Billy Ball and Athletics Back in the Limelight Again

John Hickey

When Major League Baseball went into full lockdown mode on March 12 thanks to the scourge of the COVID-19 coronavirus as it was evolving from distant threat to national pandemic, Dale Tafoya was already on the Oakland Library schedule for an in-person panel discussion about his new book “Billy Ball: Billy Martin and the Resurrection of the Oakland A’s.”

His book hadn’t come out yet; the publishing date was March 24. By the time the book was available, self-isolation was in place. What to do?

Well, the show must go on. And in this time of social distancing, Tafoya will be sitting in his East Bay home as the library hosts a Facebook Live event that will also include guests, including Billy Martin, Jr., former Oakland Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse and one-time 22-game A’s winner Mike Norris.

Tafoya and those three will be open for questions and some storytelling about Martin and questions about BillyBall. You can connect here or go through the Oakland Library’s interface.

The book, which was published on March 24, is about the Berkeley-born Martin, to be sure, but it’s also about Oakland and about the A’s franchise.

The A’s had lost 108 games, two of every three games played in 1979, and as the 1980 season neared, club owner Charlie Finley wouldn’t commit to bringing his 1979 manager, Jim Marshall back. With a week left before the start of spring training, it seemed likely that Marshall might be the guy. But less than 48 hours before the team reported to Arizona, Finley hired Billy Martin.

Martin never got a hit for the A’s, never threw a pitch. But he turned the entire franchise around, bringing the East Bay, the Bay Area and eventually much of MLB with him. They’d be competitive, over .500 in 1980, then would go to the new ownership of Walter A. Haas Jr. late in the season before landing in the post-season in 1981. The A’s set an Oakland attendance record in 1981, then a franchise record in 1982.

Along the way, Oakland Tribune columnist Ralph Wiley called the all-hands-on-deck style the A’s were showing “BillyBall.” The name stuck, even if Martin wouldn’t. He flamed out in Oakland in 1982 after memorably trashing his office in the bowels of the Coliseum.

“Billy’s overall impact was good in terms of the significance of the renaissance he brought to Oakland,” Tafoya said this week. “He created enough excitement to create interest for a local buyer. The Haas family fell in love with Billy and Billy Ball.”

Tafoya, who writes when he’s not working in law enforcement in the East Bay, describes himself as “a 10-year-old kid sitting in the second deck” watching those Martin teams. He fell in love with them, too.

There were demons driving Martin, who finished 240 games over .500 as a manger but could never stay in one place for long. He had no problem getting hired, but he never lasted four full seasons anywhere, and the Yankees would famously hire him five times.

“My fascination was not so much with him; it’s with the story sounding the A’s history,” Tafoya said. “He came in when the A’s farm system was broke. There was talk of moving the club to Denver. And then almost overnight, the attendance spiked, the team kept winning and by his second season they were in the playoffs.

“For me, it was an incredible story I wanted to tackle.”

Tonight, he gets his first chance to interact with those who are interested in tackling both the book and the subject.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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