Jim Harbaugh: The Modern Day Billy Martin

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By: Eric He

July 21, 2015

I’ve finally had time this summer to read a few books for pleasure, and I’m currently about a third of the way through Bill Pennington’s biography of Billy Martin — Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, released in April of this year.

It’s a fascinating and comprehensive inside look at the life of the late Martin, one of the most colorful and innovative men to have donned a baseball uniform. I’m only on page 179 of 544, and I’ve read about more adventures in Martin’s young life than I’ll have in my lifetime — the mischievous acts, the drinking, the fights on and off the field.

But one such incident that sticks out to me is his firing from the Minnesota Twins in 1969 in his first ever professional managing gig, and how similar it is to Jim Harbaugh’s ousting from the San Francisco 49ers this year.

Both turned subpar teams into legitimate contenders. Both came up just short in their endeavor to win a championship. Both were fiery, aggressive, and unabashed, not afraid to cross with ownership and do things their way. And as a result, both were fired by meddlesome owners despite their indubitable success.

As Pennington writes, then-Twins owner Calvin Griffith felt he was “sitting on a keg of dynamite” when he hired Martin prior to the 1969 season (Pennington 160). After Martin played his final season in 1961 with the Twins, he remained with the team as a scout, then a third base coach, and then managed their Triple A team in Denver. Griffith, who was already wary of Martin’s temper, had little choice but to promote the up-and-coming manager to the big leagues.

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A statue of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith stands outside Target Field. By Heather Greene from Minneapolis, US (Calvin Griffith bronzed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like how Harbaugh turned a 6-10 49ers squad into a 13-3 division winner the next season, Martin took a 79-83 Twins team that finished in seventh place and won 97 games with them, enough to take the division and make the inaugural ALCS.

And Martin’s methods seemed similar to that of Harbaugh’s — spontaneous and driving some people crazy, yet effective.

Said Graig Nettles, one of the players on Martin’s Triple A club: “Everyone on the team hated him. I couldn’t stand him. You’d come into the dugout and he’d be yelling at you in front of everyone, just screaming, ‘Why didn’t you take the extra base? Didn’t you notice that the right fielder has a weak arm? You went to college, why didn’t you use your brain out there?'” (158).

And Harbaugh, apparently, wore out his welcome with the 49ers and treated his players “like college kids.”

Martin took risks, calling triple steals and squeeze plays.

“Billy had such balls as a manager,” Charlie Silvera, one of Martin’s assistants, told Pennington (165). “He would squeeze bunt with a five-run lead, he didn’t care.”

Hmm…taking unnecessary gambles with huge leads. Reminds me of this:

But then there were the antics that irked Griffith, his owner, much like Harbaugh unnerved Jed York.

This wasn’t on the level of Harbaugh questioning York’s manhood, but it’s still first class trolling. Griffith insisted that Martin visit him a few times a week in his office to keep him up-to-date with the team. Griffith asked Martin to arrive anytime except his daily nap time between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m. So of course, Martin knocked on Griffith’s door between 5:00 and 5:30 so often that Griffith just canceled the meetings.

Then, there were the fisticuffs.

Prior to his stint as a manager, Martin was the Twins’ third base coach in 1966. On one road trip, while checking into a hotel at two in the morning, Martin threw a right-handed punch at traveling secretary Howard Fox after Fox kept Martin waiting too long for his room keys, an incident that Griffith “never forgot” (155).

And in Martin’s lone season as manager, he one-upped himself by punching out one of his own players, pitcher Dave Boswell, in an alleyway outside a bar following a disagreement over Boswell not running his laps. Although it was national news even back in 1969, imagine how big of a controversy it would stir in today’s age of social media: a manager at a bar with his players, punching one of them repeatedly in the stomach and then in the face so hard that it gave Martin a swollen and cut right hand.

Dave  Boswell was the recipient of a Billy  Martin beatdown. Here is in spring training, face still intact. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

Dave Boswell was the recipient of a Billy Martin beatdown. Here is in spring training, face still intact. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

These were incidents, that, regardless of Martin’s on-field success, his owner could not forgive. And much like Harbaugh, it cost Martin his job.

The Twins were swept by the Orioles in the ALCS, but Martin had rejuvenated baseball in Minneapolis. The fans loved him, attendance was up, and the future was bright. There was a method to Martin’s madness, and if you asked any fan, there was no question the team should have brought back Martin after his one-year, $50,000 contract expired.

But Griffith ultimately decided the on-field success was not worth the pain in the ass that Martin was to deal with. It left the fans shocked, the media in full-blown critique mode, and even three different state legislators petitioned Griffith to rethink the decision. Fans called in crying to the team’s office, and attendance fell with some claiming they would never go to another Twins game.

If that sounds excessive, imagine if the 49ers had fired Harbaugh after just one season in which he turned around a franchise that had floundered for eight seasons under three different head coaches — well, it’s not as if firing him after reaching three NFC championship games in four years was any better.

While Harbaugh never punched anyone out (that we know of, I wouldn’t be shocked if he did something of that nature behind the scenes) or threatened to kill his assistants Tom Cable-style, the parallels between him and Martin are clear. Both were brought in to turn around struggling franchises, and both did exactly that — but under their rules, which irked their respective naive owners.

Martin went on to manage for five other teams in the next two decades, finishing with 1,253 victories, a .553 winning percentage, and a World Series title with the Yankees in 1977. After Martin departed, the Twins would win their division just once in the next 16 years, finishing above .500 in just four seasons.

As for Harbaugh, he’s one of the highest-paid coaches in football at the University of Michigan, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he does big things at Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, the 49ers hired Jim Tomsula (who?), had about half the team retire, and have 9-1 odds at winning their division (much less the Super Bowl), the worst in the NFC West.

Coincidence? I think not.

I’ll end with Pennington’s transcript of a conversation Martin had with Griffith following the ALCS defeat in which Griffith was lukewarm on giving Martin a raise and a two-year contract, featuring the 1969 equivalent of a mic drop (175):

Martin: “Did I do everything I said I was going to do?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Martin: “Did I make them hustle?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Martin: “Did they win?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Billy left the room.

Bill Pennington’s Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius is available on Amazon.

Follow Eric He on Twitter at @erichesports. Feel free to leave comments below. 

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