Sports Billy Martin, R.I.P.

“Everybody oughta catch a little hell once in a while,” Martin once said.

More than a year ago, when I was standing at the press box bar, I knew little about the Texas Rangers’ new manager. Newspaper accounts told me that his first name was “Fiery,” but I called him Billy when he strolled up to me. “What’s the Commissioner doing here?” he asked, pointing to Bowie Kuhn at a table behind us. I told Martin that, in a television interview, Kuhn had urged the hiring of a black manager for the major leagues.

“Come on,” he said, taking my arm, “I want you to hear this.” Introductions were made rather formally, but Martin declined to sit down. “Listen Commish,” Martin began, “I heard what you were talking about today and a lotta us white managers have become worried about our job security. If you really want to do something good for baseball, I’ll tell you what we need – a black commissioner.” Martin exited while the table still shook with laughter. “Everybody oughta catch a little hell once in a while, don’t you think?” Martin grinned.

It’s getting harder all the time to slip some cheap irony past you clever readers, so I’ll resist the contrived transition that would tell you how Martin has caught his own share of hell from Minnesota and Detroit and now Texas. Instead, I’ll just ask the question: How much is Billy Martin an innocent victim of poor and misinterpreted circumstances? To hear Martin tell it, he trails only Sidney Poitier in this department. To hear management talk, it took patience to keep Martin this long.

Two days after Martin was fired as manager of the Rangers, he agreed to an interview at his Arlington home. Billy arrived a little late but greeted me warmly. “Hey,” he says, “I didn’t see you out there the night they fired me. Where the hell were you?” I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. To know Martin at all, is to know his composure often increases as his personal stock declines. So this day, with his future most uncertain, fired from his third job in seven years and amid persistent rumors of serious marital troubles, Martin was in total command.

“What can I say?” Martin asked. “Three times I’ve been fired because of my convictions and – I really think this is true – because of my popularity with fans and players. It shoots me down everytime. My biggest secret is that I communicate with the fans. But, I’m beginning to think it may be my biggest problem too. Know what I mean? I think somebody up there [in the front office] might be a little jealous.”

Ranger general manager Dan O’Brien has said he will reveal only the “tip of the iceberg” regarding the reasons for Martin’s dismissal. “It’s a number of different things that have occurred over the last months. You know most of them. I’m just not going to say much more than that,” O’Brien said.

Very little has been said about the real reason Martin was fired. That reason was that the Rangers trailed Oakland by 15? games. While the Rangers were compiling a record that would probably look similar to last year’s mark, the Oakland A’s were compiling a won-lost rate that would please Perry Mason. The huge deficit stole much leverage from Martin.

Everyone in baseball has known for a long time that Martin has never gotten along with the front office. Not as a player. Not as a manager. And you don’t have to be a private detective to know that Martin is a hard drinking, hard living guy who will, a coupla times a year, embarrass himself and the ballclub. So what?

This is where the Rangers’ losing record plays a pivotal part. As long as Martin has his team in a contending position, he is generally free from open criticism and possesses the ability to intimidate both press and owners. Corbett admits that he would “probably not have made the move,” if the Rangers had trailed Oakland by five or so games. Though few management personnel, inside or outside of baseball, show more class and honesty than Dan O’Brien and Brad Corbett, they are being less than honest with themselves if they do not admit to moving quickly and cleanly to prevent Martin from usurping more of their powers.

“Damnation,” said one observer, “Do you realize how impossible Martin would be to deal with, if we had won the pennant this year?”

Winning the pennant was, at best, a small possibility after Willie Davis proved too old or too sour to perform. There is not an exceptionally gifted defensive outfielder currently on the team. And when Tovar played left field, leaving Burroughs in right, not even a cheetah could be expected to cover the remaining territory. The Rangers remained weak up the middle when they could not find a second baseman. In all, it was to Martin’s credit he kept Texas so close to .500. What the ownership finally decided, was that they could not win the World Series this year, but they could win back control of the club.

In an early July meeting of the Ranger board of directors, with Martin present, Brad Corbett opened discussion concerning the possible renewal of Martin’s contract. No final action took place. And nothing was said to discourage Martin from thinking he would stay on as field boss. However, when Corbett flipped a page from his folder, Martin says he saw the words penciled in: “Billy Martin destroyed Detroit and destroyed Minnesota.” Martin then says he asked Corbett what the notation meant. “Brad looked like I’d hit him over the head with a brick,” Martin says. “I thought maybe that was the beginning of the end, except that they were talking about another two years on my contract.”

Both Martin and Corbett admit that these board meetings offered the front office one of its few chances to converse with Martin. “We didn’t have a team in the front office,” complained majority owner Corbett. “He didn’t like to come up here. And when we went down to see him, he’d say that this was a clubhouse, not an office.”

Says Martin, “I never bothered them upstairs. They said that. Right? All I wanted was not to be bothered downstairs.”

On an eastern road trip just before All-Star break, the Rangers looked horrible and continued to lag behind Oakland. The front office became more convinced that Martin was mortal and started to question his decisions. Martin literally screamed at Danny O’Brien, “I want Tom Eagan.” And O’Brien contacted the journeyman, veteran catcher. They talked salary and agreed on a figure. They also agreed that if the Rangers added Eagan to the roster, it would be after the All-Star break.

Meanwhile, Corbett sought out some of the ballplayers to get their feelings on Martin. “I was stunned at the results,” Corbett said. Players complained about terrific pressure from Martin and Corbett thought he sensed some dissension and some cliques developing.

Dissension and cliques are rarely reasons for losing baseball games. Usually they are the results of losing. Still, Corbett became convinced that Martin was trying to do too much. “Hell,” Corbett later exclaimed, “Billy would get mad if bottles weren’t arranged up here at the bar in just the right order.”

As the two forces moved toward a confrontation, Martin called Tom Eagan from Boston and asked “Where the hell are you?” Martin told Eagan to report to Arlington on July 16, the day after the All-Star game. Eagan’s equipment arrived before he did and his name was already sewn on a uniform. But he thought something was wrong. “I knew something was going on,” Eagan said. “Mr. O’Brien kinda didn’t know what was going on. I don’t think he knew about me coming. If the Rangers are one or two games back, I think there’s no decision. Billy would have got me because he wanted me. One thing I didn’t want was to break up the relationship between the manager and general manager. I made the decision to leave myself. I didn’t want to hurt Billy.”

Corbett and O’Brien agreed the Eagan purchase would not be wise. The options on backup catchers Fahey and Pruit were exhausted and Corbett overruled Martin. “I gave in,” Martin says. “They won’t take a guy who can help us, a guy who can take care of himself, if we need that in a stretch run … I was embarrassed by the Eagan deal.”

Then came the release of Jim Mer-ritt and the call-up of two players from the minor league team. Both Robson and Moates started in Thursday night’s 1-0 win over New York. Martin did not seem elated over the win and later, upstairs in the bar, said, “O’Brien made up the lineup card.”

Further charges were being made against Martin. The front office was becoming critical of Martin’s handling of young players and said his coaching staff had no credentials as teachers. “Isn’t that a crock,” Martin retorted. “When they hired me and backed me in my beliefs, I could do the job. They backed me last year and we didn’t do too shabby. And they say my coaches didn’t teach so good this year. But they taught pretty good last year too. Now they’re saying it was all these unnamed things [that led to the firing], but hell, they didn’t want me to manage the ball club.”

Corbett says Martin broke his part of an agreement too. “He said he would yell at the players only for mental mistakes, but he started yelling at them for all mistakes,” Corbett said. “That’s another reason for it [the firing]. You can whip a horse and he’ll run faster, but if you whip him too much the horse stops running.”

Ranger pitcher Ferguson Jenkins is one player who does not blame Martin for the pressure that engulfed the Rangers this summer. “Individuals make their own pressure,” Jenkins said. “We had so many guys and Billy couldn’t play ’em all. I started out bad. So did Gaylord. I mean just look at the statistics.”

The stats show that not only has Fergie been less than spectacular, the same can be said for Burroughs, Sundberg, Foucault and the entire Ranger pitching staff. The youngsters that Corbett has asked for now playing for the Rangers – Howell, Smal-ley, Cubbage and Moates – are probably one year, at least, away from the majors.

Personally, I’m going to miss Martin. He really believes the front office “undermined and back-stabbed me. Every time I yelled back, they made me look like the culprit.” He could be vicious and selfish and may even have relished the “I-told-you-so” role more than victory. But he could also be kind.

In the middle of our interview, Martin got a phone call from Frank Lucchesi: “Yeah, hi Frank, you’re doing a good job. They’re playing good ball . . . Nobody’s mad at you. Of course not . . . Look, I want you to show those people that you didn’t have the players at Philadelphia . . . Frank, take this shot. It’s a second chance and I think it may be the last you get . . . Sure, you can call. Call me anytime you wanta talk . . . Watch that back of yours. Goodbye, Dago.”

Martin was good copy for me. And I love to hear his stories about the old days. One close Ranger associate told me Martin is about 20 years behind the times when it comes to dealing with management. And about 100 years ahead of the times between the lines. Martin couldn’t understand a young player who wasn’t hungry. Billy remembered going to Idaho Falls for his first minor league year and not having a suit to travel in. The week before his uncle had been buried in Martin’s only suit.

During the week of Martin’s firing I read and heard a lot of theories regarding the value of a manager. Lots of people enjoy quoting Leo Duro-cher, who said that a manager can win about six games per year. Of course Durocher was only talking about strategic moves. How a manager picks his team, when he plays each player, his ability to instill confidence and recognize individual needs, is worth a great number of games. I can think of no other manager who could have won with what the Rangers had in 1974 training camp.

I can also see why managementfired Billy. One night, Martin was telling us about a fight he had this yearin Arlington. “This guy hit me in theback of the head and I slipped down,”Martin said. “I had these damn newshoes on and I kept slipping – I’ll never wear those damn shoes in afight again – I kept slipping down. Icouldn’t get a good foothold. Youknow what I mean? Couldn’t get afoothold.”

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