May 23, 1977 12:00 PM

During his 25 years in major league baseball, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin has acquired a reputation as a brawler who is as likely to slug a teammate as an opponent, his philosophy being, “Whoever lands the first punch wins.” His on-field repartee inclines toward the sort of thing he shouted at an archrival manager last season: “Sit down, you bleeping fat fag!” Even the way Martin’s head is attached to his body—long giraffe neck thrusting his chin out, ever aggressive—conspires to make him look as if he’d rather win a fight than a ball game any day.

So it is hard to believe that this graying, 49-year-old man with a high-pitched voice rarely rising above a whisper is Billy Martin. He is sitting at his desk in Yankee Stadium and explaining sadly that his obsession with baseball allows him too little time to spend with his 12-year-old son, Billy Joe. Even more melancholy, he talks about his daughter from his first marriage, Kelly Ann, 24, who was arrested in Colombia for possession of cocaine 16 months ago. “It was probably the lowest point of my life,” he says. “I would go to the ball park and people would yell at me, ‘Hey, Billy, how does your daughter like it in jail?’ Well, any goddamn fool who’s ever been a parent knows the pain you go through when your child gets in trouble—I was no different. I felt empty and alone.” (Kelly Ann is still in jail, but Billy is hopeful she will soon be released.)

The conversation turns to baseball, but still Martin does not bluster. Instead he refers with humorless sincerity to such verities as “team pride” and “playing your heart out.”

During the Yankees’ humiliating four-straight loss to Cincinnati in last year’s World Series, Martin avoided the press much of the time, hiding out in his locker room office. It was there, half an hour after the third loss, that Yankee owner George M. Steinbrenner III found his manager huddled in a chair, weeping uncontrollably.

“I knew we were capable of better,” Martin says now. “That’s why I was upset. It was bad enough that we had lost. Then there were some reporter sons of bitches who wanted to rub it in my face. They were asking things like, ‘Hey, Billy, what do you think of the Reds now? Will you spell awesome for us?’ Well, bleep ’em, I don’t need to talk to them. Half the writers who come in here have already made up their minds that I’m gonna be an s.o.b. But did you ever read just once that Billy Martin goes to church on Sunday? Even during the season?”

It is true that his temper and affinity for trouble were legendary almost from the day he moved from the minor leagues to the Yankees in 1950. Whenever a teammate misbehaved, Martin always seemed to be at his side. One season he and Mickey Mantle were caught dumping water from a window of the St. Moritz Hotel in Manhattan. Another time he was there when a teammate signed the Yankee owner’s name to a tab after a night on the town.

As a player Martin was only a mediocre hitter, a steady but unspectacular fielder. Yet Yankee manager Casey Stengel, one of the shrewdest and least sentimental men in baseball, kept Billy at second base for seven years, perhaps because the team was winning six World Series. (Martin saved the Series for the Yankees in 1952 with a diving catch in the seventh game against Brooklyn, and in the 1953 Series he was named Most Valuable Player.) Says Yogi Berra, then Martin’s teammate and now one of his assistants, “He was an all-heart player.” Still, in 1957, after he and several other Yankees were involved in a brawl at the Copacabana club, Martin was traded—over Stengel’s objections—to Kansas City.

His career on the decline, he bounced to six other clubs in as many years, enhancing his reputation only as a fighter. Playing for Cincinnati in 1960, Billy threw a bat at Chicago Cub pitcher Jim Brewer, who, Martin claimed, had been aiming fastballs at his head. The bat sailed wide of its target, but as Martin walked over to retrieve it Brewer came off the mound toward him. Martin promptly socked the pitcher in the jaw. Players from both dugouts spilled onto the field, and in the ensuing scrimmage Brewer’s cheekbone was fractured and his eye was injured. Martin was fined $500 and Brewer sued the Reds for more than $1 million, settling finally for $10,000.

Even after Martin’s playing career ended and he became manager of the Minnesota Twins in 1969, he decked his own ace pitcher, Dave Boswell. (They were out drinking together when the fight started, supporting a frequent criticism of Martin—that he is too familiar with his players for his and their own good.) Later he went after the team’s traveling secretary, who Martin said was trying to tell him how to run the ball club.

Martin insists that his uncertain disposition has made him the success he is, a manager who turned the Twins, Detroit, Texas and Yankees from losers into winners. “I believe in forcing the action,” he says. “That’s how you win ball games.” Unfortunately for his job security, he also forced the action with his employers and was fired from all three previous jobs. “I’m a fighter,” Martin admits. “No goddamn guy who’s never put on a pair of spikes is gonna tell me how to run a ball club. They can give me advice and I’ll listen. But then I’ll go out and do it my way.”

Jim Campbell, general manager of the Detroit Tigers who hired and fired Martin, explains: “I still had complete confidence in him on the field. But we had good and sufficient reasons to let him go because of his relations with the front office.”

Martin returned to New York in the middle of the 1975 season, when the once-mighty Yankees had gone 11 years without a pennant. A year later they won the American League title, which the Series embarrassment hardly dimmed. In the past few months they have signed three superb players—Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent and Don Gullett—making them wide favorites to win another pennant this season. Yet George Steinbrenner—who has risked his shipping fortune and his ego, both mammoth, in building the team—has already publicly quarreled with Martin on a number of occasions. Steinbrenner even tried to meddle in the lineup when the Yanks slumped early this season. Martin responded by choosing his lineup for one game out of a hat. Shortly thereafter the team began to win again, but a lot of Bronx bookies will give odds that, pennant or not, the Yankees will have a new manager by the end of the season.

Steinbrenner, 46, denies that he and Martin are at odds. “Hell, when I hired Billy,” he says, “I did it because I knew he could last with our organization. I understand him. I have dreams at night about him—he’s 20 years older and he’s dancing out to the mound just like Casey Stengel used to.”

“In many ways George thinks of himself as a mentor to Billy,” says another Yankee official. “George would like to teach him to act like management’s representative to the players.”

Billy says he would like nothing better than to be working for the Yankees in 1997. “I have a lot of respect for George,” he says. “In many ways we’re very much alike. We’re both very proud. We’ve worked out this arrangement—we try to stay out of each other’s way.”

But if the arrangement breaks down? Martin—with no apparent bravado—shrugs and says, “I’ve never backed away from a fight in my life.”

Bitter, almost compulsive struggle has been a part of Martin’s existence since his childhood in Berkeley, Calif. “I lived in a tough neighborhood,” he says. “You had to learn to defend yourself early.” Christened Alfred Manuel Martin, he was nicknamed Billy because his doting Italian grandmother insisted on calling him Bellis, a diminutive of “belissimo,” Italian for beautiful. His father deserted the family when Billy was 8 months old, leaving the child to be reared by his mother and grandmother.

He became batboy for a girls’ soft-ball team, and was so taken by the game that in high school he confidently told a counselor he had decided on a career as a baseball player. True to his word, he turned pro at 17. Moving up through the minor leagues, he played for Idaho Falls, Phoenix, then Oakland, where Stengel was manager. “He was like a father to me,” says Martin. “I don’t know where I would have gone if he hadn’t been around.” Martin has worn a black armband on his uniform since Stengel died in 1975.

Except for a hitch in the Army, Billy has never held a nonbaseball job, and his devotion to the sport has caused desperate strains at home. His first wife, Lois Elaine Berndt, walked out on him after his fourth season as a player with the Yankees, complaining, “I don’t want to be married to a newspaper clipping any longer.” Although Billy says he tried to remain close to their daughter, Kelly Ann, “it was difficult because we didn’t see each other that often.”

While his second marriage, to Gretchen Winkler, has lasted nearly 18 years, Billy admits there have been difficult times. “We argue a lot,” he admits, “but that’s what baseball does to you.” Gretchen says he brings the game home with him. Sometimes he stays away with it; after the disastrous World Series last year Billy took a long detour to Oklahoma, where he went hunting and fishing with Mickey Mantle before showing up at the family’s ranch-style house in Arlington, Texas. While he was away at spring training this year, Gretchen sent Martin a humorous card that read: “Play me or trade me.”

When Martin is home, he devotes himself to Billy Joe, who, like Dad, wears No. 1 on his uniform and plays second base. “You don’t have much time to be a family man if you are married to baseball too,” Billy says, “but I try my best. Now that my son is a little older, he comes to New York when school is out, and this summer he’ll go on the road with me.”

During the season Billy lives in a cramped two-room hotel suite in New Jersey across the Hudson from Yankee Stadium. “I’m usually at the ball park each day at 3 p.m. and I get back to the hotel about 1 a.m.,” he says. “I’ll flip on the TV and fall asleep. That’s the way it goes, night after night. But it’s hard for me to be lonely as long as I’m in baseball.”

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