Was Billy Martin the Most “Bad Ass” Baseball Manager of them All?


Billy Martin flipping off the photographer taking his Topps baseball card picture in 1972.

The fact that both Joe Madden of the Tampa Bay Rays and Ron Gardenhire of the Minnesota Twins were ejected in playoff games on the same day is a bit unusual. It also made for entertaining video. But it reminded me of the master stroke of a manager in the playoffs, undertaken by Billy Martin when he managed the Detroit Tigers in 1972, and he didn’t even get ejected for it.

In 1972 Martin managed the Tigers to a narrow victory in the American League East, and they took on the mighty Oakland A’s in the playoffs. When the A’s and Tigers met the collective temper was already high, and it would later become much higher. A’s owner Charlie Finley, always good copy for sportswriters, called Tiger manager Billy Martin “a liar, a phony and a 24-carat kook.” Finley was certainly right about Martin, but he did not call Martin a managerial genius, a true leader, and a drunken brawler, all of which was also true. And the liar, phony, and 24-carat kook comment was also a little like the pot calling the kettle black.

In game two, pitchers Blue Moon Odom for the A’s and Woody Fryman for the Tigers faced each, and the A’s ran wild. A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris led off the game with a single, promptly stole second and then third base, and came home on a Joe Rudi hit. The A’s scored four more runs in the fifth to make this into the only blowout of the series. Frustration ran high in the Tigers dugout, and Billy Martin decided to act. During the A’s scoring binge in the fifth, Tigers reliever Fred Scherman threw two pitches that barely missed Reggie Jackson, sending him diving out of the way. Both sides knew that Martin was sending a message.

A's Owner Charlie Finley with his manager Dick Williams in 1972. (photo Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)

Martin sent another in the seventh. After Campaneris already had three hits, stolen two bases, and scored two runs, reliever Lerrin LaGrow threw at Campaneris, hitting him on the ankle. Campaneris staggered for a moment in pain, then turned and glared at LaGrow before flinging his bat toward the mound. The bat helicoptered about five feet off the ground toward LeGrow’s left side. The pitcher was no doubt stunned and took a moment to recover, ducking out of the way just in time to avoid contact. The benches quickly cleared, and though no punches were thrown the event puncuated the high tension of the game.

Everyone knew Martin had ordered it, and intended the ankle injury to put Campaneris out of commission for the rest of the series. Joe Rudi said, “I was in the on-deck circle, and I feel the Detroit pitcher threw at him.…when [Billy] Martin gets his ears pinned down, he’s going to do something about it.” Indeed, Martin led the Tigers rush out of the dugout, and appeared to be the only one enthusiastic about a fight. He went straight for Campaneris, who ran for the A’s dugout. Martin had to be stopped by the umpires. Legendary umpire Nestor Chylak, behind the plate for this game, threw both LaGrow and Campaneris out of the game, but not Martin.

Later Martin feigned innocence and put all the inappropriate behavior on Campaneris. “There’s no place for that kind of gutless stuff in baseball,” he said. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in all my years of baseball…I would respect him if he went out to throw a punch but what he did was the most gutless [thing] of any man to put on a uniform. It was a disgrace to baseball.” Martin had a lot of nerve condemning Campaneris for unsportsmanlike behavior after all of his violence and abuse over the years! No one played a more gentlemanly game, or had a sweeter disposition, than Bert Campaneris. The A’s as a team were known for their fighting with each other, with Finley, and with others, but Campaneris always seemed a center of calm and reflection in a swirling pool. As Campaneris said, “I didn’t mean to throw the bat, but you get mad in the moment and you don’t think about it. As soon as it happened, I wish it hadn’t happened.”

Bert Campaneris

As the playoff moved to Detroit for game three, MLB leaders considered how to respond to the Martin-Campaneris incident. Over the objections of the A’s, American League President Joe Cronin decided to suspend Campaneris for the rest of the championship series. The league also fined Campaneris $500; the question of whether or not to suspend him for the World Series as well was left to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. But Cronin also decided to suspend neither Billy Martin, who everyone knew—perhaps with a wink and a nod—had engineered the incident, nor pitcher Lerrin LeGrow. “Nestor Chylak said he didn’t think LeGrow was throwing at Campy,” Cronin said, “so he isn’t being punished.” He added, “Martin didn’t hit anybody because the umpires subdued him quickly and there will be no action against him.” It was an unbelievable turn of events, and the A’s were incensed. The team had lost the services of one of its best players, the fellow who kick started the offense and anchored the defense, and Martin got away with it. Owner Charlie Finley called a 3:00 a.m. press conference in his hotel room on October 10th, which lasted until 4:30, to recall in excruciating detail to the media the meeting with Cronin about Campaneris, and to say that his ankle was too bad to play on and that he was returning to Oakland for treatment.

In this tempest entered Bowie Kuhn, who did the A’s a favor by deciding to impose a seven game suspension on Campaneris for the beginning of the 1973 season rather than the 1972 postseason. Charlie Finley, ever the dramatist, held another press conference to tell the sportswriters how he had saved Campaneris for the World Series. He told how he, along with two of his sons and manager Dick Williams, had gone to Cronin’s hotel room about 10 p.m. to talk him out of a suspension. Bill Libby said that Finley told the story with the cadence of a poem, “as if he were reciting The Raven, full of flourishes and leers.” When Cronin opened the door he was wearing a long white nightgown and a sleeping cap, conjuring an image of a man out of his time and place in the “swinging seventies.” The journalists had as much fun with this image as Finley. “Was he carrying a candle,” one asked. “What color was the nightgown,” asked another as someone yelled, “you can be damn sure it wasn’t Finley green and gold.” Finley laughed, and then launched into a tirade against Cronin, against Martin, and against the Tigers that lasted more than an hour.

As it turned out, Cronin changed his mind and then urged Kuhn to be lenient with Campaneris. He told Kuhn that the player was universally liked, had never been in such a fight before, and deserved to get into the World Series. Kuhn acceded to Cronin’s change of heart by allowing Campaneris to play in the World Series, claiming that he did not want to deprive the A’s fans of their star.

A’s manager Dick Williams recalled that Martin was crazy like a fox in this incident, getting Oakland’s best leadoff man out of the series, firing up his team, and demoralizing the A’s all at the same time. This one incident had turned the advantage to the Tigers. The A’s lost the next two games in the league championship series with scores of 3-0 and 4-3, before taking out the Tigers 2-1 in the final game of the playoff series. All through this tension, Williams said that he slept like a baby, “That is, I woke up every two hours crying.”

Billy Martin, so it seemed, was crazy like a fox but in the end it didn’t work.

This entry was posted in Baseball, Charles O. Finley, Oakland A's and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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