Billy Martin: A Christmas Day Tribute to One of Baseball's Greatest Managers

Thomas CoglianoCorrespondent IDecember 25, 2008

Christmas is a time for celebration, a time for family, a time for unity, and, last but not least, a time for reflection. 

On December 25, 1989, 19 years ago from this day, the great baseball manager Billy Martin died in a car accident.  He had a good career as a ballplayer.

After all, he was a key feature to the New York Yankee dynasty in the early 1950s. As the starting second baseman for that legendary Yankee teams, Martin was the World Series MVP in 1953 as the Yankees took the Fall Classic from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Although Billy Martin had a series of off-the-field issues, especially as it related to womanizing and alcohol, no one can ever take away the fact that Billy Martin was one of the finest baseball minds ever. 

As a manager, he always found a way to create winning ball clubs no matter where he went.  He inspired many of the players under him as well as many of his coaches, several of whom went on to become successful managers as well. 

The late Dick Howser was one of Martin's coaches who went on to be a successful manager with the Kansas City Royals, managing them to their only World Series title in 1985.

Lou Piniella, one of Martin's ballplayers from his first stint as manager of the Yankees, was and remains a successful manager with a World Series title to his credit managing the 1990 Cincinnati Reds.  Piniella has even referred to Billy Martin as his influence for his managerial style.

Billy Martin, as a manager, demonstrated a rare genius in implementing the pure fundamentals of baseball and using those fundamentals to build a cohesive team unit.  The key for the unit was not individual talent but rather individual selflessness of understanding what needed to be done on behalf of the team.

From his first managerial stint in 1969 with the Minnesota Twins to his last managerial stint with the New York Yankees in 1988, Billy Martin led four different teams to division titles: Minnesota Twins (1969), Detroit Tigers (1972), New York Yankees (1976, 1977), and Oakland Athletics (1981). 

He won two pennants with the New York Yankees in 1976 and 1977, capturing the World Series on the second attempt. 

In fact, the 1976 New York Yankees (a team that did not feature Reggie Jackson yet) had clinched the first pennant for the legendary organization in 12 seasons!

Even when George Steinbrenner signed free agent Reggie Jackson to a monster contract after the conclusion of the 1976 World Series, Billy Martin refused to give in to the newly-acquired superstar. He stuck with veteran Yankee catcher Thurman Munson as his team captain, the first team captain the Yankees had named since Lou Gehrig. 

A true example of Martin's managerial philosophy regarding team effort came in a June 1977 game at Fenway Park between the Yankees and the Red Sox. 

Reggie Jackson lazily retrieved a blooping base hit by Jim Rice.  Jackson waved off second baseman Willie Randolph as he jogged slowly to pick up the ball, which allowed Jim Rice to take second base on his own blooper to shallow right-field. 

Billy Martin came out to make a pitching change; however, he also came out to make a fielding change, yanking Jackson out for Paul Blair. 

This caused a heated confrontation to take place in the dugout between a disgruntled Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin.  But that was classic " old-school" Martin. 

In his mind, the new superstar players of the game at that time like Reggie Jackson were not nearly as selfless or team-oriented as his generation of ballplayers such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. 

One of the reasons why Martin stuck with Thurman Munson as his team captain was because he recognized that Munson had that "old-school" instinct in him, something lacking in many of the other players in the game at that time, something that is hardly existent in the game today.

As we celebrate Christmas, we baseball fans should also remember Billy Martin.  His epitaph speaks volumes of his great fondness and respect for the game of baseball:

"I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform but I was the proudest."