There he stood amid the tumult last week, arms outspread, a Gandhiesque apparition bidding the combatants desist. It was Billy Martin, onetime middleweight champion of the American League, playing peacemonger, a dove among hawks on this humid evening in Cleveland.
The trouble had started when Bill Denehy, one of Martin's necessarily busy relief pitchers, plunked Cleveland Catcher Ray Fosse in the rib cage with a pitch that Fosse demonstrably felt was ill-intentioned. Fosse dropped his bat, hurried to the mound and cross-body-blocked Denehy, who, in turn, kicked Fosse in the hand. Sniffing trouble, the Detroit Tigers' burly leftfielder, Willie Horton, rushed in to lay waste to any available Indian. Horton himself had been hit by a pitched ball in this tempestuous series—one of six Tigers and three Indians so abused—and he obviously felt that Fosse's protest was, if not unprovoked, definitely unwarranted. The battle was joined, and the diamond was soon aswarm with flailing ballplayers. When Martin, the umpires and other assorted pacifists finally restored order, Indians Fosse and Gomer Hodge and Tigers Denehy, Horton and Ike Brown had been tossed out of the game.
Martin publicly deplored the violence but privately confided later in the evening that he was "proud of the way my boys hung in there together." It is Martin's contention that he has, in fact, molded a team out of many disparate elements and that, ball game or brawl, his charges hang resolutely as one. The reason for this, he says, is "communication," a word Martin tosses off as authoritatively as any urbanologist. As a baseball manager, he considers himself a combination father, brother, psychiatrist, teacher and cop. The many roles exact a terrible toll on his nervous system, but he gamely perseveres in transforming a dismal mediocrity into a legitimate contender for the American League pennant. The Tigers finished fourth in the league's Eastern Division a year ago, 29 games behind Baltimore. This season they have doggedly remained within striking distance of the Orioles, and Martin is certain that with unity they'll overtake them in the end. In the weekend Cleveland series the Tigers were 2-2 and by Sunday evening five games behind the Orioles.
"My job," Martin said, "is to get the most out of a player. This involves attention to little problems, things that may seem petty to the average person but are big things with the ballplayer."
June 27, 1971
At approximately this moment, Horton—for all of his ferocity, something of a hypochondriac—stopped by to advise Martin that his back, apparently injured on the bus ride from Detroit, was healing nicely. Martin smiled and wished him continued good health.
"This was a very unhappy club a year ago," he continued. "I had to find out why, so I talked to everybody individually. It wasn't really anybody's fault—just a hell of a lot of people's fault. Now we're a team, a happy team."
Martin's testimony is corroborated by those of his players who were around in less happy days when, according to one of them, "People who paid their way into our games were being gypped."
Norm Cash, the droll first baseman who is enjoying his best season since he won the league batting championship a decade ago, subscribes to Martin's hypothesis that familiarity does not inevitably breed contempt.
"A manager shouldn't be put on a pedestal," says Cash democratically. "He should be one of the guys. Billy is."
Congeniality alone may not be credited with the Tigers' rejuvenation. The trade with Washington that relieved them of the burdensome Denny McLain and filled in the vacant portions of their infield with Aurelio Rodriguez and Ed Brinkman has obviously been influential. Defense, as represented by these newcomers, and power through the lineup are Tiger strengths. Pitching is not, but even those pitchers Martin so regularly sends to the showers concede he has an uncanny instinct in such matters.
"He's a super manager," says the well-scrubbed Dean Chance, a Martin pitcher in both Detroit and Minnesota. "He knows how to handle men."
Martin relishes such praise, for it is his melancholy conclusion that in his own youth he was not favored with the sort of guidance he now expertly bestows. His sorriest recollection of an adolescence marred by poverty, fisticuffs and social rejection is of a confrontation with his principal at Berkeley (Calif.) High School following a KO victory over a rival pitcher who imprudently "chose" him for a postgame punch-out.
The principal, said Martin, still blinking in disbelief 25 years later, "said I wasn't fit to represent the school. He said I should learn to turn the other cheek. I told him that in my neighborhood I wouldn't be alive if I turned the other cheek. This pitcher had thrown at me, then swung on me, but somehow it was my fault. The principal was a nice enough guy, but I don't think he ever really understood kids. He kicked me off the team as a disgrace to the school. The school was still going to be there, the buildings would be the same, but what about the boy, a boy baseball was everything to? If I'd been a different kind of kid, I might be a criminal today."
Martin, now 43, grew up in West Berkeley during the Depression and World War II. The university was hardly a seat of revolution then, but West Berkeley was a battleground where servicemen, the sons of migrant laborers, newly arrived blacks from the South, the dread "Pachuco" gangs and old-line Italians like Martin engaged in continuous warfare. The recess bell at West Berkeley's Burbank Junior High School signaled a daily resumption of hostilities and the more squeamish youngsters stayed inside rather than play razor tag.
"I remember there were two neighborhood armies," Martin recalls. "The Prussians and the Chinese. There must have been three, four hundred kids in each. I didn't want to get involved with them, but you couldn't avoid them. So you fought. In those days we never drank, took dope or even did much cigarette smoking, but we sure as hell fought a lot. I'd like to have studied more in school, but there was no way you could walk home in my neighborhood with a book under your arm."
Martin is physically long removed from that setting. He makes his home in Minnesota now and regards Berkeley as affectionately as Ronald Reagan does. Still, he is the prisoner of his youth, and, given the opportunity, he will alternately brood and rejoice over his stormy upbringing. He seems honestly sorry his duties as manager of the Tigers will prevent him from attending his class' 25th reunion this September, but he can still grouse over a failing mark he once received in, of all subjects, physical education. Martin blames the low grade on the prejudice the academic Establishment at Berkeley held against West Berkeleyans of all colors, creeds and religions.
"How does anybody get an F in phys ed? I was all-county in both baseball and basketball. You know, the guy who gave me that grade once asked me for tickets to the World Series when I was with the Yankees. And I got them for him. I wanted to show him I could be a better man than he was."
Being a better man, or at the very least, a man of some sort, is a Martin obsession. He has a neighborhood morality that is a heady mixture of "do unto others" and an "eye for an eye." His inflexible adherence to this code has long been an invitation to strife, and as a result of it Martin has had more fights than Abe the Newsboy. He claims never to have lost one, largely because right, in his view, makes might.
"I never push first, but if you push me, I'll push back harder. The day I start a fight is the day I lose one."
The quieting influence in Martin's life was undoubtedly Casey Stengel, "the old man," as he calls him. Martin likes to say he borrows from all his old managers, but Stengel is the prime creditor. Consider Martin managing—or over-managing—Stengel-style in the sixth inning of fight night against Cleveland.
Cash is in the game because the Indians have started a righthander; Kaline is out because he needs a rest. But when the Indians bring a lefthander in to pitch against Cash with nobody out and the bases loaded, Martin brings Kaline in to pinch-hit for him, despite Cash's impressive home-run total (14 then). Cleveland's Alvin Dark now brings in a righthander to pitch to Kaline, and Kaline grounds into a force at the plate. Martin then brings in left-handed-hitting Gates Brown to bat for his heavy-hitting right-handed-hitting catcher, Bill Freehan. Brown grounds into an inning-ending double play, and Cleveland moves on to a 7-0 win.
But the Tigers did win the fight—without the suddenly peaceful Martin's help. And they just might win the pennant—very definitely with his help.