Anyone who hangs around baseball long enough or is a longtime baseball fan has heard a Billy Martin story.
Or two. Or six. Or 12.
There’s that one about him and Mickey Mantle and other New York Yankees celebrating Martin’s birthday at the Copacabana in 1957.
And that one when he pulled Reggie Jackson from a game and the two got into a heated argument in the visiting dugout at Fenway Park.
Don’t forget the one when Martin KO’d a marshmallow salesman.
Or the one when he was jumped in the bathroom of an Arlington strip club.
Or all those times (five) George Steinbrenner hired and fired him.
They all seemed to involve liquor, usually brown.
So, along comes another Billy Martin biographer who understands that his task isn’t just to tell those stories. That’s been done. The overall story of Martin’s life is far more interesting, yet hadn’t been told in its entirety.
It was no small task, but it was pulled off by Bill Pennington in Billy Martin, Baseball’s Flawed Genius.
The only way it could be accomplished was through extensive reporting, which Pennington, who covered Martin from 1985 to 1989, did over 2 1/2 years.
Ultimately, he presents Martin as a baseball Einstein while also providing a fact-heavy description of Martin’s youth, marriages and slip-ups, and introducing to many a generous, affable side of Martin that has been overshadowed by the fights and drama.
The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hit stores last month.
“When I covered him in 1985, I was 26 years old, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never met anybody like that, he’s an interesting guy, but I’m just getting started and I’ll meet lots of interesting people,’ “ Pennington, who now writes for the New York Times, said Friday.
“Thirty years later, I still haven’t met anyone like him. He’s a fascinating guy.”
Pennington caught the end of Martin’s career, and life, as a Yankees beat man for the Bergen County Record. But this isn’t a Yankees-centric book.
This is about Martin, from his hardscrabble childhood in Berkeley, Calif., to his playing career and famous friends, to his superb managerial career that included a stint with the Texas Rangers, and to his death on Christmas Day 1989 in a one-car drunk-driving accident.
Pennington tells Martin’s story as a reporter should. He used an extensive list of sources that dated to Martin’s youth and included confidants and family members like son Billy Jr., who never left Arlington after his dad’s stint as Rangers manager from 1973-75.
Martin’s fourth wife, Jill, spoke for the first time in 25 years.
Pennington dug up the facts, asked the tough questions and gained new insight from sources 25 years after Martin’s death. That’s easy to see over the course of 500-plus pages, and that reporting is what captivates readers who thought they were familiar with Martin.
“I think in some ways they were eager to help somebody who was going to start in 1928 when he was born, and say, ‘We’re going to take our time, and let’s figure how he got to be the way he was,” said Pennington, who credited Billy Jr. for helping reach out to many of the people quoted in the book.
“If you’re going to change people’s perceptions about him, you have to tell the whole story. I did feel like the story was incomplete, for sure. I couldn’t have done this in a year. There were too many places to go. This was a big life. He packed a lot into 61 years. I could have left some of it out, but what are you going to leave out?”
At the heart of the book is that Martin, despite his drinking and temper and insecurities, was a great baseball man and terrific manager worthy of enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Citing a formula of expected wins by the Elias Sports Bureau of managers with 1,000 games from 1903 to 1988, Pennington shows that Martin-led teams averaged 7.45 more wins than expected during his 16 seasons. That was more than a run better than No. 2 on the list.
Martin took four franchises to the postseason, well before the wild-card era, and won two pennants and the 1977 World Series. Martin had a higher career winning percentage (.553) than 13 of the 22 managers in the Hall of Fame, including Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog, who was replaced as Rangers manager by Martin.
Yet, Martin fell four votes shy of the required 12 needed from the 16-member Expansion Era committee in 2010 and was in a group that received six votes or fewer in 2013 as managers La Russa, Torre and Bobby Cox were elected for enshrinement.
Some voters, and some nonvoters, have trouble separating Martin’s dugout brilliance from the off-the-field transgressions. They recognize the immediate improvement teams had once he took over — like turning the 57-win Rangers of 1973 into an 84-win playoff contender in 1974 before getting fired in 1975 — but see that it was usually short-lived.
Martin is eligible for the ballot again in 2016.
“Why shouldn’t he be?” said former Rangers bench coach Jackie Moore, who was an assistant to Martin for seven seasons in Texas and in Oakland. “Managers are in the Hall of Fame for what they accomplished on the field. I’ve been fortunate to be with a lot of them. I think it would be a total disgrace if Billy’s not in the Hall of Fame.”
Pennington agrees, saying the managerial record trumps all other factors and hoping that his book can generate support for Martin’s Hall candidacy. Naturally, Billy Jr. agrees, too, and he is excited that the latest biography of his father isn’t just about the off-the-field scrapes and drama that people think of first.
“Bill told me what his plan was and what he was going to write,” Billy Jr. said Thursday. “I didn’t want another book that just focused on the farce. Let’s talk about the baseball man, too.
“I don’t want to cover anything up or act like my father was something that he wasn’t. But he was a baseball genius. He was one of the best field managers to ever lace them up, and that gets lost in the shuffle because the other stuff is what everyone would rather talk about.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760
1. Cardinals: Adam Wainwright? They don’t need no stinkin’ Wainwright.
2a. Tigers: Ex-Rangers Ian Kinsler, Joakim Soria start strong.
2b. Royals: Defending AL champs won’t back down in tight Central.
4. Dodgers: With that payroll, they’d better be in the top five.
5. Yankees: A-Rod might be a jerk, but his bat is making a difference.
1. Brewers: So bad so early that it cost their manager his job.
2. Indians: Corey Kluber starts defense of his Cy Young at 0-5.
3. Phillies: Only going to get worse once they dump Cole Hamels.
4. Rangers: Rotation? Good. Everything else? Not good enough.
5. Rockies: Eight-game skid snaps them back where they belong.