Billy Martin had a long, illustrious and many times controversial baseball career. Described as pugnacious, irascible, a fighter and a brat, Billy Martin was anything but boring throughout his four decades in Major League Baseball. Billy’s ten-year playing career was average at best. A good glove man but a light hitter he ended with a .257 batting average, 877 hits and 64 home runs. He found much more success as a manager where he compiled a .553 winning percentage over 16 years. He also made too many headlines for the wrong reasons—throwing a bat at a pitcher, sparing in a New York City night club brawl, tussling with his eventual hall-of-fame outfield slugger, and punching out a marshmallow salesman in an elevator. But what is many times overlooked and always underappreciated was Martin’s truly spectacular performance in the World Series. Participating in our nation’s premiere sporting event in the 1950’s, the scrappy Billy Martin was one of the best ever.
Over his long career Martin was part of seven Fall Classics, all with the Yankees, five of which he was on the winning side. In two he was the manager—winning against the Dodgers in 1977 and losing against the Reds in 1976. In the 1951 Series against the Giants, he pinch ran once and scored a run. But it was in the ’52, ’53, ’55 and ’56 World Series where Billy really excelled. Martin’s lifetime WS batting average over 28 games was an impressive .333 and the wiry second baseman’s slugging percentage was a powerful .566. In fact, Martin’s WS average and slugging percentage in a similar number of games were better than such sluggers as Musial, Mays, Maris, and Jackie Robinson.
Martin had his first significant playing time in the 1952 World Series against the Dodgers where his sixth inning three-run homer propelled the Yanks to a 7-1 victory in game two. But what he is most remembered for in that Series was his spectacular grab of a wind-blown pop-up in the seventh inning of game seven. With New York nursing a 4-2 lead in that pivotable game, Jackie Robinson came up with the based loaded, two outs and lofted a short infield pop-up that confused all the Yankee infielders and seemed certain to drop scoring the tying runs. But Martin came out of nowhere to make a lunging grab by the pitcher’s mound to save the day for the Yanks.
In the seventh game of the 1955 World Series, it was Martin, who with a walk, started what could have been the game-winning Yankee rally if not for Sandy Amoros’ incredible snag of Yogi Berra’s deep fly into the leftfield corner.
In the 1956 World Series Martin was once again in the middle of a New York Championship belting two home runs, knocking in five and scoring eight runs.
But Martin’s best performance was in the 1953 World Series against the Dodgers. “Billy the Kid” batted a scintillating .500 with 12 hits including two triples and two home runs. His 23 total bases bested the record of 19 set 30 years prior by none other than Babe Ruth. And it was Brash Billy who contributed the game-winning, series-winning, walk-off hit, knocking in Hank Bauer in the ninth inning of game six.
Billy Martin without question was the Wonderkid of the World Series.
On a personal note, I was too young to ever see Billy Martin play as a New York Yankee though I did spend years rooting for him and cringing for him during his tumultuous and mostly successful years as the Yankee manager. But as a kid what I most remember was that my first baseball glove was a Billy Martin model. I didn’t really know who he was as Gil McDougald had taken over second base for the Yanks and soon after Bobby Richardson would don Billy’s number one. But there was something magical about that glove. Back then we played baseball all the time, everywhere, and every variation of the game—stickball, whiffle ball, three flies six grounders, any base, infield practice, outfield practice, you name it. And I always brought my Billy Martin baseball glove. It got so worn out that at one point my brother and I ripped out the padding and all that was left was a flapping piece of worn-out leather. But I loved it and continued to take it everywhere and I did pretty well with it. As a matter of fact, I began to get a reputation as a pretty darn good fielder for a little squirt. My older brother would even take me to play with the big kids, but he made sure I took my Martin. By that time, we were referring to the chunk of leather as simply the Martin. Soon other kids began to take notice. “Hey. Nice catch, kid,” they’d say. Then they’d take a glimpse of my glove and say, “you made that catch with that scroungy glove?” Soon everybody wanted to take a look at my Martin. The big kids would say, “yeah you can play. But make sure you bring the Martin.” At the time I knew very little about Billy Martin. I didn’t know that he was a good fielding second baseman who had a special talent for getting big hits when it mattered. And that he was a scrappy competitor, often overlooked and even at times ridiculed, but possessing an undeniable touch of magic. Just like my glove.
SABR: Society for American Baseball Reference
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