Martin’s first pink slip came after directing the Twins to a 97-65 finish and a berth in the first American League Championship Series. The Twins had improved by 18 wins after a disappointing 1968 season, as Martin restored the aggressive approach that he brought to the club as their third-base coach during their run to the 1965 World Series.
In 1965, Martin had made the Twins multidimensional by running more, forcing opponents to react. The Twins had mostly been sluggers when Martin arrived, but soon began executing the hit-and-run and running wild, stealing or taking the extra base. When the owner turned to Martin in 1969, he hoped his new manager could use a multidimensional offense to again breathe life into his team.
Martin was a gambler in the dugout. Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and César Tovar had the green light to run if they thought they could steal. Oliva said that if an attempt failed, Martin did not second-guess the decision to run as long as the player was hustling and playing hard. Trust ran both ways. Jim Kaat said a player could question or stand up to Martin, and he appreciated that the skipper would hear him out. Players respected that, and Martin’s approach inspired them to give their best.
That spring, players found that Martin as a rookie skipper was just like Martin as a coach. Fundamentals were emphasized and practiced in camp, and Martin was on the field long before workouts or exhibition games began, giving instruction and working on the little details with young players. “The thing I think that he was best at was trying to keep the guys from making little mistakes,” Harmon Killebrew said of Martin in 2010. “He was really big on fundamentals and the little things to win games. He knew as much about the game as anybody that you want to be around.” Martin also urged veterans to make adjustments to gain an edge, encouraging Killebrew to occasionally hit the ball the other way, Carew to master bunting, and Oliva to abandon his spray approach and focus on pulling the ball to right field in RBI situations.
Despite Martin’s reputation as an excitable boy—and he had to be excited by his first major league managerial gig—spring training 1969 was orderly and quiet. Still, he was planning some excitement for once the meaningful games began. In spring camp, he tutored Carew in the art of stealing home. Carew says Martin taught him to time a pitcher’s delivery and start for home from a walking lead when he knew he could make it safely. The student mastered beating a pitch to the plate, stealing home seven times in 1969—one short of Ty Cobb’s single-season record.
Carew tied a big league mark by stealing three bases in one inning against Detroit on May 18, and Tovar also stole home that afternoon. After Tovar opened the third inning by beating out a slow roller to shortstop Mickey Stanley, Carew drew a full-count walk. They executed a double steal to move into scoring position, then both stole home to score two runs on one infield single and five stolen bases.
“Billy would try stuff only high school coaches would try. He loved to pull off the unexpected play,” said Frank Quilici, who was on the 1965 club, played under Martin in 1969, and later became the Twins manager. In what he dubbed one of those high-school maneuvers called by Martin, Quilici stole home on May 4. He led off third base and Ted Uhlaender was on first with the White Sox’ Tommy John on the mound and rookie pitcher Dick Woodson at the plate. Uhlaender lingered off base long enough after a pitch to coax a throw to first from White Sox catcher Duane Josephson. As soon as the ball left Josephson’s hand, Quilici headed home. He slid past Josephson and beat the belated tag to score the game’s first run in a 4-3 come-from-behind victory.
Everybody ran with Martin calling the shots. The 32-year-old Killebrew, who had never stolen more than three bags in a season, stole two in one inning on June 4 and finished with a career-high eight in 1969. Killebrew also led the majors with 49 homers and a career-best 140 RBIs. At season’s end, he claimed the American League’s MVP Award. Martin also made the astute move of returning 33-year-old Jim Perry to the Twins rotation that summer, and both he and Dave Boswell won 20 games for the first time.
For the Twins, the 1969 season ended with the power-laden and pitching-rich Baltimore Orioles sweeping the ALCS. Soon after, Martin was fired. The news shocked Twins players and fans. The intense outcry by fans was immediate. Telephones rang incessantly for days at Metropolitan Stadium. Angry callers also flooded the switchboards of the sports departments of local newspapers, and Griffith was hung in effigy on the University of Minnesota campus. Fans grabbed up more than 10,000 bumper stickers imploring the Twins to “Bring Billy Back.” Thousands of Twins fans swore off the team—a common retort for years after Martin was gone.
Martin’s dismissal, however, wasn’t a complete surprise to newspaper writers. The stubborn owner and combative manager were never a match made in heaven. In announcing the firing, Griffith cited Martin’s propensity to ignore organizational policies and guidelines—and undoubtedly several incidents contributed to the final outcome. One was an angry mid-May confrontation between the manager and farm director George Brophy regarding the minor league assignments of Twins prospects Charley Walters and Bill Zepp. Martin took his beef to the press instead of Griffith, who forced his manager to apologize to Brophy.
Then there was Martin’s brawl with Boswell in August at the Lindell AC bar, a small hole in the wall not far from Tiger Stadium in Detroit. It began after Martin called out the pitcher at the bar for not running his required laps earlier in the day. An angry Boswell stormed out of the bar and tussled with teammate Bob Allison, who had tried to calm down the righthander, and Martin came outside and entered the scuffle. Both Martin and Boswell claim the other threw the first punch in their rumble, and some say that Martin had some help in the fight. The specifics of that alcohol-fueled altercation were hazy, and the protagonists are now gone, but the seven stitches Martin needed in the knuckles of his right hand and the nearly 20 stitches required to sew up Boswell’s facial wounds were there for all to see.
The fray also put a sizable dent in Boswell’s wallet, as Griffith fined him $500 for the incident. Martin didn’t get off scot-free either. Although he wasn’t asked to open his pocketbook, the skipper drew the owner’s wrath and inched closer to cementing a one-and-done tenure in his first big league managing assignment.
The final straw might have been Martin’s decision to start Bob Miller in Game 3 of the ALCS. The righthander had excelled as a reliever and spot starter, and Martin cited his pitching as “one of the main reasons” the Twins won the AL West title. Griffith favored using Kaat, who had won two of three starts and posted a 1.80 ERA facing the mighty Orioles that season. When Miller didn’t complete two innings in an 11-2 loss in the ALCS finale, the second-guessing began immediately in postgame interviews. “What if Miller had won today and what if Kaat had started and lost?” Martin retorted angrily at one point. Someone asked Martin what he thought the Twins needed to produce a better result in 1970. A new manager, he said, with a straight face.
That’s what the Twins got, as Griffith fired Martin during the Mets-Orioles World Series. It was Martin’s first pink slip, but it wouldn’t be his last in a 16-year managerial career that produced two AL pennants and a World Series title with the New York Yankees.