Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius

Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius

by Bill Pennington


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A New York Times bestseller

“Enormously entertaining . . . Explores the question of whether a baseball lifer can actually be a tragic figure in the classic sense—a man destroyed by the very qualities that made him great." — Wall Street Journal

“Bill Pennington gives long-overdue flesh to the caricature . . . Pennington savors the dirt-kicking spectacles without losing sight of the man.” — New York Times Book Review

Even now, years after his death, Billy Martin remains one of the most intriguing and charismatic figures in baseball history. And the most misunderstood. A manager who is widely considered to have been a baseball genius, Martin is remembered more for his rabble-rousing and public brawls on the field and off. He was combative and intimidating, yet endearing and beloved.

​In Billy Martin, Bill Pennington resolves these contradictions and pens the definitive story of Martin’s life. From his hardscrabble youth to his days on the Yankees in the 1950s and through sixteen years of managing, Martin made sure no one ever ignored him. Drawing on exhaustive interviews and his own time covering Martin as a young sportswriter, Pennington provides an intimate, revelatory, and endlessly colorful story of a truly larger-than-life sportsman.
“The hair on my forearms was standing up by the end of the fifth paragraph of this book’s introduction. I knew Billy Martin. I covered Billy Martin. But I never knew him like this.” — Dan Shaughnessy, best-selling author of Francona
“An exhaustive, detailed and fascinating look at a baseball genius whose biggest fight might very well have been against himself.” — Tampa Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544709034
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 169,890
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.80(d)
Lexile: 1040L (what's this?)

About the Author

BILL PENNINGTON is an award-winning sportswriter for the New York Times. A fourteen-time finalist and six-time winner of the Associated Press Sports Editors’ annual writing award, Pennington lives with his family in Warwick, New York.

Read an Excerpt


“Bless me, father, for I have sinned,” Billy Martin said.

He was in second grade.

Billy did this every Friday in 1936, entering the confessional of St. Ambrose Church to sit before the same priest, Father Dennis Moore. Like most second-graders, Billy did not actually have that many wrong deeds to tell Father Moore about. To what could he possibly confess?

Failing to honor his mother and father? Billy did not talk back to his parents. For one, he did not know his father, who left his mother when Billy was an infant. And he did not dare cross his mother, who ruled her household with an iron fist—a representation that was more than figurative. Jenny Martin knew how to throw a punch. Everyone in the family had seen with their own eyes her prowess in a fistfight, with women, and men.

Would little Billy confess to stealing?

In the gritty, crowded, downtrodden streets of West Berkeley where Billy lived, there was almost nothing to steal. California in the Great Depression was indeed a Garden of Eden, “a paradise to live in or see,” as Woody Guthrie sang in a ballad of the era, but no one would ever sing the praises of Billy’s neighborhood. He lived in one of the hundreds of tiny homes crammed against the East Bay docks across from burgeoning San Francisco. The tightly spaced West Berkeley houses were scruffy, set back just ten feet from busy, unkempt streets. They were homes without lawns and with tattered backyard fences. Factories and fish-canning plants towered over the neighborhood and seeded the sky with a smoky haze. The smell of the processed seafood filled the streets.

Two miles east of the water, the verdant hills of greater Berkeley climbed, a setting dotted with two-story middle-class homes and princely estates belonging to the administrators, professors, and staff from the nearby University of California at Berkeley. The roads in those shady hills were lined with flourishing fruit trees, graceful sequoias, and ponderosa pines. These were homes spread across spacious lots, leaving room for front and back yards and a driveway for the family car. There was a steady breeze off the water, and except when it was foggy, their view was San Francisco and the shimmering distant harbor—so long as they did not look down at the roughly square mile of West Berkeley dreariness below them.

No, Billy Martin didn’t steal. Only if you count some of the cooked crabs kitchen workers left to cool behind Spenger’s Fish Grotto, the roomy seafood restaurant near the docks. But that truly was not stealing. The Spenger’s workers, who had walked the few blocks from their West Berkeley homes, left the crabs out on purpose, knowing it was a furtive way to help feed the neighborhood.

What else could Billy confess to? Cursing? Taking the Lord’s name in vain?

His mother, who, unlike her five children, did not go to confession, had that commandment cornered, splicing profanities into virtually every sentence.

“Swearing was like breathing to my mother,” said Billy’s sister Pat Irvine. “She didn’t leave room for anybody else to swear. And if one of us swore, we’d get the back of her hand across our face anyway.

“So we did not swear.”

What else for Billy to confess then?

There was nothing of note, and in the dark of the confessional, Billy would instead strike up a conversation with Father Moore. He was never shy, always at ease with adults even as an eight-year-old. He had a crooked mouth and bad teeth, but he flashed his smile easily, and Father Moore, like others in the neighborhood, enjoyed being around the little boy who lived at 1632 7th Street, next to the house his grandmother moved to near the turn of the century. Billy most often regaled the priest with tales of the games he played at Kenney Park, just ten blocks away. There was basketball, swimming, diving, football, boxing, table tennis, and, of course, Billy’s favorite, baseball. Father Moore, seated deep in a quiet corner of St. Ambrose’s white concrete cathedral, heard about them all.

And when Billy was done talking about sports, the priest would ask about school and Billy’s friends. And only then would Billy talk about being embarrassed to wear the same clothes to school when some classmates clearly had a closetful of choices. He talked about being ridiculed for his overly large nose and jug ears, knowing that other kids called him “Pinocchio” behind his back. They made fun of his dungarees, which were frequently marked with grass stains and dirt—the evidence of his nonstop play at Kenney Park. But he wore them every day anyway. They were the only pants he had that fit.

While there was always food on the table at home, Billy said he knew his stepfather, Jack Downey, had to work two or three jobs to produce enough money for a household of six and he worried for him. There never seemed to be enough money to go around in a neighborhood where few of the adults had gone to school past eighth grade.

His mother had no car and had to walk everywhere, and Billy said he wanted a car. In fact, he wanted a big car someday, like the ones he had seen in the Berkeley hills. The kids from the crowded, flat, and uninspiring streets of West Berkeley called the well-dressed people they saw striding up and around the hills “the Goats,” a term still uttered in West Berkeley today and still delivered with a familiar disdain.

Billy wanted a car like the Goats had. And he wanted their clothes. And he wanted the money to go to the movies every day of the week if he chose. And he wanted his own bedroom, even if he did not mind sleeping with his aging grandmother, who had helped raise him since birth.

But as Father Moore related in a newspaper interview nearly twenty years later, “Life had already made Billy most vulnerable.” And that unnerved the priest.

“There was an insecurity, a lot of the kids from West Berkeley had it,” Moore said of Billy. “It’s the worry that you might some day have nothing. It was the idea, a constant fear, that it could all be taken away at any moment.”

But Father Moore also said that little Billy Martin had a plan. He knew the only way to get all the things he wanted was to work his way out of grimy West Berkeley. And at eight years old, Billy already knew that his way out was going to be baseball.

The greatest baseball team in the world in 1936 was the New York Yankees, the team of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, and Red Ruffing. Beginning in 1936, the Yankees won six of the next eight World Series and were runners-up in a seventh. It was a team that was a continent and seemingly a civilization away from 7th Street’s foundationless, rough-hewn houses, but Billy told anyone who would listen that he was going to be a New York Yankee.

“He told me he would play professional baseball in New York,” Father Moore said.

Billy told his best friend, Ruben de Alba, the same thing.

“We’d be walking down the street and Billy would say, ‘I’m going to play for the Yankees someday,’” de Alba said seventy-six years later as he sat in a Bay Area assisted living facility. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure, Billy.’ I kind of laughed it off. You know, like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever you say, Billy.’

“But he wasn’t kidding. He would turn to me and say, ‘Listen, you wait and see. I’m going to come back here and remind you of this when I’m playing for the Yankees.’”

Father Moore, meanwhile, had less time for the wild dreams of the second-grader in his confessional. The priest eventually decided that while Billy’s aspirations were admirable, they were also driven in part by jealousy. Was not one of the commandments “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” (or field)?

Father Moore ordered Billy to clean the church pews as penance. And Billy did. Father Moore then said he would see Billy at Sunday Mass. And Billy would be there. He even woke his cousins who lived in the neighborhood to accompany him.

“I’d be asleep and Billy would be tapping on my bedroom window telling me and my brother, Nick, to get up and go to church,” remembered Mario DeGennaro, whose mother was the sister of Billy’s mother. “My house was just a couple of blocks away and he’d come get me, badgering me until I went with him.”

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