‘Billy Ball’

Martin won with a style all his own

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game #7

Continuing an informal series of baseball recollections, in homage to Joe Posanski’s book “The Baseball 100.”

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game

#7 Billy Martin

2B, New York Yankees

Judged solely by the back of his baseball cards, Billy Martin is not a “great” of the game. He’s a lifetime .257 hitter who never slugged more than 15 home runs nor drive in more than 75 runs in a season. Yet he made Yankee lore with a shoestring catch that won game 7 of the 1952 World Series, and was an integral part of powerhouse Yankee teams that won the Series six times between 1949–56.

No, Martin’s greatness manifested after his playing career when he became a manager, one of the best ever. Martin won everywhere he went: Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, The Yankees, Oakland. His teams finished first or second in their division 11 times in 17 seasons.

Memories of Billy’s mid-70s Yankees teams are some of my best in baseball. When I first became a Yankees fan, circa 1969, they weren’t good. Then Billy was hired, and I watched him develop and guide the ’76 Yanks to their first World Series in 12 years, losing to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. The next two seasons New York beat the Dodgers twice in a row to win it all.

But it wasn’t just that Martin won; it was the way his teams played. Triple steals. Bean balls. Spit balls. Bunt and runs. Hidden ball tricks. The press dubbed it “Billy Ball.” Martin managed with the intensity of a football coach, and would exploit any edge he could find. The most famous example is The Pine Tar Incident (Google it). It was a great game, back and forth, and came down to NY reliever Goose Gossage vs. Kansas City’s George Brett in the top of the 9th inning, power v. power. The moments after Brett socked a mammoth home run, when Billy challenged the level of pine tar on his bat, the umps ejected Brett, and Brett came flying out of the dugout screaming for blood, are as fine and clear as any baseball memory I have.

Billy’s numbers don’t show it. Even his career managerial win percentage — .563 — isn’t spectacular. But Billy was a brilliant tactician and colorful personality who challenged baseball conventions long before the Moneyball era. Rumor has it he was preparing to manage the Yankees again when he died a few years ago in a car accident. But God has perfect timing. In an age where teams are managed less by one person than a team of corporate quants, Billy would’ve been miserable. May he rest in peace.

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