okay with managers like Girardi not making themselves the story, and I would take Girardi's blandness over Martin's instability any day. Regardless, Martin was an intriguing fellow. Just look at how chopped up those Yankee years were.
Managed Yankees 8/2/75-7/24/78, 6/17/79-10/28/79, 1/11/83-12/16/83, 4/28/85-10/27/85, 10/19/87-6/22/88
556-385, .591, 1 World Series title, 2 AL Pennants, 2 AL East titles (8 years)
Martin was a fine second baseman for the Yankees under Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel in the '50s, and he learned a lot about the intricacies of the game from the "Ol' Perfesser." Although he wasn't a great player, he came up big in the World Series on two occasions; once in a game-saving catch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of '52 against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and once in a tremendous all-around World Series performance in '53, when he set a record with 12 hits, including the walk-off RBI single in Game 7. Unfortunately for Martin, he also learned a lot about the New York City nightlife during his time as a player and found himself traded away in '57 as the Yankees sought to take some of superstar Mickey Mantle's off-the-field distractions away from him in wake of a fight at the Copacabana night club. He would not return to the Yankees for almost 20 years.
Martin's playing career ended with the Minnesota Twins in '61, and he smoothly transitioned into organizational roles with the team. After a few years as a scout, he became the Twins' third base coach, and he helped the Twins win the AL pennant in '65. He became manager of the Twins in '69 after just a half-season managing in AAA, but he helped the Twins rebound from a seventh-place finish in '68 to win the first AL West title in baseball's new divisional format. Minnesota was swept 3-0 in the first ALCS by the 109-win Baltimore Orioles, but Martin established himself as a legitimate manager. He would also show baseball his personal problems for the first time as a manager when he got into a fight that August with one of his pitchers, Dave Boswell. So despite his success, Martin was fired. Martin went on to have similar stints as manager with the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers. In Detroit, he took over a Tiger team in '71 that had struggled since their World Series championship in '68, and won 91 games in his first season, then the AL East title in '72. With the Rangers, he took over a club at the end of '73 that had suffered back-to-back 100-loss seasons in its first two years in Texas, and despite playing in the same division as the then-back-to-back World Series champion Oakland A's, guided them to a second-place finish--the team's first over-.500 season and only five games behind the eventual World Series champions. Nonetheless, Martin was fired from both jobs within a season of the team's peak success; in Detroit for telling his pitchers to throw at hitters and use the spitball against Gaylord Perry, and in Texas for disagreements with clueless owner/GM Brad Corbett.
Thus, it was due both to his Yankee pedigree and his success with the Twins, Tigers, and Rangers that it wasn't a surprise when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner tabbed Martin to succeed Bill Virdon in the middle of the '75 season. Virdon had won the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award for a second-place season in '74, but the team was slugging to an 11-18 record in July of '75 (53-51 overall) despite offseason acquisitions like Catfish Hunter. Steinbrenner released the mild-mannered Virdon from his contract and put the fiery Martin in charge, and he led the team to a 30-26 finish. Once given a more complete team by the front office in '76, he guided the Yankees to 97 wins as they ran away with the AL East title by 10.5 games. The Yankees prevailed 3-2 in an epic five-game ALCS victory over the Royals and returned to the World Series for the first time since 1964, where they were swept by Johnny Bench and the "Big Red Machine."
Martin was a very intense manager and sometimes clashed with his players, but he knew what he was doing. He would spark his team with outside-the-box thinking, like making the runner on first get in a rundown between first and second and having the runner on third bolt for the plate. He was one of the most argumentative managers in the history of the game, and his disputes with umpires were the stuff of legends. He would engage in antics like screaming at the officials with his cap on backwards, covering home plate with dirt, and once, even throwing dirt on an umpire. Any ideas from where Lou Piniella got his inspirations? Martin favored the small-ball style, and he wasn't exactly pleased that the Yankees added home run hitter Reggie Jackson prior to the '77 season.
Nonetheless, the team made it work despite the frequent clubhouse tension, as the Yankees won 100 games to take the AL East by a few games over the Orioles. They again beat the Royals 3-2 in a great ALCS, and this time, won the World Series over the Dodgers 4-2. Martin was on top of the Yankee world as the first manager to guide the Yankees to a World Series title since '62, but it would all come crashing down quickly. His clubhouse conflicts with Jackson worsened, as did his disputes with Steinbrenner, and the Yankees found themselves 14 games behind Boston on July 19. A few days later, Martin blasted Jackson and Steinbrenner by saying "one's a liar, and the other's convicted." Although the team was 52-42 and on a five-game winning streak, he was forced to resign. The Yankees would rally under new manager Bob Lemon and eventually win the World Series.
Martin's other four tenures with the Yankees were a hodgepodge of good baseball, bad personal decisions, and more internal conflict. The Yankees struggled in their "threepeat" efforts at the start of '79, and with the team a season-low eight game behind the Orioles, Lemon was replaced by Martin (Martin had been slated to replace Lemon at the start of the '80 season with Lemon moving to the front office, but Steinbrenner made the move early). The team was sparked and despite the death of Thurman Munson on August 2nd, played .579 baseball the rest of the season. They were unable to catch the Orioles, but they ended the season on an eight-game winning streak. Martin appeared poised to manage again in '80, but he was fired at the end of October after an alleged brawl with a marshmallow salesman in Bloomington, Minnesota. Yes, this is real life.
Martin moved on to Oakland, where he managed the A's from from 1980-82, again helping a franchise recover as he utilized top young players like Rickey Henderson to succeed. The A's made the playoffs in the split-season of '81, and they won the AL West by virtue of beating the Royals in the first round. Against many of his former players in New York, Martin and his A's lost the ALCS in a three-game sweep as the Yankees went on to the World Series. The A's slumped to 94 losses in '82 and Martin was out of a job once again, but the Yankees were there to pick him up again. The team had endured three managers during a turbulent '82 season (also under .500), so it seemed fitting that the two parties would reunite. Again, Martin and Steinbrenner did very well--the Yankees made a 12-game improvement to 91 wins and the season had highlights like Dave Righetti's July 4th no-hitter against Boston. The team was within a few games of first place in late August, but they finished seven games behind the eventual World Series champion Orioles. The season was not all great for Martin though, as he had a shouting match in June with a New York Times researcher that embarrassed the team. Steinbrenner fired him from the manager's job in December, replaced him with Yogi Berra, and moved Martin to an advisory role with the team.
The Yankees won a respectable 87 games in '84, but they were never going to catch the high-flying Tigers, who got off to a 35-5 start and never looked back. Steinbrenner said he would honor Berra's managerial contract for the '85 season, but became impatient after a 6-10 start and replaced him with Martin. Though the firing was highly controversial and Berra wouldn't return to Yankee Stadium for 15 years, the Yankees played some of their finest baseball ever under Martin for the remainder of the year. The team acquired Henderson, Martin's favorite player from Oakland, in the offseason, and he turned in an MVP-worthy performance in '85 while Don Mattingly earned the actual MVP honors. The team played at a .628 clip for the rest of the season and won 97 games in total, a performance that in most years would have resulted in an easy path to the division title. Unfortunately, the Toronto Blue Jays had their best season to date and won 99 games, besting Martin's Yankees by two. Despite the team's success, Martin again faced internal strife and got into a fight with one of his own players, beleaguered pitcher Ed Whitson. Whitson broke Martin's arm and the brawl led to Martin's firing in late-October.
Martin returned to the team for one last go-around in '88 and the team played well with him at the helm, but he did not stay in charge for long. The Yankees were 12 games over .500 and in second place when Martin was fired on June 23rd, but Steinbrenner fired him anyway after Martin basically challenged him to do so. The team was on its way to a 12-15 June, and Steinbrenner had enough of Martin (again). Not much changed under replacement Lou Piniella, and the Yankees finished in fifth place. There were actually rumors of Martin returning to the Yankees for a sixth time for the 1990 season, but his life came to a crashing halt on Christmas Day, 1989. He was drunk at the time, but a passenger in the truck he was going home in, and it the icy road caused an accident that killed Billy Martin. He was 61.
The Yankees honored Martin in '86 by retiring his number 1. Whether or not he was worthy of the honor does not matter at this point. He was as proud as any person ever was to be a Yankee. He should be remembered and respected for his managerial prowess.