Billy Ball!

It's time to re-think and re-invent Billy Ball!

A quick search on YouTube for Billy Martin will give you videos of him arguing, details about his off-the-field antics, his battles with George Steinbrenner, and details about his numerous firings — including five by Steinbrenner. The passage of time has turned Billy Martin into a caricature. In many ways, this is not surprising. There could be no Billy Martin today in today’s social media-driven world.

But Martin was a very one of the best tactical managers, inspiring players, many of which are loyal to him to this day. He was also a flawed person and many of his demons set him up to be remembered less for his baseball skill and more for his lack of skill off the field.

He has been a World Series MVP, drove in a World Series ending RBI, and made one of the most memorable catches in World Series history. He won a World Series as a coach and developed a style that bears his name, “Billy Ball.”

He has also gotten into bar fights with his teammates and been fired for getting into fights with players he managed. He was let go for fighting with a marshmallow salesman. This led to another name for his off-the-field shenanigans, “Billy Brawl.”

But we can learn things from Martin as a manager. Before that, it is important to understand Martin’s baseball education. 

 

Martin’s Baseball Education

 

Alfred Manuel Martin Jr. was born on May 16, 1928, in Berkeley, California. His parents never got along and soon Martin’s dad was out of the picture. His maternal grandmother, because of her lack of English mastery and hatred of his father, would call him Bello (for beautiful) and would eventually become Billy. His mother remarried a year after he was born and he had a nice family life, albeit living in a poverty-stricken area of Berkeley. 

Growing up with a step-father, short, sporting a large nose and thin skin, Martin was prone to doing anything to win the numerous fights he got into. As one can imagine, he didn’t do well with authority figures like teachers and principals. He was brash, impulsive, and always ready to prove himself and to hell with the consequences. 

Martin did some amateur boxing when he wasn’t fighting outside the ring. Martin’s older brother Tudo grew up with Augie Galan, a major league outfielder. Many professional baseball players would use Berkeley as an off-season training camp. As Martin’s interest and skill in baseball grew, he would get the chance to play with the professional players in town and Galan would take a shining to Martin. Galan would be the first of many people that would take up the task of teaching Billy about baseball. From the start, Billy was taught at a major league level about and how to play baseball. 

Billy played high school baseball, improving each year until other patterns developed. On the field, he was aggressive and got into fights. Off the field, he was still getting into fights. By his senior year in high school, as Martin’s play was progressing, he was dismissed from the team for an on-field incident. Yet another pattern, despite being removed from the team, he would be given another chance. 

In 1946 he signed with the Class D Pioneer League Idaho Fall Russets. After 32 games, The Pacific League’s Oakland Oaks would buy the contract of Martin. Team Owner Brick Laws signed Martin but did try, unsuccessfully, to get a good conduct clause in Billy’s contract.

The coach that pushed for the Oaks to sign Martin? Casey Stengel. Stengel had watched Martin in high school and was impressed more by Martin’s baseball skills and less by his talent. 

Martin started slowly in 1947, but at that point he was about 10 years younger than most of the PCL. Stengel sent him to the Class C Phoenix Senators where he would hit .392. 

In 1948, he would have a full year with the Oaks. Stengel took a liking to Martin, tutoring him about baseball. The childless Stengel and the abandoned Martin would soon develop a father/son relationship. Stengel would have Martin be by his side during games, teaching him about managing a game. Stengel would assign Martin roommates and mentors that would help his batting and fielding, most of which were former major leaguers. Even in the minors, Martin’s baseball teachings were high above his age. 

Since Martin needed all the help he could get, given his physical limitations, Martin improved each year he played. Given his off-the-field exploits, he was improving despite himself. 

After the 1948 season, Stengel would be hired to manage the Yankees. Charlie Dension would take over coaching the Oaks in 1949 and would eventually warm up to the brash second baseman, continuing to tutor him on tactical game decisions. Once again, Martin is learning about baseball and not just how to play baseball. Dension would teach Martin the proper way to steal signs. Years later, in a World Series game, Martin would steal a sign from Dension and foil a pick-off attempt. 

On October 13, 1949, Billy Martin and Jackie Jensen would be sold to the Yankees. After the 1950 Oaks’ season, Dension would be hired to coach in Brooklyn the next year. 

By the time Martin made it to the majors, he had been tutor by two major league managers and several professional players. He has learned to steal signs, how to put pressure on the opposing team, and how to run a team. As a 22-year-old rookie, Billy Martin was starting his major league career with a master’s degree in baseball and he was going to one of the best teams in the league. This was good because he was going to be playing for the 1950s New York Yankees who would win five straight World Series. 

 

Billy Martin’s Playing Days

 

With second baseman Jerry Coleman, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Martin saw little playing time in 1950 and was even sent to the minors for a period to get some playing time. The Yankees won the World Series in 1950 but Martin remained on the bench. 

Martin was drafted in 1951, but received a hardship deferment and rejoined the Yankees in April. There was little playing time for Martin again, but he did make a pinch-running appearance in the 1951 World Series and scored a run as the Yankees beat the Giants in six games. 

Jerry Coleman wasn’t as lucky as Martin in 1952. Coleman was drafted and received no deferment. Billy Martin was now the starting second baseball for 1952 Yankees. He joined a lineup that included Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle on May 12. He had broken his ankle at the start of the year so his start was delayed. He hit .267 in 109 games but only .217 in the World Series. Martin did make a game-saving catch during game seven of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Yankees were winning 4-2 but the bases were loaded, 2 outs and Jackie Robinson was up. Robinson hit a pop fly that first baseman Joe Collins lost in the sun. The wind played tricks with the ball but Martin came from second base to snag the ball in fair territory in front of home plate. The Yankees would win the game and another World Series. Martin would be praised for his awareness in creating one of the most memorable catches in World Series history.

In 1953 Martin would play in 149 games, hit 15 home runs, and collect 75 RBI, all career highs. Martin would shine in the World Series in 1953, collecting 12 hits in the six-game series against the Dodgers. His 12 hits would be the series winner, scoring the winning run in the ninth inning. Martin would be named the series MVP. Yep on a team of stars, the light-hitting “utility fielder” was the MVP. 

This would be the peak of Martin’s playing career. He again was drafted in 1954 but would not get a deferment this time. By the time he returned in 1955, he was a step behind. He would be let go by the Yankees in 1957, after an altercation at the Copacabana nightclub. 

After being traded in 1957, Martin would have unremarkable years with the Kansas City A’s, Tigers, Indians, Reds, Milwaukee Braves, and Twins until he retired in 1961. 

 

Transition to a Manager

 

The Twins would hire him, at the urging of Twins’ manager and Martin’s friend Sam Mele, as a scout in 1962. By 1965 he would be the Twins’ third base coach where he helped a young Rod Carew. He also helped Zoilo Versalles and Zoilo would be named the AL MVP that year. The Twins would lose the 1965 World Series to the now Los Angeles Dodgers, but Martin was starting to be seen as a prospective manager, perhaps next in line to manager the Twins after Sam Mele. When Mele was fired in the 1967 season, Martin was skipped over and Cal Ermer was named the coach. 

Why was he skipped over?

So in 1966 Martin seriously hurt his managing chances by punching Twins’ front office person Howard Fox in the face. They were arguing about a hotel key. This might not seem that big of a deal, but there was a pending lawsuit against Martin for breaking Jim Brewer’s orbital bone with a punch in 1960. Martin would lose the lawsuit after a near-decade of litigation.

This pattern would continue. Martin would eventually coach the Twins’ minor league team, the Denver Bears, in 1968. Keeping himself out of trouble and leading the Bears to a respectable season, the Twins hired him to coach the 1969 club after Ermer’s 79-83 seventh-place finish in the AL.

By now Martin was developing his managerial style and successful one.

Billy Martins Managing Record

First and foremost he would instill a fear of losing to his players. If you lost, he would tell you exactly why. He would stress fundamentals, hitting the cut-off man, turning a double play, stealing signs, throwing spitballs, backing up your position, and abusing your opponents to distraction. Nobody wanted to come off the field after making a bad play. 

Ask Reggie Jackson. 

Jackson was once removed, on a nationally televised game, after not playing to the standard Martin demanded. The two had to be separated before they came to blows. That was June 18, 1977. Martin led Jackson and the Yankees to a World Series victory that year. Martin proved Jackson may be the straw the stirred the drink, but Martin was the one in control of the straw. 

He was also make sure his teams were aggressive on the basepath. He would teach runners about taking extra bases, stealing second, third, and home. He would practice and call double and triple steals. If hitting was timing and pitching was disrupting timing, Martin’s teams were going to disrupt the pitcher and the fielders. The best way to do that was on the base paths. it was a way that the entire offense could contribute. 

 

Billy Ball is Born

 

In 1969, Martin improved the Twins from seventh place in 1968 to 97 wins, first place in the AL West, and lost to Baltimore ALCS. So, on October 13, 1969, Martin was fired of course.

Wait. What? Why? 

Well during the season there was a fight in the bar between Twins’ teammates David Boswell and Bob Allision. Martin, his fighting spirit always alive, join and landed about 20 punches on Boswell. He had also former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey kicked out of the locker room. Mix in numerous reports of drinking on road trips and the risk wasn’t worth the reward. Also, the Twins’ owner Calvin Griffin asked him why he started Bob Miller over Jim Kaat in the deciding game of the ALCS. Martin quipped, “Because I’m the manager, that’s why.” 

This pattern would continue until he died in 1989. Martin’s drinking, brashness, and self-destruction efforts were too much for most owners to manage for a prolonged time. 

After his first firing, Martin had his Ph.D. in baseball. But Martin has established what would be labeled, “Billy Ball.” Most people focus on the baserunning as Billy Ball but they are wrong.

In 1969, Martin had Rod Carew steal home seven times. tying Ty Cobb’s single-season record. Three of those steals happened in the first month of the season. The twins had four triple steals that year. On one occasion Billy had Cesar Tover and Rod Carew steal home in the same at-bat. Carew stole second and third and home in that at-bat. He had 33-year-old Harmon Killebrew steal eight bases that year. 

If you look at the game logs much of these steals were in the first half of the system. As subtle as a sledgehammer to the head, Martin was teaching his players to do whatever was needed to win. While the baserunning was a way to manufacture runs, it was the vehicle that Martin used to impose his will on the team. Billy Ball was about putting the opponents on their heels and letting them know every player on that team was willing to do anything to win. 

Martin had learned at an early age that talent alone didn’t win games. He knew what won games he had been learning since he was a teenager. As a player, he showed that every player would contribute and even shine on a team loaded with stars. As a manager, he was going to turn every player into a version of him, even the stars. 

Martin’s history in baseball had given enough areas to exploit but running was the easiest talent that he could use the entire team. Opponents had to worry, Martin could call a double steal with a home run hitting Harmon Killebrew at the plate so the pitcher had to worry about the runners as well as the batter. All. The. Time. It was a relentless mind game that Martin knew he was good enough to win a large majority of the time. 

In one game, in 1969, against the first place A’s in July, Martin order Cesar Tovar to steal second with the Twins winning 8-0. After the second steal, Tovar took a big lead off of second. The flustered pitcher threw the pick-off throw into centerfield. He then gave up back-to-back doubles. The Twins would then win the next two games, overtaking the A’s for the league lead. They stayed in first for the rest of the season. 

Billy Ball was using his team’s strength at full throttle and daring your opponent to be the brick wall to stop it. It wasn’t always about running and steals. His World Series team in 1977 wasn’t a base-stealing team. They were better than you and played better than you. If a player even looked like he was loafing, Martin would bench him. If Martin didn’t think you were trying your best, he would sit you for a deciding game five of the ALCS (as he did with Jackson in 1977). How did Jackson respond? He got a pinch-hit single in the game. In the six-game World Series, Jackson hit 5 home runs, including three home runs against three different pitchers in game six. Just like his manager, he was named the series MVP.

Billy Ball was a mindset and Martin would use whatever was available to him — then overuse it. 

When he was with the A’s in 1980 and 1981, he did not have a reliable bullpen but a very good and young starting rotation. So in 1980, he had his starting pitchers complete 94 games, the highest total since the 1940s. 

Think you could keep the game close until you get to the relievers? I’ll have my best pitchers throw 120-150 pitches each start. 

In the strike-shortened 109 games 1981 season, they threw 60 complete games. They had won the first half of the season so did they try to save the staff in the second half for the playoffs? Nope. Billy Ball does not take its foot off the throttle even for its own benefit.

Also with the Martin’s A’s was one Rickey Henderson. At first, Martin held Henderson back, allow him to only steal when given a sign. Soon, when Martin was comfortable, he set Henderson out on his own. Henderson would steal 376 bases in 415 games with Martin on the helm. If he had a good thing, he’d over us it. But Henderson was not alone. All the A’s were running. They were using the hit and run. They were sacrificing players around the bases. They were applying pressure on the opposing teams. You couldn’t take it easy when Rickey wasn’t on base. You had to worry about anybody on base. There was no break. The power bats of the Yankees and the short porch in Yankee’s stadium’s right field were gone. He had Rickey Henderson and young pitching. He used the hell out of them turned the A’s into winners. 

 

Like Billy Himself, Billy Ball has Flaws

 

But there was a flaw with this approach. 

If you run your car at high RPM it is going to go fast but eventually, even with the best care, it will break down. Billy’s team eventually did. Quickly. Much like Billy himself, the need for immediate satisfaction was given without long-term consequences. 

By 1982, the toll on the arms of the pitchers was evident. They simply were not that good anymore. The focus on a small set of pitchers didn’t allow other pitchers to develop. Once the overused pitchers started to break down there were no replacements in the wings. 

Other notable pitchers Martin rode for short team success.

  • In 1971 Martin had Mickey Lolich start 45 games, complete 29 of them, and work 376 innings. That was the most since 1912! 
  • In 1974, Fergie Jenkins started 41 games for and complete 29. 
  • In 1975 with the Yankees, Martin rode Catfish Hunter for 39 starts and 30 complete games. The most since Bob Feller.

But regardless of where Billy Martin went, the teams improved quickly. His teams produced runs, played good fundamental defense, and would always keep opponents on their heels and his demons would remove him from the team and leave the wreckage behind for somebody else. But we have better front office’s now. We can control the consequences more.

 

Analytically Billy Ball?

 

Billy Ball can work today. If one thinks of it not as running the bases or abusing pitchers but as a way to put pressure on your opponent all the time. We can control the over usage of pitchers and even the worst teams right now can provide a reasonable pitching staff to any coach. We can minimize the bad and there isn’t much to lose for trying.

Building on the 1906 Hitless Wonders, we can see spots in the modern game where Billy Ball can give teams some advantages. A team wouldn’t need to move to “small ball” but a team would need to make the pitcher uncomfortable. Keep the pressure on the opposing pitcher to hold runners and the opposing fielders to keep runners from taking extra bases. In the Deadball Era, they did it because they couldn’t wait for home runs. Billy Ball would do it for the same reason and also keep the pressure on.

In the game today, if a pitcher gets on a roll, there is little way to stop them. With rules changing to keep the batter in the box or not letting them stray outside the box for too long, the offense needs a way to disrupt pitchers. Using the running game to distract the pitchers. Moving runners when your best hitter is batting will force changes in defense. There are few ways to control fielders, but making them concerned about runners advancing is one of the few ways to do so. Keep them in a position to hold a runner is a way to control how much shirting is done. 

Can you imagine a 22-year-old closer throwing absolute filth that now has to worry about a triple steal? A double steal?

How about a right-handed closer that now has to worry about keeping a runner close to third? That now means the third baseman has to play closer to the bag.

Why not always have it in a team’s mind that at the start of extra innings, the man on second is going to try and take third. He is going to do it on the first pitch and you won’t be able to stop him. 

Perhaps, part of the answer to overcoming the pitcher’s dominance this year is to let our opponents know you’ll do anything to win. 

Runners at first and second, one out, and the number three hitter at-bat? Double steal. 

Walk him? Yep, we’re going to steal home and third. 

Up by 10, we’ll still run. 

Want to start your good bat, weak arm catcher? Please. 

While the Deadball Era and the 1900s’ White Sox showed that one can create an efficient offense that makes the best use of putting the ball in play, even if you generate outs. Get on base even if you have to walk or take a hit-by-pitch. Use base runners to distract pitchers and fielders. Move players on the bases, test the arm and defensive ability of a shortstop that is now playing centerfield. 

Importantly do what Martin could not. Statistically measure effectiveness. Teams can get the position of players on the field for each play. Can we force them to different positions? Can stealing home be an effective tool to distract a pitcher?

Maybe Billy Ball can be something that once again provides an immediate improvement for a team? Given the analytics to study the effects, it is almost unforgivable that some team has already given it a try. 

 

Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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