A baseball card isn’t just an old piece of cardboard with a picture and some stats on the back. A baseball card can take you on an adventure you never knew you were looking for. Starting as early as the 1860’s the card business was originally a marketing ploy to sell gum and cigarettes. In 1951, Topps printed its first set as part of a card game with player pictures. In 1952 they went all in and printed their first run of cards - a 407-card set released in 7 different series. Printing delays had them entering the market right before football season and sadly, most of the cards were returned to Topps and destroyed. This is the same set that contained Mickey Mantle’s rookie card, but I’m not crying… it’s allergies.
By 1960, companies were trying all kinds of gimmicks to accompany cards. Aside from the traditional gum and tobacco schtick, companies tried such novelties as marbles and cookies to boost sales before figuring out that people simply wanted the cards themselves.
Now that you’ve caught up, let’s look at one special and often forgotten card. A card that when mentioned, most people respond with an odd stare and a head scratch. On December 16th, 1959, Alfred Manuel Martin or as most people know him - “Billy” Martin, was traded to the Cincinnati Reds from the Cleveland Indians. Now you’re probably wondering how one of the most controversial New York Yankees players and managers of all time is going to surprise you with all of the wild stores you’ve heard. Whether it was his larger than life nose or temper, even the casual baseball fan knows Billy Martin. Whether it was the brawl at the Copacabana which eventually led to his trade to Kansas City or the myriad public fights with George Steinbrenner as the on and off and on-again manager of the Yankees – you’ve probably heard them all. Like the golf cart accident in the 1957 offseason, which injured both the Yankees starting 2nd baseman and the reigning MVP Mickey Mantle - yup - Billy strikes again. This guy fought the Twins traveling secretary, didn’t want to pay Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer $50,000 as an up and coming prospect and famously fought a travelling marshmallow salesman in Minneapolis. You couldn’t write a movie this good if you tried and it’s a damned tragedy that Bill Murray didn’t play Billy Martin at some point in his career. It would have been perfect. If you were lucky enough to watch The Bronx is Burning back in 2007, you got a glimpse into his antics but nothing close to the barnstorming human shit circus that Billy was in real life. All of this insanity coming from an amazing baseball player, coach and human being who struggled with alcoholism and a petulance for fighting.
The nose knows
None of this is my story because none of this was my card. What happened in Billy Martin’s one-year stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 1960 transcends all the drinking, fighting and forced job changes. On August 4th, 1960 Billy Martin would get buzzed by a pitch and charge the mound in a meaningless game vs the Chicago Cubs and a young pitcher named Jim Brewer. Not Jim Breuer of SNL and “Half Baked” fame, but Jim BREWER a young pitcher making his 4th MLB start for the Chicago Cubs. The details of this one haven’t transcended as well as some of the other Billy stories, but it loosely goes like this. Brewer is a kid coming up in the Cubs organization. He’s pitching in a game versus the Reds and he’s getting knocked around and gave up a few runs. Billy Martin’s first AB - he was the leadoff hitter on this day – resulted in a walk. The second AB was when the fireworks ensued. The first pitch flies over Martin’s head. Given Martin has a history with HBP, he took exception. The second pitch resulted in Martin throwing his bat (some say at the pitcher’s mound and others say closer to the first base line) and he and Brewer exchanged pleasantries. You know how these things go - “let’s get coffee next time you’re in town” and “how’s your wife and my kids?” - the bullpens and benches clear and there were a few pushes and a few punches. Well on this particular day, Billy landed a punch which broke Brewer’s orbital bone and fractured his cheek bone, resulting in a five-game suspension and a $500 fine for Martin.
Pretty sure this Jim Breuer would have put up even less of a fight
So what? People fight all the time. People get fined. Suspensions are common for this type of behavior, even back in 1960. What makes this fight so special? Litigation of course. Together, Jim Brewer and the Chicago Cubs filed a $1,040,000 lawsuit against Billy Martin in an attempt to recover monies spent on Brewers training, development and loss of time. Lord knows they didn’t spend a penny on boxing lessons. I decided to see what I could find concerning similar situations where players or teams sued other players and teams.
Mike Bolsinger sued the Astros when they were found guilty of cheating by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred claiming their sign stealing antics changed the trajectory of his career. I found some old anti-trust lawsuits from the 1950’s but again, not really as interesting as this gem. Fans like to sue. They’ve been suing for all kinds of reasons going as far back as I could find. This case actually headed to trial and Billy and his lawyer didn’t show. The case was heard, the jury returned a verdict and Martin was told to pay the defendant $100,000. This got his attention and he called his lawyer to fight the decision. They ultimately won the appeal and the court sent down a new total of $35,000. This might not seem like much to a multi-World Series winning 2nd baseman, but let’s be honest- it also wasn’t chump change. Martin - who never walked away from a fight in his life - appealed yet again. Claiming he didn’t know about the first trial and the lawyers representing him were not speaking for him, a judge then threw this case out and it was rescheduled to be retried. Before it went back to court Billy Martin settled the case out of court for $10,000.
All of this was towards the end of Billy’s career as he subsequently bounced around between the Reds, Milwaukee Braves and Minnesota Twins before finally hanging up his spikes at the conclusion of the 1961 season. By 1969, he would begin his storied managing career with the same team he ended his playing career. He moved from Minnesota to Detroit and then Texas before ultimately coming home to the New York Yankees. In New York he would win two pennants and one World Series championship during his first stint as manager and return later to become one half of the toxic - yet ever so comical - Billy and George show. As for Brewer, he healed up nicely and came back to play in the majors again. He wasn’t exactly a slouch either, as Jim went to play in the All-Star Game in 1973 and won a World Series in 1965 while hanging around in the Bigs for 16 seasons.
I’ll leave you with this. A baseball card tells a story. Sometimes it’s as simple as a stat line or a fun fact, sure, but sometimes it’s much more. Sometimes it takes you on an adventure you never knew you wanted to go on; a baseball worm hole of sorts. Billy Martin had a storied history of booze, brawls and big wins. He won World Series as both a player and a manager. He played with some of the greatest baseball players to ever step on the diamond and although at first he wasn’t the best, once he earned his spot on the field he played an elite 2nd base for a decade. I wanted to write my first article about a card linked to one of the most colored histories in baseball. Little did I know that it would not be the Copa, the nose jokes or the Steinbrenner press conferences that piqued my interest; those stories have been told over and over and over again. Nope. For me it would be about a 1960’s Cincinnati Reds version of Billy, winding down his playing career in an obscure Midwest ballpark and still finding it in him one more time to add to his infamous legend. Alfred Manuel “Billy” Martin saved his best fight for the end.
Not so fun fact: Both Billy Martin and Jim Brewer died before their time in automobile accidents.