Martin's Managerial Skills Unmentioned by Chroniclers

Article excerpt

After reading over and over about the brawling, drinking and obsession with winning of Billy Martin, former New York Yankee baseball manager, since his death last week, I feel compelled to tell the story of the Billy Martin I knew for 30 years.

Oh, I knew the combative side of Martin all right. I saw several of his fights during the 10 years I traveled with the Minnesota Twins, and I broke the story of his battle with a marshmallow salesman. Having once argued with him for two hours on an elevator, I knew how scary he could be.

I also saw his drinking bouts, the fury of his raging battles with New York Yankee President George Steinbrenner and his unceasing struggle to finish first. None of that has been exaggerated. Having grown up on the Oakland waterfront, he was a street fighter with no ethics.

It's what the sports chroniclers left out that surprises me. Martin's detailed approach to managing, skill in motivating men and ability to develop pride could have been utilized by the corporate world if he would have overcome his drinking. He also could be loveable with a pixie delight in practical jokes, and he was a helluva cook.

Those sides of Martin have been forgotten in the tragedy of his personal life and his death in a truck crash.

Martin was still a player in 1961, when I first met him. It was his last year, though he was only 33. After seven spectacular years with the Yankees, he had been traded several times - finally to the Twins. I was in my first year as a young baseball writer for the Minneapolis Star.

He was hitting only .242 and furious with himself, but not about the batting average. His cheekbone had been crushed by a pitched ball, and he was backing away from inside curveballs. He told me how much that hurt his pride, and I was the first one to write about it.

Some colleagues expected me to feel his wrath, but he thanked me for writing the truth. I learned that day to stick with fairness and the truth. It was a lesson that helped me through hundreds of difficult times in reporting on sports and then business - including several with Martin.

He retired as a player during spring training of 1962, after helping rookie Bernie Allen learn enough to replace him at second base. That was my first glimpse of Martin as a teacher - one of his most important attributes.

He started his post-playing career as a scout and instructor of young players in the Twins system. In 1964, he was hired by President Calvin Griffith to coach third base and "light a fire'' under the Twins, who had tied for sixth in 1964. He did.

They won the American League pennant in 1965 with the same team, including six home run sluggers led by Harmon Killebrew. Martin added daring baserunning, and he personally coached Zoilo Versalles to the Most Valuable Player award.

Versalles had great talent at shortstop but could not remember how to play hitters. Martin patiently went over every hitter with Versalles before every game and between innings. I will never forget how he taught Versalles to use his speed on the bases.

"He made it simple,'' Versalles once said. "He told me to get to first base as fast as I could on every base hit and look for the ball. If it was still on the grass in the outfield, I went to second base.''

Versalles hit 45 doubles that year, including 22 when the ball was on the ground in front of outfielders. Martin described the essence of his philosophy in what later became known as "Billy Ball" when he managed.

"The idea is to force the perfect play,'' he said. "Human beings just aren't good enough to make the perfect play every time.''

In the midst of the pennant race, Martin's tendency toward controversy also came out in a feud with pitching coach Johnny Sain. When I reported the problems, Martin accused me of trying to hurt the club. …