Managing the New York Yankees was everything to Billy Martin. And as author David Falkner describes Martin in The Last Yankee: The Turbulent Life of Billy Martin, holding on to his job as skipper of America’s most celebrated team became the single focus of his always stormy, embattled life in his later life.
Falkner doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Martin in this 1992 biography. If winning games is what drove him, alcohol is what fueled him and ultimately led to his untimely death on Christmas Day 1989. Falkner makes no bones about the fact that the car crash that took his life was an accident waiting to happen. That Martin’s entire life was akin to walking through a minefield is clear.
The barroom brawls, the drunken rages and managerial firings are all chronicled in this book. Falkner has faithfully done his research to recount these stormy episodes. More than anything, Falkner plays the psychologist as so many biographers tend to do. He delves into Martin’s troubled and violent childhood on the streets and playgrounds of Berkeley, Calif. where the future Yankee not only learned about playing baseball but about using his fists.
Fused with his fierce competitiveness and budding leadership qualities as head of a gang in a tough working class environment, Martin seems fated to someday become a Major League manager. As Falkner writes: What was unique about Billy was not his leadership of hundreds but his ability in a street fight. He was tough, violent and willing – as others were not – to do almost anything to win. His reputation was built on his almost crazy, impulsive aggressiveness. In junior high, when he began to be taunted more frequently, the number of fights in which he was involved increased. So did his sense that winning a fight was about winning a place in the world, a way of being seen by others as a leader. Billy may or may not have started fights, but he built his reputation by getting into them.
Falkner doesn’t gloss over the questions regarding Billy’s early life. Martin either did or did not come into the world out of wedlock, and the author raises the possibility that his mother may have earned money as a prostitute. There’s some speculation the infant Billy was often thrust into the very center of furious fights between his mother and a frequently wayward father. Martin’s sister tells of their mother holding a knife to Billy’s throat and threatening to kill the “little bastard” should the father return home. The likelihood is that over time, such painful events are not lost but repressed, so that, never fully recalled nor understood, they reverberate into adulthood and beyond, compelling behavior that all too painfully remains bound to the original trauma. From this environment, Falkner tells us, emerged a two-fisted, hard-drinking man whose self-destructive habits served more as a rage against the world to be accepted rather than as an outlet.
Falkner traces Martin’s playing career, how, despite rather modest talents, he was able to channel his ferocious energy and competitive drive, and in the process, become an integral part of the Yankees teams of the 1950s. As a second baseman on those legendary clubs, Martin’s star was never brighter than in the World Series. In 1953, he set a Series record for a six-game set by banging out twelve hits.
Martin’s reputation as a brawler far surpassed his abilities as a ballplayer. During his playing days, Martin became involved in numerous fights both on the field and in saloons. Among them was the Copacabana Club incident involving several members of the Yankees. Falkner sets the record straight about the fight at the famous New York nightspot, often believed to be the episode that led to Martin’s being traded away from the Yankees to Kansas City. But Falkner reveals that it was likely an on-field fight nearly three weeks earlier involving Martin and Cleveland Indians outfielder Larry Doby that ushered in Martin’s last days as a Yankees player.
Martin’s managerial career began several years later. Here, Falkner does a fine job showing just what kind of a baseball skipper Martin actually was. There’s some interesting stuff about Martin’s game strategy, his almost genius-like ability in reviving poor or mediocre ball clubs before his self-destructive behavior ultimately does him in, and of course, the inevitable circumstances surrounding his celebrated firings.
The Last Yankee is among several books about Martin. Peter Golenbock’s Wild, High and Tight certainly rivals and may even surpass this book. Certainly, for any baseball biography, Falkner’s is one of the better ones to be found.