May 24, 2017

For Father’s Day: Unlike Brad, This Pennington Finds Home Plate

June 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

MartinBilly Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius
Bill Pennington
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015
530 pages

They say that baseball is about fathers and sons. They say a lot of tripe, but there is some truth in that. I rewatched a few episodes of Ken Burns’ Baseball over spring training in preparation for this year’s baseball season. There was Dan Okrent comparing ballparks to Civil War battlefields and some other talking heads waxing poetically about the pastoral nature of baseball. Bob Costas did say something that did resonate. I am paraphrasing here, but he said that baseball is something that five year olds can talk about with their dads and granddads. I did share my dad’s love of the Red Sox, true. I never got into Sinatra or other crooners that my dad liked.

During the 1980s, if you said Dynasty you were probably referring to the evening soap opera. But to me, the term was the title of a Peter Golenbock book. Dynasty, I think, was the first adult baseball book I ever bought. I still have it sans front cover to this day and will occasionally read a Yogi or Scooter anecdote from those pages. Back in the mid-80s, I was obsessed with baseball for a reason that escapes me now. I think one of my best friends in high school was really into it so we’d talk about it constantly at lunch; proposing trades that would help both teams, potential free agent signings, et cetera. Instead of buying clothes or cassettes at the mall, I’d buy just about any baseball book available at the local Caldor’s. I think that one was a 1985 reprint paperback. I remember buying Herzog’s The White Rat. (Who’s the better auteur, Whitey or Werner?) This was also how I happened to stumble upon Bill James and Pete Palmer, I think. Or maybe the Hartford Courant listed those books on a spring Sunday column about new baseball releases, I know that is how I found out about Bill James’s managers book a decade later.

While James and Thorn and Palmer are wonderful, there are some things lacking from their work; probably due to their outsiderness. On the plus side, you don’t get the romantic BS that Costas and others spewed during Ken Burns’ documentary. But there are other good things missing, too. I’d like to read more about how the various players work their crafts of hitting, pitching, and fielding. Dan Okrent touched upon that in Nine Innings, another teen purchase of mine. And George Will wrote a whole book on it, but Will only focused on four people.

Peter Golenbock would go on to write other books, including a bio of Billy Martin after Martin’s fatal auto accident. But I think Pennington’s recent book is better. It was a pleasant surprise. I picked it up on a whim at a local library and plowed through it in about a week. I had never heard of Pennington before. He mainly writes about golf, but he did cover the Yankees at some point during Martin’s managerial career for some New Jersey papers.

Billy Martin is a pretty good baseball book. It talks a lot Martin’s life between games but it also talks about hitting, base running, and fielding techniques. What’s the most effective way to slide? How do you pivot on the double play? Martin’s ideas about the double play defied Conventional Wisdom. This is a part of the game that James and Palmer and the guerillas they inspired don’t delve into much, as far as I can tell. In Bill James’s case, I think he understood that part of the game and assumed his readers did. In The Politics of Glory, he suggests a quiz for potential a HOF voter that includes questions about which base to throw to in certain situations. Not having played much since I was 12, this is not my strong suit. I may be missing something, but I don’t see this type of stuff discussed much in the sabersphere.

Upon further thought, it isn’t just sabermetrically inclined guys who don’t write about stuff like that. I’ve read other books on guys like DiMaggio and they might not describe him on the field much further than mentioning the streak, his grace and his ability to avoid the K. Maybe writers just assume a certain level of baseball knowledge.

Reading about Martin the player reminded me of Eddie Stanky; a guy I read about quite a bit when researching Billy Southworth. And it also brought back memories of reading Dynasty. The book also reminds me that Deadspin would have had a field day with players of the 1950s. Greenie usage took place earlier than I thought. And it touches upon the most famous incident of Martin’s baseball career: the Copacabana incident.

Pennington delves a little into the “times” portion of the “life and times” of Billy Martin, but he doesn’t overdo it and when he does, it is usually to illustrate something about Martin the man (his drinking or some other aspect of him.) The meat of the book is Martin’s stormy managerial career. Martin was clearly a managerial descendant of Casey Stengel, there’s a little Chuck Dressen influence there, too. At least that’s what Martin said at some point.
You could make a peak argument for Martin being one of the best, if not the best managers of all time. But I think if I had to choose between him and one of his contemporaries, I’d go with Weaver. Weaver kept the O’s on top long enough to give them a shot to win the WS which is more than you can say for Martin, except in New York.

The book isn’t perfect. It starts to wane during Billy I maybe as early as 1977, definitely by 1978. Pennington has a tendency to mention that, “if 198x were today, the Yankees would have been in the playoffs with a wild-card berth.” Even houses like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt can do a poor job of editing. In discussing Game Two of the 1976 World Series, it is called the first World Series night game. I believe it may have been the first Sunday night World Series game, but that’s a different animal.

Not sure if that should change my impression of the book, but I may have to examine the pre-1975 portions more closely. If I picked up on that, what would a real baseball historian notice? Sure, for an amateur, I am pretty knowledgeable. But this isn’t my life. I am a fanalyst.

Too, I think Pennington conflates Moneyball and Billyball. While both look for an edge, Billy emphasized aggressive base running and gamesmanship more so than the other Billy (Beane) and Sandy Alderson would. Martin wanted to get the first run and put pressure on the other team. Maybe that works better in a low scoring environment, maybe it doesn’t. But he was able to get a lot out of his teams.

Bill Pennington makes a case for Billy Martin as a HOF manager. I’m not sure if he thought of this book as an extended advocacy piece, but I think I am reading it that way. What follows is not necessarily Pennington’s argument, but I’ve incorporated parts of it: Dick Williams went from job to job, had run-ins with players and he still made the Hall of Fame. I don’t think he has anywhere near the public notoriety that Martin does.

Earl Weaver only won one World Series and he had alcohol problems. But, unlike Martin he had better relations with his bosses and was able to keep his public image under control. Part of this may be because Baltimore is a relative media backwater. But maybe part of it is that Weaver got the modern media better. By the time he got to the big leagues, the role of the sportswriter had changed. Martin, OTOH, came of age in a day when the press kept things under wraps. After the rise of the Chipmunks like Maury Allen and others, the rules of the game changed. Martin may have never adjusted.

Pennington argues that had the wild card existed when Martin was managing, his teams would have made it to the postseason six more times giving him six more chances to win the World Series. Yes, but Baltimore or Boston might have been the ALCS winner in 1977 if the Wild Card existed back then.

Taking my Red Sox blinders off and looking at Martin objectively, I think he is baseball’s greatest turnaround specialist, but I’m not sure that makes him a HOF-worthy manager. I think a rolling three-year track record may be a better indicator of peak success. Unfortunately, though, Martin didn’t get a chance to manage for long stints. But I think that a lot of that has to do with the impatience of George Steinbrenner. I know that George is a fairly popular owner among savvy baseball fans, but I think they are forgetting about, or are too young to remember, the younger Steinbrenner had kept his managers and front office on the hot seat. Ultimately, this may have been good for baseball, because his impatience gave the AL East and 1980s baseball in general more parity. But I think it hindered Billy Martin’s ability to achieve a more Cooperstown-worthy record.

If your father likes baseball, this is a pretty good gift idea for him (Father’s Day is coming soon. Hint, hint!) Fans 40 and over will recall Martin as a manager of the Yankees and other teams. Their dads, if they are still around might even remember Martin on TV or the radio playing in the World Series.

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