There is a wealth of drunken escapades marking the public life of Billy Martin, the ballplayer and manager, and three that stand above the others in my pantheon of amazement.
No. 1: That would be the altercation with Joseph Cooper in October 1979 in the Chez Colette bar at the Hotel de France in Bloomington. First of all, only Billy could start a fight in a place called Chez Colette, and second, Cooper famously turned out to be a marshmallow salesman.
The punch delivered in Bloomington wound up causing George Steinbrenner to fire Martin for the second time.
Yet, it tops my list for a more personal reason, that being what happened with Mike Augustin, friend and colleague, during his pursuit of details for the St. Paul newspapers.
Augie was able to get Howard Wong, the Bloomington restaurant owner and Billy’s companion that night, on the phone. Howard had a considerable Chinese edge to his speech, and when giving his version of events over the phone, Augie thought he heard a reference to “Musselman.’’
One year earlier, Martin had been making a celebrity appearance to promote Bill Musselman’s new basketball team, the Reno Bighorns, and punched a sports writer at the end of an interview.
So, Augie asked: “What was Musselman doing at the hotel?’’ He repeated that question again and a frustrated Wong bellowed: “Not Musselman, you dummy … marshmallow!’’
Fifty bucks every time Augie repeated that punchline and I’m a rich man today.
No. 2: The Twins were in Detroit for a four-game series in August 1969. This was the first season of division play in big-league baseball, and the Twins – with Martin as a rookie manager – had been in first place for the past month in the AL West.
The go-to drinking joint in downtown Detroit was a blue-collar bar called the Lindell A.C. The A.C. had been added by Doc Greene, a legendary Detroit sports columnist. It was Doc’s way of dinging the haughty and nearby Detroit Athletic Club, where the powerful congregrated.
Martin and his drinking pal, pitching coach Art Fowler, were in there after a game, as were numerous thirsty players. Pitcher Dave Boswell was one of those. Bos cornered Fowler and started yelling at Art for ratting him out to Martin over a failure to do between-starts running.
Bob Allison wound up leading Boswell away from Fowler, resulting in the veteran outfielder being coldcocked by Bos. Martin went after Boswell outside the bar and used his famous fast hands to beat on Boswell, who had pulled the upset of being farther into the booze than was Martin.
It took four days for this story to reach the public prints, with Martin finally holding a press conference to paint himself as an innocent party. All Twins’ discipline was aimed at Boswell, but a manager boxing with a player … that was unique.
Then again, this was Martin, and years later – 1985, in fact – he had a fight with Yankees pitcher Ed Whitson in late September. This time, Martin wound up with a broken arm, and he was fired again by the Yankees after that season.
No. 3: I can’t find this with an internet search, but one night I was in the office, and I swear there was a wire service report that police had been summoned to a residence in Orange County (Calif.) and Martin had been removed from the property.
And the reason the police took this action was because Billy was lying on his back on the front lawn, drunk, and "screaming about a horse.’’
The passion that fans had in support of Martin became an increasing mystery to me. His popularity went beyond winning games, which he did consistently.
One guess might be that he started managing in the big leagues with the Twins in 1969, as the little man who fought against authority (umpires and bosses), and that was the American way for tens of millions in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Except, Billy wasn’t exactly a populist politically – an example being that he still was spewing homophobic slurs in April 1980 after the marshmallow-tossing incident at Met Stadium (covered elsewhere at startribune.com).
My first year reporting the Twins in any form was 1970, writing occasional clubhouse stories off home games. Martin was gone, fired after one winning season, and replaced by Bill Rigney. Thus, my dealings with Martin were as an opposing manager.
Billy had a loyal fan in Sid Hartman and other Minnesotans that had coverd him as a player, coach and manager here in the 1960s.
While another small, feisty manager, Earl Weaver, is my all-time favorite, I found Martin to be a lout.
For sure, there was a sickness in the Martin-George Steinbrenner coupling that went beyond Billy’s obvious alcoholism. George was the bully, playing this vulnerable man as if he was the disks on a yo-yo.
The Boss would build him up, tell Sid and others that he had never seen Billy “looking better,’’ and then Martin would punch somebody, or not win the high-90s in games required for an AL East title, and get fired again.
I was covering the Twins on the last weekend of July 1978 at Yankee Stadium when the yo-yoing started. Martin had resigned in tears on July 24 for “health reasons,’’ soon after saying that star outfielder Reggie Jackson was a “liar’’ and Steinbrenner had been “convicted’’ of being one.
George did not enjoy being reminded of his illegal political contribution to Richard Nixon and was about to fire Martin. Immediately, there became a huge pro-Billy reaction from Yankees fans, and George seized the emotion of the moment for his benefit.
On July 29, in the ceremonies prior to the Yankees’ annual Oldtimers Game, Martin was introduced with the announcement that he would be returning as the manager for the 1980 season.
Remember, this was mid-summer 1978, so spring training 1980 was 20+ months in the future, but no matter: The large crowd in the Bronx gave Martin what remains the longest, zaniest standing ovation I’ve witnessed as a sports writer.
Steinbrenner kept Billy on that yo-yo for another decade, bringing him back for a fifth turn as Yankees manager for the 1988 season. Again, we had received assurances that Martin, soon to be 60, was doing great; that once again he never looked better.
The Yankees still were housed in Fort Lauderdale for spring training. The Twins were there for an exhibition. I was the last remaining sports writer in the press box 75 minutes after the game.
Martin appeared from near the dugout in civilian clothes. He became a lone figure walking slowly across the field, heading for the players/staff parking lot behind the fence. He had gone from little to tiny, making the drink that he was carrying in his right hand look immense.
He was fired for the fifth and last time as Yankees manager after 68 games, replaced by Lou Piniella. He was dead on Christmas Day 1989, a one-vehicle accident with alcohol involved; the lone dispute was whether Billy or his pal Bill Reedy was the drunk driver.
I never could figure out the public’s love of Martin. Where baseball fans and his loyalists saw a wolverine, I saw a weasel.