It was a week unlike any other in the recent tumultuous history of the New York Yankees. It began with Billy Martin, the beleaguered manager of a fourth-place team, self-destructing by uttering the now infamous words, "One's a born liar, the other's convicted." Owner George Steinbrenner, the party of the second part in Martin's valedictory, fumed, Martin resigned, and Bob Lemon was hired to take his place. Martin left tearfully, Lemon arrived pleasantly, and as the week wore on, Steinbrenner's team actually gained on the first-place Red Sox.
But that's not all, folks. At the Old-Timers' Game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, history repeated itself, more or less. It was at that game, three years ago, that Martin was introduced as the team's new manager to the New York fans, who greeted him like a long-lost son. In a final twist to a bizarre week, Steinbrenner orchestrated the entire scene all over again; Martin would manage the Yankees again, beginning in 1980.
"It's a soap opera around here," said Coach Elston Howard. Like the other Yankees, past and present, Howard was stunned by the words that he heard stadium announcer Bob Sheppard read over the P.A. system as Martin ran out of the dugout and onto the field.
"Managing the Yankees in the 1980 season, and hopefully for many seasons after that will be No. 1...." Sheppard's voice was drowned out by cheers.
August 6, 1978
The once-and-future manager responded to the crowd by time and time again lifting his cap to acknowledge the chants of "Billy, Billy, Billy," as the ovation continued for nearly seven minutes. At one point he turned and looked up at Steinbrenner and tipped his cap in the direction of the owner's private box on the loge level. Later he would ask Steinbrenner, "Did you see me? Did you see me?"
The day belonged to Martin. Not to Joe DiMaggio, not to Mickey Mantle, not to Whitey Ford. Yankee Stadium was his, but Steinbrenner had made it so, and he smiled as the near-capacity crowd roared its approval of his decision. It was, indeed, a masterstroke, if a weird one. Steinbrenner refurbished his image by rehiring Martin, and who knows what will happen between now and 1980.
Until Martin resumes his managing, health permitting, he will work in the Yankee front office as a consultant and scout. In 1980 Lemon will become the team's general manager. Both are agreeable, and no one doubts that Martin longs to return to the field.
"The white lines are Billy's arena. Between them he becomes the king," said Yankee President Al Rosen on Saturday night. "Outside of those lines, he is out of character. By bringing him back, George made a heartrending decision. Billy had problems dealing with everything that happened this year.
"There is no doubt that Billy is popular," Rosen added, "and he will still be popular in 1980."
But popularity alone did not bring Billy back. There were other factors—not related to baseball—that Steinbrenner had to weigh. First there was Martin's drinking problem. "Sure he drank," said former Yankee President Gabe Paul on Sunday morning. "Everyone knows he drank. Sometimes he drank too much. But I don't think that drinking affected his performance last year."
This year was different. Injuries reduced a championship team to a club with so many roster changes that Martin never knew from one day to the next who could play. "These were things Billy couldn't control," says Rosen. Martin's drinking grew worse and he began eating less and less, but Steinbrenner didn't know how much it was affecting his manager's health until the All-Star break when Rosen told Steinbrenner that Billy was afraid of not being paid if he had to resign for reasons of health. Steinbrenner assured Martin that he would pay him his salary even if he decided to quit. Still Martin stayed on.
Drinking was not Martin's only problem. "It seems to me the poor man was on the verge of a nervous breakdown," said his good friend, Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. "It was clear that he needed a rest. I didn't want to see Billy embarrassed. As it has turned out, everything worked out for the best."
In his statement to the press following the Old-Timers' Game, Steinbrenner said, "There are times in life when you should be tough and times when you have to be rigid, and there are times when you have to be understanding and have compassion."
What had suddenly transformed Steinbrenner into Martin's savior? After all, there had been nearly three years of rigidness and toughness in his dealings with his manager. One thing was clear. What might happen to Martin—once he had lost the only job he said he had ever wanted—would weigh on Steinbrenner's conscience forever, the owner said, and he was alarmed about the reaction of the fans. Throughout the week Steinbrenner talked with Martin's agent, Doug Newton; talked with Martin on the phone and in person, and made inquiries about Martin's health.
Last Sunday, Steinbrenner admitted that he was concerned that unless there was some glimmer of hope in Martin's life, the manager's problems might worsen. That day Steinbrenner was far away from Yankee Stadium in North Carolina, watching one of his daughters ride in a horse show, playing a round of golf and a couple of sets of tennis. "I would be a very selfish guy if I let something like what happened stand in the way of Billy having a chance to improve his life," he said. "We're not just talking about baseball. We're talking about something a lot bigger than that. In this picture baseball is a poor third."
When and if Martin is able to return to manage the Yankees, will Reggie Jackson, whose defiance sparked Martin's latest crisis, be there? Jackson has repeatedly said that by then he will be traded. In fact, his name was recently placed on the waiver list and then withdrawn. And Jackson was as surprised as any of his teammates when his old adversary appeared at the stadium for Old-Timers' Day. No one had told him that Martin was coming back. That hurt him. And as a business associate of his said on Sunday, "So far no one has apologized to Reggie [for being called a liar]. Everyone has apologized to everyone else."
Steinbrenner is aware of Jackson's feelings about Martin, and the time may come when he will talk to Jackson about the rehiring. Right now he says he doesn't feel he has to explain his reasons to Jackson or to any other player.
While Steinbrenner was relaxing in North Carolina Sunday, Martin returned to Yankee Stadium and joined Rosen in Steinbrenner's box. It was just another of the week's many surprises. Martin seemed buoyant, frequently gesturing toward the field and the dugout. As he got up to leave after the second inning of the second game, he smiled, turned toward the dugout and waved to the players. When somebody remarked to him that he was watching the game from a different vantage point, Martin agreed.
"You should try managing from up here," he was told.
"I did," Martin replied.