Billy Martin’s Death on Christmas Day 1989

To recognize the 20th anniversary of his death, I’m going to present first an account of the truck accident that killed Billy Martin and then a sampling of the many responses to the death. This, from the New York Daily News:

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Before his death in a truck crash Christmas Day, former New York Yankee manager Billy Martin drank heavily for several hours in a bar here and appeared too drunk to drive home, sources said.
Midway through Martin’s four-hour binge at Morey’s Restaurant on Front Street, bartender Robert Dunlop asked him, “Who’s driving?” an employee who requested anonymity told the New York Daily News.
“I got the keys,” said Martin’s Detroit pal, William Reedy, holding them up for the bartender to see. The keys were for Martin’s 1989 pickup.
Dunlop and Al Raimondi, manager of the restaurant — where Martin was a regular — refused comment Thursday, but a top law enforcement source here confirmed the employee’s account.
Reedy “appeared OK” to Dunlop, the employee said, and left the bar with the former Yankee in tow shortly before 5:30 p.m. for the 6- mile drive to Martin’s home in nearby Fenton, N.Y.
As Reedy turned onto a hairpin curve near Martin’s home, the truck skidded down an embankment.
Martin, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed when he was flung through the windshield.
Reedy suffered a broken hip, cracked ribs and lacerations and is recovering in University Hospital in Syracuse.
He was charged with driving while intoxicated when his blood alcohol level was allegedly found to be above the legal limit.

In response to the wreck, Joe Gergen of Newsday wrote about Martin, Mickey Mantle, and their shared drinking. Here are some quotes from the article. Mantle: “I would like to say something in defense of Bill Reedy. He could drink that whole pickup truck full of beer and not get drunk. I think it wasn’t drink but just slick roads [that caused the accident].”

And: “As far as I was concerned, he [Martin] was misunderstood terribly. He was like that little cartoon character that walked around with a black cloud over his head. At Billy’s roast, I did say that he was the only man alive who could hear someone give him the finger.”

Mantle added this about Martin’s fight in a topless bar near Arlington Stadium in 1988: “He got kicked out of the game that night and we were sitting with his coaches in a perfect place, behind a tree in the hotel [bar]. Billy said, ‘Let’s go to another place.’ When we got there, there were a bunch of rednecks. They were yelling, ‘Hey, Billy, you got thrown out.’ I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ He said, ‘Why, are you chicken?’ I thought, ‘Well, yeah.’ I got a coach to drive me back.”

And: “I’m not saying do it [drink]. If there’s a moral to my book, it’s not to be like me, Billy and Whitey [Ford]. I had to retire at 36 and it was because of stupidity.”

The fans came to New York City to say farewell. Bob Pecario, from Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: “I’m a Yankee fan and a heavy-duty Billy Martin fan. I was a fan of Billy all my life. I remember the times he kicked dirt on umpires. I remember when he stood up for Bobby Meacham against an umpire. He would always stand up for the little guy.”

Mike Morra, who came in from Secaucus, N.J.: “I was shocked when I heard the news. I’m not naive and I know Billy was no angel, and had his faults, but I was shocked at some of the things I read about him.”

A fan from Staten Island: “I was home when one of my friends called me on Christmas to say too bad about Billy Martin and I thought he was just joking. When I found out it was true, I went into my room and just started crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t stop crying for about two hours. I didn’t go to work today. I told my boss somebody in my family died, and he’d be real mad to find out I’m here, but I just had to come. I remember meeting him four times, one time when me and my friends were up at the stadium, we only had two tokens to get back home and he came by and gave us a dollar to buy a pretzel outside the stadium.”

Art Rust Jr.,  longtime host of Yankee pre- and post-game shows on the radio: “Billy was a heck of a guy. When my wife, Edna, was sick back in 1986, he was very supportive. He was a sensitive and caring guy, a lot more than some of the guys writing about him today. He was a good friend of mine. I loved him and that’s why I’m here.”

In response to Martin’s death, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Art Rosenbaum wrote:

A fine racehorse was named for him, quite apt because Martin loved the oval sport. He was never in a league with Pete Rose and never bet on baseball, but he could plunge on the steeds. More than once I overheard him on his office phone talking horse bets to a bookie or a friend. It wasn’t much of a secret.
Once at Golden Gate Fields he sought out George Andros, a professional at this game, and after a long huddle came away with an exacta ticket that netted $4,000. Andros, meanwhile, let himself be talked out of the bet, a common failing of horse players.

Rosenbaum added that sportswriter Maury Allen

told me he had printed a prominent doctor’s psychological profile on Martin, indicating a personality that resented male authority stemming from a guess that he was angered in his childhood when his father disappeared. Therefore, it was analyzed, Martin would always lose a manager’s job if forced to take orders from a general manager or owner.
I had the audacity to place Allen’s article in front of Martin, whose reaction was unexpectedly calm. He said he had seen it and found it laughable.
His reason made a lot of sense. He said: “Did any psychologist talk to me or examine me? No, he just drew his conclusions from newspaper stories. How could a guy who calls himself an M.D. accept gossip and innuendo as legitimate research? How could he guess why I do some of those things (arguments with umpires)? That guy must be fluttery in the head.”

Martin was a many-sided man, thoughtful and generous at times, bitingly combative at others. Unfortunately, a lot of fans saw him as a comic figure after kicking dirt on umpires or after bar battles. But he was not a comedian per se. He never told a joke or even blooped a one-liner, a la Yogi Berra. In the league of humor, Martin could take a kidding if he liked the kidder.

[He] must have gone on and off the wagon a few hundred times. Once, during spring training, he announced his attention to go dry forever. That night I saw him at one of the Scottsdale restaurants, bright and chipper.
How was the vow going? “Perfect,” he said. “All I had was two glasses of red wine.” For Billy, wine and beer didn’t count.

From the Bay Area, Bill Rigney, then an A’s executive, said: “I knew him since he was a little kid. I remember him playing semipro ball in Bushrod Park (in Oakland). I was 10 years older than he was, and he would ask me about things. He wanted to know about playing the infield. He thought he had ‘stiff’ hands and wanted to know what we could do about it. We worked one winter on technique, on bringing his hands toward his body as he fielded the ball to ‘soften’ them a little.

“He had to work hard at being a player, but he had an instinct about the game and was a tremendous competitor. He had a great desire to be a player. He was always on the edge. It seemed like he was trying to prove something. I never thought he had to prove anything. He was just a damn good manager.”

Yogi Berra: “Billy was a hard-nosed ball player, he was a great friend of mine and he loved baseball. He was a very gentle man. You have to be with him to know Billy. If somebody rubbed wrong against him, he’d punch him in the nose no sooner than look at him. But he was a great man, a kind-hearted man and he loved baseball.”

Roy Eisenhardt, the A’s executive vice president who was involved in getting Martin to manage Oakland in 1980: “All that stuff (his reputation as a brawler) is unimportant. I just remember him as having compassion and love for kids and baseball. Obviously I’m very saddened because I’ve lost a good friend.  I just never thought Billy would go. Billy was a great baseball figure. He taught me a great deal and I’ll remember him forever.”

Bob Stevens, a former Chronicle baseball writer, played semi-pro ball against Martin in the Bay Area and said: “He was a genuine man, no pretenses. His character was always the same – pugnacious, but polite as hell. But he was always thinking. He gave something to the game.

“He paid his dues. He had a good reputation as a manager. He once told me, ‘They know what I plan to do, but they don’t know when I’m going to do it.'”

Joe DiMaggio said: “It was a big loss. He was a dear friend and I will miss him. He was a great little guy. I know the Yankees will miss him because Steinbrenner depended on him so much as a team man.”

Here’s a link to an article Baseball Past and Present wrote on what Martin might have done as manager for the Yankees [or another team] in 1990 and beyond if he had not died late in 1989. Meanwhile, Steinbrenner said: “It’s like losing part of my own family … He’s going to be awful hard to replace. He was one of a kind. There are not many people in the world who can be called one of a kind.”

I’ll give Billy the last word. He explained once: “I didn’t like to fight, but I didn’t have a choice. If you walked through the park, a couple kids would come after you. When you were small, someone was always chasing you. I had to fight three kids once because I joined the YMCA. They thought I was getting too ritzy for them.”

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 10:05 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think about billy almost every day as my 18year old son is named billy martin oneil…

  2. Here I sit during the boring All Star break thinking about what my favorite all time player in the history of Baseball–Micky Mantle–would be doing….and I put on my Billy Martin hat. Man, I can now hit the sack with some warm smiles.

  3. I have been disposed in recent years to take a dim view of Billy. But after reading this, I’m reminded of his better qualities. For sure, he wasn’t perfect. He had his demons, quite clearly. But there was a lot more good to him than bad.

    He was still very young and impetuous, hard-headed when he was a rookie manager in Minnesota, the period when I became a fan of the Twins. He had the Twins playing an exciting brand of baseball, and without him, things wouldn’t have been as much fun. RIP Billy.

  4. I personally investigated this accident and as a life long Yankee fan it was heartbreaking. Your article above does Billy justice. Thanks.

  5. You’re welcome.

  6. I met Billy Martin In 1969 at the Pig n Whistle motel in Denver. He was on a hunting trip with some friends including Eddie Bohn.He was very gracious and signed autographs for me and my friends. I was 15 at the time and that moment has always been a reminder of how great people can sometimes change the lives of the average person. he was manager of the Twins then. Does anyone have additional info on his hunting trips. Was he a big game hunter. I just wanted to post my story as I remover the brief time like it was yesterday. I am now 63…thank you BM for the great hospitality. RIP Mr. Martin what a great man, fighter and mentor

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