Book Review: “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius”
By Robbie Knopf
A fact that I have never shared on this site is that I grew up a fan of the New York Yankees, like my father and his father before him. My great-grandfather was actually a fan of the New York Giants baseball team and named my grandpa “Mel,” after Giants Hall of Fame slugger Mel Ott. This is my fifth year covering the Tampa Bay Rays after I began in the middle of spring training in 2011. I could not have asked for a better transition from the Yankees to the Rays and I thank all of my readers and everyone who has helped me along for making that possible.
That being said, when I was contacted about reviewing the book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington, I had to say yes. I knew that my dad and grandpa would want to read it, and I was eager to get insight into the era of Yankee baseball that came before my time. Billy Martin was a great player who earned a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium and led the Yankees to a World Series title in 1977, but clearly there was much more to the story. As I read through the book’s 503 glorious pages, I learned an unbelievable amount.
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Some consider Billy Martin the greatest baseball manager of all time, and the book discusses in detail how despite Martin’s fame as a Yankee, fans of the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers haven’t held the same fervor for their teams since Martin stopped managing them. We so often hear that successful managers and head coaches only accumulated great records by leading the right teams, but it becomes clear time and again in the book how Martin was different. In an era before analytics, he was a visionary, coming up with the principals that laid the foundation for Moneyball and seizing advantages that no one in baseball had ever thought of beforehand.
Pennington delves deeply into Martin’s upbringing and later his struggles with alcohol, bar fights, and the like, but he doesn’t try to force anything. There is no narrative that he is trying to impose upon us other than “Billy Martin was a good baseball player, a great manager, a likable human being, and someone who was far from perfect.” It criticizes Martin for his drinking while acknowledging that much of the media’s perception of Martin’s drinking at the time was overly harsh and that everything could have been different had he been born a decade or two later.
Over the course of the book, you will learn so much about the development of not just Martin, but countless other familiar faces like Rod Carew and Rickey Henderson as players along with Buck Showalter and Lou Piniella as managers. You will get a taste of Joe DiMaggio towards the end of his career and Mickey Mantle right at the beginning. You will become aware of some of the finer points of baseball strategy and find a notebook so you can scribble down some of the hysterical and poignant quotes from Martin and others. My only regret is that I didn’t have the time to read it sooner.
Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius is available for $20.26 on Amazon, and I highly recommend it. It isn’t just a book for Yankee fans, it is a book for baseball fans. You will feel exhilarated as you hear about Martin’s pennant races and just a little sad when it ends as you feel the weight of baseball losing one of its greatest personalities. It might be the best book I have ever read.