Oakland A's History: BillyBall Shines

During their 40 seasons in Oakland, the A's have had a number of colorful players, coaches and owners. Perhaps no manager left a more indelible legacy than did Billy Martin during his three brief seasons at the helm of the green and gold. Martin did a lot of winning and a lot of feuding during his time in Oakland. Donald Moore takes a look back at Martin's legacy with the A's.

There is no doubt Billy Martin's brand of "BillyBall" was a truly exciting way to play the game of baseball. Martin's style of managing during his time with the Oakland A's involved running, running and more running, and a lot of good starting pitching. The vagabond manager's career with the Oakland A's lasted only a short three years, but he made a huge impression on his players and the fans in Oakland.

When A's owner Charlie Finley hired fiery manager Billy Martin on February 21st,1980, to guide his woeful 1980 Oakland A's team, many thought this combination would never last. With two, hot-headed individuals with firesome personalities and reputations, no one in the baseball world thought that they could coexist, much less put a winning team on the field. But in the end, it was a brillant move by Finley, a move that injected new life into a losing A's team, and made instant contenders out of them. This ladies and gentlemen, was the birth of "BillyBall".

"BillyBall" was a phrase penned by an Oakland Tribune columnist named Ralph Wiley, which featured a style of play that included the hit and run, suicide squeeze and an agressive running style. This slogan actually became a hugely successful marketing ploy and was used by the Finley to promote his club.

Billy Martin knew he had a lot of work ahead of him when he came to Oakland. He brought in his some of his former Yankees coaches, most notably his longtime teammate and drinking buddy, pitching coach Art Fowler. When he arrived in Oakland, Martin basically had the same player personnel that the A's had from the previous season, a team that finish dead last in the AL West and only won 54 games and lost another 108 games under the tutelage of then-manager Jim Marshall.

But there were signs of brighter things to come. For instance, the A's fledgling outfield corps of Rickey Henderson, Dwyane Murphy and Tony Armas were showing signs of developing into one of baseball's best young outfields and eventually they did. Henderson, who was in his first full season in the majors, broke Ty Cobb's AL stolen base record with 100 thefts. The A's infield was anchored by firstbaseman Dave Revering, second baseman Dave McKay, shortstop Mario Guerreo and third baseman Wayne Gross, who would with Revering, would combine for 29 homeruns and 123 RBIs.

The A's pitching staff, composed of Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough and Brian Kingman, would eventually become one of baseball's best. The A's finished in second place in 1980 with a record 83-79. Norris, who finished the season with a record of 22-9, came in second to the Baltimore Orioles' Steve Stone for the AL Cy Young award. Matt Keough won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award and Rick Langford also strung together 22 straight complete games, the most in 30 years.

There was only one blight for the A's starting pitchers in 1980. Unfortunely for pitcher Brian Kingman, he lost a then-record 20 games, mainly due to Martin's reluctance to bring in relief pitchers. In total, the A's pitched a whopping 94 complete games and led the American League with a 3.46 ERA. The A's also stole home seven times, completed 14 double steals and one triple steal.

The march to success continued in 1981. Under new ownership, the 1981 Oakland A's finished the regular, strike-shortened season with the best overall record in the American League by winning 64 games and losing just 45, with a winning percentage of .587. The A's set a then-Major League record by winning the first 11 games of the season, including eight of them on the road.

When the baseball strike hit -- a total of 50 days, that wiped out 45 games for Oakland -- the A's were 1 1/2 games ahead of the Texas Rangers, thus securing the team a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 1975. As a result of the strike, there were first half and second half division winners in 1981. During the second half of the baseball season, the A's fell one game behind the Kansas City Royals, which resulted in an AL Western Division playoff series of three games between the Royals and A's.

On the mound, the A's staff once again consisted of four starters who received little relief. It was pitcher Steve McCatty who was Oakland's ace that year. He tossed four complete games, all shutouts, and ended up with 14 wins. He also won the league's ERA title with a 2.32 ERA. The A's outfielders also had a stellar year. Rickey Henderson led the league with 327 putouts and 56 stolen bases, Tony Armas finished the season tied with a league-leading 22 homeruns and outfielder Dwyane Murphy led the league with 15 game-winning RBIs.

The A's made short work of the Royals in the AL Western Division series by sweeping Kansas City 3-0, outscoring them 10-2. However, in the AL Championship Divisional Series, the A's were pounded by the New York Yankees in three games, getting outscored 20-4.

Overall, the 1981 season proved to the baseball world that the A's were for real, but storms clouds were on the horizon.

The 1982 Oakland A's season began with great promise, but manager Martin's overuse of his starters finally took its toll. That wear-and-tear showed up quickly in 1982. Pitcher Steve McCatty went down with an arm injury on June 6th, followed by fellow starter Mike Norris on June 18th. Outfielder Tony Armas was also injured in May. The A's slumped badly due to loss of McCatty and Norris to injuries, plus the poor pitching performances by the rest of Martin's starting staff.

But not all of the news was bad in 1982. Rickey Henderson stole a record-breaking 130 bases and pitcher Tom Underwood became the most consistent A's pitcher, as both a starter and reliever, and led the American League in ERA through July.

The A's finished the 1982 season with a disappointing record of 68-94, and finished a distant 5th place in the AL West. The A's pitching staff, which had led the way for Oakland during their successful 1981 campaign, broke down in 1982. With the exception of Underwood, all of the A's starters finished with an ERA 4.00 or higher. The offense struggled, as well, with the team only batting a lowly .236 with 149 homers and 659 RBIs.

Martin's attitude towards the A's owners finally turned sour towards the end of the 1982 season and the writing was on the wall that the team's relationship with Martin was on the rocks. Martin blamed team officials for interfering with his management decisions and blamed his pitchers' lackluster performances on the pitchers themselves for not being in shape.

In reality, Martin burned out the arms of his pitching staff. All of his starters eventually developed serious arm problems that eventually ended their professional careers. His starting pitchers threw an astounding 198 complete games in those three years. A's relief pitcher Jeff Jones once quipped, "we ate a lot of sunflower seeds," in reference to the lack of innings the relief corps saw under Martin. The A's owners grew tired of Martin's bickering and the A's poor finish. They fired him in December 1982.

Despite the sour ending, Martin's legacy with the A's was a strong one. He breathed new life into what was a lame duck franchise. With the support of A's owners Charlie Finley and then Walter Haas, and with the help of pitching coach Art Fowler, the A's developed some great players during Martin's three-year tenure with the club. Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, fellow outfielders Tony Armas and Dwayne Murphy, and the stellar arms of Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Mike Norris, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman all excelled under Martin's tutelage.

"BillyBall" was truly one of the great success stories of the baseball world during the early 1980s. No one expected Martin and the A's to do so well. His presence even helped the A's break attendance records for all three years that he managed in Oakland, meaning that more fans came to watch his teams than the A's World Championship teams of 1972-1974.

Sadly, Billy Martin was killed in automobile accident on Christmas Day in 1989 near his home in Fenton, New York. The world lost an icon that day and will never see another like him.

Source- Kit Stier TSN Guides 1981 and 1982

Oakland Clubhouse Top Stories