Billy Martin-The Player

Billy Martin the player was never fully appreciated. As a manager later in his baseball life, Billy Martin had no peer. He won every place he went, and Billy Martin is generally regarded as one of the game’s greatest on-field tacticians ever. Off the field was another matter, as Billy Martin was unable to keep in check the emotions that helped him get every last ounce of ability out of his small frame during his playing days. Billy Martin the player was the type that rose to the occasion, never more so than in the many World Series he played in for his beloved New York Yankees.

“Billy the Kid” and “The Brat” were just two of Billy Martin’s nicknames when he was playing baseball. Coming out of the rough and tumble streets of Oakland, California, Billy Martin began his career in professional baseball in 1946 playing for Casey Stengel, who was managing the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Billy Martin came to the Yankees in 1950; Stengel took over as the Yankee skipper in 1949. In his first two years with the Bronx Bombers, Billy Martin did not even get a total of 100 at-bats, but on April 18th, 1950, he became the first player to ever get two hits in the same inning in his first major league game. In the eighth inning of a game against Boston, Billy Martin doubled and later singled, as the Yankees came back from a huge deficit to post a 15-10 win.

Things changed for Billy Martin in 1952 when the regular New York second baseman, Jerry Coleman, had to leave for his military obligation. Billy Martin was 24 in 1952, and his aggressive play and hustle endeared him to Stengel, who was as fond of Billy Martin as a father is of an overachieving son. Billy Martin took over for Coleman at second, but it was clear that he had never left his scrapping ways behind, and was never one to shy from a confrontation. Jimmy Piersall of the Red Sox and Billy Martin got into a brawl in the tunnel under the stands before a late May contest. It was not the only fight Billy Martin got into as a player. He was involved in an epic melee with catcher Clint Courtney in 1953, one which almost started a riot in St. Louis.

Playing in 109 games in 1952, Billy Martin hit .267 with 33 runs batted in, but only made 9 errors at second base. In the World Series that year against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Billy Martin had just 5 hits, however, one of them was a big three-run homer that broke open Game Two for the Yankees. But it was in Game Seven that Billy Martin showed his baseball acumen. The Dodgers were trailing 4-2 but had loaded the bases on two walks and a single. With two outs, Jackie Robinson hit a mile-high pop-up that should have easily been handled by first baseman Joe Collins. But Collins froze, as the ball seemed to carry towards the pitchers mound. As the entire infield and the pitcher stood around waiting for someone to do something, Billy Martin saw what was happening and flew in from his second base position. With all the runners on the move, Billy Martin caught the pop-up at his knees right next to the pitcher’s mound. The tying runs for sure would have scored if not for the alertness of Billy Martin; the Yankees went on to win the game and the Series by the 4-2 score.

The following fall Billy Martin beat the Dodgers with his bat. 1953 would be the best year Billy Martin would have as a player, as he hit 15 homers and knocked in 75 runs while playing in a career high 149 games. The Yankees won the pennant by eight and a half games over the Indians and faced off against the Dodgers once more. Right out of the gate, Billy Martin set the tone for the Yankees as he belted a bases-loaded triple in the first inning off of the Dodgers’ Carl Erskine. He added a pair of singles as New York took the first game by a 9-5 count. In Game Two Billy Martin garnered two more base hits, including a game tying homer in the seventh inning off of Preacher Roe, who had been sailing along with a two-hitter. A two-run home run by Martin’s closest friend, Mickey Mantle, gave the Yanks a 4-2 triumph and a two games to none lead.

Erskine came back on two days rest to beat New York 3-2 in Game Three, with Billy Martin picking up a single. The Dodgers evened the Series the next day by a 7-3 score, but Billy Martin had a triple and a single in the loss. In the pivotal fifth game, Billy Martin socked his second home run of the Series, as New York pounded four Brooklyn hurlers for 11 runs in an 11-7 slugfest win. Mantle also went deep, as did Gil McDougald and Gene Woodling for the Yanks. But Billy Martin saved his best for Game Six, played in Yankee Stadium on October 5th. The Yankees were clinging to a 3-1 lead in the top of the ninth when Carl Furillo hit a game tying two-run home run for the Dodgers. In the bottom of the ninth, New York’s Hank Bauer led off with a walk against Clem Labine. Yogi Berra lined out to right, but Mickey Mantle singled to put runners on first and second. Billy Martin then came through with his record twelfth hit of the World Series to send Bauer scampering home with the run that gave New York its unprecedented fifth consecutive world title. For the Series, Billy Martin had gone 12 for 24 with 8 runs batted in for the six games.

With his own stint in the military keeping Billy Martin out all of 1954, the Yankees came in second behind Cleveland’s record 111 victory season. Billy Martin returned from the Army in September of 1955 and jumped right into the middle of a pennant race cold. He hit .300 in 20 games, as the Yankees won the American League flag. In the World Series loss to the Dodgers, Billy Martin once again hit well, batting .320 in the bitter seven game defeat. 1956 was the last full year Billy Martin played with the Yankees, and they once again found themselves in the Fall Classic against Brooklyn. After Don Larsen’s perfect game in the fifth tilt, the Dodgers won Game Six when Enos Slaughter misplayed a fly ball in the tenth inning to allow the winning run to score in a 1-0 loss. Only brash Billy Martin would have the gumption to go up to Casey Stengel after the game and tell him to get Slaughter out of left field. Billy Martin, already showing the brilliance that would make him a great manager, told Stengel to put Elston Howard in left and Moose Skowron on first base. Casey did just that, and both hit homers, Skowron’s being a grand slam, in the Yankees’ cakewalk 9-0 rout to win the title.

A famous fight at a New York nightclub, ironically one in which Billy Martin was not involved, gave Yankee management a reason to ship Billy Martin out of town. They felt he was a bad influence on Mickey Mantle, and they traded him to the A’s over the protests of Stengel. Billy Martin was heartbroken about leaving the Yankees, and played four more years with six different teams before he retired as a player. In a little over one thousand games, Billy Martin hit .257 with 64 homers and 333 runs batted in, but it wasn’t his numbers that made him important to his team. It was his will to win.

Initially livid with Stengel over Casey not being able to keep him in New York, the two were reconciled at Mantle’s urging some years later. Billy Martin went on to become as fine a strategical manager as there has ever been, but was always undone by his fiery temper and a drinking problem he could never get the best of. He was hired and fired five times by the Yankees alone. Billy Martin died on Christmas night, 1989, in an automobile accident. He was buried in Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, in a plot that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner bought. Billy Martin, who once was quoted as saying, “I’d play Adolph Hitler if I thought he’d help us win”, is buried close to another Yankee legend- Babe Ruth.

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