On This Date in Sports July 23, 1978
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
Billy Martin, manager of the reigning World Champion New York Yankees tearfully resigns a day after making disparaging remarks about Owner George Steinbrenner and All-Star Reggie Jackson. The trouble started five days earlier when Martin suspended Jackson for refusing to follow orders. Upon Reggie Jackson’s return, Billy Martin remarked that Jackson was a born liar and Steinbrenner was a convicted liar. Bob Lemon would take over the rest of the season.
For more than a year the Yankees clubhouse had been a tinderbox. A demanding owner, a volatile manager and outspoken star created daily tension in the Bronx. The 1977 season had been a roller coaster ride, with Billy Martin nearly coming to blows with Reggie Jackson during one infamous game at Fenway Park. Meanwhile, Owner George Steinbrenner unhappy about the Yankees being swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series had threatened to fire his manager on a daily basis. Through it all, the Yankees preserved and reached the fall classic for a second straight year, where this time they would beat the Los Angeles Dodgers with Reggie Jackson putting a punctuation on the season with three home runs in the final game.
The 1978 season featured much of the same tribulation, but injuries had taken their toll as the Yankees fell off the pace and appeared to be hopelessly out of the race. On July 24th the Yankees dropped a season-high 14 games behind the Boston Red Sox with a record of 47-42 after losing to the Kansas City Royals 9-7 in 11 innings at Yankee Stadium. During the game, Billy Martin asked Reggie Jackson to bunt in the 10th inning. After failing to get a bunt down, Martin asked his star to swing away, but Reggie embarrassed at being asked to bunt continued to try to bunt and popped up. This led the Yankees manager to suspend his star for five games. The Yankees would win all five games without Jackson, winning twice in Minnesota against the Twins and sweeping a three-game series at Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox. While in Chicago, Billy Martin heard that George Steinbrenner had discussed with White Sox Owner Bill Veeck trading managers early in the season with Bob Lemon who had recently been fired by Veeck taking over in the Bronx. This led Martin to proclaim that Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner deserved each other since “One was a born liar and the other was convicted.” This was a reference to Steinbrenner’s guilty plea for making an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon a few years earlier.
The following day in Kansas City at the team’s hotel, knowing he would likely be fired, Billy Martin announced his resignation, citing his health as the reason for stepping down. The Yankees would announce that Bob Lemon, the man who was rumored to be in the manager for manager swap earlier in the season would become the Yankees new manager.
Five days later, the Billy Martin saga took another strange turn at the annual Yankees Old Timer’s Day as the former manager was a surprise guest. As he was introduced a message flashed on the scoreboard, stating that Billy Martin would return as manager in 1980 when Bob Lemon’s contract expired. In the waning days after his resignation, Martin met with George Steinbrenner and ironed out their differences. This would be a sign of things to come over the next decade, as Billy Martin was hired and fired five times, before his untimely death on Christmas day in 1989. At the time of his death, it was rumored, that he was on the verge of once again, getting hired to manage the Yankees.
Despite being a lame duck manager just a week after being hired, Bob Lemon quietly accepted his situation. The complete opposite of Billy Martin, Lemon created a quiet calm in the Yankees clubhouse, which ended up being the right formula as the Yankees who scuffled all season made a stunning comeback, overtaking the Red Sox and winning a second straight World Series. Despite their turnaround, Lemon’s time with the Yankees was short lived as he was fired and replaced by Billy Martin in June of 1979.