What it was like to cover baseball and Billy Martin in the ’80s

April 16, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
Cover of Bill Pennington's book.

Cover of Bill Pennington’s book.

Bill Pennington wasn’t immune. Like everyone else, he had a memorable encounter with Billy Martin.

Pennington covered Martin and the Yankees for the Bergen Record during their wild ride. He actually had a good relationship with the manager when he assumed the beat in 1985.

“He often was nice to newcomers,” Pennington said. “He felt like he had a clean slate.”

However, it almost changed one night in 1986. Martin, stewing in off-mode in George Steinbrenner’s ridiculous on-and-off managerial circus, was working as a studio analyst for Yankees TV games. Somehow, he thought Pennington wrote the telecasts would be better without him.

It wasn’t true, but that didn’t stop Martin from confronting Pennington at a hotel bar during a Yankees road trip.

“Billy comes up to me, shakes my hand and calls me, ‘Mr. Pennington,’ which he never did,” said Pennington. “He said, ‘I hope one day we can settle our differences.’ He’s not letting go of my hand and he’s squeezing really hard.”

Martin offered Pennington the opportunity to step outside. He obviously declined, and fortunately for him, people pulled Martin away. Unsettled by what happened, Pennington approached Martin the next day at the ballpark.

“I said, ‘Billy, it wasn’t me,’” Pennington said. “He says, ‘I don’t remember what made me mad at you. So instead, I’m just going to forget about it.’”

Pennington, now with the New York Times, reprised that classic Martin tale in his new book, “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.” I did a review for the Chicago Tribune.

Pennington’s detailed biography is filled with countless stories of the combustible Martin settling his many differences during his eventful 61-year life. He had a wild ride with stunning ups and downs as one of baseball’s most compelling characters.

“For the last 30 years, I felt like I had some insights about him that were valuable,” Pennington said. “Whenever his name came up, people always were asking me questions, wanting to know more about him. I knew there was a fascination about him. He was so accomplished and yet so self-destructive at the same time.”

Pennington thinks the biography provides a vivid snapshot of baseball in the ‘80s, and that includes how the game was covered. Back then, the beat writers had far more access, which led to deeper relationships with the players, manager and coaches. They even flew on the team charters, a practice that has been long since eliminated.

“From a reporter standpoint, you really got to know the team so well,” Pennington said. “You knew all the cliques. There would be conversations with players on the team buses that were completely informal, but many times they would lead to a story down the line. I understand the ethical questions of being on the charters [newspapers still paid their own way], but I think we’ve lost something.”

Pennington revisited those now long-time relationships with Martin’s former players in researching the book. He noted a common refrain even among people who didn’t like Martin, of which there were many.

“When I told them what I was doing, they’d all laugh and say, ‘There never was a dull moment with Billy,’” Pennington said.

Pennington displayed the important journalistic trait of persuasion in getting two important sources to talk. Martin’s fourth wife, Jill, who was with him through much of the ‘80s until his death in 1989, never consented to an interview in previous biographies about Martin. Pennington approached her at a Yankees Old-Timers game. He said this biography might be the last chance to tell her side of the story about Martin. She eventually consented and Pennington had several long conversations with her.

Martin’s son, Billy Joe, also proved to be a valuable resource.

“He asked me, ‘Why is this book going to be different?’” Pennington said. “I told him, ‘The previous books about his father were characterizations that didn’t tell the whole story.’ [Billy Joe] said, ‘I agree.’”

Pennington thinks the passage of time allowed him compose a more complete portrait of Martin. He believes the stories are bit more candid and honest more than 25 years after his death in a Christmas night car crash.

The end result goes beyond depicting Martin as a volatile character known only for getting fired and for once having a fight in the dugout with Reggie Jackson. During his years on the beat, Pennington had a first-hand look at a man who had many sides to him. That’s what comes through in the book.

“What gets lost sometimes is that he had a brilliant baseball mind,” Pennington said. “He had a logical pioneering approach as to how to manage the game. All the kicking dirt on the umpires shouldn’t obscure the winning. He had his faults, but he had a lot of good qualities too.  The picture about him has been incomplete. Hopefully, this book changes all that.”

Recommended reading on sports journalism:

Barry Horn and Valerie Wigglesworth of the Dallas Morning News tell the tragic story of Jim Dent, the prolific sports book author who now faces a long jail sentence for repeated DUIs and other offenses.

The great Stan Hochman, the long-time columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, passed away at the age of 86.

Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer took first place for columns in the 175,000 and over circulation category in the APSE contest.

Will Leitch is the latest subject of the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report