SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
June 28, 1971
Surprise! Billy Martin is stopping fights. Surprise No. 2! The dovelike manager has those old curmudgeons, the Tigers, talking togetherness. But most surprising of all, they just might be winners
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June 28, 1971

Billy The Kid As Peacemaker

Surprise! Billy Martin is stopping fights. Surprise No. 2! The dovelike manager has those old curmudgeons, the Tigers, talking togetherness. But most surprising of all, they just might be winners

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"He's a super manager," says the well-scrubbed Dean Chance, a Martin pitcher in both Detroit and Minnesota. "He knows how to handle men."

Martin relishes such praise, for it is his melancholy conclusion that in his own youth he was not favored with the sort of guidance he now expertly bestows. His sorriest recollection of an adolescence marred by poverty, fisticuffs and social rejection is of a confrontation with his principal at Berkeley (Calif.) High School following a KO victory over a rival pitcher who imprudently "chose" him for a postgame punch-out.

The principal, said Martin, still blinking in disbelief 25 years later, "said I wasn't fit to represent the school. He said I should learn to turn the other cheek. I told him that in my neighborhood I wouldn't be alive if I turned the other cheek. This pitcher had thrown at me, then swung on me, but somehow it was my fault. The principal was a nice enough guy, but I don't think he ever really understood kids. He kicked me off the team as a disgrace to the school. The school was still going to be there, the buildings would be the same, but what about the boy, a boy baseball was everything to? If I'd been a different kind of kid, I might be a criminal today."

Martin, now 43, grew up in West Berkeley during the Depression and World War II. The university was hardly a seat of revolution then, but West Berkeley was a battleground where servicemen, the sons of migrant laborers, newly arrived blacks from the South, the dread "Pachuco" gangs and old-line Italians like Martin engaged in continuous warfare. The recess bell at West Berkeley's Burbank Junior High School signaled a daily resumption of hostilities and the more squeamish youngsters stayed inside rather than play razor tag.

"I remember there were two neighborhood armies," Martin recalls. "The Prussians and the Chinese. There must have been three, four hundred kids in each. I didn't want to get involved with them, but you couldn't avoid them. So you fought. In those days we never drank, took dope or even did much cigarette smoking, but we sure as hell fought a lot. I'd like to have studied more in school, but there was no way you could walk home in my neighborhood with a book under your arm."

Martin is physically long removed from that setting. He makes his home in Minnesota now and regards Berkeley as affectionately as Ronald Reagan does. Still, he is the prisoner of his youth, and, given the opportunity, he will alternately brood and rejoice over his stormy upbringing. He seems honestly sorry his duties as manager of the Tigers will prevent him from attending his class' 25th reunion this September, but he can still grouse over a failing mark he once received in, of all subjects, physical education. Martin blames the low grade on the prejudice the academic Establishment at Berkeley held against West Berkeleyans of all colors, creeds and religions.

"How does anybody get an F in phys ed? I was all-county in both baseball and basketball. You know, the guy who gave me that grade once asked me for tickets to the World Series when I was with the Yankees. And I got them for him. I wanted to show him I could be a better man than he was."

Being a better man, or at the very least, a man of some sort, is a Martin obsession. He has a neighborhood morality that is a heady mixture of "do unto others" and an "eye for an eye." His inflexible adherence to this code has long been an invitation to strife, and as a result of it Martin has had more fights than Abe the Newsboy. He claims never to have lost one, largely because right, in his view, makes might.

"I never push first, but if you push me, I'll push back harder. The day I start a fight is the day I lose one."

The quieting influence in Martin's life was undoubtedly Casey Stengel, "the old man," as he calls him. Martin likes to say he borrows from all his old managers, but Stengel is the prime creditor. Consider Martin managing—or over-managing—Stengel-style in the sixth inning of fight night against Cleveland.

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