It’s tough not to associate Billy Martin with the pinstripes. He won four World Series in the 1950s as the Yankees second baseman and was skipper when they won the title in 1977. His bizarre career saw him manage the Yankees in five different stints under George Steinbrenner.
But his most amazing work came out west, the subject of Dale Tafoya’s book “Billy Ball: Billy Martin and the Resurrection of the Oakland A’s” (Lyons Press).
Martin had already established himself as a master of the quick fix (and then burning out) in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and New York when Oakland hired him to manage in 1980.
But none of the teams he had taken over seemed as uninspiring as the A’s who finished 54-108 in 1979. Only 306,763 fans came out Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, including 653 fans for one game against the Mariners.
“When owners brought Billy Martin in, you’re not bringing Billy for a rebuilding, you’re bringing Billy to win immediately,” Tafoya said. “And he poured his heart into winning immediately.”
It was a homecoming for Martin who grew up in West Berkeley and had been on the Oakland Oaks Pacific Coast League Championship team of 1948, managed by Casey Stengel.
In fact, Martin was interested in the A’s job when they moved from Kansas City to Oakland in the late 1960s. The A’s became a dynasty in the early 70s but owner Charlie Finley was frustrated by free agency and saw his winners go down the drain. And because of a 20-year lease, the team couldn’t leave its stadium, which prevented an apparent deal that would have moved the team to Denver.
Finley, looking to build some excitement, hired Martin, who had been fired by George Steinbrenner after punching a marshmallow salesman.
“He knew he wanted to come save the franchise,” Tafoya said.
Martin was optimistic about his club, something that surprised outsiders.
“Billy Martin immediately instilled confidence in the young A’s players,” Tafoya said.
In a brand of play that came to be known as BillyBall, Martin had his team running the bases and throwing complete games. Oakland starters tossed 94 complete games, including 93 from Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman.
Oakland went 83-79, finished second in the AL West and drew more than 842,000 fans with virtually the same roster as 1979.
“He sparked a renaissance in the Oakland area,” Tafoya said. “Out of nowhere he just brings this revival.”
The face of the team was not any of the players but Martin.
“That’s what made Billy Martin special,” Tafoya said. “Baseball misses those kinds of managers. The Earl Weavers, the Sparky Andersons. He was so entertaining fans would come to the game to see him come out of the dugout and argue with umpires.”
Walter Haas bought the team and made Martin general manager. In 1981, Oakland set an MLB record with an 11-0 start. Martin made the cover of Time Magazine.
“He just shook the whole city with BillyBall,” Tafoya said.
The A’s would draw 1.3 million fans to the ballpark. A strike took away most of the summer and some of Oakland’s momentum. But the A’s made the playoffs as AL West champions in the first half and swept the Royals in the ALDS. The only thing keeping Martin and the A’s from the World Series was the Yankees, led by Bob Lemon who had replaced and been replaced by Martin.
The Yankees swept three straight.
The magic ran out in 1982. Martin had all the minor leaguers in big league camp in spring training in order to indoctrinate them in BillyBall. The regular players didn’t get enough work and the pitching staff would collapse, with the skipper’s critics saying it was from overuse.
“He was a notoriously hard loser,” Tafoya said. “He would go off on players.”
Oakland lost 94 games with the one bright spot being Rickey Henderson and his record 130 stolen bases.
The A’s would fire Martin after the season and he would return to the Bronx to manage for a third time in 1983.
But there were some lasting impacts. Despite the major league club floundering, Baseball America named Oakland the franchise of the year in 1982 based on the strength of its minor league clubs. Oakland actually set a franchise record with more 1.7 fans coming to see them in 1982. The A’s would become a powerhouse later in the decade, winning three straight pennants and a World Series. And they still play in the same stadium they did when they moved to Oakland in 1968.
And Billy Martin, though he was only in Oakland briefly, is a major reason why.