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Chaos, Confusion, and Craziness in the Steinbrenner Era
By Bill Madden, Moss Klein
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Bill Madden and Moss Klein
All rights reserved.
At 5:45 p.m. Christmas Day, 1989, Billy Martin was killed when his late model pickup truck crashed off an icy road just outside his farm in Fenton, New York. He was sixty-one years old.
Martin was traveling with his longtime friend William Reedy, a saloon keeper from Detroit. Police reports maintained that Reedy was legally drunk behind the wheel and that Martin suffered a broken neck as he was thrown through the windshield. (In later years, Reedy and others maintained that Martin had in fact been driving.) The truck plunged some three hundred feet down an embankment and struck a concrete sluice pipe. If Martin had been wearing a seat belt, the authorities said, he probably would have walked away from the accident.
But as anybody who knew him could have testified, Billy went through life without a seatbelt. For him, the glass was never filled quite high enough, the nights never quite long enough. And if you knew him, traveled with him, spent times in saloons with him, you always had this vision of how it would end — suddenly and violently, with alcohol a major factor. You never envisioned Billy Martin living a long life and going peacefully to his Maker.
Martin's funeral, as orchestrated by George Steinbrenner, was a spectacle worthy of a great statesman, and in death Billy became everything he could have possibly ever wanted in life. After the funeral Mass before a standing-room-only crowd of nearly three thousand in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Martin was laid to rest in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. Buried nearby are Yankee legend Babe Ruth and Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jimmy Cagney.
Considering all he'd accomplished in a life that began inauspiciously as a street kid from a broken home in Berkeley, California, and the number of times he'd cheated death over his sixty-one years, one might think Martin died a fulfilled man.
He did not. Even though he'd managed the New York Yankees five times for Steinbrenner, he desperately wanted a sixth season at the helm and till the end was planning and talking about his comeback with friends.
Billy Martin ran the full gamut of emotions during his five terms as Yankee manager. You've seen all the pictures of Billy's stints. Pick any one. He's smiling in the beginning, fighting in the middle, and crying at the end — and all the while, he is aging. Martin changed dramatically from term to term. A few years ago The Sporting News ran a story on the Yankee managers during the Steinbrenner era and used pictures of Martin in each of his first four terms. The physical change from Billy I in 1976 to Billy IV, which ended in 1985, was stunning. Some might even say scary.
Between managerial stints, Martin always seemed to recover from the rigors of running a ball club, and the aging process seemed to reverse. "Billy looks tanned and rested" were words that, when spoken by Steinbrenner, could only mean curtains for whoever the incumbent Yankee manager might be. The strain and tension would leave Martin's face when he wasn't managing; the angry, haggard look softening a bit. It was as though Martin represented baseball's version of The Picture of Dorian Gray — but in reverse.
Without question, Martin's comings and goings epitomized the craziness of the Yankees' Steinbrenner era. Of all the hundreds of characters and personalities who've been associated with the team and interacted with the principal owner over the past two decades, none had the impact, the staying power, or the downright lunacy that Martin provided.
There was no question the strain and tension were getting to Martin in '88 when he couldn't hold his job even with the Yankees in first place. One night in early June, after Lou Piniella had resigned as general manager, Martin telephoned him. Obviously drunk, Martin repeatedly told Piniella he'd better watch out for his job, that Hawk Harrelson was politicking to become general manager. Harrelson, who was an announcer of the Yankee games for Sportschannel, was a close friend of Piniella's.
Piniella tried to tell Martin he was no longer the general manager, but Martin kept saying: "You better watch out. Harrelson is after your job." After a while Piniella gave up trying to reason with Martin and thanked him for the information.
Those who have been around the Yankees for a number of years are often asked what Billy Martin was really like. It's a question that was impossible to answer. He was many personalities, many pictures. There was the calm, jovial "in-control" Billy, and the crazed, obsessed "out-of-control" Billy. Just when he seemed like the nastiest son of a bitch ever, ready to punch some guy's lights out at the bar, he'd switch personalities and wind up picking up the guy's tab.
Above all, Billy Martin was never dull.
Moss Klein first met Martin in 1976. With one week to go in spring training at Fort Lauderdale, Klein had become the Newark Star-Ledger Yankee beat writer and figured he better introduce himself to Martin. For several minutes he stood outside the manager's office, trying to work up the nerve to go in and talk to Martin, who was alone at his desk. Finally he walked in and Martin looked up.
Klein had prepared a long list of questions for Martin as a defense against nervousness. After introducing himself, he asked Martin about the shortstop situation, which had been a competition between Chicken Stanley and Jim Mason that spring.
"Nobody's asked me about that for a few days," Martin said, "so they don't know I've made a decision. You're asking, so I'm telling you first. I'm going to platoon them. Stanley plays against lefties, Mason against righties. I'm sure you know it's unusual to have platoon shortstops, but that's what I'm gonna do. Write it. You'll look smart."
Then Martin leaned across the table and looked at the young reporter.
"Let's you and me have an understanding," he said. "A lot of people don't like me, and a lot of writers have burned me. I know I can be a real prick sometimes. But if you're honest with me, I'll be honest with you. Sometimes you're gonna knock me, but as long as you're fair, as long as you do your homework, I can respect that. I think we can get along pretty good."
That 1976 season was Martin's easiest. The Yankees won the American League East in a breeze and were never really challenged. Klein, who had always heard that Martin was a genius, was given an immediate demonstration — one that certainly was historic.
In the second game of the season, against the Brewers at County Stadium, the Yankees had a 9–6 lead in the ninth inning. Milwaukee loaded the bases with one out, and Don Money hit an apparent game-winning grand slam against rookie Dave Pagan. But as Money circled the bases, Martin came charging out onto the field. Pagan, who had heard all the Martin horror stories, was struck with fear and began running toward left field.
"I thought he was coming after me for giving up the homer," he said later. "If you watched me, you saw I was taking off. I didn't want him to beat me up right there on the field in front of all those fans. I just wanted to get away."
But Pagan wasn't Martin's target. First base umpire Jim McKean was. Just before Pagan had made his pitch to Money, Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss had called time, and McKean had stepped forward to oblige the request. Martin wanted McKean to admit that, and the umpire did. Thus, Martin had succeeded in canceling a game-winning grand slam, and the Yankees went on to win, 9–7.
The 1977 season marked the real beginning of Martin's perpetual conflicts with George Steinbrenner. The first — and one of the most volatile — came after a March 26 spring training loss to the Mets. Losing to the Mets represented the ultimate disgrace for Steinbrenner. Losing to the Mets in a game that was televised back to New York was even worse. Steinbrenner envisioned thousands of viewers, undecided as to whether to purchase Yankee or Met tickets, sitting at home, watching the game, and immediately making calls to the Mets' ticket hotline after the Yankees' loss.
Martin had no sooner gotten to his office after the game than Steinbrenner marched in and began criticizing the way the team was playing. Martin answered back. "Don't be yelling in front of the players," he said.
Steinbrenner said he'd say or do whatever he wanted. Martin shouted back again.
"Do you want to be fired right now?" Steinbrenner yelled.
"You do whatever you want, but don't yell at me in front of my players," Martin countered.
Martin then brushed past Steinbrenner and headed for the trainer's room. Steinbrenner followed. So did Gabe Paul, the team president, who had come in as the shouting match reached its midpoint and been unsuccessful in calming down the two combatants. Paul was now standing in front of Martin in the trainer's room, and when Steinbrenner started yelling again, Martin slammed his fist into a tub of ice water on the table. The ice splattered all over Paul. The players who were still in the room getting medical care from the trainers scurried out, laughing.
The scene ended with Steinbrenner storming out of the clubhouse. Later he told Paul to set up a meeting with Martin for 8:00 a.m. the next day. At the bar at the Bay Harbor Inn in Tampa that night, Martin told Klein he had had it with Steinbrenner, that he might quit the next day. It was the first of many times reporters would hear him say that. At one time or another all the managers said the same thing.
Steinbrenner and Martin had their meeting and reached a temporary peace. Later that day the Yankees lost to the Reds in 10 innings. Steinbrenner ordered another meeting. Another temporary peace. The 1977 season was a year of meetings and temporary peaces, of near firings and more meetings. It all added up to a world championship.
Winning, however, did not breed unity and tranquility between Steinbrenner and Martin — not in '77, '78, or any of the four Billy sequels.
One of the most memorable Martin blowups that 1977 season was his dugout fight with Reggie Jackson at Fenway Park on June 18. Billy always resented Reggie. He never wanted him in the first place; instead, he had wanted to sign free agent Joe Rudi, Reggie's less-publicized Oakland A's teammate.
To make matters worse, at the press conference announcing Reggie's signing with the Yankees in November of 1976, Reggie said, "I'm very happy to be coming to the Yankees to play for George Steinbrenner." Martin read that quote and never forgave Reggie for it. "He never mentioned me, and I'm the manager, right?" he said many times later.
So Martin was paranoid about Reggie, Reggie was paranoid about Martin, and both of them were paranoid about Steinbrenner. It was a lovely infernal triangle.
The dugout scene at Fenway that day was touched off when Reggie loafed on a bloop hit to right by Jim Rice in the sixth inning. After Rice hustled into second with a double, Martin immediately sent in Paul Blair to replace Reggie in right field. Reggie came into the dugout, removed his glasses, and began shouting at Martin.
"You never liked me —"
Martin took several steps toward Reggie before coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard stepped between them. By the time the game ended, with Boston winning, 10–4, Reggie had returned to the hotel. That night he was in a highly emotional state when he told his troubles to the writers. Martin, meanwhile, was in the hotel bar, where he said, "If a guy doesn't hustle and shows the team up, then I show the player up."
Years later, the players who had cameo roles in that famous scene remembered it with glee.
"I didn't want to go out there," said Blair, "but I had to do what Billy said. I mean, it was weird going out there like that, in the middle of an inning. As I got near Reggie, he said, 'What's going on?' I said, 'Reggie, all I know is I'm in for you.' He kind of pointed at himself, like saying, 'In for me?'"
Sparky Lyle, the reliever who replaced Mike Torrez after Rice's hit, was throwing warmups as Reggie headed in from right field to the dugout. (Lyle, it should be noted, was not a big Reggie fan.)
"I was on the mound when Blair first ran out to right," Lyle said. "I said, 'Where are you going?' He said, 'I'm going in for Reggie.' I said, 'Wow, this ought to be a good one.' Then I watched Reggie pointing at himself and shaking his head. I immediately focused on the dugout, because I knew this was gonna be one of those sights I'd want to remember."
Ron Guidry was in the dugout, sitting next to Berra.
"Yogi got hold of Billy," Guidry recalled, "and I kept kicking him [Berra], saying, 'Let him go, let them go at it.' The whole thing lasted about a minute, and one of the guys threw a towel over the dugout camera. When Ellie [Howard] sat down, he was shaking his head and saying: 'Man, I've been around a long time, but this team is too much. I ain't never seen nothin' like this kind of shit day after day.'"
Ironically, Reggie wound up saving Martin's job that weekend. The Yankees lost all three games to the Red Sox, and when the team moved on to Detroit, Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul showed up. Rumors were rampant that Martin was going to be fired, but Reggie, in a stunning show of support, requested a meeting with Steinbrenner and told him that firing Martin at this time would be bad for the team. He pointed out that it would make it look like he, Reggie, was running the team.
The following year, Paul was gone, but Martin and Steinbrenner had never needed a middleman for their fights anyway. Sure enough, on March 26, 1978, in an almost identical replay of the spring before, they got into it after the Mets game. This time the Yankees had beaten the Mets, 9–6, but committed five errors in the process. Martin stormed into the clubhouse and slammed the door of his office.
The initial guess of the reporters was that he was upset with the team's play (they had committed 29 errors in the first 16 exhibition games). Snapping and snarling at every question, Martin held a terse session with reporters, and shortly afterward coach Elston Howard came over to Moss Klein.
"They're at it again," he said, shaking his head.
Howard told Klein about the scene in the dugout in the eighth inning, when the Yankees were trailing, 6–3. Steinbrenner, who had been watching the game from his upper-level box, obviously had gotten himself worked up at the prospect of another embarrassing loss to the Mets. In the eighth inning he strode down from his box and went right into the Yankee dugout.
As Howard replayed it to Klein, "George started yelling out to nobody in particular things like, 'Let's go, we're supposed to be world champs. We can't lose to a team like the Mets.' Then, on a close play, he started yelling at the umpire. Billy was really getting pissed. Then George said something like: 'C'mon, Martin, get these guys fired up.' He said it like he was kidding, but Billy was mad as hell. He told George off, right there. He said, 'Get the hell off the bench, George, and leave the team to me, or else get rid of me and do whatever you want!'"
That time Steinbrenner relented and, in fact, stopped Martin in the parking lot after the Yankees' come-from-behind victory and engaged in a pleasant chit-chat. There weren't too many more that season. In fact, from the start the 1978 season was utter chaos, and by July, Martin, pushed to the edge of a breakdown, was fired and replaced by low-key Bob Lemon.
One of that season's more outrageous incidents occurred on a May 14 flight from Kansas City to Chicago following a 10–9 loss to the Royals. Martin was in an especially foul mood, because of the loss and because of the lackadaisical play of Mickey Rivers in center field. The flight became the most vivid example of why, in later years, the Yankees almost never flew commercial.
The problems began when the flight was delayed. That gave everybody, Martin especially, more drinking time. Once the flight got underway, Martin and his coaches were sitting in first class, with the players and writers in the coach section, mixed in with the "normal" people. Thurman Munson and Goose Gossage were in the second row of the coach section, playing country and western music on a tape deck. Before long, Munson turned the music up full blast, only to lower it and then blast it again.
A distinguished-looking businessman in a suit, seated in front of the two players, and across the aisle from Moss Klein and Newsday's Joe Donnelly, finally turned around and said, "Would you mind lowering that a bit?"
Excerpted from Damned Yankees by Bill Madden, Moss Klein. Copyright © 2012 Bill Madden and Moss Klein. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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