Martin had a distinguished playing career in the 1950s, highlighted by his years with the Yankees during which he performed at a high level in appearances in the World Series. He was also selected for the American League All Star team in 1956. In these years his infamous propensity for fisticuffs became established, both on and off the baseball field.
As a manager, Martin was known for turning losing teams into winners, and for arguing animatedly with umpires, including a widely parodied routine in which he kicked dust on their feet. However, he was criticized for not getting along with veteran players and owners, burning out young pitchers, and for having an addiction to alcohol. During the 1969 through 1988 period as a manager, Martin totaled 1,253 victories with a .553 winning percentage.
Martin was born Alfred Manuel Pesano, Jr. to Alfred Manuel Pesano, Sr. and Joan Salvini "Jenny" Pesano in Berkeley, California. He was of Portuguese and Italian descent, as his father was a native of the Azores and his mother was born to a large Italian family in California. Alfred, Sr. abandoned the family eight months later; for this reason, Jenny always referred to Alfred, her second husband, as the "jackass." (She had been married before to a native Italian named Donato Pisani, whom her family arranged her to marry, and later married a singer named Jack Downey and took his name; the marriage lasted until Jack's death many years later.) Eventually, Jenny changed the family name to "Martin." He began being called "Billy" after his grandmother (Joan's mother) started calling him "Bello" (Italian masculine for "beautiful"; Martin said in his autobiography Number One that she would also call him "Bellitz", a dialectical version of the same word). As Martin grew up in West Berkeley his mother took careful notice not to let her son know his actual name, not wanting him to know he shared the same name with Alfred Pesano. In fact, such careful care had been taken to hide Martin's birthname from him that he didn't find out until entering junior high; on his first day in Seventh Grade, while the teacher took attendance, his teacher called on "Alfred Pesano" and young Billy thought she had skipped over him.
While attending Berkeley High School, Martin tried out for and began playing for the Oakland Junior Oaks, affiliated with the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks club. After graduation in 1946, he was signed by Eddie Leishman, also a Berkeley native, to play for him for Idaho Falls the Class D Pioneer League, hitting .254 in 32 games. Late in the 1947 season, he was signed to the Oaks, where his manager was Casey Stengel, who admired his aggressive play. Martin played for the Oaks in 1948 and 1949.
When Stengel became the manager of the New York Yankees in 1949 he had the Yankees obtain Martin in 1950. That year, Martin batted .250 in 34 games.
Martin began his major league career in 1950 as a second baseman for the Yankees. As a player, he was known for making clutch plays. In the 1952 World Series, he made a game-saving catch on an infield popup in Game 7.
In the 1953 season, Martin had career highs in home runs (15), RBIs (75), doubles (24), triples (6), and times hit by pitch (6). He was the most valuable player of the 1953 World Series, as he batted .500 with a .958 slugging percentage and delivered with an RBI in Game 6 to clinch the series. Martin was an All-Star in 1956. In 1958, Martin led the league in sacrifice hits, with 13.
After his 1957 trade (which also included Ralph Terry, Woodie Held, and Bob Martyn) to the Kansas City Athletics , Martin's career declined, with several short stints with six different teams over the final 4½ seasons of his playing career: the Athletics, the Detroit Tigers, the Cleveland Indians, the Cincinnati Reds, the Milwaukee Braves and the Minnesota Twins.
Martin retired in 1961 with a career batting average of .257. He hit .333 in 28 World Series games for the Yankees.
Martin spent eight years (1962–69) in the Minnesota organization after his retirement. He was a scout from 1962–64, the third-base coach of the Twins from 1965 through May 27, 1968, and manager of their Triple-A affiliate, the Denver Bears, for the last half of the 1968 campaign. He succeeded Cal Ermer as Minnesota's big-league manager following the '68 season.
The Twins won the 1969 American League West title (both leagues now had two divisions after expanding from 10 teams to 12) in Martin's only season as their manager. However, they were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the first ever American League Championship Series. Martin was fired after the season following an August 1969 fight in Detroit with one of his pitchers, 20-game winner Dave Boswell, and outfielder Bob Allison in an alley outside the legendary Lindell A.C. bar. After knocking out Allison with one punch, Boswell was in turn knocked out by Martin; the pitcher received a cut that required 20 stitches. Martin spent the 1970 season out of baseball.
Martin managed the Detroit Tigers from 1971 to 1973. He guided the Tigers to their first American League Eastern Division Championship in 1972. During the 1972 American League Championship Series, Oakland Athletics shortstop Bert Campaneris threw his bat at Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow after being hit by a pitch. In the ensuing brawl, an infuriated Martin had to be restrained by umpires and teammates to prevent him from going after Campaneris. The Tigers lost the series three games to two, the first year that the ALCS went the full five games (It was the first such year for the NLCS as well.)
While posing for a baseball card as the manager for the Detroit Tigers in 1972, Martin gave photographers the middle finger. The gesture went unnoticed until after the card's release.
Martin also played a key role in the discovery of Ron LeFlore in a Michigan state prison. Martin was lured to Michigan State Prison by another inmate who knew Martin. The unorthodox Martin witnessed LeFlore's speed and strength. Martin helped LeFlore get permission for day-parole and a tryout at Tiger Stadium. In the summer of 1973, the Tigers signed him to a contract, which enabled LeFlore to meet the conditions for parole. Later that year, Martin brazenly told the press that he had ordered his pitchers to throw spitballs and shine balls, reportedly because Gaylord Perry was frequently throwing spitballs when the Tigers faced him. American League president Joe Cronin suspended him for three days, but just as he was due to come off the suspension, the Tigers fired him.
Martin's next managerial job was with the Texas Rangers, where he took the club from last place to second place in 1974, but was fired in 1975. He was hired by owner Bob Short replacing Whitey Herzog at the end of the 1973 season. He surprised the baseball world in 1974 by helping the Rangers to an 84-76 record after they had two consecutive 100+ loss seasons. But after the 1975 team went 44-51 under Martin, and after a confrontation with new Rangers owner Brad Corbett, Martin was fired on July 20 and Frank Lucchesi, one of Martin's coaches and a man who Martin thought was undermining him to Corbett so he could take the managerial position himself, was named as his replacement.
Martin was not out of work for very long, as the Yankees had also fired their manager, Bill Virdon. The former Yankee second baseman was hired to take his place, marking Martin's first time in a Yankee uniform since the 1957 trade. With Martin at the helm, the Yankees went 30-26 in their final 56 games of the 1975 season; he then managed them to the World Series in 1976 (their first pennant since 1964) and 1977, winning in 1977. He feuded publicly with both Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and star outfielder Reggie Jackson. In one especially infamous incident, on June 18, 1977, in the middle game of what would prove to be a three-game series sweep by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Martin pulled Jackson off the field (replacing him with Paul Blair) in mid-inning for failing to hustle and catch a shallow outfield fly ball by Jim Rice, allowing Rice to reach second base. The extremely angry and highly animated Martin had to be restrained by coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra from getting into a fight with Jackson in the dugout during the nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game.
In 1978, Martin had another major incident with Jackson and it eventually led to him losing his position. On July 17 against the Kansas City Royals, Jackson came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning with Thurman Munson on base and Martin put the bunt sign on. After Jackson fouled the first pitch off, the sign was taken off and Jackson was given the sign to swing away. Jackson bunted again, and then on the third pitch he bunted again and popped out. A furious Martin demanded Jackson be suspended for the remainder of the season after the game, but after conversing with upper management Martin agreed on a five-game suspension. Then, when Jackson returned, he told reporters that he did not know why Martin had suspended him.
To make matters worse for Martin, he was accused of racism for demanding Jackson's suspension after word leaked to the press that Sparky Lyle, who was going through his own problems with team management, violated team rules that same day when he left the stadium and went home without permission after refusing to pitch a second full inning, yet received no punishment. Then he learned that Steinbrenner was looking to trade his manager to the Chicago White Sox, and in return would receive White Sox manager Bob Lemon. Martin finally had enough, and following the July 23 game in Chicago Martin lashed out at his star player and his owner. Martin told reporters in Chicago, "They deserve each other. One's a born liar [Jackson], and the other's convicted [Steinbrenner]." (Martin was referring to Steinbrenner's conviction for making illegal donations to Richard Nixon's 1972 election campaign, a conviction that resulted in Steinbrenner being suspended from baseball for 15 months).
The next day, having thought over the impact of his words Martin resigned in a tearful press conference in Kansas City (it was said, including by Martin in his 1980 autobiography, that Steinbrenner had sent Al Rosen, who was the team president at the time, to fire Martin at the hotel but Martin resigned before he could). Steinbrenner replaced Martin with Lemon, who had lost his job with the White Sox approximately a month earlier despite winning AL Manager of the Year in 1977. Soon afterward, at the annual Old-Timers' Game at Yankee Stadium, in a grandstanding gesture and an overwhelming demand by the fans, the Yankees had public address announcer Bob Sheppard introduce an unemployed Martin as the Yankees' next manager for the 1980 season (with Lemon moving to the front office). Steinbrenner and Martin had apparently patched up their differences, but Lemon managed the team for 1978–1979.
In 1979, the Yankees got off to a slow start under Lemon. Injuries to Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage as well as the death of Thurman Munson mid-season had the Yankees reeling. Steinbrenner fired Lemon and brought back Martin earlier than previously planned. The Yankees failed to improve, however, and their streak of American League East division titles ended at three. After the 1979 season, Martin got into a fight with marshmallow salesman Joseph Cooper at a hotel in Minneapolis. According to Cooper, the fight started over a dispute on who should be "Manager of the Year", with Cooper saying Dick Williams or Earl Weaver. Martin reportedly egged Cooper on, offering a $500 bet and later sucker punching Cooper when he agreed. Steinbrenner fired him after that and replaced him with Dick Howser for the 1980 season.
Martin, an East Bay native born and raised in Berkeley, resurfaced with the Oakland Athletics, where he perfected a style of play that became known as "Billyball" (characterized as featuring aggressive base running). Martin won the American League West Division title in the split season of 1981, swept the Kansas City Royals in the special division series (due to a players' strike), and then met the Yankees in the 1981 ALCS where his A's were quickly swept. Martin's early success with the A's led to his designation as the club's general manager—giving him control over the baseball operations of the entire Oakland organization in 1981.
Martin was fired from both positions when the 1982 Athletics plummeted to a 68-94 record, largely because he'd overworked many of the pitchers from the 1981 team. Years later, Rob Neyer estimated that the four top starters from the 1981 team threw anywhere from 120-140 pitches per complete game—a heavy workload for pitchers as young as the members of the 1981 staff were.
Martin returned to the New York Yankees in 1983, 1985, and 1988, but never for more than one full season. During his years as a major league manager, Art Fowler usually served as his pitching coach. Each time, while his teams managed to make good accounts of themselves on the field, he was fired due to his behavior on and off the field.
During the 1983 season, Martin was involved in one of the most controversial regular season games, known as the Pine Tar Incident, where umpires nullified a go-ahead home run by Yankee nemesis, Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett, when Martin protested that there was too much pine tar on his bat. Ultimately, American League President Lee MacPhail ruled in favor of the Royals' protest, reinstating the home run, and replaying the game from the point of the nullification. At the start of the replayed game, Martin tried to protest on the grounds that Brett had missed a base. The umpires working this game, however, had anticipated this, and had obtained an affidavit from the crew who had worked the original game saying that Brett had indeed touched all the bases.
On September 22, 1985, while at a hotel bar in Baltimore, Maryland, Martin fought one of his pitchers, Ed Whitson, who was 4 inches (100 mm) taller and 40 pounds (18 kg) heavier. Martin suffered a broken arm, bruises, and cuts, while Whitson had a broken rib and a split lip. He was fired after the 1985 season.
At the time of his death, Martin was preparing to manage the Yankees a sixth time for the 1990 season, to the point of having assembled a coaching staff.
On August 10, 1986, the Yankees retired Martin's uniform number 1 and dedicated a plaque in his honor for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque contains the words, There has never been a greater competitor than Billy. Martin told the crowd, "I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I am the proudest."
The baseball fields at Bushrod Park in Oakland California are named for baseball player and manager Billy Martin
Martin appeared on the 2011 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. He did not receive enough votes for induction.
Many of his contemporaries have remarked on Martin's ability to surprise the opposition and his outside-the-box thinking. Commenting on Martin's strategy as a manager, Dave Winfield has stated that opposing players would often ask each other, "What's Billy doing now?" George Steinbrenner has stated that when Martin was in his best form, he was a "baseball genius." He has also been cited as an influence to other prominent managers, including Lou Piniella. Martin both preceded and succeeded Piniella as Yankees manager.
In 1978, Martin played himself in the CBS TV movie One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story.
On the comedy show Bizarre, Martin laid into Super Dave Osborne (albeit behind Martin's closed manager's office door at the Oakland Coliseum) after Osborne prodded him with insults such as "Your Billy Ball stinks" and "You're a stupid little Greek". Osborne then amended the latter to "stupid Italian", which caused Martin to thrash the stuntman some more.
Martin was a guest celebrity ring announcer at the inaugural WrestleMania in March 1985, during his time as the manager of the Yankees, where he was referred to as 'New York's Number One'. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Martin was the first baseball celebrity to appear at WrestleMania.
On May 24, 1986, on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, co-host Martin was "fired" by executive producer Lorne Michaels for being "drunk" in a skit, slurring his lines. During the goodnights, Martin set the dressing room on fire in retaliation, a staged scene set as a cliffhanger for the following season. In 1988, on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update", comedian Dennis Miller opened the sports with, "In Calgary tonight, Katarina Witt won the gold medal in figure skating, prompting Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to fire manager Billy Martin", as part of a continuous running gag on the segment where a recent sporting event "forces" Steinbrenner to fire whomever is managing the team in retaliation.
In the Seinfeld episode ("The Wink"), after George Costanza accidentally gets one of his co-workers in the Yankees organization fired, the fictional George Steinbrenner goes on a long rant to George about the many people he has had to let go over the years. He mentions Billy Martin four times.
Martin was played by John Turturro in the 2007 ESPN mini-series The Bronx is Burning, which follows the tumultuous summer of 1977 in New York City.
Martin is memorialized in the song "Billy Martin Requiem" by New York City artist Little Annie.
Martin was married four times and had two children, a daughter named Kelly Ann and a son named Billy Joe. His first marriage was to Lois Berndt, by whom he had his daughter. She divorced him in 1955, after he had contested the action for more than a year on the grounds that he was Catholic. He married Gretchen Winkler in 1961, by whom he had his son, and stayed married to her until 1979, when the two divorced. He was married a third time, to Heather Ervolino, while he was managing in Oakland, but was never faithful to his third wife and eventually married his mistress, a woman named Jillian Guiver, in January 1988.
In 1978, Martin and sports agent Doug Newton opened "Billy Martin's", a western wear boutique. Newton bought out Martin in 1982, and the store remained open until 2010.
Martin was working as a special consultant to George Steinbrenner when he was killed in a low speed, single vehicle collision during an ice storm at the end of the driveway to his farm in Port Crane, north of Binghamton, New York, on Christmas Day 1989. He was pronounced dead at a hospital in Johnson City, New York, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Martin was eulogized by Cardinal John O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, before his funeral at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. His grave is located about 150 feet (46 m) from the grave of Babe Ruth in Section 25. The following epitaph, said by Martin himself at his number retiring ceremony at Yankee Stadium in 1986, appears on the headstone: I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest. Former United States President Richard Nixon and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, along with many former New York Yankees greats, attended Martin's funeral service.