Billy Martin finally returned home last week after a 30-year odyssey that was almost as chaotic and about as well chronicled as the original. Berkeley Billy, as he is still known in the San Francisco Bay Area, was "introduced" at a press conference in Oakland last Thursday as the latest manager of the A's. This local media event, attended by as many persons as ordinarily watch an A's weekday-afternoon home game, was merely a formality. Billy had officially been hired a week earlier by Charlie Finley, who, to his apparent dismay, remains the owner of baseball's sorriest franchise.
Martin and Finley? Now, there are strange bedfellows. When reminded by one of his interrogators on Thursday that Finley is an owner who has a history of firing managers (16) and Martin is a manager who has a history of being fired by owners (four), Berkeley Billy, dapper in a light gray suit, responded lightheartedly, "We're a perfect combination, aren't we?" Actually, if rumors gaining wide currency in baseball have substance, they will not be a combination much longer, because Finley is reportedly prepared to sell the A's to buyers who will keep the team where it is. And that is where Martin, the East Bay native, thinks the A's should be. "It's a pleasure to be back home. I'll do everything possible to promote the team here," he said. "I think Oakland is a good baseball town."
Indeed it was when he played there. The Pacific Coast League-champion 1948 Oakland Oaks, managed by the man who would become Martin's sainted mentor with the Yankees, Casey Stengel, and the 1949 team, managed by Charley Dressen, both drew better in a rickety 13,000-seat minor league park than did last year's A's, whose attendance of 306,763 was the lowest in the major leagues since the Athletics of Philadelphia attracted 304,666 customers in 1954. Finley is counting on Martin to pull in that many fans by himself. And though Martin insists, with commendable if unfounded optimism, that his players will become overnight matinee idols, his name, not theirs, will be the drawing card in his old stomping grounds. The word "stomping" is not used lightly, incidentally, for when Billy was growing up in West Berkeley, stomping—as in "so-and-so stomped the hell out of so-and-so"—was pretty much the primary recreation among young males.
Martin used the occasion of his ascension to Finley's revolving managerial chair last week to visit that neighborhood before returning to the A's spring training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. His mother, Joan Downey, still lives in the green two-story wooden house where Martin was born 51 years ago. "Born upstairs, circumcised right here in the kitchen," she says proudly.
"My mom is older than she weighs—78 years to 75 pounds," says Martin. "From her I get all my meanness and all my heart."
Mrs. Downey, who adorns her frocks with assorted comic badges—ITALIAN POWER, BOYFRIEND WANTED, NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY—conveys some of her son's celebrated irascibility and much of his considerable charm as well.
"I remember when Billy was with the Oaks," she says, chuckling. "We went to see them play in Sacramento. Well, they had this one colored fellow on the Oakland team—Artie Wilson was his name—and these guys from Sacramento got on him something terrible. I decided I wasn't going to take any more of that crap, so I punched one of 'em. Cops came around and took 'em all away." She and Martin's stepfather, John Downey, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, a milestone of domesticity achieved, Mrs. Downey concludes, "because he never gave me a bad time. If he had, I'd have thrown his ass out."
To know Martin, it is necessary to know what life in West Berkeley was like in the middle and late 1940s. It is a racially mixed, lower-income neighborhood in the college town, the part nearest the Bay, and back then it had about as much to do with the rest of Berkeley, culturally and socially, as, say, Vatican City, in a much different way, has to do with Rome. The street smarts that New Yorkers found so beguiling in Billy were not learned in the Bronx but on the playgrounds or, more accurately, the battlegrounds, of West Berkeley.
"I grew up fighting," Martin says. "It isn't that I wanted to. It's just that I had no choice. These weren't kids who stole stuff. Their recreation was fighting." So youngsters growing up in West Berkeley endured a daily ordeal of being "chosen," being victimized by those devious combatants who might "cop a Sunday [sneak a punch]." Recess was as much a time for fights as for tag.
James Kenney Park, only a block and a half from Martin's home, was where he learned to play baseball and, of necessity, duke it out. He became proficient at both, as any number of belligerents who have tested his prowess since have discovered. One just does not, says Martin, "mess with a West Berkeley boy."
"I'd punch the bag at James Kenney for three hours every day without gloves," Martin recalls. "I'd also box with a heavyweight there, Trevio Torrez, who every once in a while would let me have it." Kenney Park was West Berkeley's Agincourt, but Burbank Junior High School—now the West Campus of Berkeley High—was the citadel from which issued the teen-age armies of the night. If the neighborhood seemed threatened by auslanders—from West Oakland maybe, or South Berkeley—these gangs, some numbering into the hundreds, rushed to the barricades. For the mild of manner and the faint of heart, acquiring an education in the Berkeley school system of that time was an experience comparable to an Apache rite of passage. Life could be terrifying.
Youngsters emerging whole from this crucible found they had a big adjustment to make at Berkeley High School. Its huge student body, then already more than 3,000, was neatly segregated by class distinctions as rigid as any in Victorian England. An off-campus magazine defined the castes and cartooned the prototypes for the edification of the unobservant. At the upper level were "The Goats," the scions of wealthy families who dwelt in the hills above town in houses that commanded spectacular views of San Francisco and the Bay. The Goats had fraternities and sororities. They held all the good dances and parties. They weekended in Carmel. They occupied "The Slope," a part of the campus where the elite met to eat lunch. Goat boys wore cashmere sweaters and flight jackets, and they rolled up the legs of their Levi's so that half an inch of the bluish-gray underside of the denim showed. In the middle of the social strata were "The Lily-whites," outcasts who preferred scholarship to society. They did not care what they wore. And at the bottom were "The Shopboys," identified by their oiled ducktails and Levi's rolled under so that no bluish-gray appeared. Martin, technically, was not a Shopboy, having chosen an academic course of study, but the Shopboys were his people, the mean-spirited kids from West Berkeley.
There was no upward mobility at Berkeley High. If you fit into one category, you remained there until graduation did you part. But gifted West Berkeley athletes, like Martin and Babe Van Heuit, a three-sport star, achieved a measure of celebrity on talent alone. Martin was all-county in both baseball and basketball, and despite his relatively small stature, he probably would have succeeded in football had his mother given him permission to play. Those in baseball and basketball who messed with Martin quickly found themselves supine. Billy was an on-field brawler long before he reached the major leagues. At Berkeley High, though, he was essentially an athlete who could never make the school's inner circle.
"I was ugly then," Martin says. "Funny looking. My ears stuck out." Indeed, he seemed all ears, nose and fists. "I never dated a girl at Berkeley High. I went to one dance. I was afraid to stand up in class because my clothes were so bad."
"When Billy graduated [in 1946], I bought him a suit and gave him a $20 bill," his mother says. "I wasn't all that damn poor. I was poor, though."
Driving around the East Bay last week with his third-base coach, Clete Boyer, Martin somehow found fond memories surging back from the dark years of his adolescence. "I got real enthusiastic pointing out different places. Clete, I'd say, I did that here and that there." Later, in Scottsdale, he could smile over a memory that recalls only the good while rejecting the bad. "You know," he said, setting aside a beer at the Pink Pony restaurant, "I really enjoyed Berkeley High. I really did." Time heals.
The Pink Pony is where Martin and his coaching staff—Boyer, Lee Walls, Art Fowler and George Mitterwald—mull over how to deploy their young charges. There is a light, Martin and his staff claim, at the end of the tunnel. "I'm not going into the season just to show up," Martin says. "I guarantee you we won't finish last. I took over a team in Texas that had lost 105 games and drawn less than 700,000 the year before. We finished second and drew a million-two. The A's are a young team with a lot of good pitching arms. An older team is tougher for a manager. But they're all really the same." Then he lapsed into his familiar formula for managerial success. "You'll have 15 guys who will run through a wall for you, five who hate you and five who are undecided. The trick is keeping the five who hate you away from the five who are undecided."
One of Martin's first tasks this spring was to shore up the confidence of 24-year-old Pitcher Matt Keough, who had a catastrophic 1979 season, which included 15 losses in a row. Keough's suffering was attributable in part to shoddy infield play, Martin says, and that will be improved this year. The young righthander's reaction to Martin's hiring seems representative of the team's. "Hallelujah," Keough exults. "We need somebody like this. I have so much respect for him. He stuck his neck out for me by putting me in the 1978 All-Star Game. Now it's my turn to deliver the goods."
"With Billy coming in, things are automatically exciting," says Catcher Jim Essian, 29, one of the few A's veterans. "He's going to make us think about winning for a change. We're definitely going to be a lot better."
Such confidence may seem misplaced on a team that lost 108 games last season, but Martin's enthusiasm is contagious. On the Scottsdale diamond, under the warm Arizona sun, he seems omnipresent, counseling base runners here, instructing infielders there and, with hands characteristically thrust into his back pockets, exhorting hitters in the cage.
Martin will earn $125,000 this year, a salary paid, he says, entirely by Finley. He and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner agreed on a lump-sum settlement of the remaining two years of his New York contract. "We split as friends," Billy says of the man who hired him twice and canned him twice. "I think deep down we liked each other. George offered me a front-office job—I could've named the title. Maybe in three, four years I'll be ready for some executive-type job, but not now. I'm enjoying this. It's fun. I know it's a challenge, but I'm not on any sort of ego kick. There is nothing more I have to prove."
Actually, there is. He wants to silence the critics who cite his off-field altercations—the last with a marshmallow salesman in Bloomington, Minn. got him cashiered by the Yankees last October—as evidence that he is a discredit to the game. "I'm married to baseball," he says. "I've been in love with it since I was a little kid.... I hope I never see another fight again for the rest of my life, believe me."
He also wants to shatter three prevailing myths: that he cannot manage a team because he cannot manage himself; that he's always meddling with the front office; and that he's a good manager over the short haul but tends to self-destruct after that. And, finally, he wants to prove that baseball can succeed in Oakland. He would like his biggest success to be in the community where he was born and raised.
And if by some stroke of genius or luck he should rally the A's, he could turn then to someone from the old hometown and say, as he enjoys saying even after minor successes, "Not bad for a West Berkeley boy." Just being alive, it should be added, is not bad for a West Berkeley boy of his vintage.
Whatever Martin is demonstrating—could this be a new way to fly?—he has his players' attention.
If you think Billy's full of vinegar, try his mother.
Judging by Martin's press conference, his mere presence in Oakland will bring fans to the ball park.