In 1973 the Detroit Tigers were defending American League champions. In spring training the team looked as good or better than they were in 1972. Things looked good in Lakeland as the club prepped for the coming season. It didn’t seem to be a situation that would cause the manager to storm out on the team, but that’s what happened in a bizarre incident that typified the career of Billy Martin.
To say that Billy Martin was volatile is like saying Mount Everest is tall. Martin had several run-ins during his colorful and controversial baseball life, with teammates, his players, general managers, media, umpires, owners, and even a marshmallow salesman.
The incident in the spring of 1973 centered around Tiger outfielder Willie Horton. Horton had left a spring training game early in the fifth inning and was fined $100 by Martin. Martin and Horton had a history: in 1971, Billy’s first season guiding the Tigers, Willie begged out of a game with a suspicious injury. Martin, who was built like a weasel but had a memory like an elephant, never forgot it. In subsequent years, Horton spent long stretches in Martin’s doghouse. At one point he was removed from a game by Martin for failing to hustle out a ground ball. Horton announced he would never play for Martin again. Entering 1973, Horton fully expected to be a role player and told media he wouldn’t work as hard in spring training because he knew he wouldn’t be playing every day.
In late March, Tiger GM Jim Campbell met with Martin and Horton in his office and discussed his manager’s relationship with the moody slugger. At some point Martin grew agitated. “I’m done. Get yourself a new manager!” With that, Martin stormed from the office and left the training facility. Horton was left dumbfounded and Campbell fully expected Billy to be back in short order.
But Martin disappeared and wasn’t seen for more than a day. The following day the Tigers were led through their drills by the coaching staff. Calls to Martin went unanswered. The media new something was up, but they weren’t sure what it was. The Tigers played a game against the Phillies without Martin in the dugout. Many of the players were unaware that Martin had resigned.
Finally, the next morning, Martin was back in his uniform and at his desk in the clubhouse, puffing on his pipe.
“I was just upset and said the hell with it,” Martin explained to a small gathering of reporters. “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.”
Campbell knew how emotional his feisty manager was, it was part of the package. With Martin you got a winner and a motivator of men, but you also got off field troubles, tirades, and temper tantrums.
“Billy is Billy. I know him pretty well,” Campbell said. “He’s very high-strung, but I’ve got a lot of admiration for Billy as a manager.”
That admiration lasted five months. On September 2, with the team out of the race and Martin serving a three-game suspension for admitting he encouraged a few of his pitchers to throw spitballs, Campbell fired blustery Billy. After less than three topsy-turvy years, the era of Billy Ball in Motown was over.