Publish date:


The author fondly recalls schoolmate Billy Martin

Last saturday, almost two weeks after he died, Billy Martin had his real farewell, at the church—St. Ambrose in West Berkeley, Calif.—where he had been baptized. Oh, I know they had already held a service for him at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, a big league affair attended by the likes of Richard Nixon. But for all the sentimental blather about his undying love for the Yankees, Billy was, heart and soul, a West Berkeley guy. You will observe a subtle distinction here: I said West Berkeley, not Berkeley. Everybody knows about Berkeley—seat of a great university, spawning ground for generations of campus radicals. Well, West Berkeley may be a part of Berkeley, but when Billy Martin and I were growing up there, it had as much in common with the rest of that college town as Gary, Ind., has with Cannes.

Actually, West Berkeley underwent a profound change during World War II. It had been a blue-collar neighborhood populated mostly by Italian and Irish families. As with many such places, athletes thrived there, particularly at its Yankee Stadium, James Kenney Park. The West Berkeley kids in those days were tough and territorial, and outsiders from Oakland or even the rest of Berkeley crossed the border at considerable peril. But the war dramatically altered the neighborhood's ethnic composition, bringing in search of shipyard work such exotics as blacks and poor whites from the. South and Mexicans from across the border. West Berkeley was where these impoverished newcomers could afford to live, and it is where they sent their children to school. And so those schools, most specifically Bur-bank Junior High, became mini-war zones in themselves, beachheads where the entrenched fought fiercely to preserve their turf from the invading hordes.

Billy went to Burbank Junior High, and so, a little later, did I. I can recall, on my first day there, inquiring of a classmate what the kids did for amusement at recess. This boy regarded me as if I had just debarked from a spacecraft. "We have razor fights," he said levelly. That kind of took the kick out of recess for me. There were, in fact, two ways to survive Burbank's tribal wars—learn to be a terrific street fighter, as Billy did, or become the companion of somebody who could fight better than all the rest. I adopted the second course, discovering to my relief that some of my quips and impersonations amused a large Irish lad with whom no one wished to tangle.

Then came Berkeley High. By the time I got there, Billy Martin was a senior and a star athlete, all-county in both baseball and basketball, and he was renowned, as he had been at Burbank, for his pugilistic artistry. But he was an outsider. He was not a pretty sight, for one thing. He had a nose, later truncated by plastic surgery, that rivaled de Bergerac's, and he was as sensitive to unkind remarks about it as was the old Guardsman himself. But even if he had been a junior Tyrone Power, Billy's fate would have been sealed by a caste system in this large school—3,500 or more students then—that relegated West Berkeley boys to the bottom rung of the social ladder. At the top were "the goats," the offspring of prosperous and culturally advantaged families that lived in large houses in the hills above town. In the middle were kids like me, aspiring goats condemned by both economics and geography to eternal nerdhood. Billy and his crowd, kids who grew up with the scent of the Bay in their nostrils, were dismissed as "shop boys," since they seemed to take only courses in industrial arts.

Years later, when Billy was managing the Detroit Tigers, I sat down with him, ostensibly to assess the merits of his ball club. Instead we talked, for hours, about West Berkeley and Berkeley High. He was delighted to hear all the old names again—Bruno Andrina, Ruben de Alba, Bill (Babe) Van Heuit—and a familiar curl came to his lips at the very mention of the word "goat."

"You know, I couldn't even get a date at Berkeley High," he told me. "But I did take the academic courses. You probably don't know how it felt to be on the outside, but I'll tell you one thing: I was no shop boy." For years after that conversation, Billy would often greet me with a rousing chorus—"Yellowjackets, Yellow-jackets"—of the Berkeley High fight song. It was our private joke. It was also a bond, for we both knew that in so many ways, you are what you were.

In a real sense, Billy Martin never left the old neighborhood, and at that memorial service at St. Ambrose a dozen or so West Berkeley kids, now men in their late 50's and early 60's, got up to extoll their old friend's loyalty and generosity of spirit. One of them, Choke Mejia, pretty much summed it up for the rest when he said, "Billy's heart will always be in West Berkeley." And so, I'm sure, will his soul. God rest it.