The storytelling can be choppy at times, but Billy Ball is an overall entertaining read and will especially appeal to those with a local attachment to the era it details.
Baseball history has no shortage of complicated characters, but perhaps no web is more tangled than that of Billy Martin. A small-framed, scrappy middle infielder from Oakland, California, Martin made a name for himself in the 1950s as a defensive wiz for the elite Yankee teams of that era. He would be an integral part of four World Series winning teams as a player for the Bronx Bombers, and would go on to win another as their manager in 1977. Martin became infamous for his intensity and combative attitude with his players, the press, and ownership, virtually anywhere he went.
In Billy Ball, author Dale Tafoya begins by telling the story of the Oakland A’s in the mid to late 1970s, and the picture is not pretty. The reader is dropped into Oakland in 1977, where attendance is embarrassingly low, the team is historically bad, and flamboyant owner Charles O. Finley is trying desperately to sell the franchise and move it to Denver. It’s a far cry from just a few years earlier, when the A’s were the toast of the town—having made the postseason four straight seasons, including three consecutive World Series titles between 1971 and 1974.
At the same time, Billy Martin is managing the elite New York Yankees, and is on his way toward managing his first World Series title with the Bronx Bombers. By this point in history, Billy’s volatile relationship with team ownership has taken root, and his relationship with players is about as tough. Billy is fired by Steinbrenner one last time, and he heads west after the 1979 season to manage the A’s. The number of moving parts that lead to this union are confounding, and Tafoya attempts to detail those by way of player interviews and investigative journalism.
What follows is a revival of A’s baseball in Oakland, thanks to Billy’s aggressive style of managing, as well as a change in ownership, which allows Martin to take on an expanded role in the organization. All seems well in Oakland, but just as quickly as he arrives, Martin is gone, back to the Yankees, leaving behind a strong farm system and a reinvigorated city that just two years ago had all but left its ball club for dead.
The story is complicated, and Tafoya does a good job of staying on the target of his complex leading man, resisting the temptation to side track or go too far down rabbit holes like the 1981 strike. The book is well researched and sourced, using many different mediums to help deliver a well informed viewpoint. The book really picks up steam in the third act, when Billy has arrived in Oakland, and begins the turnaround process. Tafoya does a great job describing the game action while weaving in the off-field plot points that developed along the way.
My only detraction is that the book can be a little scattered at times, throwing in sections of confusing foreshadowing rather than advancing the story at hand. For example, the first chapter closes by discussing Martin’s beefing up of the front office upon his arrival in Oakland. It’s meant to draw attention to the stinginess of Finley, but when the reader arrives at the section where Billy is granted his powers in the front office much later in the book, the anecdote seems out of place. Smaller examples like this are peppered throughout, and can distract the reader at times.
That being said, I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it to anyone with fond memories or attachments to the Bay Area, Martin, or that specific era in A’s history. Tafoya took on a specific and difficult subject with thoughtfulness and thoroughness, and while it may not be for everyone, it will be a welcome addition to any bookshelf for students of the game.
Disclaimer: Mr. Tafoya and I are both members of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club. He offered me a copy with no request or implication for a review or press of any kind. The opinions expressed are completely my own and Mr. Tafoya was not informed ahead of time that I was writing one.