Billy Martin finally returned home last week after a 30-year odyssey that was almost as chaotic and about as well chronicled as the original. Berkeley Billy, as he is still known in the San Francisco Bay Area, was "introduced" at a press conference in Oakland last Thursday as the latest manager of the A's. This local media event, attended by as many persons as ordinarily watch an A's weekday-afternoon home game, was merely a formality. Billy had officially been hired a week earlier by Charlie Finley, who, to his apparent dismay, remains the owner of baseball's sorriest franchise.
Martin and Finley? Now, there are strange bedfellows. When reminded by one of his interrogators on Thursday that Finley is an owner who has a history of firing managers (16) and Martin is a manager who has a history of being fired by owners (four), Berkeley Billy, dapper in a light gray suit, responded lightheartedly, "We're a perfect combination, aren't we?" Actually, if rumors gaining wide currency in baseball have substance, they will not be a combination much longer, because Finley is reportedly prepared to sell the A's to buyers who will keep the team where it is. And that is where Martin, the East Bay native, thinks the A's should be. "It's a pleasure to be back home. I'll do everything possible to promote the team here," he said. "I think Oakland is a good baseball town."
Indeed it was when he played there. The Pacific Coast League-champion 1948 Oakland Oaks, managed by the man who would become Martin's sainted mentor with the Yankees, Casey Stengel, and the 1949 team, managed by Charley Dressen, both drew better in a rickety 13,000-seat minor league park than did last year's A's, whose attendance of 306,763 was the lowest in the major leagues since the Athletics of Philadelphia attracted 304,666 customers in 1954. Finley is counting on Martin to pull in that many fans by himself. And though Martin insists, with commendable if unfounded optimism, that his players will become overnight matinee idols, his name, not theirs, will be the drawing card in his old stomping grounds. The word "stomping" is not used lightly, incidentally, for when Billy was growing up in West Berkeley, stomping—as in "so-and-so stomped the hell out of so-and-so"—was pretty much the primary recreation among young males.
Martin used the occasion of his ascension to Finley's revolving managerial chair last week to visit that neighborhood before returning to the A's spring training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. His mother, Joan Downey, still lives in the green two-story wooden house where Martin was born 51 years ago. "Born upstairs, circumcised right here in the kitchen," she says proudly.
"My mom is older than she weighs—78 years to 75 pounds," says Martin. "From her I get all my meanness and all my heart."
Mrs. Downey, who adorns her frocks with assorted comic badges—ITALIAN POWER, BOYFRIEND WANTED, NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY—conveys some of her son's celebrated irascibility and much of his considerable charm as well.
"I remember when Billy was with the Oaks," she says, chuckling. "We went to see them play in Sacramento. Well, they had this one colored fellow on the Oakland team—Artie Wilson was his name—and these guys from Sacramento got on him something terrible. I decided I wasn't going to take any more of that crap, so I punched one of 'em. Cops came around and took 'em all away." She and Martin's stepfather, John Downey, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, a milestone of domesticity achieved, Mrs. Downey concludes, "because he never gave me a bad time. If he had, I'd have thrown his ass out."
To know Martin, it is necessary to know what life in West Berkeley was like in the middle and late 1940s. It is a racially mixed, lower-income neighborhood in the college town, the part nearest the Bay, and back then it had about as much to do with the rest of Berkeley, culturally and socially, as, say, Vatican City, in a much different way, has to do with Rome. The street smarts that New Yorkers found so beguiling in Billy were not learned in the Bronx but on the playgrounds or, more accurately, the battlegrounds, of West Berkeley.
"I grew up fighting," Martin says. "It isn't that I wanted to. It's just that I had no choice. These weren't kids who stole stuff. Their recreation was fighting." So youngsters growing up in West Berkeley endured a daily ordeal of being "chosen," being victimized by those devious combatants who might "cop a Sunday [sneak a punch]." Recess was as much a time for fights as for tag.
James Kenney Park, only a block and a half from Martin's home, was where he learned to play baseball and, of necessity, duke it out. He became proficient at both, as any number of belligerents who have tested his prowess since have discovered. One just does not, says Martin, "mess with a West Berkeley boy."