Tuesday, January 11, 2005

January 11th, 1983

Billy Martin Hired As Yankees' Manager

This was Billy’s third go-round with the Yankees (he’d have five altogether), and marked a return to the Stadium where he had been both manager and player previously. Martin was, like many managers, a mediocre player but probably the best manager at turning a team around, even if he couldn’t always sustain that success. Martin was first hired to manage the Minnesota Twins in 1969. Taking over a team that had gone 79-83 and finished 7th under Cal Ermer the season before, Martin went 97-65 and won the AL West, falling to the Baltimore Orioles 3-0 in the ALCS, losing the first two games in extra innings before being blown out in game 3. Despite his success, Martin was fired after the season, partially for ignoring owner Calvin Griffith but mostly for having punched out Twins’ pitcher Dave Boswell.

Martin was next hired in 1971 to take over yet another team that had gone 79-83 the previous season, the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers improved under Martin to 91-71 and finished second in the AL East. The next season, the Tigers dropped to 86-70 but nonetheless won the division by a half-game over the Red Sox, passing Boston on the season’s final weekend. Despite being down 2-0, the Tigers pushed the eventual World Champion Oakland A’s to a decisive fifth game, losing 2-1. Martin led the Tigers to a 71-63 record in 1973 until being fired for allegedly ordering his pitchers to throw at batters. Martin was replaced by Joe Schultz, who you may have heard of.

Martin was not unemployed for long. He was fired on August 30th by the Tigers and hired by the Texas Rangers to replace Whitey Herzog on September 8th. Martin led the Rangers to just a 9-14 (.391) record finishing the season, although that was actually an improvement on their 48-91 (.345) record prior to Martin. The next season, taking much of the same 100+ loss roster, Martin went 84-76 and put the team in second place. He was fired the next season, going just 44-51, his first significant stretch under .500.

Martin was again not out of work for long, being fired by the Rangers on July 20th and hired by George Steinbrenner on August 2nd, replacing Bill Virdon and improving the Yankees’ winning percentage more than twenty-five points in their final fifty games. In 1976, he took the Yankees to their first World Series since 1964 (and Martin’s first ever career post-season series victory in the ’76 ALCS over Kansas City) before being swept by the Big Red Machine in the World Series. In 1977 Martin won one-hundred games and the World Series, both unique in his managerial career. Martin resigned midway through the 1978, after noting that his star player and owner “deserve each other. One’s a born liar [Reggie Jackson] and the other’s convicted [Steinbrenner, who was convicted of obstructing justice in 1974].” The Yankees would go onto to win the World Series again, but in 1979 Steinbrenner was unhappy with manager Bob Lemon’s efforts and Martin was hired again as manager on June 19th. He lasted through the season but was replaced by Dick Howser for 1980.

Martin soon found work, taking over another terrible team, the Oakland Athletics, who had lost 108 games the season before. Perfecting his style of “Billyball” Martin managed another miraculous turnaround, leading the team to an 83-79 record, good for 2nd place in the AL West, albeit well behind the Kansas City Royals. 1981 was a strike-shortened two-part season, and the A’s won the first-half and defeated the Royals in the one-half of first-ever ALDS, but lost out to the Yankees (and his old replacement, Bob Lemon) in the ALCS. In 1982 the A’s young pitching collapsed—arguably due to overwork from Martin—and the team sunk to just 68-94, Martin’s worst full season ever.

Not put off by this, Steinbrenner nonetheless re-hired his former manager, and Martin led a team that had finished 79-83 (seemingly the record of every team Martin took over) to a 91 win season, but just third place. Steinbrenner fired Martin for Yogi Berra for all of 1984 but dissatisfied with Berra he fired him after just sixteen games in 1985 (an event that would have long-lasting consequences for Yogi and the Boss) and installed Martin. Martin took over a 6-10 team and went 91-54 (.628) his best winning percentage ever, but the 97 win Yankees still fell two games short of the playoffs. Martin would manage the Yankees one more time for a 68 game stretch in 1988, going 40-28 for a team that played below .500 without him at the helm.

He was working as a special consultant for the Yankees when he was killed in a car accident on Christmas Day, 1989, at age 61. The driver of the pick-up truck Martin was in was drunk and (like Martin) not wearing his seat belt, but survived anyway. Martin’s #1 was retired by the Yankees the next season. This remains one of his few honors, despite obviously qualifications—he has a better career winning percentage than Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda or Joe Torre—he has not been voted into the Hall of Fame, easily its most glaring omission with regards to managers.

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