Monday, July 29, 2013

This Day in Yankee History (Fired Martin Rehired, in Old-Timers Surprise)

July 29, 1978—Only four days after “resigning” as manager of the New York Yankees, Billy Martin, wearing his familiar Number 1, waved happily to 46,000 fans at Old Timers Game, basking in his surprise introduction as the team’s skipper for the 1980 season. It was the most flabbergasting event of his tempestuous decade-and-half relationship with principal owner George Steinbrenner—but by no means his last.

The ouster of Martin had been a year and a half in the making, after the Yankee skipper began to chafe at the notion of co-existing in the same dugout as recently signed slugger Reggie Jackson. Tensions exploded as the Bronx Bombers lost ground to the archrival Boston Red Sox, Jackson ignored Martin’s signs while batting, and the manager, after several drinks at an airport bar, told sportswriters, "The two of them deserve each other - one's a born liar [Jackson], the other's convicted [Steinbrenner]."

At the height of the Martin-Steinbrenner mess, a New York sportswriter speculated that the manager had failed to keep The Boss’ First Commandment: I am the Lord Thy Owner; thou shalt not have any strange owners before me. The object of the baseball deity’s wrath was that “convicted” line, a thinly veiled reference to Steinbrenner’s short suspension from baseball because of illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign.

The price of that offense for Martin: banishment from the team and the job that meant everything to him.
("When you start talking about firing him as manager of the New York Yankees, you might as well stab him with a knife," remembered reliever Sparky Lyle.) His replacement: the far more mild-mannered Bob Lemon, an act that Steinbrenner had been threatening for awhile.

Well, that, clearly, explains why Steinbrenner forced Martin out. But why did he want to bring him back? Part of it may have been a desire to placate irate fans, but three other elements in his complex character might have played a role.

1) Steinbrenner's desire to look magnanimous—and, on occasion, to be magnanimous. Had Steinbrenner not made his dramatic announcement, the highlight of the day would have been Roger Maris’ first appearance in an Old Timers’ Game—an event he had shunned for years because of his shameful mistreatment by the team’s prior management in the Sixties. Steinbrenner’s assiduous wooing back into the Yankee fold spoke well of the owner’s better instincts.

2) Steinbrenner’s desire for vindication. Meeting with Martin two days after the firing, Steinbrenner insisted that, to get his job back in 1980, Billy had to admit to something he had previously, adamantly denied: that he had even made the statement that got him fired. (Another point that Steinbrenner requested—that Martin seek help for his drinking—somehow fell by the wayside. Martin died in an alcohol-related auto accident 11 years later.)

3) Steinbrenner’s flair for the dramatic. After all, Martin had been brought back originally to the Yankees on Old Timers’ Day in 1975. Steinbrenner simply hated to have anything else taking the focus away from his team. Martin, whatever his faults, would put fans in the seats, for sure.

4) Steinbrenner's impulsiveness. The Yankees' principal owner couldn't abide waiting, whether for a World Series, first place in a division or simply an advancement on prior standings. He wasn't only prepared to fire someone, but to call the person back.Years later, he revealed to writer Marty Noble that, if the Yankees hadn't begun to respond quickly to Lemon, he would, instead of sticking to the master plan--kicking Lemon upstairs to GM in 1980, as Martin took over--have rehired Martin for the final weeks of 1978. (He acknowledged that a similar thought ran through his mind in 1996, the first year of Joe Torre's run with the team, when he might have sounded out just-fired Buck Showalter.)

Nobody noticed it in the tumult surrounding the Yankees, but the balance of power between the Bosox and Yankees was beginning to shift. The Bombers found themselves down by 14 games on July 19, but already the Red Sox had, quietly and insidiously, begun to give away their huge lead because of a four-game losing streak that ended the same day as the Yankee announcement. In August, as what turned out to be an 88-day New York newspaper strike took hold, the Yankees’ Lemon began the ritual of filling out the lineup card and simply letting his talented team play. A pennant race for the ages was about to begin, one that Yankee fans would celebrate--and Red Sox fans abominate--for years to come.

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