Remembering Billy, twenty years later

Christmas Day Open Thread
On the day after Christmas, my GM got for me...


Billy Martin, right, celebrates a World Series victory with George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra.

For Yankee fans of a certain age, Christmas Day is one tinged with sadness. On December 25, 1989, twenty years ago today, Billy Martin died in a drunk driving accident outside of Binghamton, New York. At the time, he had seemingly come to a peace with George Steinbrenner and was serving as an adviser to the Boss. He was 61 then with four World Series rings as a player and one as a manager.

Many of us don’t remember Billy. We hear tales of his playing days from our parents or grandparents and were not alive for or aware of the many times he was hired and fired. Martin, though, as Moss Klein, the long-team Yankee beat writer for The Star-Ledger, writes today was one of a kind. He was combative and fiery on the field and more so off as he struggled with his inner demons and fought with umpires, players — Reggie Jackson and Billy had some relationship — and his boss. A few weeks before his death, rumors swirled that Billy would be back in the dugout come March.

In the end, Billy died as he lived — on his own terms with no seat belt. As Klein writes, “As a manager, he could usually figure out a way to win. But sadly, he could never figure out how to manage himself.”

Today, those of us too young to remember Martin often don’t know what to make of him. As a player, he hit just .257/.300/.369 over 11 seasons and was seemingly more famous for getting traded from New York after a nightclub incident at the old Copacabana. But in Murray Chass’ obituary and George Vecsey’s profile and the comments from mourners, we see a man troubled and beloved by those who knew him.

To this day, no one really knows what happened on the icy roads in Binghamton twenty years ago. William Reedy, the other man in the truck that night, died this year in July, and as his obituary notes, he first said he was the driver to protect Martin. During his trial on drunk driving charges, he claimed that Billy was behind the wheel, but the jury found Reedy guilty anyway.

To me, Billy has always been an enigma. He shows up in Yankee biographies at odd moments. He plays a big role in the tale of Yogi as told by Allen Barra for a few years before his exile to Kansas and then reemerges as the manager in Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning. He couldn’t live with the Yankees, and he couldn’t live without them.

Christmas Day Open Thread
On the day after Christmas, my GM got for me...
  • Mike Nitabach

    I am old enough to vividly remember the “Bronx Zoo” days of the Yankees. My little friends and I argued endlessly about whether Billy or Reggie was in the right in their feud.

    Incidentally, spurred by these reminiscences I was just looking at the box scores from the 1977 World Series, and it is remarkable how short the games were. The *longest* nine-inning game of the series lasted only 2 hours 31 minutes.

  • barry

    It’s sad what alcohol can do to people, at least, for what it’s worth his name will be remembered for a very long time by fans of baseball, there’s really no greater honor than to be remembered.

    • JMK THE OVERSHARE’s Glenn Beck Complex

      Could you imagine if he had only smoked weed instead of drank? When I need guidance I think, “What Would Afroman Do?”

      • barry

        He probably wouldn’t of been out driving around on christmas… that’s for sure

  • Michael

    Bill Martin should be in the Hall of Fame. PERIOD. one of the best baseball minds ever !

    For all those hall of famer voters . Bill wasn’t perfect. nobody is. If you want to keep Martins demons out fine , but let that great baseball spirit in.

  • sarge-in-fla

    i remember him as a very small, pathetic individual one whose ego was larger than the teams he managed.

    • slappy white

      WOW , wheres the Christmas spirit ?

  • LarryF

    Billy loved to kick dirt on the umpires when he argued-Is there anyone other than Lou P who would do that anymore? Lou knew Billy well. Billy would have shredded an “all-knowing” binder in the dugout for sure. Brett Gardner would have stolen home by now under Billy Martin….

    • slappy white

      billy would definately get the best outta gardner….if he started he’d have 100 steals

      • JMK THE OVERSHARE’s Glenn Beck Complex

        And 30 CS, but whatevs. Martin straddled the fence of genius and insanity. He was quite a showman.

        • slappy white

          I actually agree, in fact it might be closer to 40 caught stealings….the boys fast but he’s really not that good of a baserunner

  • JFH

    i remember him well as a manager. i remember his fiery nature and his competitive drive. i remember how many fans complained of his divisive nature with reggie in ny, of his overuse of his starting pitchers in oakland; and i remember his inability to remain stable wherever he went. but most of all, i remember his passion, his commitment, and the fact that he was a winner. i loved watching teams managed by billy martin. his players played with determination.

  • Jeremy

    “I may not have been the best Yankee to put on the pinstripes, but I am the proudest.” – Billy Martin

    • Pete C.

      Actually his epitath reads”I may not have been the greatest Yankee but I was the proudest”. If anyone’s interested his grave his less than a couple of hundred feet from the Babe’s in gates of heaven cemetary. I went there about 10 years ago on a pilgramage to Cooperstown. Long ride. But when we got to each place it was worth every minute.

  • kenthadley

    I remember Billy as a player and as he evolved into a manager…..he was able to manage the drinking when he was younger, but it ultimately got the best of him as he aged….he probably would have gone the way of Mantle, so in a way the accident was a blessing…..but he knew how to get the most out of himself when it counted as a player (he got better when he was under pressure), and out of his players when he managed…he just couldn’t control his demons long enough to stay in one place…..and with George, he was like a battered wife who keeps coming back……poor Billy had lots of demons.

  • Joltin’ Joe

    John Turturo did him justice in the miniseries IMO.

    • kenthadley

      the ears were too big, but the characterization was right on…..

      • Kiko Jones


  • Kevin

    I was at Old Timers Day in 1978, sitting in the upper deck between home and first base. Billy had been forced to resign with the Yanks stumbling and him telling the press Reggie was a born liar and The Boss was a convicted one. Bob Lemmon, the new Yankee manager was booed terribly and the crowd kept chanting “Bring back Billy!” There was a large white banner in the lower deck favorable to Billy. As kids, we loved Billy’s brash aggressive style – he sympolized the Yankees to us. He said of himself, “I may not have been the greatest Yankee, but I am the proudest. We loved him. We used to cut out of HS in central Jersey and go to Yankee – Boston games. Bob Shepard tried to get the crowd to quiet but couldn’t. Finally he said the Yankees had hired to manage…. and the crowd, sensing something with Billy, suddenly hushed… “No. 1, Billy Martin.” The place went nuts. One of the greatest memories I have as a teenager.

    • BigBlueAL

      My parents were sitting right below that banner, in the 1978 Yankees team video you can see them clapping and cheering that day when they announced Billy Martin.

  • Yankeegirl49

    All I can say is I have always and will always love Billy Martin.

  • Michael Kay

    he managed how he wanted to manage

  • Tony

    By far Billy was my favorite Yankee manager. With billy as the manager you knew he would get the best out of the team & they where going to play hard.

    I was a kid in the 80’s & I loved his spirit.

  • JimG

    There was a time in the late 60’s/early 70’s where the Yankees had lost their way. They were a contiually loosing franchise mired in mediocrite. The CBS years had left management without direction or pride. No one was in the stands and players did not want to come here. While George with all is meddling ways brought direction back to the franchise, it was Billy who brought back the burning desire to win. He restored pride to the Yankees. With all the crazy stuff that went on during those times, that is what is overlooked. That is why those of us who lived through those years speak so highly of Billy even if the record book dosen’t show great numbers.

    • Tony

      You crystalized it perfectly. Billy had the fire that we (fans) all had for the Yankees. Billy had his inner demons but there was no doubt where his heart was. To me their was nothing better than having Billy as my manager.

  • Kiko Jones

    Although I was a little kid whose family left NYC in ’76 (I’d return every other summer to visit, tho), I spent my early years living about a mile away from the Stadium, and the ’77-’78 bunch were the first Yankee teams I rooted for. (Them and the ’09 guys are my all-time faves.)

    Reggie, Randolph, Bucky, Gator, Sweet Lou, Nettles, Mick the Quick, Chambliss, Gator, Sparky, Goose, Mr. White…with Billy Martin at the helm.

    It must be even sadder for his family if they happen to celebrate Christmas.

  • JimBear

    Billy was great his first couple of years everywhere he managed Minn, Det,Tex,Oak & NYY. He made his clubs better and the played hard.

    The problem was Billy’s personality. He divided the clubhouse and wore out this welcome. Even in Oakland where the ownership loved him. No one overused his pitching staffs worse than Billy. (yes not even Joe Torre)

    I wasn’t a Billy diehard because his personality created manufacturered drama which was counterproductive. The only reason the Yanks won in 1978 was Lennon replaced Billy and the
    newspaper strike that year allowed the Yanks to just play baseball.

    George’s constant rehiring of Billy became tiresome in the 1980s. It’s the only decade the Yanks didn’t win a pennant because Billy hated kids and young pitchers. George’s chronic impatience caused the team to trade away prospects like Drabek, Deshaies, Tewksbury, Rasmussen, Willie Mc Gee, Fred Mc Griff and Jay Buhner for nothing. The Yankees between 1985-1988 were a very good team with no pitching. It was a frustratng era.

    Anyway Billy RIP thanks for 1976 & 1977 two of my favorite years as a Yankee fan.

  • MikeD

    I wasn’t alive when Billy played, but I did see him manage. By the stats, he was a better manager than he was player, but my guess is his intensity and drive to win was why fans and team mates loved him as a player, and why they probably were never unahppy when he came up in a key situation, because as he did as a manager, he could raise his game based on the situation.

    Like many fans from his era as a manager in the 70s and 80s, I had a love-hate view toward the man. In many ways he was the anti-Joe Torre, a brilliant manager who for a year or two could make any team better than their collective parts, but unlike Torre he could never be the hand that steadies the ship, more likely to escalate a brush fire into an inferno.

    That said, not only did every team he manage perform better than they did the previous seasons, but according to a study of managers done by Bill James (although it might have been Neyer), Martin’s teams performed better than they should have by a significant number of wins. It happened enough times that it could not be written off as a fluke. Martin did make his teams better.

    I don’t think his style would have translated into the 90s, especially when it comes to pitcher use, or in Martin’s case, pitcher abuse. In 1975, Catfish Hunter became the first pitcher in a generation (and also the last) to complete 30 games in a season and pitch more than 300 innings. He was never the same. It wasn’t all Martin, as Bill Virdon managed Hunter the first half of that season, but Martin rode Hunter even harder down the stretch.

    A few years later in 1980, Martin now with Oakland and in his Billy Ball years, pushed his young starters hard, led by Rick Langford, who almost matched Hunter, finishing 28 of 33 starts, and leading the league with 290 innings pitched. At one point, Langford had 22 consecutive complete games. While complete games were more common in those days, both Hunter’s and Langford’s accomplishments were considered unsual at the time, and I think illustrated both the good and the bad of Martin. He created a culture of winning and in the process elevated certain players and pushed others to match those players, but his style produce short-term gains at the expense of the long-term.

    I’m not sure I agree with JimBear when it comes to Martin and kids. I actually think he was very good with younger players. It was Steinbrenner who was never patient with the kids and traded them away. Martin worked with what Steinbrenner gave him. When he went to Oakland, he had just the opposite. He was successful in both situations, but as mentioned, he did abuse his pitchers, both young and old.

    Perhaps Martin should be in the HOF. If I had to bet it all on one season and had to win, he’d be the manager. It’s the conflict between Martin’s good side and dark side that’s difficult to balance when rating him.