In what must be viewed as a bloodcurdling case of publishing overkill, we have this season three books, totaling 802 pages, about...Billy Martini One would have to look long and hard to find a comparable instance of so much being written to so little effect. If anyone is tempted to read all three of these books, please be advised that the process is more painful (and much slower) than the Chinese water torture. Nevertheless, here is a brief guide.

Gene Schoor's Billy Martin (Doubleday, $11.95) is an execrable piece of work. Its prose wouldn't pass a high school grammar exam: "He was the pivot man at second base that set a Yankee team record for double plays, 199" is a typical sentence. The author's fawning is chilling; Martin is described as "a shy, honest human being with a generous respect for the truth, loyalty, courage, and, yes. that old-fashioned faith in the Church, Jesus Christ, and the Almighty." The book is loaded with detailed conversations, but at no point did I have any idea where fact ended and fiction began.

Martin's own book, written with Peter Golenbock, is called Number 1 (Delacorte Press, $11.95). It is an apologia pro vita sua, and not a very convincing one. Martin portrays himself as the innocent party in all his fist-fights ("I'm never the one who starts them"), as a misunderstood and put-upon fellow who only wants to do what's right; the trouble is, as his book emphasizes, that his conception of "right" is so self-serving and inflexible that disputes are inevitable. This book mightily upset George Steinbrenner, who reportedly tried to halt its publication; a more mature response would have been to ignore it.

Maury Allen's Damn Yankee: The Billy Martin Story (Times Books, $10.95) is the best of the lot, though that's faint praise. Allen does a good job of depicting Martin's tunnel vision and his peculiar notions of "loyalty." Unfortunately, Allen transforms himself into a sort of shrink to do a "psychohistory" of Martin, which manages to be glib and pretentious at the same time. The best passage in the book has nothing to do with Martin: it's a moving recollection by Ed Charles, the former Met player, of what Jackie Robinson meant to black Americans in the '40s and '50s.

Until a better Martin biography comes along, Maury Allen's will do. But the real question is: Do we really need another Martin biography?

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)