Review by Budd Bailey
Weren’t there enough books out there about Billy Martin to leave almost anyone satisfied?
It’s a little difficult to explain Martin to those who didn’t live through his baseball career. He had five separate stays as the manager of the New York Yankees, and just about all of them were anything but boring. Since New York is the capital of the publishing world, anyone who spent time around the Yankees in that period seems to have written a book. Martin even got into the act at one point with an autobiography.
But 25 years after Martin’s death, Bill Pennington came out with a book putting all of the details in one place. The result is “Billy Martin,” but the most important phrase might be the subtitle. There’s little doubt that Martin really was baseball’s flawed genius.
Martin came out of the streets of Oakland with a chip on his shoulder, determined to make it in the world of baseball. He worked his way up the ladder and reached the top with the Yankees, who were reigning over the sport in the 1950s. It almost wasn’t a World Series if they weren’t there, as they failed to make it only twice from 1949 to 1964. Martin wasn’t the best player out there with a New York uniform, but he was firey and seemed to come through in the clutch more often than not. The man loved the spotlight.
The problem was that he was considered a bad influence off the field on such stars as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, although as Pennington outlines the reverse probably was even more true. Martin was shipped out of town and had a generally uneventful second half of his career elsewhere. His personality and knowledge of the game were such that a manager’s position seemed inevitable. Billy had stops in three other cities before landing the job of his dreams, manager of the Yankees.
Let the chaos begin. Martin had built up a reputation as something of a wizard as a manager, and he guided New York to a World Series win in 1977. But that was his only championship. In those early years, he joined with owner George Steinbrenner and superstar Reggie Jackson in a three-sided relationship that never could become stable. Every so often, there’d be a big argument, or Martin would say something he’d regret, or Billy would be in a fight with a marshmallow salesman (that one is too good not to include). Whenever Martin was threatened, he would fight back – and he’d throw the first punch.
Mix all of this with Martin’s drinking, which was sometimes over the top, and explosive situations often followed. Women are part of the story as well, as Martin had four wives over the years – and it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most faithful of spouses.
Pennington covered a lot of it for a newspaper in the late 1980s, and thus has some first-hand information on what happened during those times. But it’s the research that makes this book stand out among others on the subject. He wrote it well after Martin had died in an auto accident in upstate New York, when emotions had cooled quite a bit. That allowed friends and family members to be more forthcoming about the details of Martin’s life. You can understand why people were attracted to Martin, but also understand why many wondered if there was any way to get through to him in order to change some of his behavior. Yes, it was all one big package.
Interviews are mixed nicely with the information from other sources, such as those endless books mentioned before and accounts written at the time (newspapers and magazines). So this becomes a balanced look at someone who drew all sorts of reactions from people over the years. The one question centers on the fact that it might be difficult to read so much about a personality who sometimes isn’t too likeable. But for many, we just can’t help taking a peek at the scene of the accident.
Readers can seek out all of the other information on this controversial character if they want, or they can simple pick up “Billy Martin.” Pennington’s biography is likely to stand up as the one version worth saving for posterity.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)