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A Mouse Studying to Be a Rat : There's no dearth of characters in baseball, so why the fascination with Billy Martin? : WILD, HIGH AND TIGHT: The Life and Death of Billy Martin, By Peter Golenbock (St. Martin's Press: $23.95; 544 pp.)

July 10, 1994|John Schulian | John Schulian, a television writer and producer, was formerly a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Philadelphia Daily News

One reads of the mess Billy Martin called his life and wonders how he ever found time for baseball, the game that put his failings on a national stage when they were best suited for some squalid, anonymous trailer park. He was a relentless boozer, a sucker puncher and a chippy chaser, and the sum of his personal ugliness overwhelmed whatever good he did for the New York Yankees.

Even after Martin died in an appropriately messy drunk-driving accident on Christmas Day 1989, his evil could still be felt. He had anticipated his demise, it seems, by plotting against a sister who had somehow offended him. If she dared to show up at his funeral, he wanted his daughter to spit in her face.

"That's the way it was, pard," Martin used to say when he was alive to tell stories on himself in the cowboy patois he adopted to match his wardrobe. And no doubt he would have had the same response if he had been around for someone to ask about his request for a great expectoration. He reveled in his public image as a stand-up guy who took the heat and backed down to no man. But that was all part of the testosterone-fueled myth that consumed the feral creature who was born Alfred Manuel Martin Jr. If you make it through Peter Golenbock's "Wild, High and Tight," you will find a decidedly different Martin, one who lacked the strength to prevent his own emasculation at the hands of a tyrannical boss and a scheming wife.

His boss was George Steinbrenner, who inherited his father's shipbuilding company, got nailed for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, and reigns as the most hated man in New York sports for his boorish ownership of the Yankees. Steinbrenner hired and fired Martin five times as the Yanks' manager, all the while maintaining that he was trying to help poor Billy and succeeding only in establishing a certain sickness in both of them.

Mercifully, Martin never married the same woman more than once. He just kept changing wives as if they were socks until he got to his fourth, a photographer and equestrienne who beguiled him with her sexual prowess and turned what Steinbrenner had left of his mind to pudding.

Martin deserved her.

He deserved Steinbrenner, too.

He even deserved "Wild, High and Tight," and that may be the cruelest thing anyone can say of the man.

For this is an unpleasant, artless piece of business, bloated in the extreme at 544 pages and devoid of literary or journalistic merit except for the case Golenbock makes that Martin was driving the day he died, not the buddy who lived to take the fall for him. The rest of the time, Golenbock proves just what he has in each of his 14 previous books: He is a writer only because he has a tape recorder that works.

His greatest talent appears to be choosing subjects from New York. Since the decision makers in Manhattan's publishing houses have trouble seeing west of the Hudson River when it comes to sports, they unfailingly gravitate toward whoever and whatever plays best in the five boroughs. Do you really think Golenbock would be burdening the world with his second book about Martin--his first was "Number One"--if Billy had managed only the Minnesota Twins? Or the Texas Rangers? Or the Detroit Tigers? Or the Oakland A's? All of which he did, incidentally, but never with hardcover validation.

It took the Yankees to give Martin that, and fittingly the Yankees were the only team he loved no matter how many other stops he made as both a player and a manager. He came up with them in 1950 as a second baseman from the poor side of Berkeley, Calif., a background he always made sound worse than it really was, but one that also left him with a lifelong sense of inferiority. His smart mouth, quick fists and passion for the game won the heart of the Yanks' legendary manager, Casey Stengel. Along the way, Martin squeezed some grand moments out of his modest physical talents, most notably a daring catch in the '52 World Series and a record 12 hits in the '53 Series. But a fight at the Copacabana got him bounced out of New York in 1956 and offered a preview of the unceremonious departures he always seemed to be taking when he returned as the Yankees' manager.

Golenbock strives mightily to turn Martin's troubles in the 1970s and '80s into psychodrama, and Lord knows the elements were there. On one side, you had Billy with his disdain for authority and his hunger for money and acceptance; on the other, you had Steinbrenner with his clout, connections and unbridled need to dominate. No wonder the two went together like matches and gasoline.

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