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Review: ‘Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius’ by Bill Pennington

Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius

By Bill Pennington

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

530 pages, $30

By Jerry Sullivan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Bill Pennington was often asked, during the 30 months he spent working on his Billy Martin biography, how he had come up with the idea. Pennington said he always had the idea; he just wasn’t aware of it.

As a young sports writer in the 1980s, Pennington had covered the Yankees during the latter days of Martin’s tumultuous time as manager. Over the years, he would tell Martin stories and be struck by how eager people were to hear about this endlessly fascinating baseball icon.

It took more than 20 years for the idea to come to life. One day, Pennington was telling Martin stories to his agent, who felt a book was a great idea. She was right, because once you dive into this compelling work, you find yourself asking, ‘What took so long for someone to write it?”

We have too many sports books nowadays. Once in awhile, one comes along that seems necessary and overdue. Pennington spoke with about 225 people, some of whom hadn’t spoken about Martin in more than 20 years – including two of Martin’s four wives – and a few people who have died since Pennington interviewed them.

So the time was right for a Martin biography, while most of the pertinent actors were alive and their memories fresh. There have been other books about Martin, who died in an auto accident outside his country home near Binghamton on Christmas night, 1989.

But this will stand as the definitive Martin biography, an exhaustively researched and well-crafted portrait of an “endearingly imperfect” American sports hero. Like its subject, the book sweeps you up in an irrestible, hurtling momentum. It takes us back to Martin’s roots as a brawling street kid in West Berkeley, Calif., growing up without a father and with a tough, foul-mouthed mother who told Billy never to take any crap from anyone.

Baseball was Martin’s passion, his vehicle to a better life. He became a star infielder with the Yankees in the 1950s under manager Casey Stengel, his mentor and hero, who taught him the nuances of the game during a glorious era of Yankee history.

Martin was made for New York. He was a fierce competitor who loved the limelight and hung around with Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. He was also a clutch big-game performer, an average hitter who slugged his way to the MVP award in the 1953 World Series.

But it was as a manager that Martin earned his fame, much of it away from the diamond. It’s easy to recall Martin more for his temper and drunken antics, and being fired five times by George Steinbrenner, than his brilliance as a baseball man.

That’s one of Pennington’s aims in the book, which is objective but loving. He wanted to polish the “crude caricature” of Martin’s life, a “wholly incomplete depiction” of the man.

Martin was, as the title suggests, a “flawed genius.” The flaws were many. Like most baseball writers of the day, Pennington spent a lot of time around Martin in bars. Once, Martin even offered to take him outside to fight. Later, Billy forgot why he was upset.

“In that time, I discovered that Billy was without question one of the most magnetic, entertaining, sensitive, human, brilliant, generous, insecure, paranoid, dangerous, irrational and unhinged people I had ever met.”

He was utterly human, which is why baseball fans, especially Yankee fans, loved Martin so. Bill bucked the system. He defied authority. He stood up to his bosses, even when it got him fired time and again.

“Billy was always our most popular player,” said Mickey Morabito, the long-time Yankees publicist. “Except he wasn’t a player.”

He was certainly a player off the field. Martin’s life was one brawling episode after another. He fought with umpires and opponents. He got in a brawl at the Copacabana as a player. He had fistfights with two of his own pitchers, Dave Boswell and Ed Whitson.

Billy punched out a marshmallow salesman and a sports writer. He battled with Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner. He said what was on his mind, often to his detriment. As Pennington said of the crash that killed Martin, if anyone went through life without a seatbelt, it was Billy.

Martin had a thing for alcohol and younger women. He wasn’t the best husband and father. It was a different time, when teams boozed in the bars and people turned their heads. Martin said he never started a fight, but he knew how to finish one.

Imagine Martin in today’s age of social media and cell phone cameras. His every move would be recorded. Martin was like a house fire. You couldn’t turn away. But as Pennington said, “Billy couldn’t exist” in today’s media environment.

He existed on the edge, a tortured soul. But for all his flaws, Martin truly was a baseball genius. He was drawn to trouble. His son, Billy Jr., said that when his father found some peace, “he’d do something to bring the pressure back into his life again.”

But if the bar fights and firings cloud our recollection, we have the record to confirm Martin’s genius. Looking back, it’s a stunning reminder of one man’s ability to transform a team.

Every team Martin took over got significantly better. Fifty years ago, he became a Twins coach. He mentored a Cuban shortstop named Zoilo Versalles, whom the team had tried to trade in the offseason. Versalles became the MVP and the Twins went to the World Series.

The first team he managed, the ’‘69 Twins, went from 79 wins to 97; his first Tigers team went from 79 to 91 wins; his first Texas team went from 57 wins to 84; his first Yankees team (1976) from 83 wins to 97; Oakland, a 54-win team, won 83 when Martin took over in 1980.

He was a circus in New York, getting hired and fired five times. But the Yankees improved each time he returned. In a twisted way, he and Steinbrenner were made for each other. They were two volatile, bullheaded figures. Steinbrenner has admitted he was wrong to fire Billy a couple of times. He said he should have done more to deal with his drinking.

Martin was ahead of his time. He did radical infield shifts long before it was fashionable. He emphasized on-base percentage. But he loved putting pressure on opponents with the running game, finding any little edge. Today, with hitting at a low point, BillyBall would thrive.

He is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, though his .553 winning percentage is better than 13 of the 22 managers enshrined. Pennington makes a convincing case, pointing out that there was no wild card in Martin’s day. Six more of his 16 teams would have made the playoffs nowadays.

“Billy’s way was like no one else,” said Tony LaRussa, a Hall of Fame skipper. “It was a magnificient combination of learned baseball knowledge and intuitive logic mixed with incredible guts. Risk didn’t worry Billy.

“His genius is really not properly understood.”

Jerry Sullivan is The Buffalo News’ senior sports columnist.