If it would help
the New York Yankees win a ball game, Billy Martin would stand on his hands at
second base and catch grounders with his teeth. He would also be first to light
a match if there seemed the slightest likelihood that a Yankee pitcher could
throw better with his pants on fire. Billy can imagine nothing quite so hideous
as getting beaten at baseball—and since he has come to consider the Yankees as
a sort of extension of his own roomy personality, defection by his teammates
scars his soul almost as deeply as his own infrequent failings on the field. He
does not hesitate to criticize their sins.
Billy is the bee
which stings the Yankee rump, the battery which fires the Yankee engine, the
fellow who makes the Yankees go. In his six years of perfecting this role he
has been roundly booed in almost every park in the American League, has engaged
in personal combat with a list of opposing players too long to enumerate and
has hustled in to the mound to tell so many eminent Yankee pitchers how to
improve themselves that thousands of baseball fans still wonder why his
teammates have not hanged him in the clubhouse long since. But Billy has also
made his fellow toilers love him—although in some cases it is the sort of
affection they might feel for a pet jaguar—and as the 1956 season opens this
week it is difficult not to conclude that he is the most valuable as well as
the damndest Yankee now extant, and that New York, spurred by his jaunty
truculence, will resume its heavy-handed domination of the American League.
If the Army had
not netted Billy and put him into khaki during 1954 and 1955, so bullish an
estimate of his worth might well sound like romanticism. Baseball giants like
Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford are not to be lightly dismissed; and
during spring training, despite a horrid list of cripples, the Yankees have
shown power, pitching and whole droves of talented players both young and old.
But it is hard to ignore the things that happened to the Yankees when Billy was
absent. They lost the American League pennant in 1954 and were wavering
perilously late last summer when he got back to New York. Billy minced no
words. "I had three cars when I went into the Army," he cried at a
secret meeting of Yankee players, "and now I haven't got even one. I'm
broke and you're playing as though you're trying to lose. We gotta get into the
Series." The Yanks won the pennant and, though Billy had played in but 20
games, voted him a full share of Series money—a truly stupefying act of
says Casey Stengel, "never went to the university, but he is an intelligent
baseball player. All big league players are supposed to know baseball and most
of them do. But Billy doesn't have to think for two minutes to do the right
thing. He has sense enough to tell other men what to do. He is a spirited
fellow and doesn't loaf. He can play second base and third base good. He can
play shortstop in the big leagues. He'll make the double play. If you want a
bunt, he'll bunt. He can hit singles, doubles, triples and home runs. If you
want him to play a new position, he doesn't say, 'No, it will hurt my work.' He
will say, 'Yes.' So you understand he is a valuable fellow."
Billy is a good
baseball player. He is a team man, first and last. He is shrewd. He is a
baseball perfectionist. Though he weighs but 165 pounds, stands 6 feet and
looks almost bony in his uniform, he is a powerful man. He is curiously built.
He has a modest neck (15�-inch collar), a narrow waist (31-inch belt) and a
long torso. But he has big shoulders, big arms, thick wrists and heavy thighs
and calves. Though his big league batting average is only .263 he is a
ferocious fellow at the plate when there are men on bases. None of this,
however, really explains Billy. "We're all pros here," says Mickey
Mantle, his old roommate. "We all want to win. Everybody on this club is
good. But Billy gives it something extra. He makes you play harder."
The extra is the
imperious Martin personality. Billy is easy to like and easy to forgive; he is
generous, he is entertaining, and among his intimates he is a friendly, boyish
and charming fellow. When Billy smiles—which is often—he is not only hard to
resist but curiously handsome despite the big nose and jug ears which opposing
bench jockeys have subjected to so much raucous description. Ego flickers away
inside Billy as steadily as a pilot light in a gas oven. He is a creature of
moods and is easily bored; he drums on tables and stuffs nickels into juke
boxes to assuage the horrors of inactivity. But he speaks gently and politely.
When Billy blows his stack, onlookers generally react as though they were
witnessing some fascinating natural phenomenon like the eruption of Krakatoa.
Billy is a man of genuine temperament; he is governed by inward pressure rather
than malice, but he must reign or burst.
Billy's life, but it is easy to visualize him in other roles. Billy would have
been perfectly at home among the hot-blooded bravoes of Cellini's Italy, or
among the hot-blooded unionists who organized Big Steel. Give Billy a million
dollars and a sports car and you would have a millionaire playboy worthy of any
cigaret ad. Billy is persuasive. Give him three walnut shells and a little
elbow room and he would soon have your money. Wherever Billy goes, admirers
spring up like magic. Billy rewards them with a ducal approbation. When he
anchored himself at New York's Edison Hotel this spring after the Yankees had
departed for Florida (thereby getting his salary raised from $17,000 to $20,000
a year) bellhops, waitresses, guests and room clerks offered him incessant
encouragement. When Billy is at home in Berkeley, Calif. his mother serves no
vegetables. Billy hates them. Al Faccini, manager of Berkeley Square, his
favorite home town bar, stands ready to lend him a new Buick day or night.
Billy is hurt to
the quick by his reputation as a troublemaker. "When I was in the Army I
was in the Square one night," he said, "and a fellow came in and sat
next to me. He said: 'You know who comes in here all the time?' I said, 'No,'
and he said ' Billy Martin.' I said: 'No kidding—you know him?' He said, 'Sure,
I went to school with him.' Hey, this guy was 40. He had gray hair. 'What's he
like?' I asked him. 'Billy?' he says. 'Billy is a big jerk!' I didn't get mad.
I got a kick out of it. I let him buy me a lot of drinks. But baseball's
different. The Bible says you should turn the other cheek. I think about it a
lot. I'll turn the other cheek off the field. But God couldn't have known
anything about baseball. In baseball you've gotta be aggressive."
As a second
baseman—and consequently a fellow who has to endure the charges of behemoths
intent on breaking up the double play—Billy on one occasion was moved to warn
off a base runner who hadn't batted for 27 years. He sat next to Ty Cobb at a
San Francisco banquet for oldtime baseball players and, on being asked for a
few words, rose and said: "I've got a lot of respect for the old players.
But I'll tell you this, Mr. Cobb. If I'd been playing when you were playing
you'd only have come into second high on me once. After that you wouldn't have
had any teeth!" Said Billy, moodily, later: "I just don't like guys who
try to spike you on purpose. Let them try and I'll throw it at them. Can I help
it if their heads get in the way?"