- Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington
Let me cut right to the chase. Pennington's biography of Billy Martin is one of the best I have ever read. It rises to the highest standard of a biography, hitting all the right notes: thorough (absolutely); wide ranging (very); multi-faceted—we hear from childhood friends, family members, teammates, reporters, and ex-wives, among others; interesting—Billy was a Civil War buff and Louis L'Amour fan; intense; revealing—the expansion Colorado Rockies offered Billy Martin the manager and GM jobs; and riveting.
It is well written, entertaining (who can help but laugh at Mickey Mantle's attempt to play a practical joke on Billy, which resulted in Martin shooting a farmer's cows?), informative, illuminating, and by golly, just a damn good read. No matter how much you think you know about Billy Martin, you'll learn something here. For example, Billy was not particularly responsible with his finances, but in addition to his legendary bar tabs, he was very generous, though seldom brought attention to his charitable acts. After being named World Series MVP in 1953, he received two new cars. Even Billy Martin didn't need two new cars, so he donated one to his hometown pastor, without any publicity whatsoever. He also paid for his sister's college education, and was a famously generous tipper.
Pennington's tome is not perfect. As an academic, I have a deep love of footnotes, and there isn't a single one to be found here. That is a shortcoming that will cause many a scholar to cringe, and it is a failure I have often harped on. And yet, I still found this to be one of the best baseball biographies ever written. While I did wish for footnotes on occasion (where did he get his salary figures? For example, on page 61 we are told that Jackie Jensen signed a three-year contract in 1950 worth $80,000. This is not even close to what the AL transaction cards indicate.), their absence did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. The quality of the writing, the pace of the story, and the depth of the coverage all make up for this particular infatuation of mine.
The book's subtitle tells it like it is: Martin was a flawed genius. Pennington does not fall victim to hero worship of his subject, an all too common failing of biographers. He covers Billy's accomplishments and warts in equal measure. The result is that after finishing the book I feel like I know Billy Martin a lot better, have an understanding of some of what he went through, and a better feel for some of his actions that at first read seem unfathomable (who clocks a marshmallow salesman?). Yet, the book didn't change my feelings about Martin. Before I read it, I considered him a Hall of Fame caliber manager and a [End Page 257] deeply flawed individual. After reading it, I don't sympathize with Billy, nor do I despise him. I do, however, understand him better. Much better. Pennington paints a very balanced picture of Billy Martin. His research helps us understand him without painting a biased picture.
Billy Martin was a talented ball player, a brilliant manager, and a man who all too often couldn't get out of his own way when it came to finding trouble. And Pennington exposes each of those in fascinating detail. From his rough and tumble upbringing in west Berkeley to his determined success on the ball-field to his several managerial jobs. His employers all admitted his genius was exactly what helped them win, but his inability to control his temper, a function of his inability to control his drinking, always led them to dismiss him—at great expense. His teams tended to do worse after he left, and George Steinbrenner knew this better than anyone. That's why he hired him five times, and was prepared to do so again before his untimely death on...