Did a John Denver song get Billy Martin fired?
Billy Martin won everywhere he managed.
He also got fired everywhere he managed.
And yet, the strangest of his firings isn’t one of the five times Yankees owner George Steinbrenner let Martin go or pressured him to resign. Nor is it his first dismissal, after leading the Twins to 18 more wins and a rise from seventh place to first place and the ALCS in 1969, his only season in Minnesota.
It’s the time in Texas when the owner made the call because of a John Denver song.
Here’s how Billy Martin – born and bred in Berkeley, Calif., and a four-time World Series second baseman in New York – lost his job, at least in part, because of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
“I loved playing for Billy. I always regarded him as a players’ manager,” said Tom Grieve, who was a Ranger throughout Martin’s tenure and has been a broadcaster for the team since 1995. “I loved his intensity, his competitiveness. We always felt – at least I did – that all things being equal on the field, that we would win because our manager was better than the other team’s manager.”
Martin’s ability to get the most out of his players may be most apparent in his records during his first season at each stop. Working with many of the same players as the previous manager – especially before the advent of free agency in 1976 – Martin won at a better pace than his predecessor each time, averaging 20 more wins and 3.8 places in the standings (only looking at his first Yankees stint for this exercise).
1968 under Cal Ermer: 79-83 (.488), 7th place in AL West
1969 under Martin: 97-65 (.599), 1st place
1970 under Mayo Smith: 79-83 (.488), 4th place in AL East
1971 under Martin: 91-71 (.562), 2nd place
1973 under three managers: 57-105 (.352), 6th place in AL West*
1974 under Martin: 84-76 (.525), 2nd place
*Whitey Herzog went 47-91, Del Wilber 1-0 and Martin 9-14 to finish the season. Martin’s .391 winning percentage was better than the .345 before he took over.
1975 under two managers: 83-77 (.519), 3rd place*
1976 under Martin: 97-62 (.610), 1st place
*Bill Virdon went 53-51, then Martin went 30-26, again posting a better winning percentage than his predecessor)
1979 under Jim Marshall: 54-108 (.333), 7th place in AL West
1980 under Martin: 83-79 (.512), 2nd place
“He had a really good feeling about how to motivate each individual player,” Grieve said. “He didn’t have one way that fit everybody. I think he adjusted his style to who the player was. For the most part, he brought out the best in his players, and it’s evidenced in how rapidly each time his team improved whenever he got there.”
But each time, Martin wore out his welcome quickly. His longest stint anywhere was parts of four seasons during his first Bronx tenure. He finished out the ’75 season, led the Yankees to the World Series the next two years (winning it in 1977), then was fired after going 52-42 in 1978.
“I think one of the things that happened probably every place that Billy ever went was, after the initial year and half, two years, things did start to change,” Grieve said. “And Billy began to wear out his welcome and things weren’t going as smoothly as they did when he first got there. It’s just a track record and it’s pretty simple to look at it and see it. That’s not the fault of the organizations, that pretty much can be attributed to Billy. That’s the way he was.”
In Texas, Martin delivered the Rangers’ first winning record since it moved to Arlington from Washington – and nearly doubled attendance from 662,974 in 1972 to 1,193,902 in his one full season in ’74. And he loved the lifestyle, quickly adapting to life in the Lone Star State.
“He was a good fit [for Texas],” said Jim Sundberg, a rookie catcher for Martin in 1974. “He had boots and he had a cowboy hat. He kind of fit the part before things went south.”
A change in ownership from Bob Short to Brad Corbett early in the 1974 season changed things. Corbett hired Dan O’Brien as general manager (Martin was also the GM when he came to Texas and had swung a trade with the Cubs for future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins), and Martin had less influence over selecting the players on his roster.
“Billy’s M.O. was trying to turn the club around, and then in a short period of time, he kind of self-sabotaged himself,” Sundberg said.
Martin’s exploits off the field would also affect the team, with players noticing his drinking and companions, according to Bill Pennington’s 2015 biography, “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.”
“It’s well documented that he had occasional drinking problems, and I think there were times that got in the way of success,” Grieve said. “There were times in ’75 where we were taking batting practice not knowing what the lineup was because he wasn’t at the ballpark yet.”
As that sweltering summer of ’75 went on, the friction between Martin and the front office produced more heat. One rift that was well-reported at the time involved catcher Tom Egan, a backup released by the Angels on June 30, 1975. Martin wanted the Rangers to sign him but was rebuffed by O’Brien and Corbett.
“You sense that things were changing in the relationship he had with management, the owner, the GM,” Grieve said. “There were times that Billy wanted to go out and acquire a certain player – not a star – but he wanted his presence on the team. But management balked at some of these suggestions and that created tension. You could see it coming as a player. You knew it wasn’t going to last.”
Martin’s affinity for Texas included country music. In early June, the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” perhaps because Martin began insisting that it be played at the ballpark – but not just between innings. He wanted to hear it in the middle of the seventh, in place of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Martin and Corbett clashed over the songs, with the owner – it’s his team, after all – decreeing that the ballpark staple remain in its traditional slot.
One hot Texas Sunday – July 20, 1975 – Martin made one of his last moves as Rangers manager. Sometime during a doubleheader against the Red Sox, the skipper picked up the dugout phone, but not to call the bullpen. According to Pennington’s biography, Martin called the press box, looking for the person in charge of the music between innings. Umpire Ron Luciano had walked over to the dugout for a drink and relayed the scene in his autobiography: “Billy was saying, ‘I don’t care what the owner says, play the God damned John Denver song.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. Billy’s yelling, ‘I better hear “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”’ And he slams the phone down.”
When Martin’s request was played during the stretch, “Corbett steamed,” Pennington wrote. The next day, the Rangers announced Martin’s dismissal.
Did it really happen? Was Martin’s fate decided by a fight over the stadium playlist? Two players who played for him don’t remember it specifically but could see it happening.
“He was getting controlling,” Sundberg said. “He was doing things like that. And that wasn’t really the only night he called the press box about something. So yeah, I think that’s accurate.”
“I’ve heard that, and based on who I’ve heard tell that story, I trust that there was some validity to that,” Grieve said. “I don’t think it’s a myth. I think that probably happened, but I don’t remember having any knowledge about it as it happened. Maybe it was written about the next day.”
It was covered, in fact, by Dave Anderson of The New York Times: “‘He wanted to run everything in the organization,’ says [a] Ranger executive. ‘Even to the music that's played.’ During the seventh‐inning stretch at Arlington Stadium, a rendition of ‘Thank God I'm a Country Boy’ could be heard, on Billy Martin's orders.”
And a couple days later, a United Press International wire story noted that with Martin’s firing, the song was axed, too.
As good a manager as Billy Martin was, he often got in his own way. Maybe if he had cut back on a few of his demands – like the music at the ballpark – he might’ve been able to get some of the players he wanted. But, on the other hand …
“I don’t think it would’ve been all that difficult for the team to accommodate Billy’s wishes,” Grieve said. “[Play the song] on the weekends, do it for a while and give it a chance. Heck – nowadays a player can call up and change his walkup music in the fifth inning.”