Billy Martin Shook Up Cleveland in One Year with the Tribe
Vince Guerrieri | On 14, Jun 2017
In a baseball career that spanned nearly 40 years, there was no team Billy Martin was more closely associated with than the New York Yankees. He was a World Series hero for them in the 1950s, and he managed them to championships in the 1970s. His uniform number, 1, is retired in the Bronx, and his tombstone in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York, reads, “I might not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest.”
But in the late 1950s, exiled from the team he loved, Martin bounced around, including a stop in Cleveland in what could have been a historic year for the Indians, but one that instead laid bare the dysfunction of the team, from which it would take generations to recover.
Alfred Pesano Jr. was born in Berkeley, California, in 1928. His mother changed the family name to Martin, and his Italian grandmother called him Belli, which soon turned into Billy. Billy Martin grew up in the Bay Area, and played minor league baseball for Casey Stengel with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. After the Yankees fired Bucky Harris, they hired Stengel – then regarded as a baseball lifer with a mediocre playing and managing career. The Yankees bought Martin from the Oaks, and he made his major league debut in 1950.
Martin developed a reputation as a player who rose to the occasion in the Fall Classic, never great, but almost always good. He also acquired a reputation as a wild man, sampling New York nightlife with teammates Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle and taking on all comers – on and off the field – in fights. Martin and several teammates went out for his birthday in 1957 at the Copacabana (the hottest spot north of Havana). Details vary based on the story’s telling, but a fight broke out between the players and some other patrons of the nightclub. A month later, Martin was traded to the Kansas City Athletics.
After the 1957 season, he was traded to the Tigers, and after one season in Detroit, he was traded to Cleveland. The Indians had a pronounced need for a second baseman, and general manager Frank Lane was willing to part with Don Mossi and Ray Narleski – both vital parts of the team that won 111 games and the pennant four years earlier – to get Martin, who for his part was thrilled to return to his natural position after bouncing between shortstop and third base for the Tigers. “I’m happy about the whole thing,” he said. Longtime Plain Dealer sports columnist Jim Doyle wrote that Lane, “a swapportunist from way back,” might have made a good deal, and they were willing to give Martin a chance.
If Martin was happy to be in Cleveland, he was probably just as happy to not be in Detroit, saying of his former teammates, “They got too much publicity, too much money and not enough spirit.”
Martin also didn’t have much use for his manager in Cleveland, Joe Gordon, himself a former second baseman. Gordon tried to change Martin’s fielding style, and Martin made it a point to needle Gordon in the press, pointing out he’d made significantly more errors in his playing career than Martin had. In fact, Gordon tried to bench Martin, but was overruled by Lane, who liked Martin’s fighting spirit. Of course, this further deepened the rift between Martin and Gordon.
The Indians were in first place in August when Martin was beaned in a game against the Senators. Pitcher Tex Clevenger hit Martin in his face with a fastball, breaking his jaw and six other bones in Martin’s head. The Tribe faded from contention after that, finishing second to the White Sox. (Martin took some perverse satisfaction in finishing higher than the Yankees that year.)
After the 1959 season, Martin was dealt to the Reds. The Indians got no better. Neither did Martin, who managed to hang on in the major leagues for two more years. In 1969, he got his first shot as a manager, guiding the Minnesota Twins in the new American League West Division. They were promptly swept by the Orioles, and Martin – who had made no friends in the Twin Cities – was fired. Stints with the Tigers, the Rangers, the Yankees, and the Athletics followed, and Martin won division titles with each of those teams except for the Rangers. He won two pennants and one World Series in the Bronx.
His most memorable moment as Rangers manager, though, came in Cleveland – in the visiting dugout for the infamous 10-cent beer night.