Can you imagine Billy Martin batting against Dizzy Dean? One look at the scruffy little second baseman, and the Great Dean would have stepped off the mound and doubled ewer with laughter. Then he would have put Martin flat on his back with a high hard one, shouting, "Siddown, squirt!" In the ensuing brawl, Martin probably would have sucker-punched a Cardinals coach and gone down in a pile of bodies, while Dean would have disappeared under the stands for a root beer and a smoke. Diz: "If I'd a knowed he'd get so sore, I wouldn'a tried to hit him on the noggin. I got nothin' against runts."
The above conjecture is inspired by two superb new baseball biographies: Robert Gregory's Diz (Viking, $22) and David Falkner's The Last Yankee (Simon & Schuster, $22). Read in tandem, the two books—one sunny, one dark—are like a twilight doubleheader.
Diz is played in sunshine. The exuberant, boastful Dean was a flake before the word was coined, and Gregory judiciously distributes the laughs. When Diz orders bacon and eggs, the waitress brings him calves' brains with the eggs instead. After cleaning his plate and being told what he'd eaten, Diz says, "I didn't order no brains."
"Be quiet," says his manager, Joe Schultz. "She knows what you need."
And when Dean wins his 30th game of 1934, clinching the pennant for the Cardinals, Gregory gives us the boy who runs out after the game and puts a four-pound block of ice on the mound. "Dizzy told me this morning to put it here," the boy says. "He said this slab would be burnin' up and he wasn't foolin'."
But Gregory finds more to the Dean story than easy laughs. He dismisses as most likely apocryphal, for instance, the oft-told tale that a newspaper reported Dizzy's being knocked unconscious by a thrown ball under the headline X-RAYS OF DEAN'S HEAD REVEAL NOTHING. Dean's antics cheered a nation sobered by the Great Depression. Which explains why thousands of fans came out in 1940 to cheer the sore-armed Dean on his farewell swing through the minor leagues—"Like families on Sunday drives to see fall colors one last time before they faded."
Falkner's biography of Martin takes us down a much darker road. Martin managed five different American League teams, including the New York Yankees five times, and quick success on the field was almost always followed by burnout, blowups and recrimination. He was an injustice collector, Falkner writes of the boozy Martin. "He was actually a softie...someone who, never able to quite figure out who he was, would fight, would lash out because from the earliest age he had learned that lighting back was the way a person kept from being dominated: by a rival gang member, by an opponent on the field, by a boss, by a woman."
Throw in Martin's drinking problem and a childhood characterized by considerable turmoil, and you've got the rèsumè of a loser. Which is what Martin was, off the field. The Last Yankee has it all: nightclub brawls, domestic quarrels, a men's-room mugging.
However, the very qualities that handicapped Martin as a human being helped him on the ball field. "Billyball," as his baseball philosophy came to be known, combined speed, daring and fundamentals, but at bottom it was based on Martin's willingness to intimidate—even if that meant ordering his pitchers to throw at batters. "It was about establishing an aggressive and unpredictable approach to the game," Falkner writes, "throwing fear and uncertainty into the heads of opponents and into the minds of opposing managers."
Falkner thinks—he isn't sure—that Martin may have been the most effective manager in big league history. Martin's employment record suggests otherwise. He left many of his teams in shambles, and that speaks against his methods. Little homage is due the architect whose prize-winning structure collapses a week after its completion.
The irony of these two lives is that Dean, more than Martin, had reason to be bitter. By his 28th birthday he had thrown out his arm, but he kept grinning and gabbing and wound up a star again, tormenting the English language as a baseball broadcaster. In his Hall of Fame speech, in 1953, Dean thanked the Lord "for givin' me a good right arm, a strong back and a weak mind."
Martin, of course, never got to make a Hall of Fame speech. His last words, according to Falkner, were, "Hang on! Look out!"—shouted an instant before the pickup-truck crash on Christmas Day, 1989, that killed him.
Not a bad epitaph, when you think about it.