‘We’ve Got a Contender’

"By playing majestic ball and with some front office high­handedness, this Yankees team resembles the pin-striped aristocracy of old"


This month the city is making a manic attempt to convey its bygone grandeur. On the Fourth there was more white flapping in the harbor than on sheet-airing day in a whorehouse. And mid-month the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will arrive to honor the man who wind-sprinted through the primaries, the Georgia Preach.

That old slattern Broadway will be gussied up in an attempt to remove its younger sisters from the streets. But it’s all cosmetic. The sounds of decay and death will be excluded from the mindless chatter inside the Garden, while the insistent offstage reverberations remain as ominous as those in “The Cherry Orchard.”

The one vestige of our halcyon days resides in the Bronx — the Yankees. By playing majestic ball and with some front office high­handedness, the team resembles the pin-striped aristocracy of old. True, the city floated the ballooned price for refurbishing the stadium, and owner George Steinbrenner seems to fit the mold of the boardmen who have always run the Yankees.

For openers, he was convicted for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, but Jimmy Bres­lin tells us in his book on Water­gate, How the Good Guys Finally Won, that Steinbrenner might have been the first whiff that aired the Nixon stink.

According to Breslin, Steinbrenner (always a large Democratic contributor) padlocked his checkbook in ’72. When he was asked to explain his new-found frugality, Steinbrenner told the Democratic alms-seekers that the Nixon forces had threatened him with an extensive audit of back income taxes if he didn’t make a large contribution to CREEP. Breslin reports that this incident and others like it led House Speak­er Tip O’Neill to the conclusion that the Nixon gang was into knav­ery not yet conceived by the other side of the aisle.

After being suspended from baseball last season (in reality he was as excluded as Robespierre), Steinbrenner’s first edict this year was that the Yankees’ hair should be shorn. (I have come to believe that a darning egg is an erotic symbol in the Midwest.) Then there was the flap over the stadi­um’s financing, the city’s reneging on the promise to rebuild the area surrounding the park, and the Yankees playing feudal barons in determining who should be allowed to rent the stadium we paid for (the Moonies, passing tonsorial muster, were approved).

So taking all these overtures, the Yankees seem (on the surface) their old nasty selves. Such pre­ludes don’t kindle passion, espe­cially in the heart of an old Nation­al League rooter. But my Giants are long gone, and one can’t go through life listening to Tony Ben­nett warble about coronary dis­placement.

And so we are left with the Yankees, a situation akin to the old dilemma of being stranded on an island with a nun.

The Yankees have been adopted as our surrogate gun to instill fear into the hinterlands. Survival, not grand passion, is the issue. There is precedent for this. Surely no one believes that the hard hats found anything in common with William Buckley. Indeed, Buckley was the archetype of the kid they used to chase home from school, but they needed a verbal gun to tangle with their antagonists. So be it with the Yankees. During our sad interlude their foreboding pin stripes are the symbolic gate that is holding the tiger at bay.

The aristocratic trappings aside, the Yankees have changed. Stein­brenner has surrounded himself with solid baseball men. He hired Gabe Paul as general manager from Cleveland, and Paul is a freewheeling trader and an astute appraiser of personnel. Many peo­ple credit Paul with putting to­gether the pennant-winning 1961 Cincinnati Reds, and he is the man who hired Pete Rose. Since he joined the Yankees in 1973, Paul has swapped flesh with the abandon of a harem master.

Only two of the current Yankee starters — Thurman Munson and Roy White — are products of the Yankee system. Indeed, not since Victor Frankenstein scoured the countryside has a monster been created from so many divergent sources. The Yankees’ current credo is similar to that of Emma Lazarus.

Then there is the matter of race. The Yankees of yore, when they were a whale of a team, bowed in pigment to Moby Dick. The cur­rent team has five black starters, and on a day when Dock Ellis and Elrod Hendricks are battery mates, seven of the starting nine are black! Moreover, they have abandoned their traditional white centerpiece — the man on the wed­ding cake — in centerfield. Once the province of Di Maggio, Mantle, and Murcer, centerfield belongs to Mickey Rivers, and backup is Elliott Maddox.

But obtaining the players is one thing. Getting them to function tandem is quite another. It is here, that the Yankees rolled the dice by hiring Billy Martin. No more fatherly “Iron Major” Houks or bland Bill Verdons. The front office stooped to conquer when they anointed Martin — tough, streetwise, and unpredictable and skitterish thoroughbred who was fired by three teams after he had led them to winning seasons! (It should be remembered the Yankees once exiled Phil Linz for playing a Goddamn harmonica a bus!) Amazing that the Wasp Yankees would hire “Billy the Kid,” “The Brat,” the tough “dago.” Martin, who punched out Jimmy Piersall, who made headlines with his birthday brawl in the Copa and was traded shortly thereafter from the Yanks, and who as a manager at Minnesota “put out the lights” of Dave Boswell, one of his best pitchers. To the old Yankee brass, Martin would be considered a guttersnipe. To the current front office, he is seen as the premier skipper in baseball. It’s a good tout. Con­sider:

Martin, like Eddie Stanky, always exceeded his soupcon of talent with brains, aggressiveness, and a penchant to fade the action when the stakes were high. Branch Rickey once said about Stanky that he couldn’t run, throw, or hit, but he was the best damn second ba­seman Rickey every saw. Casey Stengel said that Martin was the smartest player he ever had, and his record as a player is telling.

Martin holds a lifetime batting average of .257, while in World Series play he hit .333. In 11 years as a player — 3419 at-bats — he hit 64 home runs, in 99 at-bats in four World Series he hit five. His home run percentage in regular season play was 1.9 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent in the Series. In the 1952 Series he made the famous catch of Jackie Robinson’s pop fly to save the Series for the Yanks. In 1953 he won the Babe Ruth Award for the best player in the Series batting .500 by going 12 for 21 including a double, two triples, two homers, and five RBIs, plus 1 stolen base. Martin fit the Hemingway canon of grace under pressure.

In 1968, serving as a coach for the Twins, he was offered a chance to manage Denver in Triple-A ball. Martin said he didn’t want the job (“I liked the security of a third base coach”), but his second wife Gretchen insisted he take the chance. Rumor had it Minnesota was giving Martin a last meal —­ they were looking to dump him and felt his fiery nature would add discord to an already floundering minor league club. He took over a seven and 22 team and transformed them into a 65–50 winner by season’s end. The next year Minnesota, with Billy’s cherry pie all over its face, hired him as the manager of the parent club. Minnesota won the divisional championship, and Martin lost his job. The end result might be characterized as a case where the operation was a success but the doctor died.

Martin sat out the ’70 season and in ’71 took charge of the Detroit Tigers, leading them to a divisional championship in ’72. He lost that job in September ’73 and a week later was hired by the Texas Rangers, whom he led to a second place finish. In 1974 he won the Manager of the Year Award but was fired by Texas in July of ’75 when he was picked up by the Yankees.

It seems that in the baseball world Martin is someone with whom you have an affair or a fling but never a relationship. His fire makes him irresistible to Geritol owners, but Christ, a steady diet? He suffers the fate of many lovers — his spirit, his unorthodoxy leads to coupling, but the constant heat burns the union to ashes. Like a frisky terrier, the hope is always to channel the spirit “construc­tively,” but Martin refuses to be housebroken. He has warred with owners, general managers, players, umpires, and the press. Martin is not your man if your ­ultimate aim is to get him to piss ­obediently on a paper in the corner.

But Gabe Paul, by the nature of his trades, seems to fathom Martin’s personality. Martin says his managerial philosophy is simple: take it to the opposition, force them to make mistakes. And in concert with Martin, Paul has fashioned such a team.

It is similar to the team that Leo Durocher demanded and got when he became manager of the Giants, and the comparison doesn’t end there. Durocher and Martin wedded by baseball genius, cocki­ness, quicksilver tempers, a gam­bler’s instinct, and desire to win that exceeds Chuck Colson and his supine grandmother.

To past Yankee teams, the steal, the hit and run, the squeeze were proletarian gambits to be used occasionally (more to alleviate monotony, one suspected, than of necessity). When Yankee runners reached base, they waited there with the hauteur of a man who is always assured he can commdeer a cab in the rain. The trip home was guaranteed by a Di Maggio, Henrich, Mantle, Berra, or Maris. Under Martin, everyone carries a token.

Even Martin’s room in the club­house lacks grandeur. With its white pocked cement walls, it looks (fittingly enough) like the inside of a bunker. The furniture is functional Ramada Inn, and the sterility of the walls is interrupted only twice — by a plastic Pepsi-Cola clock (it compounds more than interrupts) and by a photo of Casey Stengel doffing his cap.

Martin sits behind his cluttered desk. He is lean, and the only validations of his brawler’s rep are impressive forearms and outsize bony fists for a man of his build. But it is his dark, on-the-prowl, pit-boss eyes (every sonnuva bitch is pocketing an ace) and his long nose that predominate.

Alfred Manuel Martin was born May 16, 1928, in Berkeley, California, to a Portuguese father (Marteen) and an Italian mother. Eight months after his birth his father cakewalked, and this psychic blow may have led to the physical ones he later visited on others. The “Billy” came from his grandmother’s calling him “bello” (“beautiful” in Italian).

Martin’s mother still lives in Berkeley in the oldest house in the city, but it is difficult to imagine Martin as anything other than a New York Italian. His style de­mands such designation. Two other out-0f-towners come to mind in their personification of the city; Leo Durocher (Springfield, Mas­sachusetts) was as much Brooklyn as the trolley car, and Toots Shor (Philadelphia) seemed like the Jewish Jimmy Walker.

In an interview Martin has a sense of self-presence. There are theatrical props: half-lens glasses lie on his desk, and he puffs on a large U-shaped pipe — scholarly ar­tifacts to offset his tough image. But then they are more than props, since even his critics admit he is an ardent student of the game and an organizational wizard. G.M. Jim Campbell of Detroit said, after firing him: “Foul line to foul line, Billy was exemplary.”

Indeed, Martin is so much for “the club” he really doesn’t think outsiders should intrude in its do­main. When asked if he is doing anything to fill the gap at shortstop (collectively, Mason and Stanley are hitting about 60 points below Ty Cobb’s best season), he shoots back, “Who says there is a gap?”

When informed “the press” for one example, he retorts, “If writers knew any Goddamn thing, they would be managers.”

When questioned if there is bad blood between him and Elliott Maddox, Martin says that’s “in­ternal stuff — nobody wants to read about that.”

He will tell you he never embar­rasses any of his players in public: “That’s bush.” Criticism, when it comes, usually comes privately, first from one of his coaches, and if that isn’t heeded, he will step in.

Probably no other manager in baseball controls more aspects of the game. Martin does it all: shifts the fielders, calls pitchouts, and nobody runs without his okay. On any other club such adept runners as Rivers and Willie Randolph would have a carte blanche go-­sign. When Rivers (possibly the fastest man in the game) was asked about this, he answered abruptly: “Ask Billy. He handles everything. I just do what he tells me.”

But Martin’s tutorial style is liberating to others. Oscar Gamble says he never played for a manag­er who utilizes his players more, and Greg Nettles (with seven sto­len bases) says no other manager ever thought of giving him a go-sign!

Martin has been quoted as say­ing a manager of his sort can change the outcome of 20 to 50 games. He also has been quoted as stating that the secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four who are unsure. But then Martin changes quotes as quickly as signs.

He now says the manager does more work in the clubhouse than on the field. It is in the clubhouse that personalities have to be assuaged, and where one must stay on top of “little problems.”

Martin, who said in his playing days that he was “the proudest Yankee,” sees baseball as an ex­ample for life. There is loyalty on a team, and that is an attribute he cherishes. When Casey Stengel (whom he considers the greatest manager he ever saw) didn’t back up Martin after the Copa incident, he didn’t talk to Stengel for five years. Martin simply commented, “I was mad. It takes me much longer than other people to get over things. That’s the way I am.”

Now he pays the ultimate hom­age to Stengel by imitation. When he walks to the mound, he sticks his right hand in his back pocket just as his mentor did, and he has even adopted Stengel’s funny little trot.

To Martin, the business world could learn much from the club­house, because it is there you find “pride, desire, self-sacrifice — like the Marine slogan of ‘Semper Fi­delis.’ ” Such attitudes coincide with Martin’s Catholicism. He is a churchgoer and wears a gold cross on his cap. Churches and club­houses give the same security as a ring of wagons — you always know where the enemy is.

But the interesting side of Martin is his dark unpredictability. He exudes a scent of danger, as Sonny Liston did in private and Norman Mailer does at a literary function. One waits for a stroke of irratio­nality, a physical move. And Mar­tin is well aware of this, since he gives imitations of sportswriters avoiding his eyes and shuffling their feet.

But when he strikes out, he is not beyond smoothing it over with diplomacy. When Bowie Kuhn killed the Vida Blue deal, Martin said the decision was “worse than Watergate,” a comment that must have driven Steinbrenner to dis­traction, considering his recent history. But Martin viewed the remark as his inalienable right: “This is America. You can say what you please. Kuhn’s decision had nothing to do with ethics — it had to do with money. If we got Blue and three minor-league players who couldn’t play for $200,000, nothing would have been said. Ethics weren’t involved.”

Billy the Kid has his code, and those who cross him will be dealt with. This time around, one feels he’ll survive because he respects Paul as a peer, not some bump­tious millionaire who bought a club as a toy to tinker with. Paul is a church elder.

One also feels Paul must re­ciprocate, because this complex individual has imprinted his per­sonality on the club, making it function like so many Billy Mar­tins. Martin also must be viewed as an alchemist, since players such as Rivers, Chris Chambliss, and Ga­mble are playing the best ball of their careers. Dock Ellis has re­discovered his arm, and Lyle has reignited his old spark. The result is that the Yankees are breezing toward a pennant despite a titanic hole in their infield and an outfield with arms so weak they would be granted immunity to play catch in the Hall of Mirrors.

But what about all that self-sa­crificing, Semper Fidelis razzma­tazz? Is this the message we want to give to the burghers out there? Take heart. When asked if he still drinks with his players, Martin replied with a side-pocket grin, “I’m from the Abe Lincoln school. You know what he said about General Grant? ‘Find out what he’s on, and give it to everyone else.’ Maybe that’s what the other owners should do — find out what shit I’m on and give it to their managers.”

Are you listening, America? We’ll tell you — “Billy Boy is here.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 6, 2020