Commentary

Billy Martin, a cheater's cheater

In an excerpt from "Cheater's Guide to Baseball," Derek Zumsteg recounts Billy Martin's unpredictable managerial career.

Updated: August 13, 2007, 2:22 PM ET
By Derek Zumsteg | ESPN.com

Winning is everything.
-- Billy Martin

No modern manager approaches Billy Martin when it comes to cheating. No manager since John McGraw, Ned Hanlon and their contemporaries a century earlier were so willing to dedicate themselves to using the rules to their advantage when it suited them and to breaking them to gain an edge on their opponents.

Like McGraw, Martin would win any way he could until he would force his own firing. So he would go somewhere else, cook up more dirty tricks, get fired, get hired and repeat the cycle until, eventually, even the Yankees wouldn't bring him back. But the weaknesses that cost him job after job and eventually his life were also what made him one of the finest managers modern baseball has ever seen. There may have been smarter, more innovative managers. Others have gotten as much or more from their teams. There are certainly managers better at sustaining success. But no manager since has been so willing to cross the line between gamesmanship and cheating.

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Martin's tactics ran the gamut from training his players to run recklessly and in unexpected situations and ordering beanballs to intimidate opposing hitters, all the way to the clearly out-of-bounds areas of cultivating a staff of spitballers and stealing signs using stadium trickery.

From the moment his hometown Oakland Oaks, a minor league team, offered him a contract in 1946, Martin was an exceptionally aggressive player. At every level, he would play, pester, or push his way into playing time and a promotion. When the Yankees hired [Casey] Stengel in 1951, he made Martin's obsessive dream of becoming a major leaguer reality.

As a second baseman, Martin played for eleven seasons, six with the Yankees. His defense was sharp and smart. Like Stengel, Martin thought through every possible event until he could take a busted play and salvage something just as good out of it.

Of course, sometimes things got rough. Martin was nominated as the Yankees' team enforcer in 1952 and charged with taking on fights for the good of the tribe. He took to his job with zeal, as on July 12, when he went after St. Louis catcher Clint Courtney. Courtney was disliked for using his spikes against opponents, which Martin knew from his experience in the minor leagues. Martin took his revenge: "Courtney was coming down to second. Instead of tagging him, I wound up and hit him right between the eyes with the ball." The blow knocked Courtney's cap off and broke his glasses. Courtney went after Martin, throwing a left, but Martin punched him in the jaw repeatedly before an ump could get there (and be knocked down by the players). Courtney was ejected, but Martin was allowed to stay in the game, ostensibly because he'd only been defending himself, but also because his retaliation for Courtney's spiking was within bounds and open fighting was not. Courtney was fined and suspended for three days; Martin escaped punishment from the league. The Yankees won 5-4 in extra innings over a Browns team without their best catcher. He could fight, but he could also provoke opponents into actions that would cause them to be ejected.

Martin cultivated his reputation as a fighter in much the same way Ty Cobb and John McGraw had before him. Few players were as eager to start or unwilling to end a fight, and Martin was so driven to win that he found ways to turn his talent for beating other people senseless into an advantage on the field through intimidation, provocation and, when called for, direct application.

Billy Ball's record of success
Took over Previous record First season Last season Accomplishments
Minnesota 1969 79-83 97-65 1969 Won division
Detroit 1971 79-83 91-71 1973 Won division in 1972
Texas 1973 (last 23 games) 57-105 (1973) 84-76 1975 Manager of the Year, 1974
N.Y. Yankees 1975 (last 56 games) 83-77 (1975) 97-62 1978 3 division titles; 2 AL pennants; 1 World Series title; Mananger of the Year 1976
Oakland 1980 54-108 83-79 1982 Won division 1981; Manager of the Year 1980, '81
N.Y. Yankees 1983 79-83 91-71 1983
N.Y. Yankees 1985 (last 145 games) 87-75 97-64 1985
(omitted: 95 games managed in 1979, 60 games managed in 1988 -- both for Yankees)

In a 1960 game while he was with the Reds, Martin thought a pitch at his head from Cubs pitcher Jim Brewer was intended to hit him, so on the next pitch he tried to huck his bat at Brewer, missing toward first. He walked out to get it, exchanged words with Brewer on his way out, and then, as he reached to get the bat, he instead came up to sucker-punch the pitcher in the left side of his jaw. In the ensuing pushing and shoving between the two teams, Martin's teammate Cal McLish got kicked, and he punched Brewer repeatedly in the right side of his face, breaking his cheekbone and costing him the season. Brewer sued Martin, but Martin wouldn't finger McLish or admit he wasn't responsible for the injury. It took nine years to settle the lawsuit.

There were many other fights to come. Fueled by his frequent and frequently uncontrolled drinking, Martin brawled with all kinds of people. Marshmallow salesmen. Tigers fans, while managing the Tigers. His team's traveling secretary. Sportswriters. A guy in a hotel bar. And they all started it, according to Martin. Rushed him in the bathroom! Provoked him in a hotel lobby! Tried to continue a fight that had started on the team charter!

Billy Martin
Ray Stubblebine/AP photoBilly Martin's temper gets the best of him in 1979, after he was ejected by umpire Dallas Parks.
"I'm no fighter," Martin wrote in an article that ran in the April 26, 1961, Sporting News after the Brewer brawl. "I never started a fight in my life. But I've never walked away from one when someone jumped me."

The mercury that ran in his blood also drove him to find other ways to fight his opponents, real or imagined. And he worked every advantage he could. Every other hitter stands in the batter's box, waiting for the pitch, but Martin would walk forward or take two quick steps during the pitcher's windup, in order to take a swing at breaking pitches before they really dropped but mostly to distract the pitcher, who has to do many things exactly right to get the ball to the catcher's glove. That distraction's been credited for hits like a home run off Preacher Roe in Game 2 of the 1953 World Series.

Martin was also good at guessing what the other team's signs meant. And when he couldn't do that, he could guess what the other team was going to do without decoding the signals, which made it look as though he was getting the signs anyway. Trying to face Martin was maddening for opponents: he simply could not be outthought or outfought, and while there were many players who were more talented, the effort he put into the game made it hard to outplay him.

One of the best examples came in the 1952 World Series between Martin's New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Martin was playing second, and in the fifth inning his team was ahead 1-0, but the Dodgers had players on second and third with their pitcher, Joe Black, at bat.

As Gil McDougald, the Yankees utility man who played with Martin, put it: "Andy Pafko was the runner on third for Brooklyn. A run would tie the game. Charley Dressen was doing a crazy dance in the coaching box, and nobody had a clue to the sign. Three years earlier, in the minors, Billy had played under Dressen. He remembered the squeeze-play sign they had used then was hidden in the dance. But Dressen had made some changes. The sign was different now. At the last second, Billy glanced at Joe Black, the hitter. From Black's bug-eyed look, he was sure the squeeze was on. He hollered a warning to our pitcher."

The Yankees threw a pitchout high and outside, where it was ideal for the catcher to tag the stealing Pafko. The rally was snuffed, the Yankees went on to win 2-0 and win the Series, four games to three.

"I've always figured that was a $70,000 yell," McDougald said -- the difference between a team's share for winning or losing the World Series.

Martin's playing career ended in 1961, after eleven seasons, and he took any job he could in baseball, studying and working. Finally, in 1969, Minnesota gave him the chance to manage. There, he argued with the umpires so frequently and viciously that while the ghost of John McGraw might have approved, others were not amused. But as he did throughout his career, Martin would maintain that he always got the calls. Later, Yankee starter Dock Ellis would say, "I saw Billy win five games the year I was there. He won five f---ing games just intimidating the umpires. Where they owed him a call. Even if the ball was down the cock, they called it a ball, and on the next pitch our hitter would hit a home run, and we'd win the game."

The Twins found success, even as the team's owner turned against Martin for his independent streak, his personal conduct and his constant agitation for player moves, both in public and private. When Martin got into a fight with one of his pitchers in a bar, Minnesota fired him. It was the first of many such terminations.

After his season in Minnesota, he got another chance a year later, taking over Detroit in 1971. The Tigers improved dramatically and won a division title in 1972. But in 1973, after the league suspended him for ordering his pitchers to throw spitballs in a game where they were opposed by Gaylord Perry, the legendary spitballer, the Tigers couldn't take it anymore and fired Martin.

In what became a Martin hallmark, he argued that what his pitchers did was legal on technical grounds: "The pitches they threw were legal. They were off the mound, and you can go to your mouth off the mound. What [Perry] was doing was against the rules."

"It was an accumulation of things," general manager Jim Campbell said. "There comes a point where what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong." Wrong wasn't the use of the spitball; it was the public admission that he'd ordered his pitchers to throw the pitch, which brought embarrassing controversy to the team and required his firing.

In a sentiment that was repeated through Martin's career, the person who brought the ax down said, "I have no complaint about the job he did on the field. From foul line to foul line, he did a darn good job."

The game in which Martin snapped, ordering his pitchers to throw as many spitballs as they could and then openly, defiantly, admitting it, was part of his long feud with Gaylord Perry. "If he was throwing legitimate fastballs, we'd be hitting them," Martin said after Perry shut out his Tigers that year. Martin badgered umpires to undress Perry on the mound and in 1972 threatened to bring a trained hound dog to the park to sniff out where Perry was hiding his grease. Martin would even drag Perry into accusations against other teams. In September 1973, after taking over the Rangers, Martin said, "The Angels dominate the league when it comes to guys who throw funny pitches. Bill Singer throws a greaser, Aurelio Monteagude throws a spitter and Nolan Ryan throws a steamer. All they would need is Gaylord Perry. That would make it complete." (Who knows what he was accusing Nolan Ryan of.)

Martin wasn't out of a job for long. Texas Rangers owner Bob Short fired current manager Whitey Herzog when he heard that Detroit let Martin go, so he could hire Martin to manage his team.

The Rangers improved to finish second in 1974. Then, in 1975, the team brought in Gaylord Perry, the object of Martin's venom and spite for years. But Martin bubbled with glee. "I feel like we've just traded our way right back into contention in the West Division," he said. And now that the greatest cheater in modern baseball was on his team, Martin was quick to defend Perry's integrity: "I realize now how wrong I was. I'd like to get on the record immediately as saying Gaylord Perry does nothing illegal."

But that match between great cheaters did not last long. Martin was fired only a month later, and again his unemployment was short lived: the New York Yankees, the team his heart belonged to, hired him almost immediately. He managed the 1976 team to an American League championship and two World Series victories in a row.

Martin knew the rulebook as well as anyone else and used it as a weapon. With his Yankees playing the Kansas City Royals, the Yankees were down 2-1 when the Royals moved designated hitter Hal McRae to the outfield to cover for an injury. McRae took eight throws, several after second base umpire Lou DiMuro tried to stop him at the limit of five tosses. Martin, with his frightening vision of everything happening on the field, noticed and demanded McRae's ejection. When the umpires did not remove McRae, Martin protested. Had McRae later made a difference in the game, Martin's formal protest meant that the league would have reviewed the decision and considered replaying the game from the eighth inning.

He'd also use the rules as a psychological weapon. If the opposing pitcher, like Oil Can Boyd, wore gold chains, and Martin thought it would tick him off, Martin would protest to the umpires, citing the appropriate uniform rules. It might spark a feud that lasted for years, but Martin didn't care, as long as it won him a temporary advantage.

Even at the pinnacle of baseball success, though, he clashed over and over again with owner George Steinbrenner. They argued about players: If Martin liked a player, like Chicken Stanley, but Steinbrenner didn't like him, Steinbrenner would threaten to get rid of the player unless Martin benched him. Steinbrenner started rumors that Billy's job was in jeopardy to make sure Martin never felt too comfortable. During spring training, Steinbrenner sometimes bugged Martin every day about his lineups or criticized his decisions during a game.

A long and bizarre relationship began in 1975. Steinbrenner repeatedly fired Martin only to forgive him. Martin had five different stints with the Yankees, and sometimes the breakups and reconciliations made little sense: He resigned in July 1978 after making an unwise comment about star Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner ("One's a born liar, the other's convicted") that referred to the owner's conviction for illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. Only a month later, the team announced that Martin would return to manage the Yankees in 1980; he returned early, in June of the 1979 season, only to be fired again in October for getting into a fight with a random businessman who crossed his path in Minnesota. Martin's unorthodox game tactics and his fondness for being on the wrong side of baseball law were about the only things that weren't cause for his terminations.

He went to Oakland again for the 1980 season. The team he took over once again improved dramatically. It was with Oakland that Martin invented the style of play that became synonymous with his name: "Billy Ball." Given a team with a strong starting rotation and a few good players, he whipped his squad into playing like modern Ty Cobbs, focused with almost reckless abandon on the basepaths. His players would steal, run the double steal, even use the almost never seen triple steal. They stole home. They'd play McGraw-style scientific baseball, too, using the hit-and-run and bunting to their best advantage. Martin sometimes liked to end his rallies with a sacrifice bunt to score one last runner, especially if he thought it would be the run that broke the opposition's spirit. There was another factor, too -- Martin made it appear that he, and only he, controlled when his team would score and when it would relent. If that sacrifice spared the pitcher, it was Martin's mercy and not the pitcher's skill that had ended the inning.

Defending against Martin's teams was frustrating and unsettling. They would try anything, often seemingly at random, so that sometimes surprise was as great an advantage as good planning or execution by the players.

In Oakland, once again he had pitching coach Art Fowler, who followed Martin for much of his career, teach his staff the finer points of the spitball. Sportswriter Thomas Boswell named "spitballs by the gross" as one of the key elements of Billy Ball. Martin loved to have them use it on two-strike counts and pushed them to throw it to get the outs he craved.

After he was fired by the A's after the 1982 season, when the team slumped to a 68-94 record, he went back to the Yankees for 1983.

That season, the first of his second stint with the Yankees, gave us Martin's most famous moment, the one that gets capital letters: The Pine Tar Incident. During a July 24 game with the Royals, Graig Nettles (who appears in the bat-tampering chapter for the superball incident) noticed that Royals slugger George Brett had applied pine tar far up the handle of his bat, beyond what's allowed in rule 1.10(b): "The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game."

But Billy Martin, the great master of gamesmanship, did nothing, saving the information for when it would be more useful. When Brett hit a home run in the ninth inning with U L Washington on base, putting the Royals ahead 5-4, Martin decided it was time and challenged the bat. The umps measured Brett's bat, found that it had pine tar several inches above where it was allowed and ruled Brett out for using an illegal bat, thereby invalidating his home run. Brett went temporarily insane with rage and charged from the dugout, and that's the archival footage they show -- the great hitter being restrained as he tries to get at the umpires. Gaylord Perry (yes, the spitball pitcher) attempted to grab Brett's bat in the chaos and stroll off with it, but he was stopped (and ejected).

The decision was appealed, and the ruling on the field was changed. The league found that while the umpires had acted correctly based on the rules as written, the intent of the rule was not to penalize a hitter in that situation. The home run was allowed to stand. The game was replayed from the point of the now-reversed call on Aug. 18, almost a month later.

When the game resumed, Martin didn't give up his fight over the call -- he had his players throw to first and then third base and appeal that Brett hadn't touched them while rounding the bases of the home run. This was a brilliant tactic: not only had weeks passed since Brett had rounded the bases, but the Aug. 18 game was refereed by new umpires.

But the original umpires, knowing Martin all too well, had already thought of this and signed affidavits (which they'd given to the new umpires), stating that they'd seen Brett touch each base as he made the circuit. Martin's appeals were denied.

Martin didn't just work the umps; he often tried to use the press to make his case. For instance, in May 1973, Billy Martin got New York Daily News columnist Dick Young to run his complaints about organists:

"I'm going to call [AL President] Joe Cronin to complain about the organ playing that's going on around our league, especially Oakland," Martin said. "They don't play music. They let out a blast of noise. I don't mind it when there's no action and they want to get the crowd to chant go, go, go, or whatever the hell it is. But I think when our pitcher is ready to pitch, the organ should cut out that crap."

Then he moved into trying to figure out how to retaliate or turn it to his advantage:

"I told one of the umpires that if the guy didn't stop it, I was going up to his booth and break his knuckles. If I don't get any satisfaction from the league, I'm going out and get one of those windhorns, and when their pitcher is about to throw the ball, I'll let go with a blast. In fact, I'll fill my dugout with those horns. If they can play the organ, I should be able to do that."

But in 1988, Martin's arguments with the umpires went too far. On May 30, facing the A's, shortstop Walt Weiss hit a short line drive that was caught by Yankees second baseman Bobby Meacham. Meacham tossed the ball to the shortstop rather than throwing to first in hopes of getting the batter, indicating that it didn't even occur to him he might not have made a clean catch. But second base umpire Rick Reed ruled it had been a trap -- the ball had hit the ground before Meacham's glove -- and Martin argued, as he always did, with great vigor. Crew chief Dale Scott refused to overrule the call, and Billy started to swear at Scott; he would not be calmed down and was ejected. Martin kicked dirt on Scott's feet, then grabbed some dirt from the infield and threw it at Scott's chest.

The league did almost nothing: Martin was fined $1,000 and suspended for only three games. The umpires, shocked at such leniency, decided they had had enough of Martin's act and they would take matters into their own hands. They declared that Martin would be ejected from any game any time he went to dispute a call or even question one. Martin, in turn, threatened to sue the umpires, but Commissioner Peter Ueberroth brokered a peace, and the umpires relented when Martin issued an apology.

But Billy, still boiling angry, told a friend repeatedly to find a mob hitman to whack Dale Scott over the incident. His friend refused, and fortunately Martin's murderous rage waned after a few days.

The humiliation by the umpires was the low point, at least publicly, in the season that ended his managerial career.

And that was Martin. He offered teams a strange bargain: If you hired him, your team would get better but would pay a high price for that success. Martin was certain to get into incidents off the field, either with women, which could be kept quiet, or fighting, which often could not be hushed up.

He'd pester the front office to go bring in anyone, no matter their reputation, personality or rap sheet, if he thought they could help his team, and he'd press the issue until they gave in or had the office locks changed.

Billy Martin's all-time
all-horrible team

P: Benito Mussolini
1B: Curtis LeMay
2B: Kim Il Sung
SS: Genghis Khan
3B: Joseph Stalin
RF: Mao Zedong
CF: Emperor Hirohito
LF: Adolf Hitler
C: Pol Pot

This team would win more games than you think, looking at them on paper. First, a team of dead zombie players led by a zombie Billy Martin would be amazingly scary and win by forfeit a lot. Moreover, would you dare win a game against those guys? Can you imagine how they'd retaliate?

-- Derek Zumsteg

He could find hidden talent in barren farm systems or other teams, but he didn't care at all about their histories or personalities. "If I had Benito Mussolini and Hitler and Hirohito on my team," Martin said in 1983, "and they could execute the double steal and hit sacrifice fly balls, they'd be in my lineup. And they were pretty terrible people." He would force his players to become better, no matter what it took, or he'd break them. Some players would respond, either to his encouragement or his scorn, and play above any reasonable expectation. But others would not, and they were cast off to other teams or they hung around, unhappy and underperforming, and waited for him to be forced out.

But through it all, Martin would win. Even his rival Earl Weaver, one of the best managers in modern baseball, admired his success. "Billy Martin's teams don't have any particular style," Weaver said. "That's why he's so good. Look at the teams he's had in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, New York and Oakland. The first thing you notice is that no two of them are alike."

Billy Martin is now remembered as much for his off-field exploits as his years as a player and manager. The drinking, the fighting, his problems with women, the sad joke of his relationship with the Yankees, have all overshadowed what he accomplished on the field. The things that kept him from being normal made him a great manager. He owed his success and his failures to a legendary temper that drove him. His obvious intelligence won him games and his team pennants, but it wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble. His knowledge of the rulebook and gamesmanship is admirable, but his competitive drive washed out all moral sense: He was just as willing to intimidate an umpire and order intentional beanings as he was to encourage his pitchers to throw spitters with two strikes. He is both the greatest cheating manager and a cautionary example: Without perspective and thought, it's easy to go from the hard-nosed to the scary and unconscionable.

His dedication to winning turned teams around, and his zeal burned out players and teams and forced his stays to be short. He was the best manager no one could stand. His record speaks clearly to his success in turning teams into winners. His death reminds us of the cost his dedication exacted.

Copyright © 2007 by Derek Zumsteg. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.