On October 6, 1914, in the second game of a doubleheader, 20-year-old Bill Martin made his major-league debut against the Robins in Brooklyn. His performance was utterly unremarkable: He went hitless in three at-bats and committed an error at shortstop. No one at the time would have expected that this single game would constitute the entire major-league career of Bill Martin.
Bill Martin was one of the greatest all-around athletes ever to come out of the Washington, D.C., area, as he was a three-sport star, later inducted into Georgetown University’s Hall of Fame. Numerous major-league teams competed for his services and expectations for his career were sky-high. Martin’s career in the major leagues might not have turned out as anticipated, but his life was anything but ordinary as he went from starring on the collegiate playing fields to hobnobbing with the political elite in Washington.
Born on February 13, 1894, in Washington, William G. Martin was the only son born to William S. and Mary E.S. Martin. He had an older sister, Lucile, and three younger sisters – Loretta, Rosemary, and Julia. William S. Martin drove a soda-water truck as his occupation, yet the family lived a privileged lifestyle. Young Billy attended the elite and prestigious Georgetown Prep, where he starred in both baseball and football. William A. Martin, Jr., the great-grandson of William S., speculated that “maybe there was something other than soda in that Schweppes truck that my great-grandfather used to drive around Washington!”1 This would not be the last reference to “bootlegging” within the Martin family.
Martin entered Georgetown University in 1909. A right-handed thrower and batter, at 5-feet-8 and 170 pounds he was muscular and built like a fireplug. The young Irishman had a fiery disposition and seemingly boundless amounts of energy. He immediately made a name for himself playing on the hardwood court, the gridiron, and the baseball diamond as a freshman. By 1912, Martin was an established local star attracting much attention from area teams desiring his services. He played baseball for the Potomac Electric and Power Company (“Pepco”) nine and led the team to the district amateur championship.2 The first of many injuries occurred that fall as he broke his leg during a Georgetown football game.3 He missed the remainder of the football season as well as the basketball season. The injury was merely a prelude to what was to lie ahead for the young athlete.
By April 1913 Martin was offered a contract to play for the Erie Sailors of the Class B Interstate League. The Pittsburgh Press reported that he would sign the contract and report to Erie “at the close of the college year, in June.”4 For reasons that are unclear, Martin did not report to Erie. And then the injury bug struck once again. He broke his nose, according to the Washington Post, while playing end for Georgetown against Virginia Medical College in a football game on October 18, 1913.5
For the Georgetown star, 1914 proved to be a momentous year, filled with great highs and equally devastating lows. After closing out his fine basketball career for the Blue and Gray, Martin was enjoying his final season for the varsity baseball squad. It was widely known that he was being scouted by several major-league teams, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and the Boston Red Sox. Cleveland was rumored to have signed him to a contract, allowing him to report at the close of the college season. On June 6 the Georgetown team arrived by train in Princeton, New Jersey, to take on the Princeton squad. When the train carrying the Georgetown team pulled into the station in Princeton, the train car carrying their equipment did not arrive. The players scrambled around and borrowed whatever uniforms, gloves, and gear they could from their opponents. Martin borrowed a pair of shoes that were more than a size too large for him and broke his ankle late in the game when “in rounding one of the sacks he caught his foot in the bearings and met with the unfortunate accident.”6
While Martin was recovering in the hospital, the Cleveland Naps surrendered their claim to his services. Cincinnati and the Boston Braves put in claims for the injured player. The conflicting claims went before the National Commission, which awarded his rights to the Braves. Boston manager George Stallings signed him to a contract in July after consulting with a physician and with team owner James E. Gaffney. Martin was sent home to recuperate and was told to report on August 1.7
With his leg sufficiently healed, Martin joined the Braves as scheduled. Stallings told the Washington Post “that in Martin he thought he had a most promising youngster.”8 By the time Martin joined the team, the Braves had battled their way out of the cellar to reach .500 and were now in fourth place, eight games behind the first-place New York Giants.
Though Martin had experience at other positions around the infield, he was a shortstop and therefore played behind future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, regarded as the finest shortstop in the National League. Martin and Oscar Dugey were the utility infielders and did not figure to receive much playing time as the Braves drove their way up the standings.
The Braves clinched the pennant on September 29. Stallings had no intention of easing up; he wanted to bury the Giants and maintain the fighting spirit of his team. He did, however, intend to play his substitutes. Stallings told the Washington Post that “Martin will most likely be played in the coming series with Brooklyn.”9
The Braves were closing their amazing season with back-to-back doubleheaders in Brooklyn. They swept the first doubleheader and lost the first game of the second set. (Hard-hitting third baseman Red Smith slid awkwardly into second base and broke his ankle in the game.) Stallings sent out a lineup of mostly substitutes, including Martin, making his major-league debut at shortstop.
Martin’s debut went all but unnoticed by the press given the sportswriters’ attention to Smith’s injury. Martin went hitless in three at-bats, facing the Robins’ starter, Nap Rucker, one of the toughest left-handed pitchers in the league, and a young right-hander, Johnny Enzmann, who relieved Rucker in the sixth inning. Martin booted a ball during one of his two chances at shortstop. The Braves won, 7-3, to close out the regular season. Martin certainly could not have known as he left the field that he would never again play in a regular-season major-league game.
The Braves’ surprising victory over the Athletics produced a couple of disappointing events for Martin. At the end of the final game, unruly fans stole many souvenirs from the players, including Martin’s prized Mackinaw sweater. He was so upset to lose his prized possession that he offered a sizable reward for its return. More disappointing was the decision by a committee of veteran players to not award Martin a full World Series share of $2,708.86. Martin, pitcher Ensign Cottrell, who joined the team in July, and several other members of the Braves organization received just $500. Stallings displayed his feelings for Martin by handing him a personal check for $500.10 The veterans were probably justified in their decision to cut out the young players as neither had played much down the stretch, nor participated in the World Series. Yet Stallings valued their attitude and spirit, which made them ballplayers in his eye.
The Braves entered the 1915 season with great promise and hope, as the championship team returned largely intact and made some key additions. Younger ballplayers like Martin expected to play a much more prominent role. While the young superstar Maranville was a lock at shortstop, the great second baseman Johnny Evers was now 34 years old and entering his 17th major-league season. At third base, Red Smith’s future was still in question after his severe leg injury. As the team headed south to Macon, Georgia, for spring training, all indications were that Martin was progressing well and continuing to impress his manager. But Martin’s energy and perhaps overzealousness got the best of him on March 11.
The team played a scrimmage game against Mercer College in Macon and Martin entered the game in the eighth inning to take over for Maranville. The Boston Daily Globe reported that “In his one time at bat, he failed to get on base, and it is figured by Stallings that Martin, who is exceptionally ambitious to make good, decided to finish his day’s work by practicing with the college team.”11 After the Braves’ 11-2 victory, the players headed back to their hotel for the evening, but Martin joined the Mercer squad’s practice session. It was nearly dark when Martin broke his ankle once again during sliding drills.
According to the Globe, the injury was identical to the one he had suffered the previous June in Princeton.12 Stallings, informed of the accident by the Mercer coach, went to the hospital to check on Martin and was informed that he would have to remain in the hospital for a week and would be out of action, “under the best of circumstances,” for at least a month. “The Boston Manager was very much upset over the occurrence, as he valued the young player highly and figured on him as a very promising asset to the club,” the Globe reported. (According to the Washington Post, Stallings looked upon Martin as “another Johnny Evers.”)13
On March 17 the Globe reported better news: “The latest report on Martin’s condition is decidedly cheering, as it had been discovered by the doctors in their final examination that the break is not as serious as was first thought.” The paper speculated that he should be able to report by the middle of May and return to action by the end of June.15 Meanwhile Stallings began to evaluate potential replacements. (Several other players were injured, as well.) A utility infielder, Ed Fitzpatrick, had already been working out with the team and the team acquired a veteran middle infielder, Dick Egan, from Brooklyn in late April.
July began on a positive note for Martin; he married Martha Millar, a native of Ireland, on July 6 in Ellicott City, Maryland. But the Globe’s prognosis proved overly optimistic. Martin couldn’t return to the Braves until late July. He remained with the club for a month, but saw no action. The end came on August 21, when he was unconditionally released. “With Egan and Fitzpatrick as utility infielders, there was no chance to use Martin,” the Globe wrote, adding, “An effort was made to place him with a minor league club, but it failed: hence his unconditional release.”14
Martin’s career with the Braves was over, but his professional sports career was not. There are no records that indicate he signed anywhere for the remainder of the 1915 season; perhaps he allowed his leg to continue healing. John McGraw invited him to spring training with the Giants the following year.
Martin joined the Giants at their spring-training camp in Marlin, Texas, and by all accounts had an impressive spring. He “played short for the Rookies at Marlin and managed the team on the way north.”15 It looked as if he might benefit from injuries to other players. Hans Lobert, the Giants’ starting third baseman, and his backup, Herbert Hunter, had both been injured in the spring. McGraw started the season on April 12 with another young third-sacker, Fred Brainard, who played poorly enough that a mere two games into the season, the Giants manager brought in two new players, Bill McKechnie and Bill Martin.16 McKechnie was a veteran who had been with several teams and was a serviceable player. (He later became a Hall of Fame manager, spending 25 years, winning four pennants and two World Series.)
This time around, the press was not complimentary toward Martin: “The trouble with Martin is that he cannot hit. He has a good arm, is a fine fielder, but is useless at the plate.”17 McGraw must have come to a similar conclusion; Martin never appeared in a game for the Giants. In July J.C. Kofoed of Baseball Magazine sang his praises, writing, “A few like [Joe] Schepner and Martin seem likely to make good in a few years. The latter has a marvelous faculty for judging ground balls, and a pair of hands like Milton Stock.”18 Kofoed was wrong about both players.
Though the exact date is unclear, Martin was released by the Giants and signed with the Syracuse Stars of the New York State League. He batted a respectable .256 and led the league in fielding percentage at shortstop. The Stars, whose best pitcher was Howard Ehmke (31-7) won the league championship. From this point forward, details of Martin’s career are difficult to come by. He was sold to Bridgeport of the Eastern League in March 1917. In late August, the New London Day reported that Martin had been thrown out of a game after fighting with the opposing pitcher.19 On November 29, 1917, the Martins’ first child, a daughter, Patricia, was born.
After the United States entered the Great War in 1917, the federal government promulgated a “work or fight” order requiring able-bodied men of draft age to either join the military or work in war-related industries. In the spring of 1918, the Martins moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where Bill joined went to work for the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company and played for the Harlan semipro team, which Bethlehem sponsored. He worked on ships at the docks for five days and played ball on the weekends. Harlan actually fielded two teams, and Martin’s had seven players with major-league experience. “The teams are composed of the greatest array of baseball talent that has ever represented this city in any league,” said a Wilmington newspaper, the Delmarva Star.20 Harlan’s team won “the shipworkers’ baseball championship of the Atlantic Coast,” defeating the Standard Team of New York, 4 to 0.”21 After the baseball season, Martin helped assemble and coach a Harlan football team, and continued coaching and playing for the team in 1919. He also took on coaching another local team, the Brownson eleven.
With the dawning of the ’20s, Martin again felt the itch to return to professional baseball and signed with the Petersburg Goobers of the Virginia League on August 9, 1920. He played in the Virginia League for a few seasons, though detailed records are poor. The league had numerous difficulties as Martin’s team, Petersburg, went bankrupt in 1921 and was taken over by the Tarboro (North Carolina) Tarbabies. Martin also played in 1921 for the Wilson (North Carolina) Bugs, who had a claim to first place until a controversy regarding salary limits knocked them out of contention.22 Sometime during 1921 he was a manager, but for which team and for how long is unknown. What is known is that Martin played at both shortstop and second base, while hitting a respectable .270 for the 1921 season.
The Martins had a second child on October 22, 1922, a son named William A. Martin. After bouncing around the Virginia League for a few years, Bill decided to move back to his hometown. He ended his baseball career in 1924 on the roster of the Eastern League’s Bridgeport Bears. Details of this period are sketchy at best, but we do know that Bill went back to coaching football and was again successful. He coached the Georgetown Knickerbocker eleven to the district championship of 1924. The strength of the team was described by the Washington Post: “Under the guidance of Billy Martin the club has been scored on but once this season – that by the Navy Yard Marines in the opening game.” 23
By 1930 Martin listed his occupation as “Real Estate Sales.”24 The Martins lived in a large house on a hill in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Despite being a minor-league baseball player and semiprofessional football coach, the family lived an upper-class lifestyle – this during the early years of the Great Depression. As his father before him, despite a modest career, Bill was able to afford the luxuries of life including sending his son to his alma mater, the venerable Georgetown Prep. According to Billy A. Martin, Jr., Bill’s grandson, “In all of the pictures that I saw of my father during his early years, he was always dressed in the finest clothing while the other kids essentially were wearing hand-me-downs or rags. After all, it was the Great Depression.”25 Martin’s grandson mentioned a possible explanation for the surprising wealth: “I have heard the story several times of my grandfather driving his convoy of ‘bootlegging trucks’ down a dark country road where they were intercepted by another group who forced them all out of their trucks at gunpoint and lined them up. They pointed to my grandfather and told him to move to the side and proceeded to gun down the rest of his men with their tommyguns. Why they spared his life, I do not know.”26
After Prohibition ended in 1933, Billy Martin and his father opened Martin’s Tavern in the Georgetown section of Washington. Since its opening, every president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama has stopped at the D.C. landmark. John F. Kennedy not only preferred a regular booth there as a young senator, but also proposed to Jacqueline Onassis in booth number 3, while Richard Nixon favored booth number 2.27 Billy Martin preferred to hold court in a back room aptly named the Dugout, where cards, politics, and gin flowed liberally every night. Many ballplayers were said to have stopped in regularly to see the gregarious Martin and swap old stories. The fourth-generation Billy Martin, Jr., who began working in the tavern in 1982, relayed this story of his grandfather’s hefty political clout: “My grandfather was sitting in the Dugout with his good friend [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn and a young congressman from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson kept waxing on about D.C. politics when Rayburn finally told him to ‘shut up and listen to Billy Martin if you actually want to learn something about this town!’”28
Bill Martin’s son, William A. Martin, followed in his father’s footsteps and was also a star athlete at Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University. He was a Golden Gloves boxing champion at Georgetown with a career record of 44-0, saw action with the Navy off Okinawa during World War II, and played golf on the Pro-Am tour during the 1950s. The son retired to Florida after turning over the tavern to Billy Jr. in 2001 and died in 2004. As of 2013 Bill’s daughter Patricia Martin Simpson was living in Stuart, Florida.
As for William G. “Bill” Martin, he lived life to the fullest and could always be found at his beloved tavern, where he was the life of every party. His health began to decline while he was still a relatively young man and he suffered a fatal stroke following complications from diabetes on September 14, 1949. He was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
This biography is included in “The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston’s Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions” (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.
Grateful acknowledgment to William A. “Billy” Martin Jr. for sharing his personal memories and knowledge of his family history.
1 Telephone conversations with William A. Martin, Jr., and exchange of e-mails on several dates between February 22, 2010 through April 6, 2010.
2 “Bill Martin To Sign With The Erie Team,” Pittsburgh Press, April 10, 1913, 1.
3 “National League Notes,” Sporting Life, August 22, 1914, 7.
4 “Bill Martin To Sign With The Erie Team.”
5 “Long Run Wins for G.U. Over Virginia Medicos,” Washington Post, October 19, 1913, Sports, 7.
6 “Billy Martin Is Made Brave By Accident Which Breaks Leg,” Washington Post, October 4, 1914, Sports, 4.
7 “National League Notes.” Sporting Life, August 22, 1914, 7.
8 “Braves An Impressive Bunch, With Hustle Their Big Asset.” Washington Post, October 1, 1914, Sports, 10.
10 “Braves Given Banquet; Get World’s Series Coin,” Washington Post, October 15, 1914, Sports, 10.
11 “As In 1914, Ankle Fracture Robs Champs of Too-Ambitious Martin,” Boston Daily Globe, March 12, 1915, 8.
13 “Billy Martin Breaks Ankle At Braves Camp In Macon, Ga,” Washington Post, March 12, 1915, 8.
14 “Billy Martin Breaks Ankle.”
15 “Fred Snodgrass, Late Of Giants, Signed By Boston.” Boston Daily Globe, August 22, 1915, 9.
16 “New York Has One Big Need,” Pittsburgh Press, April 14, 1916, 40. Some sources render Brainard’s surname as Brainerd.
18 “The Youngsters Of 1916.” Baseball Magazine, July 1916, 48.
19 “Lively Fist Fight In Savin Rock Park,” New London Day, August 30, 1917, 10.
20 Former Professional Big League Stars In Action With Harlan Baseball Teams,” Delmarva Star (Wilmington. Delaware), May 26, 1918, 13.
21 “Harlan Nine Gains Title,” New York Times, September 15, 1918.
22 “Virginia League,” Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, 1922, 219-221.
23 “Knicks Slight Favorite To Beat Mercury Team,” Washington Post, December 13, 1924, 19.
24 Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930.
25 Conversation with William A. Martin, Jr.
27 “Restaurant Review: Martin’s Tavern,” Washington Post, March 30, 2006, Online Edition.
28 Conversation with William A. Martin, Jr.