Billy Martin: Hall of Fame Manager?
by Paul Semendinger
November 21, 2023
NOTE - This article was originally written and published for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) and published on November 10, 2023.
We will soon have an announcement regarding which managers, if any, get the call from the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are a host of excellent managers on this year's special ballot including Cito Gaston, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland, and Davey Johnson. Each has a strong Hall of Fame case. One name that is missing from the ballot is Billy Martin — even though I have heard a good bit of discussion advocating for Billy Martin's eventual inclusion into the Hall of Fame as a manager.
Proponents of Billy Martin's Hall of Fame case cite the exceptional record he had in turning around teams, often bad teams, into winners. In this regard, the Martin proponents are correct.
In his first managerial position, Billy Martin took over the 1969 Minnesota Twins. In 1968, the year before Martin arrived, the Twins finished in seventh place in the American League with a record of 79-83. Under Martin's leadership in 1969, the Twins finished in first place in the new American League West with a record of 97-65.
In Martin's next managerial assignment, he had similar success with the 1971 Detroit Tigers. In 1970, before Martin, the Tigers were 79-83 finishing in fourth place. In 1971, with Martin, the Tigers won 91 games (against 71 loses) and finished in second place. The next year, 1972, the Tigers were a first place team.
Late in the 1973 season, Billy Martin became the manager of the Texas Rangers. He took over a team that had gone 57-105 in 1972. Martin managed the Rangers for only 23 games in 1973, but, again, the next season, he turned the team around. In 1974, the Rangers reached second place with an 84-76 record.
Martin's next assignment again came later in a season. Billy Martin took over the New York Yankees in 1975. The Yankees had been playing to a .509 winning percentage under Bill Virdon, but under Martin, the team played to a .535 winning percentage over its final 56 games. The next year, 1976, with Billy Martin at the helm, the Yankees were in the World Series. The year after that, 1977, the Yankees had won the World Series.
Billy Martin's final new assignment was with the Oakland A's, beginning in 1980. He took over a team that in 1979 went 54-108. Billy Martin's 1980 A's went 83-79, finishing in second place. In 1981, the A's were in first place when the strike hit, so they reached the playoffs once baseball resumed. That year, Martin got the A's all the way to the American League Championship Series.
On the surface, that looks like an impressive record. Five teams managed. Five times, under Billy Martin's guidance, the teams became instant winners. Four of the five teams he managed also reached the post season.
But, when one looks closer, it is clear that while these teams had initial success, something else was at play. In spite of the winning, there was trouble under the surface.
In spite of bringing the 1969 Twins to a first place finish, Billy Martin was fired after that season.
Again, while Billy Martin was successful with the 1972 Tigers, he was fired by that team in 1973.
In 1975, after guiding the Rangers to a second place finish the year before, Martin was fired by that team.
In 1978, the year after he won a World Series with the Yankees, Billy Martin was fired again.
Billy Martin lasted through the 1982 season with the A's, but it was a bad year - the A's played to just a 68-94 record. Martin wasn't brought back the next year.
What was also true of those tenures, is that for most teams, while the success under Martin was immediate, it was not long-lasting. Martin's positive impact was short-lived. His teams went backwards almost immediately. The exception to that was the 1970 Twins, who again finished in first place, albeit minus Martin. But by 1971, the Twins were a fifth-place team.
The 1973 Tigers were 71-63 under Martin. In 1974, the Tigers were a sixth-place team.
The Rangers fired Billy Martin in 1975. At the time of the firing, the Rangers were only 44-51.
While Martin did win a World Series with the 1977 Yankees, he was fired 94 games into the 1978 season. At that time, the Yankees were 10 games out of first place.
If Billy Martin gets credit for turning the teams around, he also has to have culpability for what happened to the teams, often while he was still there, but soon after, for almost every team, after he left. He also has to have culpability for the fact that he was continually fired after only a few years with every club he managed. He was never able to sustain any long-term viability with any ballclub.
The reasons for that are legion and are also part of the legacy of Billy Martin — he fought with management, players, umpires, and the media. Due to many factors, including his own titanic temper, chaos often ensued on the teams he managed.
It should go without saying that teams that are functional and winning with everything going well don't fire their managers, but five different franchises fired Billy Martin not long after initially hiring him, in spite of whatever success the team seemed to be having in regard to wins and losses.
Martin's legacy was also hampered by the continued hiring and firing that defined his career as the manager of the New York Yankees. Martin was hired in 1975, fired in 1978, hired in 1979, fired at the end of the season, hired in 1983, fired again, hired in 1985, fired again, and in 1988, he was brought back one more time and he didn't even last the season.
Also of note, regarding the Yankees: while he did bring them to the World Series twice, the Yankees at that time were not a failing club (a fact many fail to remember). In 1974 Yankees were in the pennant race until the very end, the year before Martin took over. The Yankees of that period also had success with other managers, Bob Lemon and Dick Howser, who also brought them success including two World Series appearances (Lemon) and to the American League Championship Series (Howser).
In the end, Martin won just one World Series while managing five different teams, including the Yankees multiple times. Overall, that record simply isn't all that impressive. Short-lived success is not what defines a Hall of Famer.
For me, Billy Martin was not a Hall of Fame manager.
Paul Semendinger just ran the New York City Marathon in 4:34:44. It was his 25th marathon. Paul is the editor-in-chief of Start Spreading the News and is the author of Scattering the Ashes, Impossible Is An Illusion, From Compton To the Bronx (Roy White's autobiography), and The Least Among Them. His newest book 365.2 will be out in March 2024.