No. 1’s Son: Billy Martin, Jr.
"You don’t realize how lucky you are until you look back at it years later."
Baseball is a generational sport.
It’s a love passed down from parents to their sons and daughters through playing sandlot ball in the neighborhood, participating in the local Little League or being around your dad and his buddies as they tell old baseball stories.
When your dad is Billy Martin and his buddies are named DiMaggio, Ford, Mantle, Rizzuto and Berra, one can understand that a love for the sport of baseball will run deep.
Billy Martin, Jr. joins BallNine for this week’s edition of Spitballin’ to discuss his father’s legacy in the game, share remembrances of Whitey Ford and tell incredible stories of what it was like to grow up around baseball royalty.
The pride in which Martin, Jr. speaks of his dad and his friends is no different than any son who holds his father as a hero. He reveres the accomplishments that should rightfully land the elder Martin in Cooperstown one day and is honest about the much-publicized issues he struggled with at times.
The enduring image of Billy Martin among fans is of the wiry firebrand kicking dirt on umpires, getting in Reggie Jackson’s face or leading another team to success through his own sheer competitive will.
Martin, Jr. has a different perspective of George Steinbrenner’s most famous foil though. He recalls a loving father who never once raised his voice to him, a dad who stressed the importance of a good education and a man who mentored young players, many of whom had a difficult upbringing, like Martin himself.
Martin, Jr. has also carved a niche in the game for himself as an agent. He partnered with David Pepe, the son of famed sportswriter Bill Pepe, to form Pro Agents in 1995 and still represents Major League Baseball players today.
Get your pinstripes on and get ready to discuss some of the biggest names to ever play the game as we go Spitballin’ with Billy Martin, Jr.
Billy Martin, Jr. with Catfish Hunter before game 4 of the '76 World Series
Thank you for joining us, Mr. Martin. Your dad was a hero to all of us at BallNine and I’m really looking forward to discussing your memories of your dad and his Yankee teammates. But first, let’s talk about what you’re doing now. Can you tell me about your work with David Pepe and Pro Agents?
Dave and I go way back. We met in Spring Training in 1976 when his dad was covering the Yankees as a writer and my dad was managing them. We went to a school together for people who winter in Florida. You brought your books from school at home and the teachers helped you with your assignments.
Anyway, we both had clients in the early ‘90s and we’d call each other for advice. Another firm approached Dave to run the baseball division of the agency and he said, “Yes, I would like to do it with my friend, Billy Martin.”
So, they brought me into the deal and of course I was the only non-attorney in the group—so I was the only one you could trust.
That’s a good one! So, you’ve stayed a small firm for all this time. That must be ideal to give attention to your clients.
We’re not big. He has an office in New Jersey and I’m here in Texas and I’ve got an office at the ballpark too. We don’t have a bunch of guys, and we added our first other agent in our history. Tom Koehler was a client of ours and now he’s part of the group.
He’s a great talent evaluator and as a former Major Leaguer and he’s a great sounding board for our pitching clients. He’s always been a sharp guy. Years ago, I told my partner that I thought Tom would end up as a General Manager one day. It’s great to have him with us.
“He said to me one day that [players] were all different and he treated them differently. Some of them needed a kick in the ass, some needed a pat on the back and some he didn’t need to say a damn word to.”
Before we start talking about some of the Yankee greats, I wanted to ask what it was like for you growing up playing sports as Billy Martin’s son?
Obviously in baseball there was an added pressure because I lived in his shadow. My dad was an active manager when I was in high school. He literally only got to come to one of my games my whole high school career because he was always working.
We were living in Texas and the A’s were in town when my dad was their manager. It was my senior year, and it was literally the only game he was able to come to. He actually was late for his own game because he wanted to catch one of my high school games.
It was the best game I ever had. I went 5-for-5 and came so close to hitting the only home run I ever hit on any level. And it was because I knew my coach wouldn’t yell at me this game. I had a tough coach who yelled at me a lot, but not on that day.
I can’t say I blame the guy.
I think he was pretty afraid. My dad was fired up for my game, but he got even more fired up that I got in a fight with the catcher a couple weeks before. My friends came to the game and sat in the stands with my father. They said, “Mr. Martin, he really beat that guy up right over there in the parking lot!” My father was so fired up about that because he was bigger than me.
That’s absolutely incredible and I definitely believe that! Even though your dad is known as a Yankee, he had a couple managerial stops before then. What was it like moving around as a kid like that?
I was born in Minnesota when he was managing the Twins, then we moved to Detroit and then to Texas. He really loved Texas. He started wearing boots and cowboy hats. But with the Yankees we’d spend summers in the city and come back to Texas for school.
You were 11 when your dad got hired by the Yankees and 14 when they won the 1977 World Series. That had to be an incredible experience being around those teams.
I spent every summer travelling with those teams. Just hanging with my dad every day. It was really great. The guys were all different.
Some were great, some didn’t care and just left me alone. Guys like Ed Figueroa used to always mess with me. It was a blast as a kid. You don’t realize how lucky you are until you look back at it years later.
I can only imagine. I want to talk to you about your dad’s Hall of Fame candidacy. I think it’s a travesty he’s not inducted already. To me, he was the Gold Standard for managers in the era I grew up watching baseball. Do you still hold out hope?
I absolutely hold out hope. I actually just got into a very productive, healthy argument with the celebrity Mike Rowe on Facebook. He told a story about my dad that wasn’t true, and it was important for me to set the record straight there because I don’t want things like that to prevent my dad from being inducted.
I knew it was a bogus story from the start because managers don’t introduce new players to a team. They don’t stand up and say, “Hey guys, here’s our new second baseman.” Everyone reads the papers, everyone plays against each other, they all know each other and don’t need introductions. We ended up being able to prove it never happened because my dad never managed the player. He played for the A’s in 1978 and ’79 and my dad didn’t get there until 1980. Mike was really all class about it.
I did read about that and thought it was great how you stood up for the truth about your dad’s reputation. Your dad stood up and supported a lot of underprivileged players.
I can’t tell you how colorless my father was when it came to stuff like that. There was never anything racist or anything about him. He’s Rod Carew’s daughter’s Godfather. That doesn’t happen if you’re a racist. He helped a lot of people who needed help along the way.
My dad didn’t care about your color, race, religion, sexual orientation. He only cared about winning and putting the best team on the field.
OK, now back to your dad’s Hall of Fame candidacy. What do you think are his most compelling arguments are for enshrinement?
Well, he won everywhere he went, and he took every team he managed to the postseason, except the Rangers. And with the Rangers he took a 100-loss team that was managed by Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog and turned it around in one year to finish in second place to the A’s in a year they won the World Series. It was with almost the entirely same roster too.
His winning percentage is better than ten Hall of Fame managers and is one of the highest of anybody who hasn’t been elected yet. And how about this? It’s the Hall of Fame, right? How many managers were more famous than my father? Not many.
I mean, he hosted Saturday Night Live, he was on the cover of Time Magazine, I believe he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times. He’s been mentioned in so many movies and sitcoms. He was recently mentioned in Oceans 13 and American Gangster. No manager could say anything like that.
Your dad was really his own brand. Something not many managers can say.
How about the Miller Lite commercials? Those were amazing. When he was in Oakland, the billboards that advertised for the season just said, “Billy Ball.” Where have you ever seen that? Where the whole campaign for the season is about the manager?
That’s an incredible point. It’s not like that team was without marketable stars. They had Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas. The thing that always impressed me most about your dad was that he has this great managerial record and almost every job he took was a reclamation project. He didn’t always inherit the 1927 Yankees, but he always won right away.
That was something I think my dad had that was rare. He could win with talented teams and he could win with teams that didn’t have the talent. Not many can do both. Elias came up with a system to rank managers and they concluded that he made the biggest difference with his teams out of any manager ever. The difference between my dad and the next guy was a big margin too.
Tony LaRussa is a good guy to ask about my dad’s Hall of Fame candidacy. When he took the Cardinals into the postseason it tied him with my dad for some record. Tony said that he didn’t belong in the same breath as my father. That’s not true at all, but it was a classy, humble thing to say. Tony really liked my dad. They were good friends.
Billy Jr, Bobby Richardson & Willie Randolph at the ceremony for the final game at Yankee Stadium
You don’t have to convince me on his candidacy. So, what do you think is keeping him out?
I think what hurts him most was that he was not with that one team for a long period of time because he was volatile. He was going to say what he thought. Then you had George Steinbrenner, who I also think is a Hall of Famer.
You know, people complain when you have a meddling owner, guys like Steinbrenner, Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban. If you really look at it though, those are the kind of owners you should want. They want to win more than anyone.
But my dad and George, sure it frustrated me every time George fired my father. But you know what? He hired him back the exact amount of times as he fired him. He wanted to win just as bad as my father. That’s the way those guys are and that’s what everyone should respect about them.
You had to be around George a lot. How was your relationship with George Steinbrenner?
He was great to me. He let me do an internship with the Yankees in the PR department when I was a junior in college. It was a great year for me, 1986. It was the year my father’s number one was retired. Mr. Steinbrenner told me I had a job for life with the New York Yankees after my internship. He really liked the work I did for them. He was a hard man to work for, but I was a big fan because he was such a loyal man.
I want to ask you about some of the great Yankee names and we’ll end on Whitey Ford and your dad. I don’t want to say too much, I’ll just throw some names out and you can tell me your impressions. I’ll start with Willie Randolph.
Willie was great to me. And my dad, he was like a father figure to Willie. He taught Willie how to work a speed bag because he thought it would help his hands become quicker.
How about Thurman Munson?
Thurman, I had to watch him like a hawk. If I was shagging balls in the infield during batting practice and Thurman was in the outfield, I always had to watch him.
He had the ability – and it was amazing – but he could one hop a throw from the outfield and hit someone right in the back of the knee, and it would just drop you. It didn’t hurt, but it would just hit that pressure point and drop you like a rock. It was like that reflex where you get hit in the right spot, your knee buckles.
But he was really good to me. He was probably the most respected player by his peers that I ever saw in the dugout. Just the way the guys looked at him and listened to him.
A little later on your dad was Don Mattingly’s first manager. What was your relationship with him and what did your dad think of him?
Don Mattingly was great to me. It was different as I got older. They treated you like one of the guys. My dad really believed in him so much from the start, too.
He believed in him so much he’d put him at third as a lefty and he made all the plays. He could charge a bunt, spin move and still get the out. You look at his situation and had it not been for his back issues, he’s a lock Hall of Famer. Was there a better first baseman in the game for six years? I’m not sure there was.
Going back in time now, Joe DiMaggio.
He was a really quiet man. He wasn’t just a great player, he was a huge celebrity. During his time, who was a more famous guy? I mean, he was married to Marilyn Monroe. He and dad had a special relationship because he was at the very end of his career when my dad came up.
As a player, dad would play jokes on him. He’d have the pen with the disappearing ink and get it all over his white suit. Mickey said he could barely talk to Joe and my dad was there playing jokes on him.
Later on, when my dad was managing, Joe would just come out and sit in my dad’s office. They were such old friends that they would sometimes just sit there in silence. Joe would be reading the paper and my dad filling out the lineup card in silence. Just like old teammates sitting in their lockers.
He was great to me. He’d pat my head, ask me about school. I thought he was a pretty cool dude.
Speaking of Mickey, can you give us some thoughts on Mickey Mantle?
He was like my father’s brother. When my dad passed Mickey stepped up and took me out to dinner once or twice a month just to tell me stories about my father. A lot of things I didn’t know. It’s hard to put into words how much that meant to me. He was a special man and I’m very lucky that he was my father’s friend.
For as big a star as Mantle was, he always seemed humble and great with fans.
He was awesome. But that would wear him down. Wherever he went, people were beating him down for autographs. You couldn’t go anywhere with him. You’d have to find a restaurant you could hide in. That beats you down after a while.
I always remember him making a ton of personal appearances and signing autographs.
You look at today’s players and what they make. The most Mickey ever made was $150,000. What’s he worth in today’s game? $40 million? $50 million? I doubt it would have ever bothered him to give anybody an autograph in today’s world if he had $400 million in the bank after he was done playing.
But back then, that was how he made his money. He made more money signing autographs than he did playing. Isn’t that unbelievable? He was such a good guy about it.
People would ask him to come to an autograph signing and he would say, “Only if you have my friends Hank Bauer and Moose Skowron on the ticket too and pay them too.” If they came back and said they only wanted Mickey, he wouldn’t do it. They always changed their minds.
That’s really not surprising. It always seemed that all of his teammates loved him.
He was a great teammate and I tell you what, Major League Baseball should memorialize Mickey Mantle like that. They should create the Mickey Mantle Award and give it out on each team for the best teammate as voted on by his peers. That makes sense and that’s the award that Mickey would have loved the most.
That’s a great idea. I think it would really mean a lot to guys who would win that award. I want to ask you next about Whitey Ford and your reflections on his passing.
[Whitey’s passing] closed a chapter for me in a weird kind of way. He, my father and Mickey had this awesome friendship.
I always thought it was neat, you had my father, the poor kid from the West Coast, the Berkeley docks. So poor he literally took mustard sandwiches to school and had to take fruit off the neighbors’ trees to have a full lunch. Then all the way on the other coast you had Whitey, the New York kid. The slick political type who could talk his way into and out of anything.
Then you had central America, from good old Commerce, Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle. He was the biggest and strongest, yet it was my dad who was the fighter. The joke was always that my dad could hear someone give him the middle finger from across the room.
Mickey Mantle, Bob Grim, Billy & Whitey Ford on a fishing trip in 1957
You look at any of the old pictures and they just look like they’re having a blast. And they’re all great players too.
They were good for each other in so many different ways, and that was what’s neat about them too. Whitey Ford was the anchor of the staff of one of the best teams ever and with Mickey, we’re talking about one of the best players who ever put on a pair of spikes. My dad was better than average, but he wasn’t a star player.
Except for the World Series. All three of those guys, that’s what made them great. If there was a Hall of Fame just for World Series play, all three of those guys are in your starting lineup. There are a lot of stars that aren’t good in the postseason, not those guys.
Those guys have a pretty good collection of World Series rings, that’s for sure, They’re known as money players and they had the money pitcher with Whitey.
I want to say that Whitey had about 150 innings pitched in the World Series and his ERA is around 2.70. Think about that. He’s going against the number one every time and the best team from the National League and those are the numbers he put up. And you know, he might not be drafted in today’s game.
The guy who is one of the all-time best World Series pitchers might not even get a chance today. They’re looking for mid-90’s guys, big strong guys with all the right analytics.
That’s a great point and brings up what I think is an interesting question. What would your dad have thought of analytics and the way the game is played today? And what do you think about them?
I get a big kick out of some of the areas the game is heading. Some of it drives me crazy, but some of it I love. People say to me all the time that my dad would have hated all of this analytics crap. I disagree. I know he would have loved it. He would have absolutely embraced it.
But he still would have used his gut quite a bit. You know, he would say, “OK, I hear what the analytics say to do here, but I’m still stealing home.” He was always a step ahead, so I think he would have embraced it.
This has been amazing, Mr. Martin. Your dad was a childhood hero of mine and I loved hearing these great stories of what an awesome dad and friend he was. Are there any final thoughts about your dad that you would like to leave our readers with?
I think the world believes he yelled and screamed at his players the way he did umpires. In reality, he was a master psychologist when it came to his players. He said to me one day that they were all different and he treated them differently. Some of them needed a kick in the ass, some needed a pat on the back and some he didn’t need to say a damn word to.
He didn’t care if they loved him or hated him, he just needed to know what buttons to push to make them play their best. The guys who hated him, he knew how to make them angry and it would get them to play better, just to spite him. I’m sure you could think of some of those guys.
He was also a completely different man between the lines than he was after the game. You know, I don’t think he ever yelled at me as a kid. Everyone thinks he was a tough dad, but he never raised his voice at me. Think about how many kids can say that about their father. I can say that about mine and mine was Billy Martin.