“Billy Ball: Billy Martin and the
Resurrection of the Oakland A’s”
The publishing info:
Released April 1
The review in 90 feet or less
Two events early during the 1981 Major League Baseball season knocked me off my hardball moorings.
(Actually, there were far more than only two, considering the mid-season strike and all the other drama that went along with it.)
As the cultural phenomenon known as “Fernandomania” was in an upsurge in Los Angeles early in the season, an April 27 issue of Sports Illustrated landed with a cover proclaiming: “The Amazing A’s and their Five Aces.”
On this day in 1981 — April 19 — the Athletics broke the MLB record by starting the season 11-0 after the first game of a doubleheader – they had actually jumped out to an 8-0 mark after a four-game sweep of the defending AL West champion Angels in Anaheim when Mike Norris, Mike Langford and Matt Keough had back-to-back-to-back complete-game wins (against Geoff Zahn, Andy Hassler and rookie Mike Witt). So now we see those three A’s aces, plus Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman, in their yellow road jerseys — taken in the Anaheim Stadium clubhouse. Those five starters had nine complete-games in the first 10 wins.
The Ron Fimrite story had the headline: “Winning Is Such A Bore.”
(To be fair, Valenzuela was only 5-0 with five complete games and a 0.20 ERA with four shutouts at that point in the season. The SI Fernando “Unreal!” cover came on May 11 when he was 7-0 with a 0.29 ERA and five shutouts and seven straight complete games. He would soon lose his first game. SI jinx for what it’s worth).
But then in May, Time magazine decided to Billy Martin on its cover – an artistic rendition, with the headline “Baseball ’81: It’s Incredible!” and a B.J. Phillips-authored piece that included: “Oakland’s record would be impressive if it belonged to the 1927 Yankees. The astonishing truth is that it is held by virtually the same team that, two seasons ago, was the worst in baseball. But there is one huge difference, a stormy, unpredictable figure with fire in his eyes and victory on his mind, Alfred Manuel (“Billy”) Martin.”
Also that month: The cover of Sport Magazine, with “Billy Martin’s Pitching Machine.”
“That exploded the whole ‘Billy Ball’ story,” says Matt Levin on page 171 of this new Dale Tafoya book.
Levin is identified more than 100 pages earlier as a consultant contracted by the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum board to file a lawsuit against A’s owner Charles O. Finley in 1979, asked to document “what the standards of marketing were in Major League Baseball and contrasting them to the A’s practices.” They Coliseum felt Finley breached a contract to not market this franchise – which four seasons earlier completed its third straight World Series title, defeating the Dodgers, but was now decimated by the new free-agent movement – and as a result, the attendance was the most abysmal in all of the sport, and visiting teams were not getting much of a share of gate receipts, and not happy about it.
The Coliseum was also watching Al Davis’ NFL Raiders tank as well – they would move to L.A. in 1982 after years of litigation. Having the A’s tank in the same way wasn’t going to help the sterile stadium experience any more than if the Golden State Warriors – also underachieving at the time – played its games on an outdoor court at second base for the sheer gimmick of it all.
If Martin had not somehow landed in his hometown of Oakland after his latest firing by the New York Yankees following the 1979 season, none of this would have been even thought possible.
It was enough to persuade Tafoya, who watched the A’s growing up and then contributed to the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and Modesto Bee, to jump on this untapped story, the residue of once doing research on a story about how the A’s in early April, 1979 once crew 653 fans to a game.
Martin arrived 10 months later.
Tafoya, who authored a book on Oakland’s “Bash Brothers” in 2004, had a template on how to get those involved with the A’s franchise in the early ‘80s to talk about it again. It was like reading Jeff Pearlman’s process in doing “Showtime” about the Lakers’ 1980s run – find those a bit off the radar who had stories to tell, and empty their buckets.
Here, it’s people from Billy Martin Jr., to all the scribes who covered the team at the time, to the people like Levin.
Then it was finding those who documented it, like the L.A. Times’ Ross Newhan, to revive their recollections as starts Chapter 11 “The Resurrection” with:
Billy Ball stickers adorn the windows of the shops and restaurants in Jack London Square, not to mention the majority of the car bumpers in downtown Oakland. The lines at the Oakland Coliseum ticket windows are long, and the waiting raises the temperature of the fans, who concede that they are happy, finally, to have a reason to buy tickets to see the A’s.
Again, Newhan is writing this in May 1981, as Fernando Valenzuela is turning L.A.’s baseball world upside, and a strike is looming that will make a split season one of the most bizarre in league history.
Martin was 51 when Finley decided he was the quick fix that could help things. Finley was just 61. Martin’s firing by George Steinbrenner in New York came not long after Martin had the notorious fight with the marshmallow salesman in a Minnesota bar. It was the fifth time in 11 years Martin was canned or forced to quit a managerial job.
“The A’s were a moribund franchise in need of a boost that aggressive Martin could provide,” Tafoya outlines in the prologue. “But Martin, born in nearby Berkeley, needed some hometown cooking. Returning home to manage the A’s meant Billy could reunite with his 78-year old mother, Joan Downey, and focus on his health after a few turbulent years in New York…. Billy had been part of Oakland baseball championship lore in the past. In 1948, starring for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks, he helped lead them to their first Pacific Coast League title since 1927.”
Martin played 11 years for the Yankees as their fiery second baseman and Mickey Mantle sidepiece, then got into managing at Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and the Yankees.
“He was the most fascinating manager and – in a baseball sense – the best manager I’ve ever covered,” says San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins. (Recently, Jenkins wrote about that fractured 1981 season during this pandemic lull in generating news.)
It was a celebration — as the Oakland Coliseum played the 1980 Kool & The Gang after every home win. (See video clip above).
The idea was to celebrate a Martin-style of play – run the starters as long as possible, steal bases behind Rickey Henderson leading off, then go long with Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas and Mitchell Page – worked its way into the lexicon, as, in the lead quote of Chapter 6, the Oakland Tribune’s Ralph Wiley is quoted in a March 1980 piece:
Billy baseball. If it were a fever, the A’s would be an epidemic. There’s another name for it. Confidence.
Or cockiness. Or, as Martin found a sense of security back in Oakland and “less things gnawing at him,” as traveling secretary Mickey Morabito says, an ability to make his bark work with his bite.
“You ballplayer will screw over anger and coaches,” Martin told his new players at their first spring training meeting. “If you fuck me, I’ll fuck back harder.” It caused Norris to snicker. Martin called him into his office. Norris explained that he wasn’t scared of him and would never screw him over. “We were cool from then on,” Norris says. “I think he respected me.”
The stats told one part of this story overload.
In 1980, the rotation of Langford (age 28), McCatty (26), Norris and Kingman (both 25) and Keough (24) completed 93 of their combined 163 starts. Norris was 22-9 with a 2.53 ERA; Langford was 19-12. Kingman lost 20. The bullpen had a total of 13 saves.
The aborted 1981 season saw the same five complete 59 of their 106 starts. (As a comparison, the Dodgers’ had four main starters under Tommy Lasorda — Valenzuela completing 11 of his 25 starts, with Jerry Reuss, Burt Hooten and Bob Welch combining for 15 complete games in their 68 starts. Dave Goltz and Rick Sutcliffe were also spot starters, with no complete games for the team that won the 1981 World Series against a Yankees squad that knocked the A’s out in three straight game of the truncated ALCS).
In 1982, the same five A’s, at a point of exhaustion, completed just 37 of their 133 starts.
Martin was gone in ’83, replaced by a computer-savvy Steve Boros, and just McCatty and Norris stayed as starters (completing just five of their 54 starts), with Keough and Langford in the bullpen and Kingman gone.
But the Martin mystique remained. His A’s firing was announced during the Game 7 broadcast of the 1982 World Series between Milwaukee and St. Louis, giving NBC’s Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek something to distract them – as they speculated that he was going back to the Yankees.
There was never a dull moment when Martin was in the mix. This book proves it and more.
An author Q&A:
I likened your book to what Jeff Pearlman did with “Showtime” — talking to those maybe a little off the radar during the Lakers’ 1980 run go get some really interesting facts. Jeff even offers a nice blurb about the book on the back jacket. So what was your strategy? Who did you find to be the most insightful interviews?
My strategy was to interview as many people as possible who witnessed “Billy Ball” to capture the most accurate story. The goal was not to write a book on Billy Martin, but to capture this incredible baseball renaissance in Oakland beginning in 1980, which required me to study Billy Martin, a fascinating character who connected with the working class in every city he managed. He had an ability to shake a city and resurrect a franchise, although it didn’t last very long.
Some of Martin’s former A’s players revealed some fun experiences with him. My favorite part was hearing how Billy shook the young A’s immediately when he arrived to Scottsdale for spring training in 1980. Charlie Finley hired him only a day before. Billy injected confidence in them. These young A’s were loyal to Billy and believed everything he told them. Former A’s reliever Dave Heaverlo shared a great story of Billy barging out of the dugout twice at Comiskey Park in 1981 after receiving a death threat the night before. Mike Heath shared a great story about bumping into Billy at the Edgewater Hyatt House in Oakland in 1979 and Billy hinting that he’d be managing the A’s soon. Bob Lacey, one of Martin’s relievers in 1980, had a sometimes-tumultuous relationship with him and he was frank about it in the book. Brian Kingman, who lost 20 games pitching for Martin in 1980, discussed his rocky relationship with Billy, a hard loser. Hearing stories of how Billy could get inside an opposing manager’s head was hilarious. He always kept them on their toes and frustrated them.
How was it talking to Billy Martin Jr.? What info did you glean from him that you may not expected?
Billy Martin Jr. was so accommodating and helpful. He even connected me with others who knew his father. Before I started the project, I made sure I had a conversation with him and he gave me his blessings. He never wanted his dad to leave Oakland because he knew he was home, healthy and safe.
In Billy Jr.’s mind, he never had to worry about his dad when he was managing the A’s. He noticed that his dad got healthier and more relaxed back home. But Billy acknowledged his father’s life-long addiction to the Yankees. Billy will always be remembered as a Yankee, of course, but Billy Ball highlights his homecoming beginning in 1980, when he inherited a club that lost 108 games and a fan base that stopped showing up.
The backlash of Martin using his pitchers the way he did caught up with him in later years, but it was an amazing to watch in real time. As a kid when you watched this, what did you think? Were you also paying attention to Fernandomania happening in L.A. — with him being a complete-game machine as well?
Billy Martin’s use of his A’s starting staff in 1980 has been criticized through the years because of their arm injuries shortly after, but these pitchers were having the time of their lives. Langford, Norris, McCatty and Keough each completed fourteen-inning complete games in 1980. They did not want to give up the ball and battled Billy to stay in the game. Plus, none of them had a track record of winning, so they didn’t want to lose their spot in the rotation. Complete games were more prevalent and accepted back then. They never received so much attention and savored every moment.
Billy never took on a team to rebuild. He would pour his soul into winning immediately, and leaving his starters on the mound was his strategy to win with a bad bullpen. Bob Lacey had a club-leading six saves. He didn’t have a Goose Gossage in Oakland like he had in New York. The start of the 1981 season was magical. The A’s opened the season 11-0 and down south, Fernando Valenzuela started the season 8-0 with eight straight complete games. “Billy Ball” and “Fernando-mania” brought a lot of smiles. And who can forget the movie “Urban Cowboy.”
(As we note: Tafoya has done at least one interviewwith country western radio stations related to the book).
What was the story you were doing about the poorly attended game in April 1979 that led to this?
The A’s announced a crowd of 653 for a home game on April 17, 1979, and they drew only 1,215 the next day. Attendance at A’s games was terrible in the late 1970s. They drew only 306,763 in 1979. A’s fans knew Finley was trying to sell the club that he wasn’t promoting in Oakland. The Oakland A’s were a baseball crisis. But hiring Billy turned out to be a Finley masterstroke and benefited him. Billy and the A’s generated enough excitement in the area to persuade Walter A. Haas Jr. to purchase the club from Finley in August 1980 and keep them in Oakland. Finley was able to unload the A’s at a nice profit. Without the excitement of “Billy Ball,” I doubt Finley would have attracted any local buyers with the capital to buy the club.
By 1982, the A’s drew over 1.7 million and were crowned Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. When Billy got there, the crowds grew and the team stated winning. The Haases came in and started pouring money into the franchise. It was an incredible baseball renaissance in Oakland, a city that baseball had given up on in the late 1970s.
Who were some of those you wished you could have talked to for this — aside from Martin himself, if you even really would want to talk to him?
I would have loved to interview Dwayne Murphy, “the Captain.” He was the quiet leader of those “Billy Ball” teams and had the respect of his teammates. He was the general of the best out outfield in baseball at the time. He was the best center fielder in the game. When Billy benched Murphy in 1982 for missing a ball in center field, it rubbed some A’s players the wrong way and Billy’s stock was dropping in the clubhouse.1982 was a miserable year for the A’s. Murphy and I were never able to connect, but I mailed him a hardback last week.
We’re guessing this resonates in the Bay Area. How about in other parts of the country, like New York? Is it gaining some traction in different baseball pockets?
I’ve been interviewing on radio stations across the country, including New York, and there’s definitely been a lot of interest in other parts. Many still remember the glory days of “Billy Ball” in Oakland. It was a national story. Not just the Bay Area. The Oakland A’s are a really storied franchise with a lot of great history and Billy Martin is still one of the more fascinating and polarizing characters of the game. Fans are fascinated.
One other thing: The wins that Billy brought to Oakland was just one part of the story. The spike in attendance was incredible. The crowds just kept growing and growing. Billy Martin inherited a franchise that had drawn just under 307,000 in 1979. By the time he left the A’s in 1982, the A’s had drawn over 1.7 million. They would have drawn over 2.3 million in 1981 if the strike hadn’t erased 22 home dates.
How it goes in the scorebook
If the A’s were known as the “Triple A’s” in the late ‘70s because of having to patch their lineup with minor-leaguers, this documentation of how it all changed based on the simple hiring of Martin is deserving of straight A’s as well.
A slice of baseball history can be dicey to convey if not for the right interviews and information dug up. For many, this is a kind of forgotten time – after Finley’s “Swingin’ A’s” won their titles in the 1970s, then sold the team, and before the A’s returned in the 1988 World Series against the Dodgers and went back in ’89 and ’90.
This was done with a fine-toothed comb and extracted a moment in time that was definitely worth the re-examine.
In just three seasons with the A’s – before and after getting booted from and then returning to manage the Yankees – Martin posted a 215-218 record, which is quite deceiving. The 68-94 mark in ’82 after the gas ran out on all those young arms weights down that 37-23 start in the first half of ’81 before the strike, claiming what would be the first-half title in the American League West.
His career mark of 1,253 wins (556 with the Yankees in eight tries) against 1,013 losses includes two pennants and one World Series title, in 1977, against the Dodgers, with all those accolades in New York, all before coming to Oakland. He also had division titles in each stop – ’69 in Minnesota, ’72 in Detroit and ’81 in Oakland.
When he died in a single-car accident on Christmas Day 1989, at age 61, it was terrible news. The mother he had reconnected with had died herself at age 88 just a few weeks earlier. Martin had already been fired a fourth time by George Steinbrenner but was kept as his special advisor and may have signed to manage them again in 1990. Who knows.
We just know, now, that those days in Oakland were pretty sweet for those who experienced it and now get to relive it.
The mother of invention: The PBBClub.com
Says Tafoya about this group of baseball authors:
“Being a part of the Pandemic Book Club has fostered a culture of authors supporting other authors amid this unprecedented time. When we landed book deals, I’m sure none of thought our book would be published under these challenging conditions. Instead of just focusing on our own books, we’re promoting baseball books from other authors on social media. It’s really good karma.”
Other recent books on this topic we’d endorse
== “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s,” by Jason Turbow (from 2017, the author of “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodger” in 2019
== “Finley Ball: How Two Baseball Outsiders Turned the Oakland A’s into a Dynasty and Changed the Game Forever,” by Nancy Finley, Charles’ daughter, in 2016
== “Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman,” by M. Michael Green and Roger Launius, in 2010
“Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius,” by Bill Pennington, in 2005
“Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin,” by Peter Golenbock