MLB Network is releasing the 30th installment of its MLB Network Presents documentary series this week on the heels of MLB’s Winter Meetings. The film’s focus is one of baseball’s most colorful, controversial, and troubled characters – Billy Martin, who had five different stints as manager of the New York Yankees and four spells as manager of other taems.
Following the 40th anniversary of Martin’s 1977 World Series championship as manager of the New York Yankees, Billy adds new details and dimension to Martin’s life, giving insight into what contributed to his success, turmoil and heartbreak both on and off the field. Through new interviews with those closest to Martin, including his son, Billy Jr., his former wife Gretchen Martin Creswell, his widow Jill Martin, his former agent Eddie Sapir, and David Mantle, son of Hall of Famer and Martin’s close friend and teammate Mickey Mantle, Billy examines what made Martin equally captivating, charming and explosive. The documentary also reveals details from the car accident that killed Martin on Christmas Day in 1989, including a retracing of the route that Martin traveled home before crashing at the foot of his own driveway.
Billy features several interviews with those who played and managed with, for and against Martin throughout his 11-year playing career and his 16-year career as a manager, including Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson and Tony La Russa, plus Tom Grieve, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph, Bobby Richardson and Buck Showalter. Many discuss how despite his baseball acumen and his ability to turn around every team he managed in worst-to-first fashion, Martin found himself in trouble throughout his life, including with his own players, in his relationship with owner George Steinbrenner during his five stints as manager of the Yankees, and through a string of alcohol-fueled controversies.
While his life predated the advent of digital and social media, Martin was one of the most documented figures in sports throughout his career, and Billy also features commentary from journalists who covered – and sometimes clashed with – Martin, including Randy Galloway, Ray Hagar, Henry Hecht, Moss Klein and Martin biographer Bill Pennington.
Thankfully, Billy doesn’t spend too much time focusing on Martin’s pre-managerial career – only around 12 minutes of the doc’s 90+ minutes dear with his upbringing and playing career before moving into Martin’s career as a manager, starting with the Twins in 1969. I really had no idea how successful Martin’s managerial career was – he won 97 games with the Twins in ’69 before being fired after just one season, finished above .500 in all three of his seasons with the Tigers, and was just four games under .500 over his parts of three seasons with the Rangers (who had been utterly hapless in their first two seasons after moving from Washington).
The discussion of Martin’s downfall in Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas is interesting, as it’s not Martin’s ability as a manager that comes into question, but instead, his constant clashing with everyone related to the team. This clashing, combined with his managerial skills, is eventually what results in him consistently getting fired and re-hired by the Yankees – with a little bit of off-field trouble mixed in as well.
If Martin was managing the Yankees in 2017, and doing what he was doing back in 1977, he would be social media catnip. Martin famously feuded with George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson, fighting with Mr. October in the dugout during a summer game in Fenway Park. Could you imagine Joe Girardi pulling Aaron Judge for not hustling and brawling with him in the dugout?
The use of MLB’s massive library of archival footage came in handy here for the plethora of interviews and press conferences involving both Martin and Steinbrenner, adding extra color to the film since many of the other people around during Martin’s heyday are deceased. This remains the strongest part of the MLBN Presents series – whatever footage the producers want, they can likely procure from baseball.
It’s a testament to Martin’s career that this feature was nearly 90 minutes before commercials, compared to around 45 minutes before ads like many of the other editions of MLBN Presents. I would like to see future installments get this treatment, because sometimes, it feels like the 45 minute films are a bit short and skim some critical details.
I do think that Billy glossed over some of Martin’s faults, including an incident in Reno where he got into a fight with a reporter, numerous run-ins with umpires and players, and his rampant alcoholism. Sure, the issues are discussed, but it seems as if they’re secondary focuses compared to his skills as a manager. This changes once we reach the end of the film and Martin’s final firing from the Yankees following a bar brawl, his retirement, and his sudden death.
Overall, this is one of my favorite installments of MLB Network Presents. It’s a meaty documentary, and not many details are left out. Martin isn’t made out to be a saint (though, as mentioned, some of his issues take a back seat to his achievements on the field), but a flawed individual that couldn’t get out of his own way for long enough to maintain success in one place for a sustained period of time.
Billy will premiere at 8 PM ET on Thursday, December 14th on MLB Network.