On this date in baseball history, former Texas Rangers manager Billy Martin died in a car crash in Johnson City, New York.
Martin was 61 when the car accident occurred on Dec. 25, 1989.
Martin was the third manager in Rangers history. Whitey Herzog was No. 2, taking over for Ted Williams after the end of the 1972 season. Herzog’s tenure was short. He didn’t even make it through the 1973 season. Rangers owner Bob Short fired Herzog on Sept. 7, 1973, as the Rangers were 47-91. Del Wilbur took over for one game, and then Martin took over on Sept. 9.
Martin was fired by Detroit on Aug. 30. Martin had already managed two teams, Minnesota and Detroit, and led both to a division title. Short saw opportunity with Martin unemployed, telling local reporters “If my mother were managing the Rangers and I had the opportunity to hire Billy Martin, I’d fire my mother.” Author Phil Rogers captured that quote in his 1980 book, The Impossible Takes a Little Longer.
Plus, Short spent some time as a Twins executive and knew Martin from those Minnesota days.
Martin’s tenure in Arlington was tumultuous to say the least. But, for the first time, the Rangers won. In 1974, he led them to their best season to that point, winning 84 games and finishing second in the American League West. He earned AL Manager of the Year for the one-year, 27-win turnaround.
But, in true Martin style, he quickly wore out his welcome. The definitive work of Martin’s time in Arlington is Mike Shropshire’s exceptional book Seasons in Hell. The final breaking point, in a long line of breaking points? It came on July 20, 1975. New team owner Brad Corbett wanted the public address announcer to play the traditional ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Martin wanted John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Martin won that night.
Corbett won the next day, firing Martin after a 137-141 tenure.
Martin won 1,253 games as a manager, winning a World Series title with the New York Yankees in 1977. Martin famously had five different tenures with the Yankees and clashed repeatedly with team owner George Steinbrenner. As a player, he won four World Series titles with the Yankees, and his No. 1 is retired.
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