The book: “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius”
The author: Bill Pennington
The vital statistics: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 530 pages.
Find it: At Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: It’s a flawed premise, expecting us to read and absorb more than 500 pages on the life and times of anybody — particularly someone who really we developed a low opinion for and didn’t think it wise to invest the time in that person now because there was thinking it could change our attitude about him amidst what appears to be another campaign to get him into the Hall of Fame.
But then we read the Marvin Miller book and felt that was time well invested.
We’re struggling with that logic now as we turn the page to Billy Martin.
Let’s get to know him. Again. Even if you haven’t read his previous two autobiographies, or the half dozen books done about him already. It’s time to be enlightened.
Pennington gets that, but he had a new take. It’s 25 years since Martin’s death. He still isn’t Hall material, apparently, and, after interviewing everyone still alive who could talk about him, maybe this will raise the shade again.
Except here, we have our guard up.
No matter how many rave reviews have come out about this heavyweight manager by the former Bergen Record reporter who covered the team, we waited until the very end of this month to even pick it up, putting up a fight against it as if it was a miscast marshmallow salesman.
We skipped around the pages. We tried going back to front. We wrestled even with the expanded press release that came with this copy.
Something doesn’t feel right about celebrating this man. Maybe it because of how we saw how he came across in the Glenn Burke autobiography. And how he reacted in the George Brett Pine Tar Game.
We’ve got no use for Billy Martin.
We picked up on two highlights from our hunt-and-peck attempt to find a serviceable entry point:
A story from page 121, detailing Martin’s 1956 season as the Yankees’ second baseman, involved “a tussle with a portly little pitcher with the Kansas City Athletics named Tommy Lasorda.
“Lasorda had been pitching inside to a couple of Yankees batters, and when he nearly hit Hank Bauer in the head, Billy jumped to the top step of the dugout and screamed at Lasorda, ‘I’m going to get you later.’
“Lasorda stalked off the mound in the direction of the Yankees’ dugout.
“‘I said to him, “You don’t have to wait, banana nose, come out now”,’ Lasorda barked. ‘And, of course, Billy being Billy, he did.’
“There was a scuffle involving several Yankees and Athletics, but no punches were thrown.
“‘The next day, Billy comes over to me before the game and says, “You know, you’ve got balls. Two tough dagos like us shouldn’t be fighting’,” Lasorda said. ‘And we shook hands and we went out for a drink that night. And from that moment forward we were the best of friends.’”
Then there was the day that seemed inevitable: Martin dies as the passenger in a pickup truck that went off an icy road on Christmas Day, 1989 near his home in Binghamton, N.Y.
Don Mattingly, who played for Martin off and on the last eight seasons, heard the news while at his sister’s house in Indiana.
“I started telling people about how alive Billy became just before the first pitch of every game,” Mattingly says on page 490. “That was his moment – pacing up and down in the dugout with his hands in his back pockets. It put a charge in everyone on the team. That was him at his best.
“But I also thought about the demons that went with him after the game. I thought about the alcohol and all that dangers that go with it. He was so brilliant, but there was a piece of him that was so tragic.”
The brilliance of Pennington’s effort to tackle this, as it turns out, is really what intrigued us the most, so maybe it’s best we go there.
In his introduction, the New York Times writer explains about how he, as a reporter, was at Martin’s house the day after the accident. A local sheriff told him that had Martin been wearing a seat belt, he would still be alive.
“Perhaps that’s true,” writes Pennington, “but if there was anyone who went through life without a seat belt on, it was Billy Martin.”
To Pennington, Martin was one of “the most magnetic, entertaining, sensitive, humane, brilliant, insecure, paranoid, dangerous, irrational and unhinged people I had ever met.”
Pennington was able not to just secure an interview with Martin’s fourth and final wife, Jill, who had not talked to the media since the accident, but also his previous three wives, in addition to Billy Martin Jr. New interviews with Lasorda and Mattingly, as noted, were included about the 200-plus people who gave their perspective of him all these years later.
Pennington also produced more details about how Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was preparing to bring Martin back to manage the Yankees, right before Martin’s death – that would have made six go-arounds for the two who seemed to be much the same ego-maniacal in their relationship issues.
The Pennington account carries some sympathy and is so well written that alone it does easily engage the reader who may know of Martin only by ESPN retrospectives or some salty Lasorda remembrances. And that’s the danger here for us.
Kicking and screaming, we still couldn’t give this book its just due with a complete night-after-night sitdown read, enjoying it for what it is. Maybe, someday. Just not right now. Maybe we aren’t ready.
More to know:
== Pennington appears on ESPN2’s “Olbermann” show for an interview with Jeremy Schaap (above).
== From a Wall Street Journal review: “The legend of Billy the Id has endured since his death at 61 … Now it will be burnished anew … Energetically reported and skillfully written, the book is enormously entertaining. Without pretension, it explores the question whether a baseball lifer can actually be a tragic figure in the classic sense—a man destroyed by the very qualities than made him great. Mr. Pennington makes a persuasive case for Martin’s genius in the dugout and, while plainly sympathetic, chronicles his manifest flaws in clear-eyed detail. Billy’s mother, who may have been a prostitute, counseled him early, “Don’t take s— from anyone,” and her loving son never failed to heed her advice.”
== From a review in Baseball America: “If you are tired of the endless books about past and current Yankees, there is no argument here. Pennington has taken a complex man who battled demons, into an endearing, yet flawed man that we can relate to.”
== Ed Sherman at Poynter.org discusses the book with Pennington and what it was like covering Martin and the Yankees in the 1980s.
== The first Billy Martin autobiography with Peter Golenbock that came out in 1980 was called “No. 1.” The last one, in 1987 with Phil Pepe, was called “Billyball.”