Life and mess of Billy Martin, sport's bad guy on a wild ride

July 17, 1994|By John Schulian | John Schulian,Los Angeles Times

One reads of the mess Billy Martin called his life and wonders how he ever found time for baseball, the game that put his failings on a national stage when they were best suited to some squalid, anonymous trailer park. He was a relentless boozer, a sucker puncher and a chippy chaser, and the sum of his personal ugliness overwhelmed whatever good he did for the New York Yankees.

Even after Martin died in an appropriately messy drunken-driving accident on Christmas Day, 1989, his evil could still be felt. He had anticipated his demise, it seems, by plotting against a sister who had somehow offended him. If she dared to show up at his funeral, he wanted his daughter to spit in her face.

"That's the way it was, pard," Martin used to say when he was alive to tell stories on himself in the cowboy patois he adopted to match his wardrobe. No doubt he would have had the same response if he had been around for someone to ask about his request for a great expectoration. He reveled in his public image as a stand-up guy who took the heat and backed down to no man. But that was all part of the testosterone-fueled myth that consumed the feral creature who was born Alfred Manuel Martin Jr.

If you make it through Peter Golenbock's "Wild, High and Tight," you will find a decidedly different Martin, one who lacked the strength to prevent his own emasculation at the hands of a tyrannical boss and a scheming wife.

His boss was George Steinbrenner, who inherited his father's shipbuilding company, got nailed for making illegal contributions Richard Nixon's re-election campaign and reigns as the most hated man in New York sports for his boorish ownership of the Yankees. He hired and fired Martin five times as the Yanks' manager, all the while maintaining that he was trying to help poor Billy and succeeding only in establishing a certain sickness in both of them.

Mercifully, Martin never married the same woman more than once. He just kept changing wives as if they were socks until he got to his fourth, a photographer and equestrienne who beguiled him with her sexual prowess and turned what Mr. Steinbrenner had left of his mind to pudding.

Martin deserved her.

He deserved Mr. Steinbrenner, too.

He even deserved "Wild, High and Tight," and that may be the cruelest thing anyone can say of the man.

For this is an unpleasant, artless piece of business, bloated in the extreme at 544 pages and devoid of literary or journalistic merit except for the case Mr. Golenbock makes that Martin was driving the day he died, not the buddy who lived to take

the fall for him. The rest of the time, Mr. Golenbock proves just what he has in each of his 14 previous books: He is a writer only because he has a tape recorder that works.

Mr. Golenbock strives mightily to turn Martin's troubles in the 1970s and '80s into psychodrama, and Lord knows the elements were there. On one side, you had Billy with his disdain for $H authority and his hunger for money and acceptance; on the other, you had Mr. Steinbrenner with his clout, connections and unbridled need to dominate. No wonder the two went together like matches and gasoline.

But the same could be said of Martin and almost every other owner he worked for. He didn't need Mr. Steinbrenner's warped inspiration when it came to self-destruction. He was so out of control that it is impossible to accept Mr. Golenbock's contention that he ranks with Casey Stengel and John McGraw in the holy trinity of baseball managers.

His obsession with off-field battles kept him from managing more than one world champion, the '77 Yankees, and the 1,253 games his teams won in all are cheapened by the tales Mr. Golenbock tells: tales of Martin's drinking during games, of his slipping off to a bar before the final out was recorded, of his campaign to get fired by Oakland so he could wind up back in Steinbrenner's clutches one last time.

Here's the kicker: Martin was even worse in his personal life. He punched boyhood friends, marshmallow salesmen and anybody else who crossed him. He persuaded his stepfather to quit work so he could claim he was his family's sole support and weasel his way out of the Army. He had a 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 48, married her two years later, and slipped off with one of his mistresses two days into the honeymoon.

Yet Mr. Golenbock tries to muster a defense for Martin by pointing out that he was an alcoholic and that his mother fed his brutality and his paranoia. In an age in which no one is held accountable for his deeds, there may be buyers for such twaddle, but they don't live at this address. All you will find here is someone who will gladly give you the following scouting report about "Wild, High and Tight" and Billy Martin: Bad book, worse guy.

That's the way it is, pard.

A television writer and producer, Mr. Schulian was a sports columnist for several newspapers, including The Evening Sun.

Title: "Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin"

Author: Peter Golenbock

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 544 pages, $23.95

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