Christmas Day, 1989. I will always remember getting the phone call and being told that one of my favorite baseball personalities had tragically died. I was hoping for a “Billy Part 6” in the Bronx in 1990. It was time.
But as we know, it wasn’t meant to be.
During his managerial career, I was always enamored with him for many reasons.
I was one of those freezing cold people standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral at his funeral in 1989.
I never saw him play. He played on 1950’s dynasty teams and was a tough and clutch player. He won the equivalent of the World Series MVP. I was told by my father that Billy never left a game without dirt all over his uniform and/or without cuts and scratches somewhere on his body. From a far, he seemed to be the type of person I had grown up with. But most of all, when he managed a game, you could feel his presence and impact on almost every game. It was a tangible feeling, in my opinion.
I understand that many, if not all of his “wounds”, were self-inflicted. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture of him. But there was just something about him and his way and how it translated onto the field that connected with me, and many others.
He was one of the very few Yankee managers that was a bigger star than the players, and back in those days, the team was loaded with stars.
I have always said, that if I didn’t know who was managing, and just watched a game on TV, after an inning or two, I would be able to tell that Billy was the Manager. The games had a certain feel, but most of all the players played a certain way.
As he once said “it’s not Billy Ball, its Yankee Baseball taught to me by Casey Stengel”.
Over the years I have probably read most if not all of the books about Billy. One that always stood out in my mind was The Last Yankee by David Falkner.
All of the stories and escapades about his drinking and fighting were all covered in many other books. We all heard and read the stories about sneaking back to hotels after curfew, the infamous hunting trip with Mickey Mantle at Mantle’s good friend’s ranch, and of course the Copacabana. But, in my opinion this book took a different approach as it got more into the “why”?
Why would anyone want to go through what he went through and manage the same team five times? That can be summed up in his speech at Yankee Stadium when his Number 1 was retired on August 10th, 1986, a game that I made sure I was at. (By the way, they lost to the Royals that day.)
“I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest”.
That one line, tells you all you need to know about his “why”.
It is hard to imagine how Billy would manage in today’s game. Would he buy into the shift? Would he use an opener? Would he stretch the starters out as much as he did? How would he react to video review? My guess is he would be employing strategies and techniques that no one else has even thought of yet.
How would he handle the Astros stealing signs? That one, is pretty obvious to me. It would have ended real fast. Trust me on that!
Many people have different opinions of him; from turbulent to genius. Some loved him (Buck Showalter, Mike Hargrove, Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly) and some not so much (Reggie Jackson, Ed Whitson). He was a character for sure, but he was also a die hard Yankee who wore his heart on his sleeve. There was no mistaking what he believed or thought. It was peddle to the metal for 9 innings, every single game.
All I can tell you is on the field, he really didn’t have many at his level. In an era of other great managers like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Don Zimmer, Tommy Lasorda and Whitey Herzog, he gave them all they could handle, and more.
If you’re too young to remember him, I suggest you get a copy of The Last Yankee and give it chance. You will learn quite a bit about the man, his past, his family, and why he was the way he was.