Billy Martin infused veteran Tiger team with new life in early 1970s

Always fiery, Billy Martin brought energy to his role as Tigers' manager in the early 1970s.

Always fiery, Billy Martin brought energy to his role as Tigers’ manager in the early 1970s.

Only one man included on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s recent Expansion Era ballot has any direct connection to the Detroit Tigers. That would be the late Billy Martin, who stands little chance of gaining election in a year when three other managerial standouts (Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre) figure to garner most of the attention. But that reality should not diminish Martin’s impact as one of the game’s most newsworthy managers. Though he managed the Tigers for fewer than three full seasons, Martin certainly had an impact.

When the Tigers fired the venerable and even-keeled Mayo Smith after the 1970 season, they decided to bring in a much different field manager in Martin, who brought a level of youth and energy that had not been seen in the Tiger dugout in years.

Martin also delivered controversy, a quality that Smith generally avoided during his days in Detroit. Martin brought a small bit of controversy to his first spring training with the Tigers. As has been the company’s custom for years, Topps sent its cameraman to the Tigers’ spring training camp in Lakeland with the idea of photographing both Martin and his players. The photographs would then be used in the eventual production of Topps’ 1972 set, coming out one year later.

The timing of the photo shoot for the Topps cameraman apparently did not suit Martin. Annoyed by the cameraman’s presence, Martin finally agreed to pose for the shot. He did so reluctantly, but with his own message of protest against the photographer. Martin delivered a classic pose, leaning onto the bat with his left hand. Placing his hand on the knob of the bat, Martin made sure to extend his middle finger downward, while keeping his other fingers hidden from view. The subtle gesture of the middle finger, which was apparently not spotted by any of the executives at Topps, made it onto the final card and created a mild stir upon its release in the spring of 1972.

Histrionics aside, Martin devised a plan in the spring of 1971 by which he hoped the Tigers could challenge the world champion Orioles. Despite fielding questions about Mickey Lolich’s ability to lead the staff as the No. 1 starter, Martin maintained a firm conviction in his veteran left-hander. He determined that Lolich would receive the ball every fourth day, no matter what his other starters did. Lolich responded to the boost of confidence by winning 25 games, throwing a whopping 376 innings, and compiling 308 strikeouts, the latter mark representing a new Tiger record.

Martin also showed similar confidence in his second starter, Joe Coleman, who had come over in the Denny McLain blockbuster with the Senators. Coleman won 20 games, by far the best output of his career. With McLain and Coleman carrying the load, the Tigers stayed close to the Orioles for much of the summer.

From Day One, Martin made it clear that the Tigers would take direct aim on the powerhouse Orioles. Prior to the Tigers’ first visit to Baltimore, Martin sent a clear message to his players. “Get your hellos [with the Orioles] over with fast,” Martin told the Tigers. “Then don’t say anything to them. We’ve got a job to do against this team.”

The Tigers played a bit above .500 over the first half of the season, but by the All-Star break, they had fallen seven and a half games back of the O’s. Sensing that some of his players were about to give up, Martin held a clubhouse meeting. “The world is full of quitters, people looking for the way out,” Martin told his assembled players. “Let’s play so that we can be proud of the name ‘Detroit’ across our chests.”

The Tigers responded to Martin’s challenge by playing their best ball in August and September, highlighted by five straight wins over the Orioles during the final month of the season. (For the season, the Tigers went 10-8 against the defending world champions.) But the Orioles ultimately had too much pitching depth, as evidenced by a staff featuring four 20-game winners. Although the Tigers went 19-9 in September, the O’s also finished with a flourish, winning their last 11 games of the season to put the Tigers a dozen games back in the American League East.

Still, Martin had worked wonders, guiding the team to 91 victories after failing to win even 80 the previous summer. GM Jim Campbell rewarded Martin with a new contract and a raise, making him the highest paid manager in franchise history.

Given the talent level of the Orioles, few gave the Tigers (or anyone else for that matter) much of a chance to win the East in 1972. Martin didn’t care about that. He knew he had a team capable of playing sound fundamental ball, but one that he felt could run more and create some unexpected havoc on the basepaths.

With an aging team that that lacked the youthful talent of the 1968 World Championship club, Martin knew that he would have to rest his older regulars. So he rotated five outfielders among the three slots, platooned Dick McAuliffe with Tony Taylor at second, and wisely worked midseason pickup Duke Sims into the catching rotation. Martin also showed gumption in using John Hiller, who was making a return from a severe heart attack. Martin used Hiller in the toughest of situations, and the hard-throwing left-hander responded with a 2.03 ERA in 44 innings.

Martin’s daring managerial style reached its zenith on August 13, when he responded to a recent offensive slump and a stretch of 10 losses in 14 games by picking his lineup out of a hat. Drawing names one by one, Martin first picked Norm Cash, who became his leadoff hitter. His fourth selection turned out to be Eddie Brinkman, who became arguably the weakest cleanup hitter in major league history. The lineup made little sense, but it did loosen up the Tigers, who proceeded to win the game, 3-2, over Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.

That summer, an energized Tiger fan base bought into Martin’s system of aggressive, hard-nosed, and unpredictable play. Drawing 1.9 million fans to Tiger Stadium, Martin’s Bengals outlasted the Red Sox by one-half game in the strike-shortened season. The Tigers then extended a vastly superior A’s team to a decisive fifth game in the American League Championship Series, losing by just one run.

Still, that memorable ALCS produced controversy, along with bitter criticism of Martin. In Game Two, Martin ordered relief pitcher Lerrin LaGrow to throw at Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris, a Tiger nemesis who had hit extremely well early in the series. Plunked in the ankle with a hard fastball, Campaneris helicoptered his bat toward LaGrow, narrowly missing his target but fueling a nasty bench-clearing brawl.

A lesser known controversy took place prior to Game Five. According to Jim Northrup )who admittedly despised Martin), the manager arrived at the ballpark only a half-hour before game time, carrying with him an obvious hangover. Martin then made out a lineup card that featured two questionable decisions. He put Duke Sims, a slow-footed catcher by trade, in left field, replacing Willie Horton. Martin then inserted Bill Freehan into the starting lineup at catcher, despite the fact that he was bothered by an injured finger. When Sims was handcuffed by the ball on a ground single, thereby delaying his throw to the plate, critics pointed the blame at Martin. In all likelihood, Horton would have reached the ball more quickly and  fielded it without incident. While it’s difficult to know with any certainty, Horton might have retired George Hendrick at the plate. Instead, Hendrick scored what proved to be the series-winning run.

Martin’s managing in Game Five left a sour taste to a surprising season. More controversy came during the following spring training. Horton, who often clashed with Martin, arrived in Bradenton disillusioned with the prospect of being a platoon player in 1973. Horton then asked to come out of a exhibition game early, drawing the ire of Martin. Later that spring, Tigers general manager Jim Campbell called Martin and Horton into his office to clear the air. Rather than alleviate the situation, the meeting only enraged Martin, who suddenly announced that he was quitting the team; in a huff, he stormed out of Campbell’s office, to the shock of Horton.

Campbell thought that the moody Martin would quickly change his mind and come back, but he didn’t. The next day, Campbell instructed his coaches to put the players through their normal workout. The Tigers then played a scheduled exhibition game against the Phillies, without Martin in the dugout.

Martin’s sudden departure left the Tiger camp in a state of disarray. Some of the players didn’t even know about the blow-up between Martin, Horton, and Campbell. Few within the organization seemed to have an answer as to what the Tigers would do if Martin’s absence continued.

To the relief of Campbell, Martin returned the next day. But the incident seemed to set the tone for the season. With an already aging team now one year older, the Tigers floundered. Martin’s steely determination also seemed lacking. In mid-August, after a bout with the flu, he arrived at the ballpark only 35 minutes before game time, leaving Tiger players to wonder who would be in the starting lineup. Campbell took note.

In early September, with the Tigers completely out of the running in the American League East, the situation reached rock-bottom. After a frustrating loss to the Indians and Gaylord Perry, Martin told Joe Coleman and lefty reliever Fred Scherman to throw spitballs against the Indians in retaliation. Martin publicly announced the spitball directive, drawing a suspension from American League president Joe Cronin. Campbell was not amused. Rather than wait out the three-game ban, he fired Martin, replacing him with veteran coach Joe Schultz, the onetime skipper of the Seattle Pilots.

In spite of Martin’s transgressions, some supporters of the skipper felt the firing was unjustified. Other than the wintertime pickup of right-hander Jim Perry, Campbell had failed to make any significant improvements to the 1973 roster. Martin had also managed to keep the Tigers eight games above .500, despite an everyday lineup that featured seven of eight players over the age of 30. With the exception of slick third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and 23-game winner Joe Coleman, the Tigers had no prominent players in their twenties.

Over the last 40 years, three Tiger managers have stood out: Sparky Anderson, Jim Leyland, and Martin himself. Anderson and Leyland enjoyed relatively long tenures in the Tiger dugout, and each man guided the franchise to at least one World Series appearance. In contrast, Martin’s stint lasted less than three years and featured no appearances in Fall Classic plays. But Martin’s stint remains iconic, a tribute to the many controversies, the conflicts, and the incredible influence that he exacted on the franchise. At a time when the Tigers appeared to be in decline, Billy Martin helped them remain relevant.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.