Brawling, clowning, kicking high and spacing out — here’s a look at 10 offbeat Tigers worth remembering
Published: April 2, 2013
As Detroiters, we’re fortunate to have a team with such a long and storied past. The Tigers have played continuously under one name and in one city longer than any other team in the American League. You could dive into the franchise’s 110-plus years of history and put together a list of almost anything: power hitters, ace pitchers, visionary managers, etc. But what if you looked beyond the stats at some of the Tigers who were most memorable for the unusual, for being exceptional in ways statistics just can’t measure? We now present our absolutely unscientific lineup of All-Star Oddballs (and welcome you to go online and name those you think also deserve a spot on this roster of the offbeat).
In a long, tempestuous career as both a player and a manager, Billy Martin earned a reputation as a boozer and a brawler with a brilliant baseball mind.
As with some other stops along his managerial path, Martin didn’t stay long in Detroit. He led the team from 1971 to 1973, winning a divisional title in ’72. His end as a Tiger came the when he was fired, ostensibly for ordering his pitchers to throw spitballs and beanballs at opposing batters.
A brilliant baseball mind, like we said, but also slightly unhinged.
Mickey Mantle, a longtime teammate of Martin during their years together as Yankees, told a story about climbing in a car with Martin in Dallas and driving to the south of Texas to hunt deer on land owned by a friend of Mantle’s. It goes like this:
The guy doesn’t know two ballplayers are coming, so when they arrive at the ranch, Mantle tells Martin to wait in the car while he goes inside to make sure it’s OK to hunt there. The owner is happy to oblige, but asks the Mick to do him a favor: There’s an old mule in the corral that needs to be put down, and the owner doesn’t have the heart to do it.
Mantle demurs, the owner persists. So the slugger agrees to do the deed and then, while walking back to the car, decides to enliven things. He approaches the car feigning anger, saying the owner turned down their request, even after Mantle had explained that they’d just driven four hours to get there. Mantle acts pissed off and says he’s going to teach that guy a lesson.
“I’m gonna kill his mule,” he tells Martin, who tries to talk some sense into his friend, holding back on the gun and pointing out the potential pitfalls of such a rash act. Mantle, a much bigger man than Martin (described by one writer as as being built like a weasel) succeeds in getting control of the weapon and stomps off toward the corral.
He goes in, levels his rifle at a mule unaware that its imminent demise is being used as the punch line to a prank, and pulls the trigger. The mule drops. Then Mantle hears three more shots from close by. Bang! Bang! Bang! He turns around and sees Martin, who’s holding a smoking gun and saying, “I just got three of the guy’s cows.”
He was that kind of friend.
But just because he liked you didn’t mean you would be spared if things ever came to blows. His penchant for fisticuffs was legendary. As the New York Times noted following Martin’s 1989 death in a car accident (he and the driver, who hailed from Detroit, were both drunk), Martin “had fights with Clint Courtney, a catcher for the St. Louis Browns, in 1952 and 1953. He and several teammates, including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, were involved in a fight at the Copacabana nightclub in New York in 1957. In 1960, he broke the jaw of a Chicago pitcher, Jim Brewer, and Mr. Brewer later won $10,000 in a lawsuit. As a manager, in 1969, Mr. Martin knocked out one of his players, Dave Boswell, who was fighting another player.”
That incident with Boswell, which occurred while Martin managed the Minnesota Twins, actually took place in an alley behind Detroit’s famed Lindell A.C. — a favorite watering hole for local pros back in the days when sports stars were a lot less wealthy and often rubbed shoulders with their fans. The Twins were in town to play the Tigers, but the brawl ended up being between Martin and Boswell, who ended up needing about 20 stitches to close the facial cut created by Martin’s blows. And that’s what he did to his star pitcher.
Among Martin’s odder moments during his days as a Tiger was the time he abruptly resigned — for just one day. It was in March of ’73, and he’d been called into the office of General Manager Jim Campbell along with star slugger Willie Horton. The GM wanted to smooth out problems between Martin and Horton. As the story goes, Martin got all hot under the collar at one point, exclaiming, “I’m done,” he exclaimed, heading for the door. “Get yourself a new manager!”
After being absent for a day, he reappeared, telling reporters, “I was just upset and said the hell with it. I had no intention of quitting. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t even remember saying anything about quitting. Maybe I said it, but I don’t remember. I had to get away for a day. Maybe I got mad at something when I should have sat there a little longer and talked things out.”
Alcohol surely played a role in his erratic behavior. For just a bit of insight regarding Martin’s fondness for booze, we again turn to Mantle, who once told Sports Illustrated about the “breakfast of champions” he and Martin would frequently enjoy: “… a big glass filled with a shot or more of brandy, some Kahlua and cream. Billy Martin and I used to drink them all the time, and I named the drink after us. Sometimes when I was in New York with nothing to do, and Billy and I were together, we would stop into my restaurant on Central Park South at around 10 in the morning, and the bartender would dump all the ingredients into a blender and stir it right up. It tasted real good.”
With Billy, said Bishop Edwin Broderick at Martin’s funeral, you got a lot of “thrills and spills, ups and downs,” but “he was always, one must admit, an interesting show.”
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