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45 Years Ago: The Billy Martin-New York Yankees Saga Begins

Posted on August 01, 2020 by Dean Hybl

Regardless of whether you love or hate the New York Yankees, you couldn’t help but follow the 14-year saga of Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. Like a car accident, you just had to slow down and see what was happening.

Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner during one of the lighter moments during their 14-year relationship.

It all started 45 years ago when it was announced on August 1, 1975 that manager Bill Virdon was being replaced by the already flamboyant and controversial Billy Martin. Though owner George Steinbrenner was technically suspended by MLB at the time for making illegal campaign contributions to the campaign of President Richard Nixon in 1972, he was in reality still the top decision maker for the organization and believed that Martin would provide a fire that was lacking under Virdon.

Martin was familiar to Yankee fans from his time as part of Casey Stengel’s squad during the hey day of the 1950s. During seven seasons as an infielder with the Yankees, the scrappy Martin won four World Series rings and made one All-Star team, but was perhaps better known as a party partner for all-time great Mickey Mantle.

Many believe that it was his negative influence on Mantle that led to the Yankees trading Martin to the Kansas City Athletics during the 1957 season. He later played for the Tigers, Indians, Reds and Twins before retiring following the 1961 season.

He became a major league manager at the age of 41 in 1969 with the Minnesota Twins. He led the Twins to 97 wins and the first AL West Division title. However, the Twins lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs and a number of disagreements with management and off the field issues ultimately led to his dismissal following the season.

After sitting out the 1970 season, Martin became head coach of the Detroit Tigers in 1971. He helped the Tigers improve from 79-83 in 1970 to 91-71 and second place in the AL East in 1971. The following season they posted only an 86-79 record, but ended up winning the AL East by half a game.

In the American League Championship Series, the Tigers lost the first two games to the Oakland A’s. They then came back to win the next two games before falling 2-1 in the decisive fifth game.

Martin continued for a third season with the Tigers in 1973, but his struggles with management began to take a toll. He was suspended late in the season for breaching league rules after ordering his pitchers to doctor pitches in a game against Cleveland because he felt the umpires were ignoring the fact that Cleveland pitcher Gaylord Perry was doctoring the ball. Though the Tigers had a 71-63 record at the time, Martin was fired while on suspension.

It didn’t take long for Martin to find another managerial opportunity. He was previously acquainted with Texas manager Bob Short and after Martin was fired by the Tigers and off suspension, Short fired manager Whitey Herzog (a future Hall of Famer) to get Martin in a Texas uniform.

He managed the final 23 games of the 1973 season, posting a 9-14 record for a team that lost 105 games overall. In 1974, though Short sold the team, Martin was retained as manager and had the Rangers contending with the first place Oakland A’s for much of the season, but they ultimately finished with a record of 84-76 to finish second in the division.

Many expected that the Rangers could upset the A’s in 1975, but they got off to a slow start and were 44-51 when Martin was fired in July.

It again didn’t take long for Martin to return to a dugout as the Yankees announced him as the new manager on August 1, 1975. He posted a 30-26 record over the final 56 games as the Yankees finished third in the division.

Though his tumultuous tenure as a manager of three franchises in seven years certainly gave some hint that his time in New York would not be boring, but I am not sure anyone could have predicted just how crazy the next 14 years would be.

In many ways, the 1976 season was probably the least dramatic of Martin’s time in New York. Martin and General Manager Gabe Paul had retooled the lineup following the 1975 season, bringing in several key new players, including Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph. Steinbrenner was reinstated as the owner, but for the most part, he stayed out of the way as Martin led the team to a 97-62 record and the AL East title.

The 1976 AL Championship season proved to be one of the most dramatic since the championship series format began in 1969. Ironically, it was a battle between the Yankees led by Martin and the Kansas City Royals whose coach Whitey Herzog had been fired in Texas to make room for Martin.

After splitting the first two games of the best of five series, the fifth game was tied 6-6 entering the bottom of the ninth inning. New York first baseman Chris Chambliss led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run to end the game and the series and thrust the Yankees into the World Series for the first time since 1964.

In the World Series, the Yankees were unable to handle the Big Red Machine as Cincinnati claimed their second straight world championship.

After leaving Paul and Martin alone during the 1976 season, Steinbrenner could not resist after tasting the World Series, but being denied a title.

In the 1976 offseason, Steinbrenner spent time wooing free agent slugger Reggie Jackson to New York. There are differing reports about where Martin stood about the signing of the former Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles star. One report says that Martin was neutral about the signing of Jackson, especially after infielder Bobby Grich signed with the California Angels.

The juicier story and given how Martin reacted to Jackson the following season the more likely real story was that Martin was quietly stewing at the attention Steinbrenner was giving to Jackson and he didn’t want Jackson on the Yankees.

Of course, Jackson signed with New York and the 1977 season has been referred to as the beginning of the Bronx Zoo era of the Yankees.

In hindsight, it is easy to see there were two real dynamics that led to the disfunction within the team and organization.

Dating back to his playing days, Martin had always been a bit insecure and tended to make up for that by being confrontational. That was a major reason he was managing his fourth organization in less than a decade and did not like when management questioned his decisions.

The second dynamic was the ownership style of Steinbrenner. Unlike most owners, who were perfectly fine leaving day-to-day decisions to their baseball people, it was very clear that Steinbrenner felt it was his right as the owner to be actively engaged in decision making as well as in engaging with the media.

After the Yankees got off to a slow 2-6 start to the 1977 season, Steinbrenner called separate meetings with the players, coaches and media and made it very clear to Martin that his job was in jeopardy.

Eventually, the Yankees turned things around and by mid-June were in a close race with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles for the division lead.

Then on June 18th, during a Saturday afternoon nationally broadcast game against the Boston Red Sox the season took an unexpected turn.

Late in a game the Yankees were losing, Martin felt Jackson did not hustle to track down a ball hit to rightfield, leading to a runner taking an extra base. In a clear attempt to make a statement to his star outfielder, Martin sent outfielder Paul Blair out to the field to replace Jackson in the middle of the inning.

The confused Jackson returned to the dugout where Martin was waiting for him clearly wanting to pick a fight on national television. The two men jawed at each other before finally being separated by bench coach Elston Howard.

Martin and Jackson during their June 18, 1977 confrontation.

In the aftermath, the Yankees lost that game and the next three to fall 4.5 games behind. Many expected that Steinbrenner was going to fire Martin, but amazingly, it never happened.

However, it may have ultimately happened had Martin not eventually listened to his players Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella.

By early August, the Yankees were in third place, five games out of first place. Martin had been stubborn to not place Jackson as the number four hitter in the order despite the fact he was clearly the best suited player for that spot.

Finally, on August 10th, with the Yankees hosting the Oakland A’s, Martin relented. The result was victories in 12 of their next 13 games and soon the Yankees were on their way to a second straight division title as they went 40-13 after making the lineup switch.

In a rematch of the 1976 AL Championship Series, the Yankees and Royals again met for a chance to reach the World Series. This time the Royals took a 2-1 game lead with the final two games being played in Kansas City.

With the season on the line and the Yankees leading 5-4 in the fourth inning, Martin brought in his closer, Sparky Lyle, who pitched the final 5 and a third innings of a 6-4 victory.

In the decisive fifth game, the Yankees trailed 3-2 in the ninth inning, but scored three runs to pull out the victory.

Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, the Yankees pushed out to a 3-1 series lead before the Dodgers won the fifth game 10-4.

In some ways, the sixth game of the 1977 World Series was a great moment for Martin and the Yankees, but in another it may have served as a precursor for things to come.

Securing his title as “Mr. October”, Reggie blasted three straight home runs (four straight dating back to game five) and drove home five runs as the Yankees won the title 10-4. The performance by Jackson validated the insistence of Steinbrenner to bring him to New York and thus continued to weaken the position for Martin.

What no one could have predicted at the time is that though Martin would manage in eight more seasons, including five in New York, he would never again manage in the World Series and his only other playoff appearance would be against the Yankees, not managing them.

The 1978 season included additional turmoil as there were several team discipline issues that Steinbrenner blamed on Martin. In addition, injuries hampered the on-the-field performance as the team fell far behind the Boston Red Sox.

There were rumors that Martin was about to be fired and later a story that Steinbrenner had tried to make a trade with the Chicago White Sox where Martin would go to Chicago and White Sox manager Bob Lemon would go to New York. That never happened and Lemon was eventually fired by the White Sox.

With the Yankees trailing the Red Sox on July 18th there was another incident with Jackson that proved to be the beginning of the end for Martin.

Facing the Royals, Jackson came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning with Thurman Munson on base and Martin put the bunt sign on. After Jackson fouled the first pitch off, the sign was taken off, with Jackson instructed to swing away. Jackson tried to bunt the next two pitches, and popped out. A furious Martin wanted Jackson suspended for the remainder of the season, but agreed to suspend Jackson for five games after consulting with upper management. Matters came to a head following Jackson’s return. Jackson told reporters that he did not understand why he had been suspended.

During a session with reporters, Martin said, “the two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.”

The next day, July 24, 1978, Martin announced he was stepping down for health reasons in an attempt to ensure he would be paid and not fired for cause.

Steinbrenner replaced Martin with Bob Lemon, but seemed to soon have second thoughts after getting quite a lot of negative feedback.

Within two days of the resignation, negotiations were underway for a return by Martin. Ultimately, the agreement was made that Martin would return to the dugout as manager of the Yankees for the 1980 season. The announcement was made in dramatic fashion as part of the Yankees’ Old-Timers Game on July 29th.

Ironically, Martin returned to manage the Yankees midway through the 1979 season and by 1980 had been fired again.

Lemon led the Yankees to a historic comeback to win the AL East in 1978 and they then claimed their second straight World Series title. However, injuries again hurt the Yankees early in the 1979 season and Lemon was fired on June 18, 1979.

Instead of waiting to 1980, Marin was brought back as the manager and went 55-41 over the remainder of the season as the Yankees finished behind the Baltimore Orioles in the division.

During the offseason, Martin got into an altercation with a marshmallow salesman. Because that was just the latest of several off-the-field incidents for Martin, commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Steinbrenner that he needed to do something about the off-field conduct of his manager. Ultimately, Steinbrenner fired Martin just five days later.

Initially it looked like Martin would not have a manager job for 1980, but in February Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley hired Martin to guide the A’s.

After posting a 54-108 record in 1979, Martin led the team to a surprising turnaround as they went 83-79 to finish second to the Royals in the AL West.

The 1981 season began with a flourish for the A’s as they won their first 11 games and 17 of their first 18 to take a commanding lead in the AL West. With speedster Rickey Henderson stealing bases and the starting pitchers racking up innings, the team’s aggressive style of play was dubbed “Billyball” and they became the sensation of baseball.

Unfortunately, a players strike in June curtailed the season. Though the A’s had cooled off, they were still 37-23 at the time of the strike and in first place in the AL West.

When baseball returned, they decided to have first and second half division races and since the A’s had won the first half, they were already in the playoffs. They posted a 27-22 record in the second half to finish the season with a 64-45 record.

In the playoffs, they swept the Kansas City Royals 3-0 in the division round to reach the AL Championship Series against the Yankees. Unfortunately for Martin, it was not a happy homecoming as the Yankees swept the A’s in three straight games.

Ironically, the A’s would post only four more wins in 1982 than they did in 1981 as they posted a 68-94 record and Martin was fired.

The Yankees also had a losing season in 1982, their first during the Steinbrenner era, and after Martin was fired by the A’s he had a waiting suitor in his old friend Steinbrenner.

On January 11, 1983, Martin was rehired and signed to a long-term contract that would reportedly keep Martin on the Yankees’ payroll for the rest of his life.

The Yankees started slow and soon a pledge by Steinbrenner not to interfere was breached. The relationship between Martin and Steinbrenner seemed to be declining and though the Yankees improved to finish with a 91-71 record, Martin was fired after the season and replaced by his old friend Yogi Berra.

Berra coached the team throughout the 1984 season and prior to 1985 Steinbrenner promised he would manage the team for the entire season. That promise lasted all of 16 games as the Yankees started with a 6-10 mark and Berra was fired and replaced by Martin.

Martin quickly righted the ship for the Yankees in 1985 and they were in contention until the final weekend before finishing second to the Toronto Blue Jays. However, despite Martin posting a 91-54 record, Steinbrenner decided he wanted to replace his on-again-off-again manager with former player Lou Piniella.

Interestingly, Steinbrenner was fearful of Martin moving to another American League team and offered him more money to stay with the organization as a scout. He reportedly turned down manager opportunities with the Indians and White Sox.

On August 10, 1986, Martin was given a plaque in Monument Park as part of Billy Martin Day at Yankee Stadium. During the ceremony he said, “I may not have been the greatest Yankee to ever put on the uniform but I was the proudest.”

After Piniella did not light the world on fire in two seasons managing the Yankees, Martin was brought back for a fifth time to start the 1988 season.

However, a combination of off-field incidents and a deteriorating personal life had taken a toll on Martin. Though he got the team off to a hot start in 1988, on May 7th he was involved in a brawl in a Dallas-area nightclub. Just weeks later, he threw dirt at an umpire during an argument and was suspended for three games. The umpires felt the suspension should have been longer and decried that Martin would be thrown out of the game any time he left the dugout.

Even though the Yankees were 40-28 at the time, Steinbrenner eventually made the tough decision to relieve Martin of his managerial duties for the fifth (and ultimately final) time.

After disappointing finishes in 1988 and 1989, Steinbrenner told Martin to be ready in 1990. Former Yankee Bucky Dent was the manager to start 1990, but Steinbrenner wasn’t confident that he could return the team to greatness and wanted his stand-by manager to be ready again.

Unfortunately, Martin would never get that sixth chance.

After being out with a friend on Christmas Day, Martin was involved in a one-car accident just in front of his driveway and died from his injuries at the age of 61.

Ultimately, Martin managed 941 games for the Yankees over eight seasons and posted a record of 556-385 (.591). His overall managerial record was 1,253-1,013 (.553). He won division crowns with four different franchises and managed in two World Series.

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