When one thinks of Billy Martin, synonymous with the New York Yankees as a player and manager, this image doesn’t come to mind:
The Martins’ Richfield neighborhood had big, old maple trees and was close to the Twins’ ballpark in Bloomington. There was a backyard for Billy Joe — Gretchen called him B.J. — and there was a garden where Billy grew vegetables. The Twins coaches, and some of the Richfield neighbors, had a yearly contest to see who could grow the largest tomatoes.
Billy Martin participating in a yearly contest to grow the largest tomatoes? Wow. That’s not the famous/infamous Martin most of us remember, but that’s the picture that writer Bill Pennington paints of Martin and his time with the Twins. His book, published in 2015, is titled: “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.”
Flawed? Yes. Genius? Well, that’s up for debate. Pennington writes that Martin cut his managerial teeth with the Twins and wound up spending nearly a decade with the organization. It’s where Martin implemented his style of always keeping the other team off balance with bunts, the hit-and-run, the double steal, stealing the other team’s signs and stealing home.
Hall of Famer Rod Carew stole home seven times (the record is eight) for Martin and the Twins in the team’s AL West-winning year of 1969.
Martin’s playing career actually ended with the Twins in 1961. Martin turned down a three-year contract for $100,000 to play in Japan and became a scout for the Twins, followed by third-base coaching duties under manager Sam Mele. Before Martin became manager of the Twins in 1969, he spent a year leading the Denver Bears, the Twins’ Triple-A team.
As a scout, according to Pennington’s book, Martin pleaded with the team to sign James Alvin Palmer out of high school. But the deal went south because Jim Palmer wanted $50,000 to sign and Twins owner Calvin Griffith was never known for writing fat checks to anyone.
Talk about missed opportunities: Palmer, who spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles, won 268 games, including 20 or more wins in a season eight times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
When Martin was third-base coach for Mele in 1965 — the year the Twins met the Los Angeles Dodgers and Sandy Koufax in the World Series — Mele credits Martin for helping the team win 102 games that season.
“Billy was responsible for a lot of new energy,” Mele said.
Although Martin’s years with the Twins were relatively free of conflict, they weren’t perfect. And when Martin got in trouble, you could find him in a bar, sometimes drinking with other players.
In one incident, Martin, along with Twins Bob Allison and 20-game winner Dave Boswell, were downing a few drinks when Martin asked “Bozzy” about his refusal to follow another coach’s orders to run laps before a game.
Bozzy left to confront the other coach — the “little squealer,” he called him — but was stopped by Allison in an alley behind the bar. Bozzy punched out Allison and then Martin slugged Boswell.
When fighting a bigger opponent, Billy later explained, you have to get inside and close to him. Pulling on (the chain around Boswell’s neck) kept Boswell close. Finally, according to Billy, he punched Boswell in the face, which sent Boswell bouncing off the alley wall.
Reporters would later ask Billy what happened next:
“Well, when he came off the wall, I hit him again,” Martin said.
Even though the Twins won the AL West division in 1969, team owner Griffith had had enough of Martin and fired him — much to the displeasure of Twins fans.
Twins fans hung Griffith in effigy in downtown Minneapolis. The team received hundreds of phone calls. Don Cassidy of the Twins’ media relations staff said some fans “broke into tears” during the calls. The local Teamsters Union said it was organizing a boycott of Twins games in 1970.
Carew said the players were stunned:
“Who fires a guy who took a seventh-place team and turned it into a division winner?”
Photo credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons