Welcome to This Day in Yankees History. We may be well into hot stove season, but there’s still some time to dig into the history books, even on Christmas. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!
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31 Years Ago
Christmas Day comes with one joy and one heartbreak, and we must start with the latter. For it was on this day in 1989 that a man inextricably linked to the Yankees lost his life at just 61.
Billy Martin was a four-time World Series champion as an infielder for Casey Stengel’s Yankees in the ‘50s. While he was mostly known for palling around with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, he also established himself as a clutch performer with a then-record 12 hits in the 1953 World Series, including the walk-off in Game Six:
Martin was traded away in 1957, but after managerial stints with the Twins, Tigers, and Rangers, he made his way back into pinstripes as the Yankees’ first prominent skipper under George Steinbrenner. The fiery Martin fought with both the Boss and his players quite a bit, but he was also a genius tactician and led the Yankees to back-to-back pennants in 1976-77 — their first bit of playoff glory since the early ‘60s. Although they won the ‘77 World Series under Martin, his personal well-being and his relationship with stars like Reggie Jackson had deteriorated so much in ‘78 that he resigned in July. (The team excelled under Bob Lemon and won their second title in a row.)
Of course, that was just the first of many stints for Billy in the Bronx, because Steinbrenner just couldn’t help himself from re-hiring him over and over again. Martin returned midseason in ‘79; he was fired in part for punching out a marshmallow salesman. He skippered the A’s for a few years before being re-hired by the Yankees in ‘83. After getting replaced by Yogi Berra in ‘84, he took Yogi’s spot just after the start of ‘85 and had the Yankees playing quite well down the stretch but got fired at season’s end not long after a fight with his own pitcher, Ed Whitson. Martin returned for a fifth and final time at the start of ‘88, but was canned in favor of Lou Piniella in mid-June.
There were rumors of Martin coming back to the Yankees for a sixth time in 1990 before tragedy intervened. On Christmas Day 1989, he was killed when the pickup truck he was riding in skidded off an icy road and fell down an embankment. Both the driver and Martin had been drinking at a nearby bar, though only Billy paid the ultimate price.
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On a lighter note, one of Martin’s favorite players celebrates a birthday today, and he is one of the greatest to ever put on the spikes: Rickey Henderson. He turns 62 today, as he was born on this day in 1958 in Chicago. It was under unusual circumstances too, as his mother called his father (who was out playing poker) and told him to come home to drive her to the hospital. He was not exactly prompt, and by the time he returned to get them on their way, it was too late. Rickey’s mother gave birth in the back seat of his father’s ‘57 Chevy.
Henderson was already one of the biggest names in the sport by the time he joined the Yankees. Mostly under Martin (who always gave him a green light), he was a four-time All-Star in Oakland and had set the all-time single-season stolen base record with a staggering 130 in 82. The A’s dealt him to the Yankees prior to ‘85, and he immediately became the best player on the team (which quickly fell to Martin’s reins). Although Don Mattingly won the MVP that year, Rickey likely deserved it, as he hit .314/.419/.516 with 24 homers, a 157 OPS+, a league-best 80 steals and 9.9 WAR — over three wins more than Mattingly. He was a leadoff hitter for the ages.
The 80 steals set a Yankees franchise record, and the future Hall of Famer broke his own record twice more in pinstripes. First, he swiped 87 bags in a 6.3 WAR season in ‘86, and then stole 93 during his seventh straight All-Star season in ‘88. The Yankees never made the playoffs during Rickey’s tenure in pinstripes, but it wasn’t his fault. By the time he was dealt back to the A’s midseason in ‘89, he had notched 30.9 WAR in just four and a half seasons with the Yankees, remarkably setting their career stolen-base record with 326 in that short timespan. (Derek Jeter latter passed him with 358, albeit in a much larger sample.)
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We thank Baseball Reference and SABR for providing background information for these posts.