Published: July 24, 2022

Billy Martin

Billy Martin was combative, arrogant, pugilistic, and an alcoholic. He also stands, with the possible exception of Earl Weaver, as the greatest manager of the last 50 years. No one got more out of his players or understood the game better. And no single moment better captured his genius and his foibles better than the events of July 24, 1983.

Martin's New York Yankees found themselves two games back in the American League East heading into that day's action against the Kansas City Royals. The Bombers were nursing a 4-3 lead in the ninth and had reliever Dale Murray on the bump. Murray got two quick outs, but then gave up a single to KC shortstop UL Washington, with George Brett coming up to the dish representing the potential go-ahead run.

Martin responded by bringing in his best reliever, Rich "Goose" Gossage, despite the fact that it meant surrendering the platoon advantage to an already great hitter--Brett's .906 career OPS against righties was 146 points higher than against lefties. Sure enough, Goose left one up and out over the dish, Brett got full extension, launched the ball into the cheap seats in right and began a lazy trip around the bases. As Brett crossed home, he turned right toward his own dugout, ignoring Martin, who was talking to home plate umpire Tim McLelland. Martin was complaining that there was too much pine tar on Brett's bat. A meeting ensued between Martin, McLelland and the other umps.

As Martin was conferring with the umps, Brett stood on the top of the dugout steps looking bewildered, an expression on his face that asked "What could they possibly be talking about?" As the gabfest continued, Brett eventually settled onto the bench.

McLelland eventually laid the bat across home plate--the rules at the time stipulated that there could be no foreign substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle, and home plate measures 17 inches--Brett's pine tar well beyond the width of the dish. With that, McLelland stood up, took a few slow steps toward the KC dugout, pointed toward Brett with the bat and with his other hand pumped a fist. With that pump of the fist, a 5-4 Royals lead had suddenly morphed into a 4-3 Yankees win.

Brett was leaping from his seat before McLelland's fist had even come to rest. He was possessed, just pure sputtering incredulity and fury. McLelland, to his credit remained cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce, but it took two umps, one with his arm around Brett's neck, to restrain the Royals' third basemen, who could be seen to be screaming "fucking" and "bullshit" more than a couple of times. Meanwhile, the Yankees walked off the field triumphant.

The Royals wasted in no time in filing an appeal, which American League president Lee MacPhail upheld, citing his own precedent from a similar dispute a few years earlier involving KC's John Mayberry being accused of the same infraction in 1975 by the California Angels. MacPahil's reasoning was that the intent of the rule was to prevent balls in play from being discolored, thus conferring a potential advantage to the team at bat. Because Brett's ball had left the yard, it may have been smudged, but the Royals gained no advantage. MacPhail did, however, retroactively eject Brett, along with KC manager Dick Howser, coach Rocky Colavito, as well as pitcher Gaylord Perry. Perry, who knew more about cheating at baseball than any man before or since, was bounced because had hidden away Brett's bat, lest it be used as evidence against him.

With the home run reinstated, the game had to be finished, as play had previously ended with the Royals up 5-4 with two outs in the ninth. The game resumed in the Bronx on August 18, a scheduled off day for both teams, in front of 1,245 fans. Martin, ever committed to the narrative of his own victimization (you really should read his autobiography, a case study in how a lack of self-awareness can fuel rampant narcissism), kicked off the festivities with a silent protest by having first baseman Don Mattingly slide over to second (an exceedingly rare instance of a left-handed thrower at the keystone) and staff ace Ron Guidry patrol centerfield.

Then Martin had reliever George Frazier throw to first base to challenge the Brett homer on the grounds that Brett had failed to touch first, but the appeal was to no avail. The ball was then thrown to second base in the hopes that either Brett or Washington had failed to touch that bag, but again it was to no avail. At this point, Martin ran onto the field to raise a stink to umpire and crew chief Dave Phillips. Knowing that Martin was far from done, MacPhail's people had armed Phillips with a notarized signed by all four of the game's original umpires attesting to Brett having touched every base. Imagine being the kind of guy with the kind of personality that the powers that be anticipate your Olympic petulance and try to thrwart with a pre-arranged legal document.

With Martin having run out of moves, Frazier fanned Hal McRae to close out the top half of the inning, after which KC's Dan Quisenberry retired Mattingly, Roy Smalley and Oscar Gamble in order to secure the win. Afterward, Martin was still whinging to anyone who would listen.

"I think it stinks," Martin said beforehand, adding later that he didn't what MacPhail's "vendetta is, but my team is suffering. It's hurt my team the last three weeks. Emotional things cause losses." Martin had seemed to forget that his team immediately responded to the events of July 24 by sweeping a three-game series in Texas. The Yankees would finish the season in third place with a record of 91-71, seven gams back of the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles. He was fired at the end of the season, his third dismissal at the hands of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Two more would follow.

Part of what made this whole episode do bizarre is that surely Martin knew this, as he'd spent 1975 managing the Texas Rangers and then the Yankees--there's just no way he wasn't aware of MacPhail's previous ruling, and still he insisted on going through with the original ruse and then doubled and tripled down--what a lunatic. Hell of a baseball man, though. That he isn't in the Hall of Fame is a travesty.


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