I love the A’s uniforms of the 1970s and into the 1980s and yet I find this particular team picture card to be someone tragic, and I will explain why partially through an anecdote.
In 1982, your pal Sully was 10 years old and living in the suburbs of Boston. I loved New England but I was drawn to New York City. I used to draw the skyline all the time and fantasized about living in Manhattan.
I was (and am) a Red Sox fan but the history of the Yankees was undeniably powerful. At that time I was consuming every single baseball history book I could get my hands on.
That fall, my family took a trip to Manhattan. It was the first time I ever visited the island and friends, it remains one of the most magical weeks of my life.
This was dirty and grimy Manhattan and STILL it was the most beautiful place I ever saw in my life.
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal. At one point I got on the elevator. I looked over and I saw an undeniably recognizable face.
It was Billy Martin.
I knew who Billy Martin was. He was a World Series hero with the Yankees as a player. He also was one of, if not THE most, respected and controversial managers of the day.
I stared at him like he was a yeti.
He saw me, not knowing I was a Red Sox fan, and smiled. “Hey kid.” He said.
I grinned. “Hi” I replied. I always knew what to say. I got off at my floor, floating 4 feet off the ground. It was magical.
What I didn’t realize then and I know now, that he was about to make one of the worst decisions of his life.
Billy Martin is always associated with the Yankees. But because of his, to be kind, combative personality, he actually bounced from organization to organization as a player and as a manager.
He played 7 years with the Yankees, and then 1/2 a year with the A’s, one season with the Tigers, one season with the Indians, one season with the Reds, 6 games with the Milwaukee Braves and the bulk of the 1961 season with the Twins.
Then as a manager he took the Twins and Tigers to the post season and turned around the Rangers before finally becoming the Yankees manager.
After back to back pennants and the World Series title in 1977, he insulted George Steinbrenner one time too many in 1978 and was fired. But wait, in that same season, they announced he would come back.
He returned in 1979 and got in a fight with a marshmallow sales man and got fired again.
Billy Martin had many demons and addictions. He famously battled with alcohol and womanizing. But his greatest addiction was to the Yankees. George Steinbrenner knew that. He knew he could abuse and torture Billy all he wanted because he had the keys to what he needed.
He needed to be in a Yankee uniform and leading them to greatness. He wore many unis but none meant as much to him as the pinstripes. He thought of Steinbrenner as an interloper from Cleveland who bought his beloved team and had the keys to the kingdom.
After the fight with the marshmallow salesman, he was courted by the A’s. Now Billy was originally from the East Bay. And in many ways, returning to Oakland was a homecoming.
The team was an absolute mess when he arrived. The greatness of the 1970’s Swinging A’s was long gone. They barely could attract 500,000 for an entire season and they were rumored to be moving to Denver.
With Finley selling the team, the whole organization was in flux. They responded with “Billy Ball” and having a winning year in 1980.
In 1981, they shot out of the gate and took first place in April and stayed there when the strike hit. Forced to play Kansas City in the stupid first round, the A’s made quick work of it.
Billy Martin had his greatest managerial accomplishment. He brought the A’s, just a few years from being a borderline minor league team, to the ALCS. He showed he didn’t need Steinbrenner or the Yankees.
In an ESPN special, Martin’s son saw how happy he was in the East Bay, free of the New York pressure. He described his dad as getting a tan and developing a healthy gut. He never wanted his dad to go back to the Yankees.
But the A’s were swept by the aging Yankees in the 1981 ALCS. Billy could not exact the ultimate revenge.
And during 1982, as the Yankees went through Bob Lemon, Gene Michael and Clyde King as manager, Billy seemed restless in Oakland. He wore out his pitchers and ultimately his welcome as the Yankees sent trial balloons to California to see if he would be willing to go back.
That fall he negotiated with the Yankees.
That fall I saw him at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York. He said hi to me. Then not long after that, he returned to the Yankees to manage the 1983 season.
He never brought the Yankees back to the post season. He managed them in 1983, then in 1985 and then for the first half of 1988. After being fired in 1988, he sat out the 1989 season. Steinbrenner was looking to bring him back for the 1990 season when he died in a truck crash around Christmas time, 1989.
I keep thinking of his time with the A’s. He had NOTHING left to prove with the Yankees. He won the World Series as a manager and lay down the foundation for the 1978 champs. If he stayed with Oakland, would they have ultimately win it all? Would he be the mentor for Rickey Henderson? Would he find satisfaction, peace and sobriety in Alameda County?
And the sobriety would not just be for drinking but the ultimate fix for him, being in a Yankees uniform. Sure the green and gold don’t have the legacy and pull of the pinstripes, but he could have done so many great things in Oakland had he stayed there.
I wish I knew that in the elevator of the Grand Hyatt. I would have said “Don’t leave Oakland! You are happier there!”
No doubt he would have listened to me.
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