Reviewed Books: Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius

Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pp. $30.00) HC 2015.

If asked to pick a song that effectively summarized the life of Billy Martin, it would be U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But since no one asked me, I’ll use it as the beginning of my book review of Bill Pennington’s new biography Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius. Pennington’s latest book shows two different sides to the famed New York Yankee player and manager who was no stranger to controversy, the first side showing a win-at-all-costs warrior who took advantage of every opportunity to be a better ballplayer, and the other side being a tortured individual whose life ended tragically before he could finally find the perfect balance between his personal and professional life that he’d spent a lifetime looking for.

Pennington begins with an introduction recreating the events of Christmas Day 1989 on which Martin died at the age of 61. Living outside Binghamton, New York at the time, Martin and a friend, William Reedy, had gone into town to run some errands, which included a stop at a bar for a few drinks. On their way home, Martin’s truck hit a ditch near his home and Martin sustained a fatal head injury (Pennington writes that if Martin had been wearing his seatbelt he would have survived). The aftermath of the accident saw Reedy change his story several times about who was actually driving, claiming that Martin was behind the wheel despite the preponderance of evidence showing he was the passenger. This effective introduction grasped my attention as tightly as Martin’s fingers could squeeze the neck of anyone challenging him to a fight.

With any biography I read, I usually don’t look forward to the first chapter following an introduction because I don’t find one’s family history interesting. Many biographers like to go into so much detail about a subject’s family background that it leads the reader to feel like a guest at a party whose host waits for the right moment to appear, only to succeed in testing one’s patience. So as I prepared to trudge through his family history I discovered that Pennington chose not to follow a chronological family timeline but instead had friends and relatives introduce Martin’s early life through anecdotes about his upbringing in a rough neighborhood outside of Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s. Pennington paints a portrait of a fatherless young man raised by a mother who instilled a thick coat of aggressive self-reliance through the use of foul language he heard on a regular basis that would have made any sailor on shore leave blush with embarrassment. This upbringing molded his aggressive approach to baseball, quickly advancing through the ranks of school teams and eventually professional baseball, but not without a few black eyes and splits lips along the way (many of which Martin took himself). I was surprised to discover that as a young man and throughout his entire life, Martin was a devout Catholic. Martin rarely missed mass, and often wore a tiny crucifix pinned in between the Yankee logo on his cap, which umpires confessed to focusing on when Martin screamed protests in their faces, a constant occurrence in Martin’s career as a manager. But despite his faith, Martin seemed choosey with his commandments. He was married four times, had dozens of girlfriends, and abused alcohol nearly as much as his close friend and teammate Mickey Mantle did.

As I continued through Penningtonn’s biography I saw Martin emerge an intense and tormented man battling enemies with a voracious determination to win at any costs. Martin is portrayed as a sort of self-appointed David battling one Goliath after another, Goliaths who commented on Martin’s unusually large nose, or questioned his playing abilities or took advantage of his small size. They came in the form of Casey Stengel, who Martin blamed for his trade to Kansas City in 1956, despite Stengel seeing Martin as his protégé. Other Goliaths like Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, players like Reggie Jackson, dozens of sports writers, a particular marshmallow salesmen, and George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees owner whose intense love/hate relationship with Martin rivals Gollum’s relationship with his precious ring, created a gauntlet through which Martin chose to run through because of his inability to control the demons that often guided his behavior.

The refrain that emerges most clearly from Pennington’s biography is that Martin never seemed to find what he was looking for. Despite all the All-Star appearances, being named 1953 World Series MVP, a three time Manager of the Year, multiple American League division titles and World Series Championships, as well as all the trophy wives, money, fame, and status as a Yankee, it never seemed enough for the man who proclaimed himself the proudest Yankee ever. This theme leads to the most riveting part of the book in which Pennington brilliantly details Martin’s plan to return to manage the Yankees in 1990. At this point in his life, Martin was working as a consultant for George Steinbrenner, happily married to his fourth wife, living on a farm outside of Binghamton, New York, and enjoyed being the beacon of the community. But again, this wasn’t enough for Martin, and when Steinbrenner floated the idea to him of coming back to manage for a sixth time (He’d fired Martin five times already), Pennington portrayal of Martin’s plans to grab the reigns of the New York Yankees was like that of a general preparing his troops for a major campaign to win another World Series Championship, advising his former coaches not to take any other job because they’d be going back to New York with him. Pennington’s tone suggests that this return would be his best yet, the final piece Martin had been searching for that would complete the jigsaw puzzle his life had become, an array of different pieces comprised of failed marriages, trades from team to team, alcohol abuse, barbs with teammates and executives alike, and with fans who often tried to provoke him to fight; pieces that never seemed to fit together. Martin's return involved collaborating with Steinbrenner and coaches Lou Pinella and Clete Boyer who would help Martin tweak the Yankees like a rubic’s cube, needing just one or two more turns before finding the solution needed to catapult the Yankees into the World Series while permanently cementing his reputation as a world class manager and baseball player. Unfortunately, Martin died before this plan came to fruition.

Pennington closes his biography with commentary about the aftermath of the car accident that took Martin’s life and the funeral that followed in New York City. Martin’s funeral was as elaborate as a fallen king’s, with George Steinbrenner, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford serving as pallbearers, along with another man who knew the fall from grace all too well, President Richard Nixon, who comforted a sobbing Billy Martin Junior. Towards the end of the funeral, Nixon led Martin’s son to the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to show the fallen hero’s son the nearly five thousand people braving a cold winter day to pay their respects.

It is in Pennington’s biography that we see a soldier, a tormented soul who, while never finding what he was looking for, never allowed his inner demons to completely destroy the big heart that friends and enemies remember with fondness. Martin never shied away from showing a more humane and sensitive side, one that loved his children deeply, one that was not afraid to weep openly, and one that was widely respected and loved by his players. In death unfortunately, the feisty manager who kicked dirt on umpires, drank himself into embarrassing stupors, and rarely avoided physical confrontation remains as the person so many fans remember him. This image has likely (and unfairly) kept Martin out of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but with the help of Pennington’s artful and faithful exposé, readers are given a chance to see a fair and balanced biography of a great man and ballplayer. Through a slightly biased view on Pennington’s behalf (He’d been a beat writer for the Yankees and had gotten to know Martin well) we see a hero who edges out a reputation as a bad boy with a legacy that many Hall of Famers could only dream of accumulating.