“Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” by Bill Pennington
Baseball, history, biography, Yankees, Twins, Tigers, Rangers, Athletics
April 7, 2015
4 of 5 stars (very good)
Billy Martin was one of the more beloved men to ever have donned a New York Yankees uniform. Whether it was during his playing days as a second baseman for the championship Yankee teams in the 1950’s or his five stints as the Yankee manager, there was never a shortage of praise for him. Whether it was the fans, teammates or players under his leadership, the stories about Martin’s knowledge of the game and his generosity toward other people were plentiful.
Those stories and so much more about this complex man are captured here in this complete story of Martin’s life written by Bill Pennington. What really makes this work complete is how much of Martin’s off-field life is captured as well, mainly from interviews with his three-ex wives, his widow and his son from his second marriage. Most sports biographies that I have read do a good job of painting the picture of the athlete’s life in the sport, but varying degrees of the person’s life away from work. This one is certainly one of the best in capturing that latter aspect of his life. All of the people interviewed very open on their lives with Martin and did not appear to have any bitterness, even his ex-wives.
There is the possibility that these quotes, along with Pennington’s accounts of several of the brawls in which Martin was famous for, will make the reader believe that the book is less a complete picture of the man’s life and instead will be one that is intended to evoke sympathy for Martin. I did believe that some of the accounts of his fights, such as the one with marshmallow salesman Joe Cooper and the fight with Yankee pitcher Ed Whitson, make Billy out to be a victim when he seemed to actually be the instigator. Because these incidents took place decades ago and many of the sources could only go on memory of the accounts of the incidents, one shouldn’t criticize the accuracy of the story. But added up, there is the possibility of one believing the book isn’t being written with total objectivity.
The baseball stories, both when Martin played and managed, are overall well researched and written. The chapters when Martin managed teams other than the Yankees were very good as well. His penchant for taking teams that are struggling and turning them around into good teams with mostly the same players is more than legend and the accounts of his managerial tenures with Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and Oakland more than bear this out.
There are two flaws with the baseball writing. One is that a few facts are incorrect, such as stating that the first night game in World Series history was played in 1976 between the Reds and Yankees. The first World Series night game was played in 1971. It was the first Sunday night game to which the author was referring. Another puzzling aspect for me was when the author was trying to make the case that Martin’s style of managing for the Oakland Athletics in 1980, popularly known as “Billy Ball” was an earlier version of “Moneyball”, the strategy used by the same team in the early 2000’s made popular by a book and movie of the same name. How the author came to the conclusion that these strategies are similar was not clear to me while reading this.
But for the most part, this book is fun to read. It is entertaining, tells many stories and new items that many people may not know. This is especially true for the chapter about the crash in upstate New York that ended Martin’s life on Christmas Day 1989. It is one that I believe many people will enjoy reading. I gave it a four star rating due to the outstanding research and easy reading style with the only downside being the few factual errors and the possibility of readers thinking the book is less than objective. However, I didn’t believe that to be the case.
Did I skim?
Pace of the book:
I read the book at a slower pace than usual, mainly because I wanted to carefully absorb all the information presented. Since this was a fairly long book, I felt it was better to read it in that manner to get a true feel of the man’s life and his passion for the game and the Yankees.
Do I recommend?
Because Billy Martin was a well-loved figure, not just in New York, but nearly everywhere he was a player or manager, many readers will be interested in this biography. Even non-baseball fans will enjoy the passages about his early life and life away from the ball park.
Book Format Read: