Billy Martin (see cover) says that since 1962, when he ended his career as a desperado infielder and settled down with the Minnesota Twins as a scout, "I have been an organization man."
But that is an oversimplification. During the period referred to he has punched not the organization's clock but one of its vice-presidents. He has also come up with the idea of Nuns' Day, played Pygmalion to. a one-shot Most Valuable Player, masterminded so many thieveries of home that in half a year one of his thieves tied the record, expressed public reservations about Ted Williams, won Joe Frazier's endorsement as the only man in the majors who knows how to handle his fists, threatened to drown Joe Gordon, put up a tomato crop in cans and set fire, as they say, to the Denver Bears once and the Twins, themselves, twice. Billy the Kid, in short, has not become some faceless, plastic cog.
Martin the Torch first lit up and into the Twins in 1965, when he became their third-base coach, by establishing a special relationship with Zoilo Versalles and provoking the rest of the Twins enough to earn a good deal of the credit for their comeback from sixth place to a pennant. Last year he took over the previously sodden Denver farm club and got it hot, and this year, as manager of the Twins, he has irritated his team up from a dreary seventh place finish behind even the Yankees in 1968 to a crowd-warming command over the American League's Western Division.
Of course a manager, however incendiary he may be, does not account for the whole fire. Harmon Killebrew, who was injured in 1968 and is now threatening to drive in his weight (210 pounds) in runs, started pushing the ball to right field this year for base hits and recommenced pulling it over the fence for home runs, of his own accord. Leo Cardenas has transformed the Twins from the team making the fewest double plays in the league to the one making the second most. Ron Perranoski has saved more games in relief than any other American Leaguer. And Rod Carew is hitting .356, Tony Oliva .339, Cardenas .297, Rich Reese .324 and John Roseboro .283. Martin, in fact, is the only genius in the American League who has at his disposal, among other recourses, at least eight (including Ted Uhlaender and Cesar Tovar) really good-hitting regulars.
On the other hand, he is the only first-place or even second-place manager in the majors who has no pitcher at all who can be called a stopper, and only two (Dave Boswell, 11-8, and Jim Kaat, 9-6) who can be called regular starters. (Dean Chance, the Twins' top pitcher, is supposed to come back after the All-Star break, so far, an arm injury has kept Chance from being of much value.)
More to Martin's credit, he was instrumental in the acquisition of Cardenas this winter from the Reds. Carew is grateful to Martin for batting tips. Selective platooning has helped improve team hitting. Furthermore, without Martin's inspired guidance the Twins would not be the exciting team they have become.
Last year—at least after they went into decline and always seemed to be too far behind to take chances—the Twins tended to sit back and hope for a game-saving homer. This year they do everything but run up and grab the ball out of the opposing pitcher's hand and fungo it somewhere. Killebrew is a convenient symbol for this new fluidity, having stolen four bases so far this year, after stealing seven between 1954 and 1968. But what goes on out there when the Twins get fancy cannot be represented by statistics. Consider the fifth and eighth innings of the Twins-White Sox game of July 1, before 7,609 souls in Chicago.
The Twins are behind 5-3 going into the fifth. Uhlaender leads off with a home run, and Carew follows with a nice triple. Now, a tremor goes through the crowd, as well it might. "I've always said home is the easiest base to steal," says Martin, "if you time it right. You can get a big lead, because you know the pitcher is taking a windup."
Martin relished stealing home himself, and under his tutelage the Denver Bears developed the stratagem into a specialty. So far. in '69 the Twins have done it eight times, which is eight more times than last year. Once it was Frank Quilici, the utility infielder, scoring from third on a special play set in motion when a runner on first allowed himself to be picked off. That was the second theft of any base in Quilici's four years in the majors. Once it was Tovar against Detroit's Mickey Lolich. On that play Carew went to sleep and stayed on second base. He atoned by stealing third and then home in the space of Lolich's next three or four pitches. Six times in all it has been Carew, who already has tied the American League season record held by Bobby Roth and Ty Cobb and is only one shy of Pistol Pete Reiser's major league mark of seven.
The time is ripest with a right-hand hitter at the plate, because he can stand in there until the last moment and block the catcher. The runner has studied and timed the pitcher's delivery, so that he knows exactly when to take off. He slides so as to catch the one exposed corner of the plate with his right foot. Carew is 6 for 6 (8 for 8 counting spring training), and in every case the run has been important, or seemed so at the time. Only once, the last time, did he go without a signal. Killebrew was at bat and fortunately heard Carew coming just in time to restrain himself from hitting him into short left field. Afterward, Martin told Carew never to choose such a situation again.
To return to the game in Chicago: although nobody is out and Oliva and Killebrew are the next two hitters, Wilbur Wood of the Sox is pitching out of a stretch to hold Carew on. "That takes something away from the pitcher," says Martin. "At least it takes away some of his deception." It also makes it hard for Carew to catch Reiser. He confines himself to bluffing, as Oliva pops out. But when Killebrew taps to the mound, Carew has somehow got such a jump that he beats Wood's throw to the plate. Killebrew gets an RBI and is safe on a fielder's choice, but the play has been virtually a double steal, of home and first. Then Reese hits his second home run in two innings, and after a walk Martin brings in Tovar, the best overall base runner on the team, to pinch-run.
While Roseboro is at bat, Tovar steals second—on a pitchout—and then third. After Roseboro pops out, Cardenas comes up, and pretty soon Tovar breaks for home. He has it made, but the pitch hits Cardenas, sending him to first and Tovar back to third. Pitcher Dick Woodson is up. White Sox Catcher Don Pavletich, a seasoned receiver, is so rattled by Tovar's fits and starts that he keeps dropping pitches. Finally, the third strike to Woodson gets away from him entirely, and Tovar, going on the pitch, crosses the plate. Unfortunately Woodson dawdles and is thrown out to end the inning, no doubt to get himself chewed out.
"A man will do something wrong," says Quilici, "and Billy gets so wound up in the game he'll get up from the bench and chew him out from his toes to his teeth right there." Anyway, four runs and a lot of fun on three hits.
Cisco Carlos sets the Twins down in order in the sixth and seventh, but Roseboro leads off the eighth with a single and goes around to third on Cardenas' single. Now ordinarily a 30-year-old man on first and a 36-year-old catcher on third are not an intimidating pair. But the White Sox appear to be uneasy. Carlos throws a pitchout, then a very high ball. Finally, Cardenas breaks for second, and Pavletich cocks his arm, cocks it again and inexplicably throws a soft grounder toward the hole between third and short. Cardenas is safe at second, Roseboro holds. Carlos then tries to pick Roseboro off third and throws the ball away. Roseboro scores, Cardenas goes to third. The suicide squeeze figures to be on. That is the only kind of squeeze Martin believes in. Woodson, however, grounds out, bringing up Uhlaender. At last, Cardenas breaks for the plate. If Uhlaender doesn't bunt it on the ground, Cardenas is dead. Uhlaender bunts it just right. Two runs on two singles. No other team in baseball can turn beating Chicago 10-5 into such an experience.
But then no other team is managed by a man who once made an alltime great hair-raising catch on a pop-up just to the right of the mound. The Yankees' pitcher and first-baseman were somehow reluctant to get involved that day in the 1952 World Series with two out and the wind blowing and four Dodgers rounding the bases at once, but Martin, as far away as he was from the ball, just could not stay out of the action. Now, he refuses to sit back and trust his big batting guns to overpower the other side.
And when someone asks him a question, he cannot be discreet. Take the question about Ted Williams a few weeks ago. Martin said (as he recalls it now), "He was the greatest hitter I ever saw, but as a second baseman I didn't have any respect for him, because he never slid into me. On a double play he'd go out of the baselines. It's nothing personal. But if the truth is a crime, then this country is in trouble."
Earlier in the year, when asked at a luncheon in Cleveland about Joe Gordon's managing of the Indians in 1959, he replied Joe didn't do a good job—he "let personalities enter in"—and benched Jim Piersall, Vic Power and his second baseman, named Martin. Manager Martin added that he thought Gordon was doing a good job this year in Kansas City, but that angle was not played up in the press, and when the Twins came to Kansas City in the last week of June, Gordon told a reporter that the visitors were handicapped by their "young, outspoken manager. Martin is too immature in some of his ways."
But Martin continued to speak out the next day, and so the feud became the most enjoyable of the year. Most of the byplay was relayed between the Minnesota and Kansas City benches by eager reporters, so there is no one authoritative account, but Martin says it all began when he shouted across the field to Gordon in the opposing dugout, "Hey Joe, you're too outspoken." It ended with Martin inviting Gordon on a fishing trip, and then recalling that he and former Twins Manager Sam Mele went fishing once, Mele fell in, and Martin had to pull him out by the hair. It would be hard, Martin noted, to save the bald-headed Gordon that way.
Day-to-day Martin is not nearly so lighthearted. Whenever he thinks someone has done wrong, Martin tells him. "A lot of veterans don't like to be told about little things," observes Quilici. "They figure they've been around and they know when they do something wrong. But Billy believes in telling them anyway." Roseboro, one of those who does not care to be nagged, says playing for Martin "is not the easiest job in the world, because he wants everything just so. But as long as you're winning, you don't give a damn how hard it is."
An important point. Martin brashly told everybody what they were doing wrong when he was playing for the Yankees, and they liked it, because they were winning and he was helping. When he went on to other teams, all of which were losing, he was unpopular. After he left Detroit, for instance, Al Kaline was quoted as being relieved that "we don't have that pop-off Martin, talking about pennants."
On the field Martin mixes freely with his players, fielding pregame grounders and joking in his rather high-pitched voice, but sometimes it is possible to sense the fine line he treads, by nature, between being provocative and being provoking. It is hard to imagine his ever becoming venerable. The "Dead End Kid" who fought his way up seems to abide in him still—a fresh, awkward recruit, innocently determined to be the best Marine possible, covered over by a hard but semitransparent layer of drill instructor.
"Billy was always stuck with the label of a kid," says Quilici. "He would tell people to do things before he was manager, and they'd think he didn't know what he was talking about."
Yet Martin says he was resolved to hold on to his job as third-base coach for the security. But his wife Gretchen talked him into taking the Denver job—she says she knew managing was what he really wanted to do. "When he said he wanted to go to Denver," says Twins President Calvin Griffith, "I told him he was a damn fool. He was valuable as a coach, and I had no idea he'd ever be our manager. His biggest fault was his temperament. [As late as 1966, he hit Vice-President Howard Fox in the eye.] But he learned to control it. I went down there and watched him manage, and I liked what I saw."
Martin bought his first home in 1962, in suburban Richfield near the Twins' park, and he spends his scant free time there wrestling with his 4-year-old boy Billy Joe, growing eggplant and tomatoes (which he had to can himself one year when Gretchen was sick) and working around the house. "He's one of those people who just have to be doing something all the time," says Mrs. Martin, a Nebraskan and former airline stewardess. When the Twins lose, she says, "I don't even try to console him. I'm sure I couldn't."
"She's actually got a bad temper," Martin says happily. "She's the one who gets mad all the time around the house. But she's a very level-headed, intelligent woman, and a very pretty one. We've been married going on 10 years, and I couldn't have picked a better girl."
Undoubtedly, then, he is more settled personally than in 1955, when his first wife left him saying you "can't stay in love with a newspaper clipping." And he appears to have channeled his poping-off instinct into a good technique for handling men. He coaxed Versalles in '65 into the best year of his checkered career, Martin says, not by being solicitous, but by giving him hell carefully and away from everyone else, so as not to hurt his pride.
"The day after he chews you out," says Quilici, "he'll sit down and talk it out with you, explain it, and you'll know where you stand. And he'll play you again in the same situation."
On a recent sweltering day in Kansas City, Carew was slow to cover second, and the resultant stolen base contributed to Boswell's being knocked out of the box. Boswell came into the dugout tearing his shirt to shreds, shouting and waving in the direction of Carew. It was an unseemly show, but Martin understands temper. He talked it out with Boswell and then told Carew what the situation was and what he'd done wrong, and eventually the air was clear.
Another time Martin went out to Boswell, who hates to leave a game, and asked him if he was tired. Boswell admitted that he was, and Martin took him out. "After the game I told Boswell, 'Now you've come of age. Now you're interested in the ball club.'
" 'You know, Billy,' he told me, 'you're the first man I've ever told the truth to.'
"Talk about something rewarding...," concludes Billy Martin.