Book review: The good, bad and ugly of Billy Martin, baseball’s ‘flawed genius’

An excerpt from my Chicago Tribune review of Bill Pennington’s fine book. Highly recommended.


In the epilogue, Pennington writes that a case could be made that Billy Martin merits consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame for his brilliant work as a manager. Yet as the book’s title points out, Martin was a “flawed genius” with many demons that probably kept him from reaching Cooperstown. However, if there was a Hall of Fame for baseball’s most colorful and compelling characters, Martin would be a first-ballot selection.

Martin’s career cut a huge swath through baseball history. He was the scrappy second baseman on the great Yankees dynasty in the 1950s. He learned the game from famed manager Casey Stengel, and his late-night antics with future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were the stuff of legend. Pennington writes, “The whole bunch of them were Mad Men before 21st century television writers created ‘Mad Men.'”

Then beginning with Minnesota in 1969, Martin embarked on a memorable 16-year managerial career with five different teams. He won at every stop, often engineering dramatic turnarounds. Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa said Martin was “unmatched” in the dugout. However, his fiery personality, usually fueled by excessive alcohol, always assured he wouldn’t be around for long.

Martin was at the center of baseball’s most bizarre soap opera. Yankees owner George Steinbrennerhired and fired him as manager five times, seemingly unable to shake his addiction to Martin. It became so comical that the pair even mocked themselves in a famous Miller Lite ad.

Pennington, now a sportswriter for The New York Times, had a front-row seat for much of The Billy and George Show as a Yankees beat writer for the Bergen (New Jersey) Record. He recounts the time Martin tried to escort him outside of a hotel “to settle our differences.” The next day Pennington recalled Martin couldn’t remember what made him so mad.

Pennington writes of the complex Martin: “I discovered that Billy was without question one of the most magnetic, entertaining, sensitive, humane, brilliant, generous, insecure, paranoid, dangerous, irrational, and unhinged people I had ever met. … Billy’s emotions, ever so apparent, would seem to make him an open book, but his actions left a different impression, one both undefined and hauntingly mercurial.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *