With yesterday marking the 20th anniversary of Billy Martin’s death, much has been said about the man, his personal demons and his tragic inability to control them. Some will recall his battles with owners and umpires. Some may also mention the undying love for the pinstripes, to the point where he let George make a fool of him, hiring and firing him 5 times. Billy was too proud to take that lightly, but kept coming back for more because he loved the pinstripes more than he loved himself. All of those stories have been recounted thousands of times, so I wanted to take a minute to remember Billy Martin, the manager.
Chris Jaffe of THT recently had a book published called “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008″. THT posted a series of excerpts from the book. The portions on Billy Martin are a must read, as entertaining and maddening as the man himself. Billy was unlike any manager in the game today, and his style had as much to do with psychology and intimidation as it did Baseball. He was the type of manager that sportswriters and other managers would hate, but that the average fan would absolutely love. He writes:
Though Martin is most famous for piloting the Yankees, his first managerial stint running the 1969 Twins best reveals his method and madness. The gutsy bravado and intensity to win that highlighted his career amply demonstrated themselves that year. Martin approached his rookie managerial season the same way a tough convict handles his first day in prison—determined to prove himself immediately as the cell block’s most dangerous man.
Martin’s approach to the base paths demonstrated how he wanted his team to play. In the second game he managed, Minnesota’s Rod Carew stole home. This was no fluke—by the end of the month, Carew had three steals of home and by the season’s conclusion he tied Ty Cobb’s single-season record with seven such swipes. Three of them came on triple steals. On another occasion, Cesar Tovar stole home as part of a successful triple steal. Four triple steals are the most by any one team in the last half-century, and probably the most since the deadball era.
On another occasion, opponents tagged Tovar out at the head of another triple steal—which Martin called when the Twins enjoyed a six-run lead. Graig Nettles, of all people, was once thrown out stealing home. Technically he was picked off of third and made a break for it, but he must have had a good-sized lead to draw a throw, as pitchers normally do not try picking runners off of third. Even slow-footed Harmon Killebrew, at age 33, stole eight bases that season. He had 11 the rest of his career. Billy Martin truly did not fear a damn thing.
The ultimate Billyball moment came on May 18 when both Tovar and Carew stole home plate in the same inning—in the same a- bat. Carew stole his way around the bases in that plate appearance. At the plate during this maniacal base running was Harmon Killebrew.Harmon Killebrew! It boggles the mind: With one of the greatest home run hitters of that or any other generation up Martin wanted his men running wild.
One does not have to be particularly skilled at sabermetrics to know that, according to the math, everything just described was insane. Yet while the Minnesota experience was extreme, it was by no means atypical for Martin. Since 1956, the most stolen base attempts by any team with runners on second and third was seven, by the 1980 A’s, whom Martin managed. Only four other teams had more than four—two with Martin at the helm (the 1977 Yankees and 1969 Twins). Stealing home is such a dangerous gamble it is rarely worth trying, and certainly not trying as often as Martin did it. By the numbers, Martin’s moves were terrible.
Therein lies the rub. Instead of getting worse, his teams got dramatically better despite all these reckless maneuvers. If his moves should have hurt them, why did Martin’s presence cause teams to improve dramatically? To solve the riddle of Martin, you have to take a step back from what he did, and understand why he did it. The base stealing makes him sound like a Whitey Herzog protégé. Not really. Carew, despite his thefts at the plate, had only 19 swipes overall in 1969. For Martin, steals were not the ends but the means. He wanted to instill a specific mindset in his players: do whatever it takes to win every game. No manager had as little use for a second place finish as Martin. Players gave it their best effort as a matter of routine, but that was the problem—it was a matter of routine.
There is nothing quite like having a lunatic boss to cause employees to reach deeper within themselves. No one wanted to face a hostile Billy Martin in the dugout. Tellingly, almost all of the Twins’ wild base running came in the first half of 1969. Carew’s last home plate steal came in Minnesota’s 19th game. Once Martin had installed the desired mindset in Minnesota, there was no need to run the risky home plate steals. For the rest of the season opponents played back on their heels, wondering what Minnesota would do next.
The man most comparable to Billy Martin was not Herzog, but Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs. In 1519, he landed in Mexico to face the hemisphere’s mightiest warrior nation with only 600 men. Upon arrival, he burnt his boats, giving his men no way to leave. That move was pure Billy Martin. Safe to say, that in the military science version of sabermetrics a general would be poorly regarded for intentionally destroying his communication lines, supply routes and exit strategy. It was possibly even worse than having two men steal home with Killebrew batting.
However, like Martin, Cortes had an underlying rationale. The act was not the important part. All that mattered was the message it sent the men: there was no going back—they needed to win. He cared only about coming out on top and ensured his warriors must think likewise. They might lose and die, but with God as their witness no failure would stem from lack of effort on anyone’s part. That was Billyball, 16th century style.
Our friends in the Sabermetric community would have hated him, but results spoke for themselves. Every team he managed got dramatically better upon his arrival, often without major roster changes. Most of his firings had nothing to do with performance, but rather his inability to take orders from anyone, including his employers. His style had it’s limitations as well, he quickly wore out his welcome at every stop and he likely ended many a pitcher’s career by burning their arm out. He had a doghouse for relievers that was almost impossible to break out of, and the rest of the staff wound up picking up the slack. But Billy is one of the great characters in Yankee history and Baseball history, and he will be remembered as long as they play this game.
“Other Yankees were more prolific, more durable, and more graceful. I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the pinstripes, but I am the proudest.”
-Billy Martin August 10, 1986 The day his #1 was retired.
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