Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius

Billy Martin often claimed he could see everything that was going on from a single glance at the field. On April 10, 1976, no one argued the point with him strongly, if at all.

Billy Martin often claimed he could see everything that was going on from a single glance at the field. On April 10, 1976, no one argued the point with him strongly, if at all.


Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius

That’s the title that New York Times award-winning writer Bill Pennington gave to his 2015 biography of the late Billy Martin, a beautifully written and researched work based on the author’s experience as a New York Yankees beat writer from the start of Martin’s high profile play as a several times manager for owner George Steinbrenner in 1976. Donald Trump may have become television-famous for shouting “You’re fired”, but the late Yankee owner sort off used that statement daily on somebody handy back in the day – just to clear his throat from all that overnight mucous glop.

The Martin Game Persona

Billy Martin was much more than the sand-kicking manager who sucker-punched people who made him mad, although he claims he never started fights, he simply finished them. By Billy’s definition, that meant he was capable of restraining himself until the other person either made him mad or also appeared ready to throw a punch. That’s when the kid from West Oakland struck first and fast, often ending the rising rancor with a one or two punch knockout of the sometimes anonymous, but always in the end, unconscious foe. – Other people, including umpires, knew about this trait in Martin and they knew that no one was beyond Billy’s reach, once he got close enough – and mad enough. Billy also baited umpires from the dugouts, disagreeing with close calls, and yelling the idea back to them, “You owe me”, not because he thought it would change a ruling this time, but always hopefully – that it might win the next tough call for Billy’s team.

It Only Took Two Yankee Games for Billy’s Style to Shine

Billy Martin also knew the baseball rules as well or better than anyone, as George Brett would come to later learn angrily in the famous “pine tar incident”. In fact, it only took Martin two games deep into his first full-season 1976 debut as the Yankees manager to win over his boss, his players, and the Yankee fans to his way of bully-whipping the umpires against all odds with the rule book, turning a heartbreaking New York road loss into a second chance – and a recaptured Yankee comeback win.

Here’s the deal: On April 10, 1976 at Milwaukee, and after losing on Opening Day, 5-0, to the 2 hit/3 RBI game of Hank Aaron, the Yankees were down again to the Brewers, this time, by 6-0 through six innings. All of the home team’s runs were off Yankee starter Ed Figueroa in 5.1 innings of work, but the Yankees weren’t dead. They scored 4 in the 7th and another 5 in the 9th, taking the script for a 9-6 comeback win into Milwaukee’s last chance in the bottom of the 9th.

As most of you know, things often aren’t easy in baseball.

Although the Yankees still led with two outs, the Brewers already had scored one run in the 9th and now had the bases loaded with two outs – and Yankee reliever Dave Pagan pitching to Brewer third baseman Don Money. – A 9-7 Yankee lead was in grave danger with the tying run now standing on 2nd base.

Wouldn’t you just know it?

Money lifted a high fly to left. The ball had power and arch, as brief silence was quickly slain by the roar of home town jubilation. – It was a Grand Slam! – The Milwaukee Brewers had done the improbable, realizing every sandlot kid’s favorite dream of winning a game with a bases-loaded homer in the bottom of the 9th. – What was left to doubt? – The Brewers were going to win this game over the Yankees by 11-9, and Don Money could go to sleep this night reliving his heroic act in every dream that floated his way.

Oh, really? – Then why is Billy Martin running across the diamond from the third base dugout in rapid rage mode? And why is Yankee pitcher Pagan running from the mound to left field? Does he fear for his life from his own manager?

Pagan was safe from Billy. Martin was after first base umpire Jim McKean.

“You called timeout before the pitch,” Martin screamed above the roar of the home crowd. “He said it over and over, stridently moving quickly into McKean’s face, with hands on hips, stridently repeating his claim in violent bursts – and without even adding its intended meaning. The umpire is supposed to know these things: If an umpire raises his hands and gives the time out sign, no play that results from a pitch thrown after that signal is given, even if the pitcher innocently throws it with no advance knowledge of the time out call, counts for anything. – A home run can not result from a non-pitch thrown during a timeout on the field.

From his dugout, Billy Martin had seen Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss speaking over his shoulder to umpire McKean – and he had seen McKean give the time out signal in response – with both occurring prior to the time that Yankee pitcher Pagan delivered the pitch that Money had blasted out of the park.

Umpire McKean did not verbally respond to Martin’s incessant and voice-above-the-crowd shouts, but he did finally huddle with his fellow umpires as the public address announcer apprised the crowd that something had arisen that needed to be settled before everyone went home.

Apparently, Billy Martin was the only one in the stadium that had seen the time out signal that umpire McKean knew he had given – and then, after the HR was contested, he had honestly reported it to his fellow arbiters as occurring prior to the “home run” pitch. The umpiring crew had no other choice. The Money grand slam was disallowed. In spite of the loud crowd rage over this reversal of fortune, Money would need to bat again with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Yankees still leading, 9-7.

In slight irony, Martin brought in reliever Ken Brett, the brother of George Brett to finish pitching to Money. Brett got Money on a fly ball out to end the game as a save for himself in the Yankees’ 9-7 win over the Brewers. Sparky Lyle (1-0) got the win; Tom Murphy (0-1) took the loss.

And Billy Martin captured the hearts of all those “New York state of mind” Yankee fans.

And, yes, The Pecan Park Eagle definitely recommends this Martin biography.


eagle-0rangeBill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas






6 Responses to “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    Just up the hill from Babe Ruth’s grave is the last resting place of Billy Martin, with a monument which includes–along with his Number “1” and a quote from Billy about being the proudest Yankee–a bas-relief of St. Jude–which seems wholly appropriate.

  2. Mark W Says:

    He was certainly a keenly observant dude.

  3. Bob Hulsey Says:

    Most geniuses are flawed. Heck, all of us are, really. But the same edge that makes the super-competitive into great champions also exposes their weakness. It’s why Bill Belichick cheats. It’s why Pete Rose gambles. It’s why Tiger Woods philanders. It’s why Barry Bonds used steroids. It’s why Woody Hayes punches and curses players that dare disobey his will.

    Billy Martin was the classic “runt”. He wasn’t talented enough to be a major league player but he willed himself into one and when he could no longer play he used that same will to do anything it took and applied it to managing.

    It’s why most people didn’t hate Billy as much as they pitied him because he couldn’t help but be who he was in every excess. He could be a mean, abusive, drunken bully that was horrible to his family but that was the same compulsion oozing out that drove him to be a great manager.

    In baseball, the great hitters fail 70% of the time. The great managers lose 40% of the time. The super-competitive simply can’t accept that and it gnaws at them every waking moment until it spills over into bad behavior elsewhere.

  4. Cliff Blau Says:

    Of course, Martin’s debut as Yankees manager was on August 2, 1975, so this was his 58th game.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Cliff – Thanks for calling attention to my need for greater clarity on the 2nd game accomplishment in 1976. Had to correct it since you obviously deduced that I missed the part in the same book I’ve been reading that clearly reenforced what I also already knew – that Billy Martin took over as manager of the Yankees for Bill Virdon with a little more than one-third of the 1975 season to go.

      (To save you the trouble, let’s simply clarify that generality for the rest of the readers: 56 games actually represented 34.6% of the1975 season, or 1.3% more than one-third of the 1975 season of 162 games.)

      My correction in the column now reads as follows: “In fact, it only took Martin two games deep into his first full-season 1976 debut as the Yankees manager to win over his boss, his players, and the Yankee fans to his way of bully-whipping the umpires against all odds with the rule book, turning a heartbreaking New York road loss into a second chance – and a recaptured Yankee comeback win.” *

      So much for pedantic correction of a column statement that needed clearer focus But take heart, you know me. I’ll give you something down the line to jump on again, I’m sure. My only way to learn and improve today is the same as it always has been. I try to learn from my mistakes along the way. – Regards, Bill

      * Billy Martin’s debut as the new Yankee manager came in 1975 when he took over for Bill Virdon with games left in the season.

      Martin’s full-season debut did not occur until Opening Day 1976, the day prior to his brilliant second day successful protest of the Money homer that saved the game and then won it when the same batter flied out to end the game for a 9-7 Yankee win.

      If you care to argue that the word “debut” is inappropriate to my use of it as Martin’s legitimate full season debut, take it elsewhere. With the differential qualification I’ve now attached to its meaning here, it works for me.

      It’s OK, Cliff. You just caught me on a night in which my ordinary level of tolerance for pickiness got used up in the daylight. 🙂

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