Wild, High and Tight: The Life and death of Billy Martin.

Wild, High and Tight: The Life and death of Billy Martin. – book reviews

Dick Heller

Peter Golenbock’s Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin (St. Martin’s Press, 545 pp) is a book for people who love baseball — foul balls and all. Struggling through the Yankee years dominated by Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner is like getting free tickets behind the home dugout, only to see the visiting team score eight runs in the first inning. It hurts that much.

There is no question that Martin was one of the game’s best managers in the seventies and eighties, a brilliant and innovative leader who poked and prodded his teams to five division titles, two pennants, one World Series victory and a winning percentage of .553. (One example: He told his pitchers to let soap dry on the inside crotch of their uniforms, knowing that the umpires would not search there for illegal substances if they suspected the hurlers were doctoring the ball.)

There also is no question that Martin was a flawed man whose lack of self-discipline got him fired eight times as a manager, made him prone to barroom brawls at the drop of an imagined insult and turned him into an alcoholic who died in an auto accident a few yards from his home in upstate New York on Christmas Day in 1989. (Golenbock goes into voluminous detail, to no good purpose, on Martin’s death and the legal debate that followed about whether he or a friend was driving.) Basically, Martin was unable to get along with anyone for very long except a few friends and Art Fowler, his pitching coach and drinking buddy. One could make the case — although the author doesn’t — that Martin was baseball’s most tragic outcast since Ty Cobb, the game’s greatest player, who died virtually friendless in 1961.

Golenbock is no stranger to controversy; his resume includes Personal Fouls, a 1988 account of scandals in the North Carolina State University basketball program that led to the dismissal of coach Jim Valvano. He also has written numerous other books about the Yankees (Dynasty, Balls and The Bronx Zoo) and worked with Martin on his autobiography, Number 1; many of the details in his latest work are culled from these. For an experienced writer, however, Golenbock tends to be sloppy. Among other errors, he identifies Leo Durocher as manager of the Giants in the spring of 1948 (he took over in July), Martin and Joe DiMaggio as teammates in 1952 (Joltin’ Joe retired in 1951) and Charles E. Wilson as Harry Truman’s secretary of defense (he was Eisenhower’s). He also misspells the name of former Purdue football coach Jack Mollenkopf and refers to the 8-year-old Washington Senators of 1969 as a new team.

But these flaws are no worse than some of the pop psychology Golenbock employs to explain the behavior of Martin and others. Obviously an admirer of his subject, Golenbock contends that Martin was robbed of his self-respect and sobriety by the assaults of Steinbrenner, who hired and fired him five times as manager of the Yankees, and of fourth wife Jill Guiver, whom the author portrays as a malicious gold digger who wanted Martin only for the creature comforts he could provide. That Martin was a helpless victim of Steinbrenner and Guiver, however, is somewhat too convenient to be believed.

But you have to give Golenbock this: He does the best job to date of examining the sickening relationship between Martin and Steinbrenner — baseball’s most famous adversaries since Ralph Branca pitched to Bobby Thomson in the ninth inning at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951. In his introduction, Golenbock refers to their ongoing battles as “a clash of warped titans,” which about says it all. Of course, the author says it all several dozen more times, even drawing contrasts between the childhoods, adolescent years and young adulthoods of each.

It is worth noting that Martin was dismissed as manager of the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers before Steinbrenner ever got his hands on his psyche. And although Martin’s benefactor and role model was Casey Stengel, his own manager during his playing days with the Yankees, his temperament more closely resembled that of Durocher, another hothead. In one of his more insightful moments, Golenbock writes this about Martin and his various employers:

“What Billy didn’t understand was that to … most of the men he worked for, Billy was an uneducated, uncouth man from the slums whom they didn’t want to be around because he drank too hard and fought too much. On one level, they were afraid of him. Billy got invited into their world because he was renowned. Had he not been the manager, he would have come in through the servants’ entrance.”

Golenbock suggests that Martin made love to every female this side of Marge Schott, but the only romance in Wild, High and Tight involves Martin’s fervent belief that he would always be a Yankee, no matter how many times Stinbrenner fired him or wherever else he worked. If that is true, then Martin would have been vulnerable and self-destructive, a man at the mercy of Steinbrenner, perhaps the greatest Yankee-hater of them all.

King George III, as we have seen, considers himself bigger than the Yankees and even the game itself. Martin never made that mistake, one of the few he missed.

COPYRIGHT 1994 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group