It ended for Billy Martin on Monday afternoon. He would no longer have to deal with George Steinbrenner, his least favorite owner. He would no longer have to pencil the name of Reggie Jackson, his least favorite player, on the New York Yankee lineup card. And he could forget the run he wanted so much to make at the division-leading Boston Red Sox, but that hardly mattered. Martin's stormy—but successful—three-year stint with the Yankees was over. And, predictably, the fiery manager had gone down in flames as if he were fulfilling a death wish.
Martin's resignation came less than 24 hours after he had lambasted Jackson and Steinbrenner in Chicago's O'Hare airport while the Yankees were waiting to board a plane to Kansas City. "The two men deserve each other," Martin told reporters early Sunday evening. "One's a born liar, the other's convicted."
The diatribe followed Jackson's return to the Yankees that afternoon after a five-day suspension and Martin's discovery of what he believed to be an attempt by Steinbrenner a month ago to trade him for Bob Lemon, then the manager of the White Sox and now Martin's replacement in New York. Although both Steinbrenner and Bill Veeck of the Sox denied there was any "direct communication" between them on the subject, Martin felt the trade, whether it was seriously contemplated or not, was an indication that Steinbrenner intended to go back on a promise he had made several weeks before that Martin would be the Yankee manager at least for the rest of the season.
Martin leaves New York having won the last two American League pennants and the 1977 World Series. But he was also embroiled in a number of bitter controversies involving Steinbrenner, Jackson and other Yankee players. Thus, despite New York's accomplishments on the field, Martin was forever on the verge of being fired. That he was finally done in by his own hand this time suggests that he had taken all he could stand. Resignation had been in his mind for some time, but he had intended to wait until the end of the season "because I wanted to give the Red Sox a run."
That the Yankees finally appeared to be making a run at Boston was one of the reasons that on Saturday Martin had been laughing, joking, telling tales of life in the bush leagues. He seemed happy. But before Sunday's game he was dark, sullen. It was as if the arrival of Jackson had changed not only his mood but also his whole outlook on life. Jackson and Martin do that to each other.
Unlike last year, when the Yankees bickered and won, this season, until Jackson's suspension, they had maintained their equilibrium in the clubhouse but fallen in the standings. And nobody had suffered more during the team's slide than Martin. In various ways, Steinbrenner, Jackson, fate—and the Red Sox—all worked against him. He got sympathy and drew his strength only from the New York fans, with whom he remained immensely popular.
"Injury after injury have broken us down," Martin argued. Steinbrenner agreed, but he suspected that poor preparation and conditioning in spring training were as much to blame as plain rotten luck. And he criticized Martin for that poor preparation.
It would not be fair to say that Martin was in better spirits while Jackson was away simply because Jackson was away. After all, the Yankees did win four straight games after Reggie's departure, and another on Sunday when Jackson was in uniform but did not play. And Martin did catch 10 bass during a fishing excursion in Minnesota. But certainly Jackson's absence was a factor. Martin's decision to suspend him was endorsed by Steinbrenner and supported by his players. Martin had seldom enjoyed that kind of unanimous backing.
The incident that caused the suspension occurred in the 10th inning of the Monday, July 17 night game in New York against Kansas City. Jackson tried to bunt when he was told to hit away, and the Yankees eventually lost the game. But the incident involved more than that. It was a confrontation of giant egos and willful spirits. And it came at a time that was particularly bleak for both men.
In the preceding days Martin had been faced with published reports of his own declining health and with the specter of the Yankees settling in for the rest of the season as a fourth-place—perhaps even a fifth-place—team. Sore shoulders, pulled hamstrings and hairline fractures have put 10 Yankees on the disabled list this year, and put unknowns like Damaso Garcia, Brian Doyle and Mike Heath on the roster and, frequently, in the starting lineup. In recent weeks the ill health or ineffectiveness of Pitchers Ed Figueroa, Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Dick Tidrow and Andy Messersmith had forced Martin to give work to guys named Bob Kammeyer, Larry McCall and Dave Rajsich. It is axiomatic in baseball that a team cannot win championships without strength up the middle, and that truth had certainly applied in New York's case. Centerfielder Mickey Rivers, Second Baseman Willie Randolph, Shortstop Bucky Dent and four starting pitchers had been on the disabled list one or more times each. And the regular catcher, Thurman Munson, had suddenly taken over Jackson's old spot in rightfield, principally to save wear and tear on a body badly bruised from working behind the plate.