Last week, I wrote about George Steinbrenner's Hall of Fame chances, and noted that his favorite punching bag, Billy Martin, also had a strong case for the veteran's committee to judge.
Steinbrenner hired and fired Billy Martin five times, which says a lot about both men. They both had enormous egos and combustible tempers. They may have been made for one another, but that didn't stop them from going at each other's throats.
Like another manager Steinbrenner fired, Lou Piniella, Martin was a part-time Yankee during his playing days. He earned a reputation as a sparkplug as he won four rings in his first four seasons, 1950-1953, and a fifth in 1956. Piniella had a longer and more productive career as a platoon player, but his and Martin's playing careers were roughly equivalent for Hall of Fame purposes: They played more than 10 years, making them Hall-eligible as players, but despite their longevity, neither was particularly noteworthy. Both men made one All-Star game and had one shining award: Martin was the 1953 World Series MVP, and Piniella was the 1969 Rookie of the Year. Earlier in the summer, I judged Piniella's career to be just short of the Hall.
Will Martin's case stack up the same way? Or does Billy the Kid have more going for him than Sweet Lou?
The case for the Hall of Fame: Martin didn't have a comparatively long managerial career — he managed in parts of 16 seasons, but just 11 full seasons, because he was so frequently hired or fired midseason. But his .553 winning percentage is 15th of all time among managers with at least 1,000 wins. Of the 14 men above him, 11 are in the Hall and a 12th, Bobby Cox, will soon be inducted. Of the 15 below him, 10 are in the hall, and Joe Torre and Tony La Russa are sure to make it 12. In other words, there aren't many managers who ever won as frequently as Billy Martin, and nearly all of the ones who did have been enshrined for their efforts.
In those 11 full seasons, he finished first five times, winning two pennants and a World Series title, and he finished second four other times. But he never lasted anywhere long. His longest stretch without being fired was the three years he spent in Oakland from 1980-1982. He got fired after one season in his first managerial job, with the 1969 Minnesota Twins, after leading the team to a division championship. As Chris Jaffe writes in his book "Evaluating Baseball's Managers":
"Hiring Martin was like pushing too much voltage through a light bulb: for a brief while it burns brighter than otherwise posible, but it soon shatters unless the excess electricity is removed."
Martin pushed his players beyond endurance. As Jaffe notes, in Detroit, Mickey Lolich pitched 376 innings in 1971, the most since Pete Alexander in 1917. His Oakland staffs in 1980 and 1981 averaged more innings per start than any other team in the past 50 years.
It wasn't just his starters: Martin was more likely than any manager in history to use his relievers on zero days rest. Rod Carew tied Ty Cobb's record with seven steals of home. Rickey Henderson attempted 376 steals in 415 games under Martin, including an astonishing 172 attempts in 149 games in 1982; the game's greatest basestealer was never again quite that reckless. Billyball was simple: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. As Martin said: "If it will give me an advantage, I'll use it."
Billy Martin was one of the greatest turnaround artists in baseball history, engineering dramatic improvements at every stop. Every single team who hired him improved immediately.
• His 1969 Twins won the division (in the first year of the division era) a year after finishing in seventh place at 79-83.
• His 1971 Tigers won 12 more games than the 1970 Tigers had, and they won the division in 1972.
• In 1973, he was brought to the Rangers for the last few weeks of a 57-105 season; the next year, his first full season with the team, they went 84-76 and finished second, which was then the highest finish in franchise history. (They would not win the division until 1996.)
• In 1975, he was brought in to finish off the Yankees' third-place finish, guiding them to an 83-77 record. The next year, his first full season with the team, they went 97-62 and lost the World Series. They won the Series the following year. (He was fired midseason in 1978, and eventual manager Bob Lemon made the Yankees back-to-back champs.)
• His 1980 A's won 29 more games than they had in 1979, when they lost 108 games and had the worst record in baseball. They won the division in 1981.
• He was brought back to the Yankees in 1983, a year after the team had finished fifth with a record of 79-83, and he guided them to 91 wins and third place. It was his last full season as a manager.
Billy Martin didn't manage nearly as long as modern managers like Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa, but his 1,253 wins compare favorably to those of Hall of Famers Billy Southworth, Joe Cronin and Red Schoendienst, who had fewer wins than Martin, and Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog had just 28 more. Southworth and Cronin were player-managers who were slightly better players than Martin had been, but their overall careers are at least comparable to his, though their playing and managing numbers came simultaneously rather than sequentially. Schoendienst was neither a brilliant player nor a brilliant manager who was mainly inducted due to his status as a beloved baseball lifer. The 2010 Hall inductee Whitey Herzog, Martin's contemporary, had an even shorter playing career than Martin, and won the exact same number of pennants and world championships as Martin, with a lower winning percentage. Billy Martin was a better player and arguably a better manager than Whitey Herzog, and with Herzog in the Hall, there may finally be room for Billy.
The case against the Hall of Fame: When it comes to Billy Martin, being blunt is best: The man couldn't stay out of trouble, as his hard drinking and temper led him to battle management, ownership, his own players, and even perfect strangers. His whole style was suited to short-term success with long-term repercussions. As Donald Moore wrote of his tenure with the A's:
"Martin burned out the arms of his pitching staff. All of his starters eventually developed serious arm problems that eventually ended their professional careers."
And the reason all of those amazing turnarounds happened is the same reason that they were all short-lived: the man himself. As Jaffe wrote,
"Martin was the perfect manager to hire if you wanted an immediate improvement, and the worst manager for a team seeking sustained success."
Billy Martin played the game at fever pitch, running from the demons who constantly chased him. But he couldn't keep them at bay. He was traded from the Yankees after a fight during his birthday party at the Copacabana in 1957. In 1960 with the Reds, he broke Cubs pitcher Jim Brewer's jaw in an on-field fight and got handed a lawsuit. In 1969, he was fired from his first job in Minnesota after beating up his own pitcher Dave Boswell in a barroom fight. In a televised game in 1977, he had to be restrained from fighting with Reggie Jackson. He was fired again in 1979 after a barroom fistfight with a marshmallow salesman named Joseph Cooper. He died in a car accident in 1989; he was inebriated at the time of his death, though he was not behind the wheel.
Martin's reckless style suited his teams at first, but not for long, and, ultimately, it suited him little better. He was never able to build a team up, he could only burn it out. The burnout often occurred even before the season ended. His teams had a major propensity to get swept in the playoffs. Of his five playoff appearances, he won the World Series once, and got eliminated by sweeps three other times: Swept in the ALCS in 1969, swept in the World Series in 1976, and swept in the ALCS in 1981. He managed every regular-season game as if it was his last; maybe that's why his teams frequently had nothing left by the end of the year. It may sound unkind, but it would be easier to look past all his troubles on the field and off if he won the World Series more often. But his destructive style caused his teams to implode, and while Whitey Herzog got points for being a beloved Cardinal (like Schoendienst), Billy Martin will get very few personality points from the voters.
The verdict: If you needed to win just one game, of all the managers in history, Billy Martin might be your man. But the season is 162 games long, and a playoff year is even longer than that. He simply wasn't built for longevity. He was one of the best regular-season managers ever, but he just isn't a Hall of Famer.