Billy Martin made one thing perfectly clear in one of his first team meetings as manager of the Tigers.
“I am,” Martin said, “a very bad loser.”
Looking back on it, it’s actually quite amazing that Martin ever came to manage the Tigers to begin with. Billy was not the kind of man that General Manager Jim Campbell usually looked for in his manager.
The button-downed Tigers organization didn’t seem like the place for Martin, a brawling, drinking, pugnacious runt of a man. Campbell need only have looked at a parking lot down the street from Tiger Stadium, and recalled an incident a couple years prior, in order to be reminded of Billy’s demeanor.
Martin was finally a big league manager in 1969, for the Minnesota Twins. It was the culmination of eight years in the organization, first as a scout then as a third base coach.
Two hallmarks of Martin as a manager began in Minnesota: his ability to work wonders with ball clubs, and his propensity for self-destruction.
The latter first bobbed to the surface in Detroit, on an August night in 1969. Forty years ago last week.
The Lindell A.C. was a wonderful sports bar, filled with history and memorabilia. A place to have a cold beer and a juicy burger, while staring at things like Wayne Walker’s jockstrap hanging on the wall. Honest.
The Lindell was also a swell place to have a good, old-fashioned barroom brawl.
One night, they put chains and manacles on the pro wrestler Dick “The Bruiser” and dragged him out of the Lindell—located right on the corner of Cass and Michigan, maybe a mile from Tiger Stadium—when he got overzealous in trying to get under the skin of the Lions’ Alex Karras prior to their celebrated wrestling match in 1963, when Karras was suspended from the NFL for a year.
The Twins were in Detroit the first week of August ‘69, on their way to the AL West Division title. They were trying to hold off the charging Oakland A’s.
Dave Boswell was a 24-year-old pitcher for the Twins, a tall drink of water at 6'3". And he was in the middle of something at the Lindell after one of the games in Detroit. Martin was among the patrons that night.
Martin, who never met a fight he didn’t like, took exception to something Boswell did. Or so says Billy. To hear Martin tell it, Boswell came at him first.
Regardless, Martin, all 5'10" of him, slugged his pitcher with a solid punch, in the alley behind the Lindell, where the proceedings had moved.
Billy kept battering Boswell, knocking him unconscious. Boswell ended up needing about 20 stitches to close up his face.
Four days later, Martin held a mini-press conference, explaining why Boswell hadn’t continued with the Twins on their road trip.
That’s when Billy told of the escapade behind the Lindell, and his version of acting in self-defense.
Boswell, one day later, refuted that.
This wasn’t chopped liver that Martin had punched out. Boswell would win 20 games for the Twins in ’69, starting 38 times.
Boswell went 18 days between starts while his face, and his ego, healed.
Martin was 1-0 as a fighter as a manager.
And Martin’s pattern of self-destruction while managing, his propensity to rain on his own parade, began on that August night in 1969, behind the Lindell A.C. in Detroit.
The Twins won the division, but lost in the playoffs, swept away by the Baltimore Orioles.
The Twins fired Martin after the season, deciding instead to hire someone who didn’t have a fetish for punching out his pitchers.
Another trend began: Martin getting canned.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were happily playing for Mayo Smith, the manager of the 1968 championship team. They didn’t repeat in ’69, but the Tigers won 90 games.
“He was the best manager I ever played for,” Jim Northrup once told me about his days under Mayo. Of course he’d say that about Smith; Mayo pretty much wrote out the lineup card and stayed out of the players’ way.
But by the end of the 1970 season, Mayo’s magic had worn off. The Tigers sunk to below .500, the standard for mediocrity.
The team, Campbell believed, needed a spark. A piss and vinegar kind of guy.
And you couldn’t get much more pissy or vinegary than Billy Martin.
Campbell made the move. He fired Mayo Smith and hired the volatile Martin.
It worked, for a time.
Martin’s Tigers won 91 games in 1971, and then captured the AL East flag in 1972. In ’71, Campbell acquired a veteran arm to help in the eventually futile chase of the Orioles for the division title. The veteran was a right-hander named Dave Boswell.
In Detroit, Martin always had an older team, with precious few young prospects, but he was able to whip them into shape. Billy was good that way.
“The worst manager I ever played for,” Northrup said of Martin. I think Jim used the word “hate”, too.
Martin may not have ingratiated himself to Northrup, or to many others, but he won. Billy was building quite a reputation as one of the game’s best managers—brilliant at getting the most out of the talent available to him.
Billy didn’t make friends. He just won.
One day, desperate and in a losing streak, Billy pulled his batting order from a hat. The Tigers won.
But his desire to win—his aforementioned hatred of losing—got the best of him and ruined him in Detroit, as it would in Texas and Oakland and, several times, in New York.
That, and all the fights, which didn’t end with the Boswell incident.
Around this time of the month in 1973, Martin openly and brazenly admitted that he had ordered some of his pitchers to throw spitballs and beanballs at opposing hitters. Billy was tired of it happening to his team.
That was the last straw. Campbell had looked the other way when Billy flew into Chicago on his own and showed up in the dugout less than an hour before game time, earlier in the season. He was annoyed but let it go when Billy would take his beefs about the Tigers’ woeful minor league system to the media.
The league suspended Martin for ordering spitballs, but before the suspension was lifted, Campbell fired him.
The Tigers, still winners to the end of Martin’s tenure, were 71-63 when Billy got the ziggy.
Then the team went into the toilet, with four straight losing seasons after Billy left.
The Tigers’ inability to replace their aging stars with good young talent did them in. Just as Billy had crabbed about to the press.
The Texas Rangers snatched Martin up about a week after the Tigers fired him. He worked some magic in Texas in 1974, then was fired the next year. The Yankees snatched him up not long after the Rangers fired him in 1975.
Billy’s time in New York under owner George Steinbrenner is a book, not a column. It could even be a series of books. Steinbrenner hired and fired Martin so many times it became a national joke, and fodder for a beer commercial.
Twenty years ago this Christmas, Billy Martin died in a car wreck after a night of drinking, naturally.
He self-destructed one last time.