If it would helpthe New York Yankees win a ball game, Billy Martin would stand on his hands atsecond base and catch grounders with his teeth. He would also be first to lighta match if there seemed the slightest likelihood that a Yankee pitcher couldthrow better with his pants on fire. Billy can imagine nothing quite so hideousas getting beaten at baseball—and since he has come to consider the Yankees asa sort of extension of his own roomy personality, defection by his teammatesscars his soul almost as deeply as his own infrequent failings on the field. Hedoes not hesitate to criticize their sins.
This is an article from the April 23, 1956 issue
Billy is the beewhich stings the Yankee rump, the battery which fires the Yankee engine, thefellow who makes the Yankees go. In his six years of perfecting this role hehas been roundly booed in almost every park in the American League, has engagedin personal combat with a list of opposing players too long to enumerate andhas hustled in to the mound to tell so many eminent Yankee pitchers how toimprove themselves that thousands of baseball fans still wonder why histeammates have not hanged him in the clubhouse long since. But Billy has alsomade his fellow toilers love him—although in some cases it is the sort ofaffection they might feel for a pet jaguar—and as the 1956 season opens thisweek it is difficult not to conclude that he is the most valuable as well asthe damndest Yankee now extant, and that New York, spurred by his jauntytruculence, will resume its heavy-handed domination of the American League.
If the Army hadnot netted Billy and put him into khaki during 1954 and 1955, so bullish anestimate of his worth might well sound like romanticism. Baseball giants likeMickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford are not to be lightly dismissed; andduring spring training, despite a horrid list of cripples, the Yankees haveshown power, pitching and whole droves of talented players both young and old.But it is hard to ignore the things that happened to the Yankees when Billy wasabsent. They lost the American League pennant in 1954 and were waveringperilously late last summer when he got back to New York. Billy minced nowords. "I had three cars when I went into the Army," he cried at asecret meeting of Yankee players, "and now I haven't got even one. I'mbroke and you're playing as though you're trying to lose. We gotta get into theSeries." The Yanks won the pennant and, though Billy had played in but 20games, voted him a full share of Series money—a truly stupefying act offinancial largess.
"Billy,"says Casey Stengel, "never went to the university, but he is an intelligentbaseball player. All big league players are supposed to know baseball and mostof them do. But Billy doesn't have to think for two minutes to do the rightthing. He has sense enough to tell other men what to do. He is a spiritedfellow and doesn't loaf. He can play second base and third base good. He canplay shortstop in the big leagues. He'll make the double play. If you want abunt, he'll bunt. He can hit singles, doubles, triples and home runs. If youwant him to play a new position, he doesn't say, 'No, it will hurt my work.' Hewill say, 'Yes.' So you understand he is a valuable fellow."
Billy is a goodbaseball player. He is a team man, first and last. He is shrewd. He is abaseball perfectionist. Though he weighs but 165 pounds, stands 6 feet andlooks almost bony in his uniform, he is a powerful man. He is curiously built.He has a modest neck (15½-inch collar), a narrow waist (31-inch belt) and along torso. But he has big shoulders, big arms, thick wrists and heavy thighsand calves. Though his big league batting average is only .263 he is aferocious fellow at the plate when there are men on bases. None of this,however, really explains Billy. "We're all pros here," says MickeyMantle, his old roommate. "We all want to win. Everybody on this club isgood. But Billy gives it something extra. He makes you play harder."
The extra is theimperious Martin personality. Billy is easy to like and easy to forgive; he isgenerous, he is entertaining, and among his intimates he is a friendly, boyishand charming fellow. When Billy smiles—which is often—he is not only hard toresist but curiously handsome despite the big nose and jug ears which opposingbench jockeys have subjected to so much raucous description. Ego flickers awayinside Billy as steadily as a pilot light in a gas oven. He is a creature ofmoods and is easily bored; he drums on tables and stuffs nickels into jukeboxes to assuage the horrors of inactivity. But he speaks gently and politely.When Billy blows his stack, onlookers generally react as though they werewitnessing some fascinating natural phenomenon like the eruption of Krakatoa.Billy is a man of genuine temperament; he is governed by inward pressure ratherthan malice, but he must reign or burst.
Baseball isBilly's life, but it is easy to visualize him in other roles. Billy would havebeen perfectly at home among the hot-blooded bravoes of Cellini's Italy, oramong the hot-blooded unionists who organized Big Steel. Give Billy a milliondollars and a sports car and you would have a millionaire playboy worthy of anycigaret ad. Billy is persuasive. Give him three walnut shells and a littleelbow room and he would soon have your money. Wherever Billy goes, admirersspring up like magic. Billy rewards them with a ducal approbation. When heanchored himself at New York's Edison Hotel this spring after the Yankees haddeparted for Florida (thereby getting his salary raised from $17,000 to $20,000a year) bellhops, waitresses, guests and room clerks offered him incessantencouragement. When Billy is at home in Berkeley, Calif. his mother serves novegetables. Billy hates them. Al Faccini, manager of Berkeley Square, hisfavorite home town bar, stands ready to lend him a new Buick day or night.
Billy is hurt tothe quick by his reputation as a troublemaker. "When I was in the Army Iwas in the Square one night," he said, "and a fellow came in and satnext to me. He said: 'You know who comes in here all the time?' I said, 'No,'and he said 'Billy Martin.' I said: 'No kidding—you know him?' He said, 'Sure,I went to school with him.' Hey, this guy was 40. He had gray hair. 'What's helike?' I asked him. 'Billy?' he says. 'Billy is a big jerk!' I didn't get mad.I got a kick out of it. I let him buy me a lot of drinks. But baseball'sdifferent. The Bible says you should turn the other cheek. I think about it alot. I'll turn the other cheek off the field. But God couldn't have knownanything about baseball. In baseball you've gotta be aggressive."
As a secondbaseman—and consequently a fellow who has to endure the charges of behemothsintent on breaking up the double play—Billy on one occasion was moved to warnoff a base runner who hadn't batted for 27 years. He sat next to Ty Cobb at aSan Francisco banquet for oldtime baseball players and, on being asked for afew words, rose and said: "I've got a lot of respect for the old players.But I'll tell you this, Mr. Cobb. If I'd been playing when you were playingyou'd only have come into second high on me once. After that you wouldn't havehad any teeth!" Said Billy, moodily, later: "I just don't like guys whotry to spike you on purpose. Let them try and I'll throw it at them. Can I helpit if their heads get in the way?"
Billy says,"People think I'm conceited about baseball. But if you don't believe inyourself on a bad day nobody else will. I think I'm better than the pitcherwhen I go to the plate. I hope I'm a good winner but I won't be a good loser. Iholler at the umpire if I think I've had a bad call. People blame me for beingconfident. A guy wrote me a letter from a different hotel in Los Angeles everyday during the last Series. They all said, 'I hope you lose.'
"A couple ofyears ago Phil Rizzuto got a letter from some crackpot—the fellow said he wasgoing to shoot Phil during the ball game. I didn't want him to worry when hewas playing so I talked him into trading uniforms with me. Mine has No. 1 onthe back and everybody sees it. After batting practice Phil came up and said,'Give me back my uniform. I'd rather get shot than get booed like this.' "Billy added: "They boo me. What are they booing me for? I'm trying towin."
THE REAL TOUGHLOOK
"Look—I getin fights. I never started a fight in my life, but God hates a coward and I'venever run away from one. I'll tell you this—if I get in a fight I don't wantanybody stopping it. I'm not afraid of these big guys. Weight doesn't meananything. When I was 19 a fight manager out in Oakland wanted me to turn pro.He wanted to manage me. I'd have been a good fighter. I could make themiddleweight limit and I can punch harder than most middle-weights. The onlything I worry about in a fight is that I get mad. I get vicious. I don't wantto stop punching. I don't think much of baseball players who cop a Sunday andthen somebody stops the fight. They walk around being cocky. I try not to getinto fights but I can't be a coward. So I get booed." Billy reflected amoment. "I look up at the crowd," he said grandly, "and I pitythem." Suddenly he grinned delightedly. "Sometimes I give them the realtough look when I go to the dugout. You know—under the eyebrows. It makes themjump."
Billy is not aman to nurse a grudge, and his blackest moods cannot long resist the gaietywhich boils around inside him. Life is an exciting affair to Billy—and to thosearound him. This seems natural enough. Excitement was his birthright; he comesfrom people to whom noisy drama was the breath of life. Billy, despite theAnglo-Saxon ring of his name, is of Portuguese-Italian blood. "I'm aDago," he says happily. "I'm proud of being a Dago."
Billy's mother, atiny, voluble, hot-tempered and dramatic woman, talks about the familybackground with great gusto. Herfather, Nicholas Salvini, was an Italianfisherman who came to San Francisco in the 1870s. Her mother was a picturebride whom the fisherman imported, sight unseen, from Italy. "He was 35then and he was bald. Mother was just a young girl. She took a look at him andstarted crying and said, 'Oh, I don't wanna marry that old man.' But she did.She was nuts about him. They lived in this same old house here in Berkeley—theycame over before the earthquake.
"He used togo away on fishing boats for six months—Alaska, China, I don't know where hewent. When he was coming home she used to run up the American flag on theflagpole and send me over to San Francisco to get whisky. I was just 12 or 13.There was a little train that ran down from Oakland to the ferry. We called itin Italian the ciuciuminca train. I'd take it and go to Martinelli's in SanFrancisco and get two gallons of whisky—$1.50 a gallon in those days—and bringit back. He liked whisky for breakfast. When he came in the house he'd have$200, $300—a fortune. He'd have a lot of silver and he'd come in and throw thatmoney all over the house. What a big time when he came home!
"I gotmarried when I was only 16. That was to Pisani, my first husband. I had Frank,that's Billy's oldest brother. Then I married Martin. That Martin! Let's faceit, we didn't get along. He left me. Billy's real name is Alfred Martin—I namedhim after his father, but Martin never came back. God, how I hate that nameAlfred. Billy's grandmother used to call him Bellino—in Italian that meanspretty. The kids thought it was Billy, and I liked Billy too so that's whathe's called. Billy was a 10-month baby. I never thought I'd have him. If Ihadn't fallen into the coal bin, I don't think I'd have had him yet; I washanging up clothes, and I tripped and fell and got all bruised up. The next dayI had Billy—right in the room Billy uses now."
Billy's boyhoodwas one of family warmth, Depression poverty and baseball. "Mygrandmother," he says, "she used to bite my hand when I was bad, andwhen I sneaked in late she'd bang me on the back of the head and make me say myprayers in Italian. But she always said: 'You will be a baseball player.' "The old two-story frame house—now fitted out with a gleaming kitchen and adisplay of kimono-clad dolls Billy has brought his mother from Japan—sits a fewblocks from the shore of San Francisco Bay at Point Isabelle. His mother'sthird husband, a placid and kindly Canadian-born truck driver named JackDowning, sometimes took him duck hunting, and Billy and his friends built raftsand endlessly searched for crippled birds which other hunters had missed.
"But we werebroke," says Billy. "There were five of us kids. When I went toBerkeley High School I never went to a dance. I didn't have the right clothes.My high school letter—that's what I had." Billy's real alma mater was JamesKenney Playfield, a neatly turfed municipal diamond one block from home, andBilly's real education involved but one subject: baseball. He learned in a hardschool. To most of the men and boys in his neighborhood, weekend games at theplay-field were the very meaning of existence. Semipro players, big leaguers,coast leaguers, men in their 30s and hopeful teen-agers gathered there tochoose up sides. The rivalry was fierce—the big leaguer who did not try wasbenched. Billy asked and gave no quarter, and by the time he was a bony,hot-eyed kid of 16 he had caught the eye of Red Adams, trainer for the OaklandAcorns.
Adams took tosmuggling him into the Oakland ball park, putting him in an Oakland uniform andsending him out to warm up with the team. "I felt funny," Billy says."I was too bashful to ask to bat. But Red told Casey [Stengel then managedthe Acorns] that I was going to be a good player. Casey rasped: 'Who—thatscarecrow?' " But one day the next summer Casey consented to hit Martinsome ground balls. "Casey," says Billy, "would glare at me and grithis teeth and cock his head over to one side—and whack—he'd drive me a hot one.I'd catch it and give him the limp wrist and throw it back."
That was thebeginning of a mutual admiration society. Billy's truculence kindled a spark inthe Old Roman's heart—where it burns hotly still. Billy thought Casey was agreat man. "If Case told me to run through a brick wall—I mean if he said,'Billy, I think you can do it,' I'd give it a try. Case doesn't kid me and Inever lie to him. I think of Case as a strong fellow, even if he's old. When Iwas with Oakland I got in a fight with a fellow and who do you suppose was thefirst guy out there swinging?—Case. You respect Case. Of course I needle him.Hey—I think I'll tell Case—'Case, gimme a piece of your oil wells, Case. Ideserve it, Case. Look at my scars, Case!' "
SINK OR SWIM
Oakland signedBilly when he was 17 and shipped him off to sink or swim with Idaho Falls inthe Pioneer League. "I didn't even have a pair of good pants," he says."I didn't have a suitcase. They gave me some money to buy a pair of slacks.I snitched a mitt from the playfield and got on the train. I was lonely. Theother players went into bars after the games but they wouldn't let me in. I wastoo young. But I got even. There was a real pretty girl who was a waitress inthe restaurant where we ate. All the players were trying to date her, but shewouldn't have any part of them. But one day I heard it was her birthday and Ileft a dollar on the table at breakfast. She said, 'You forgot a dollar.' Isaid, 'No, that's for your birthday.' She said, 'Do you mean that?' I said,'Sure I mean it.' The next day when we were leaving on the bus she came out andsaid, 'Here's something for luck,' and gave me a big kiss. Did those playershooraw me! They thought I was pulling a fast one on them. I wasn't, though. Iwasn't very fast with girls in those days. I was afraid of them."
It took onlythree more years to fabricate Billy Martin, New York Yankee. He went to Phoenixin the Arizona-Texas League in 1947. Unmarried players live in a Quonset hutinside the ball park and the team traveled enormous distances (to El Paso,Tucson, Juarez, Bisbee and Globe-Miami) jammed into two station wagons and withtheir gear bouncing along in trailers behind. At one roadside stop the carshalted beside a turkey farm. Billy was over the fence in a flash. "Oh, thatturkey was tough," he says. "I didn't know they were so big and tough.But I finally got him wrapped up in my uniform and I got back into the stationwagon with him. Arkie Biggs, the manager, was driving. Just before he steppedon the starter there was a silence. The turkey started fighting again. It madea noise: 'gurble gurble.' Arkie turned around and said, 'What's that?' Nobodysaid anything. He turned back and then the turkey got his head out of thesleeve and gurbled again. 'Put him back!' Arkie hollered. I said, 'Gosh, he'salready scratched me up.' I was bleeding. But I couldn't keep him. We couldhave cooked him up in the Quonset hut."
Billy wastriumphant, however, on the diamond. He batted .392, hit safely 230 times (arecord), stole 31 bases, led the league in doubles (48) and in runs batted in(174). Casey called him back to Oakland, where in 1948, as the only youngsteramong a crew of hardbitten veterans, he helped win the Oaks's first pennant in21 years. One night he was spiked badly. "There was blood all overeverything. They got me back in the dressing room and called a doctor from thestands and gave me a belt of straight whisky and four big guys held me down andhe sewed it up. I didn't holler." Oakland might be called the Brooklyn ofthe West, and there was a certain Dodgerishness about the old Acorns. Theirscarred wooden grandstand caught fire regularly during games and theircustomers were raffishly critical. But Billy fitted in. He was riddenmercilessly by every bench jockey in the Coast League. His aplomb was unmarred.And he learned the arts of the infielder.
"I had anawful time playing third. I've got a good arm, but I'd just scoop up the balland fire to first any old way. I didn't get set. It was awful—the ball wouldcurve. I knew I had to change. I used to stand around with a mitt on my handand practice grabbing the ball out of it with two fingers. Thousands of times.I got to throwing with my arm in close—snapping it like a catcher. Secondbase—I had to learn to make the double play. I always made it my way,though—I'll listen to advice but I only take advice that seems right to me. Agood second baseman will make the double play even if he gets a bad throw.You've got to be in position for anything. I don't get mad if a base runnercomes into second and tries to break up the play—he's supposed to do it.Sometimes I'll let him hit me, but I'll stand so he has to hit my left leg.He'll knock me down, but I throw off my right and so I get the ball away.You've got to know the runner. Is he fast? Is he slow?
"You have tostudy the batter. You've got to be where he's going to hit. You've got to getthe jump on the ball. If we've got a fast-ball pitcher throwing, I'll play aright-handed batter to swing late on him. I'll play out in the hole towardfirst. But after six innings when the pitcher's getting tired, I'll play him topull—I'll be near the bag. You've got to watch the batter's feet—if he shiftson me, I'll take off. There's a million things. I never go out to the bag butwhat I look at the grass to see if it's wet—wet grass or high grass makes theball slower and you've got to jump it faster. I look at the flags to see if thewind has changed. I look at the sun so I'll know just where it is—every inning.I don't wear dark glasses. I look up for fly balls out of the corners of myeyes—with my head turned away a little. That way you don't get blinded—but youhave to know where the sun is all the time. You've got to learn to play in thesummer when you sweat so much the bat slips in your hand. You've got to playwhen you're hurt. I broke a blood vessel in 1953, and my hand turned black andI couldn't bend two of my fingers. But I put a pad of foam rubber on my handand wore a golf glove backwards and I batted pretty good."
MESSAGE FROM ONHIGH
Casey Stengelwent to the Yankees in 1949. Late that year the Yankees bought Billy."Nobody told me," says Billy. "I was playing second in a night gameat Oakland and an advertising blimp came sailing over the ball park. It had anelectric sign around the bottom—you know, with lighted letters that ran roundit spelling out news events. I looked up and it said: 'BILLY MARTIN SOLD TOYANKEES.' I was kind of mad when I found out the rest. Oakland was paying me$9,000. When I went to the Yankees the next year they only gave me $6,000. ButI knew I'd make it in New York. I never had any doubts about it."
Billy jauntilybanged a double off Red Sox Pitcher Mel Parnell in his first time at bat as aYankee; it was a big inning and he came up again with the bases loaded and hita single. "Pretty good way to break in, kid," said Joe DiMaggio.Billy—although few of Billy's teammates had the grace to concede it atfirst—had just taken over the team. "They tried to ride me," saysBilly. "Johnny Lindell—guys like that. All the other rookies would grin andact as though they liked it, but I gave it back to them. I found out some ofthem couldn't take it so good. After a while they left me alone." WhenCasey batted him eighth in the lineup he screamed: "What is this, a joke?Next thing you'll be batting me after the groundskeeper." Billy was in theArmy for five months in 1950 and 1951. He broke his leg in two places duringspring training in 1952. But to say that he did not burst upon the AmericanLeague like a basket of Roman candles, or galvanize the loftiest of histeammates, would be an understatement of fact.
Billy tangledwith Red Sox Outfielder Jim Piersall ("He invited me under the stands and Ihit him a couple and knocked him down"), he tangled with Detroit CatcherMatt Batts, he tangled with Clint Courtney of the Browns and before the dusthad settled Allie Reynolds, Joe Collins, Gil McDougald and Billy Hunter of St.Louis had all joined in. "If you let anybody get the best of you in thisgame," cries Billy, "you're done."
Billy, in twowords, took charge. "Somebody had to do it." he says. "The Yankeeshaven't had a captain since Lou Gehrig—maybe they don't want to pay the extra$500. But I get mad when we're losing. I've just got to do something. I talk toCase about it too. I don't charge around getting in people's way. Take apitcher like Vic Raschi. Vic bore down on every pitch. If you touched Vic whenhe was pitching it was like touching a red-hot iron. I'd never say a word toVic. But pitchers that coast—I get mad. Allie Reynolds grinned at me once whena guy hit a double off him. I went up and said: 'You don't look so funny. Hehit a double, didn't he?' "
"Billy,"says Casey Stengel, "is usually right on the field—and players don't resenta fellow like that who is right. He helps them." Says Gil McDougald, withadmiration: "Billy wants to win so bad that he'd run out and hit thepitcher over the head with his bat if that would help anything." Billy doesthe next best thing; he delivers in the pinches—and never more dramaticallythan in the 1953 World Series when he batted .500 and tied the alltime recordof 12 hits. He treasures the memory of the last of them. He came to the platein the ninth inning of the seventh game with the score tied 3-3, with two menon, and hit a single, while thousands cheered, to beat the BrooklynDodgers.
"We'll win itagain this year," he says. "You'll see. They're all tough when theyplay us, but we'll be tough too. You know, I'm broke after two years in theArmy. I liked the Army fine—I marched and mopped like anybody else. I was akiller. A rifleman. I shot the Tommy gun. I met a lot of nice fellows in theArmy. I'm sore at the draft board. If they threw me out of the Army the firsttime for having five dependents, why did they put me back again with the samefive—my mother, my father, my sister, my ex-wife and my little girl? Because Igot my name in the paper and they didn't have guts enough to stand havingpeople ask why I wasn't in the service. I'm glad to serve my country—but whydidn't they just leave me in the first time? It's tough on a baseball player.Right now I'm 27 years old and I've got nothing in the world but my name and mydaughter. But it's funny—I don't think about all that much. What I think aboutis winning the World Series.
"When we lostit last year," he says, darkly, "I cried. I cried. I hated myself fordoing it but I couldn't help it. I should have hit late in that last game.Podres had been throwing me change-ups all day. But I should have known he'dthrow me fast balls when the light started getting bad. I didn't think. I wentinto the back room after the game. I didn't want the fellows to see me. I hitthe lockers with my fists but I couldn't stop crying. I don't want to feel thatway again."