Monday, April 06, 2015

New Billy Martin biography a thorough tale on and off the field

April 2, 2015
George Steinbrenner flanked by Yankees manager Billy Martin, left, and vice president and general manager Lou Piniella, at spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Feb. 28, 1988) Photo Credit: AP
Billy Martin died two years after the invention of 24-hour sports radio and two years before the World Wide Web was born, thus never living to see whether he could have succeeded in the modern media world.
But we can make an educated guess: no way.
That is evident throughout 500-plus pages of Bill Pennington's new biography, "Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius," which chronicles decades of drinking, fighting and womanizing that would have ruined him in the social media age.
On the other hand, Martin was ahead of his time on many baseball matters, and just might have been the best manager in history based on the lemonade he squeezed from a series of lemons.
It's all here, copiously reported, including interviews with more than 200 people, many of whom have since died, making this a one-of-a-kind work.
Among the subjects is Martin's widow, Jill, who sat for a series of interviews after avoiding reporters for nearly a quarter-century.
So there is no questioning the thoroughness of the tale, from Martin's formative years in a tough neighborhood in West Berkeley with colorful friends and a feisty mother to his tumultuous comings and goings with the Yankees.
The book should be catnip for Yankees fans old enough to remember Martin's managerial career and even more so for those old enough to remember him as a player.
That was a long time ago, though, and Martin has begun to fade into the historical mist. So for younger readers, the book's length and level of detail could be a challenge, albeit one that pays off for those with the patience to stick with it.
Those of us in the late Baby Boomer generation mostly remember him as a manager, so the sections on his playing days, when the Yankees ruled the city and its nightlife in the 1950s, often are a revelation.
For example: One of Martin's most colorful fellow carousers was a guy who in 1955 also was busy starring in a show called "The Honeymooners," Jackie Gleason.
Billy vs. Reggie Jackson? That's all here, including the confrontation that started it all - way back in 1969, when Martin was managing the Twins and Jackson was playing for the A's.
Martin's "Billy Ball" approach with his less-talented, pre-Yankees teams in many ways foretold the sabermetrics era, although not so much some of his seemingly reckless flourishes, such as steals of home.
Pennington was an eyewitness to Martin's ups and downs as a beat reporter in the 1980s - including his infamous fight with pitcher Ed Whitson - and sought to offer a nuanced look at Martin as more than just a dirt-kicking lunatic. Consider it done.

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