Billy Martin’s Family in Bench-Clearing Brawl

Billy Martin is gone, dead 10 years since his pickup truck slid off the side of an upstate New York road, but his family is still playing their own version of his famous Billy Ball. The feisty, in-your-face Yankee manager has left behind a wife(his fourth), two children and a lingering estate battle that will be played out publicly in a few months when a small cache of his memorabilia is put up for auction.

The squabble is between Martin’s widow, Jilluann, and his son from his second marriage, Billy Joe. On the sidelines is Martin’s daughter, Kelly Martin-Knight, and Martin’s best friend, Bill Reedy, who was in the car that icy Christmas night in 1989 when Martin was killed in the alcohol-fueled accident.

And while his heirs carry on their bench-clearing brawl over Martin’s assets, even the two lawyers in the case, who have been litigating the matter for five years in a Binghamton, N.Y., courthouse, can barely disguise their mutual contempt.

The son regards his stepmother as nothing less than the devil. “I’ve never known a person in my life who could be as ruthlessly mean. If she loved my father at all, it’s hard for me to believe. It’d be impossible to figure her out. Maybe Beelzebub can.”

Martin’s life was as messy as the events that have followed his death. His 29-page will appeared to give the house and cars to his widow. The rest of the estate was divided equally among his widow, son, daughter, and granddaughter by Kelly, Evie Sabini. The battle all these years has centered on Mrs. Martin’s conduct as the executrix of the estate. In March 1990, she told Martin’s children there was just $8.82 in the trust left for them. She told Kelly that her father had died penniless, even though he made more than $725,000 in annual income during the last three years of his life, courtesy of George Steinbrenner, and earnings from personal appearances and side businesses, such as royalties from the Billy Martin Western Wear stores.

Mrs. Martin, who handled Billy’s financial affairs in the last years of his life, has told his children and the courts that his debts–including a $290,415 Internal Revenue Service tab–outweighed his assets. Now she is contending that she will need to auction off his mementos to settle his accounts.

That came as a shock to both Billy Joe Martin and his attorney, Ronald Holmes. Neither knew such an event was being planned until The Observer told them. They said this follows a pattern of Mrs. Martin and her attorney not communicating or sharing–even withholding a photo taken of a teenage Billy Joe and his father at Yankee Stadium on Father’s Day. His attorney said he intends to ask the court to block the auction. “This is something that’s very precious and near and dear to Billy Jr. And not to Jill. She’s refused to let these kids have a baseball bat,” Mr. Holmes said.

Mrs. Martin plans to hold the auction in late summer or early fall but has yet to choose an auction house. The offerings are varied, said her lawyer, Robert Pearl. “It’s some that relate to him personally. Others he owned.” He declined to be more specific.

Martin’s buddy, Mr. Reedy, said when Billy died his effects included a jersey worn by Martin’s booster and mentor, Casey Stengel, which Martin kept as a talisman as he traveled from one managerial job to the next. (And the next.) There’s also his golf clubs, with his name on the bag. A ton of photos, mostly of him and Roger Maris. A ball signed by Roger Maris, which he kept on the mantel. A picture of him and Maris playing golf. A 4-by-6 foot display of every one of his baseball cards, mounted carefully on styrofoam by a fan. Maybe his Civil War books.

One appraiser said that if the Stengel jersey isn’t too ratty, it alone could be worth as much as $10,000. The Maris paraphernalia is similarly valuable. But, for an estate that is in debt by the hundreds of thousands, according to court records, there may not be that many riches holed up around the house. “He wasn’t a collector,” said Mr. Reedy.

A March decision issued by the state’s Appellate Division in Albany could give Mr. Holmes grounds to block the auction. Mr. Holmes said he will go back to the Binghamton court to argue that Billy Joe is entitled to proof that the estate is insolvent. He claims that Mrs. Martin has sent him no detailed financial accounting of the estate since 1990. (She has sent tax filings.) A lawyer for Kelly Martin-Knight, Ray Schlather, agreed that a full accounting is essential before it’s determined that an auction is necessary.

The appellate judges ruled in favor of Mrs. Martin on another aspect of the will. Martin specifically bequeathed a gun collection to Billy Joe and a diamond Yankees necklace, given to him by players, to Kelly. But the court ruled that if the estate is in debt, those fall into “community property” and can be sold.

One observer agreed with Billy Joe that a sale of Martin’s few mementos should not be necessary. “It’s mysterious how he could be making so much money at the end and leave his kids only $8.82. It’s hard to conceive, hard to believe,” said Peter Golenbock, co-author of Billy Martin’s first book and author of Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin . “Billy did fly around a lot. But besides that, he only spent his money on drinking,” said Mr. Golenbock.

Billy’s feuds with George Steinbrenner were mild compared to the disagreement between Jill, a 43-year-old former stewardess, and Billy Joe, a 34-year-old sports agent living in Arlington, Tex. Mrs. Martin, who has remarried and is said to be living in Connecticut, declined to comment for this story. She has not commented publicly on the estate and her life with Billy Martin since 1992, when she was displeased with an unfavorable portrait in David Falkner’s book, The Last Yankee .

By every available account but hers, theirs was the kind of relationship you would expect of Billy Martin. The two dated while he was married to wives two and three. According to Mr. Golenbock’s book, Martin tried to break it off, and induced her to split and sign a palimony agreement in 1984. They were never apart for long, and in 1988, when he was 60 and she 32, they married. It was her second marriage.

By that time, on his fifth and final managerial contract with Mr. Steinbrenner, he was drinking heavily and womanizing equally heavily. Mr. Reedy said he kept Martin’s little black book and helped funnel calls from Martin’s girlfriends. At the wedding, Mickey Mantle said, “It ain’t gonna last six months.”

But Jill had a special hold on Martin, which he told buddies like Mantle had a lot to do with the great sex, according to Golenbock’s book.

Mr. Reedy said he never trusted her. His animosity ratcheted up when she filed suit against him for driving the car in which Martin died. In fact, he was the passenger and initially lied to cover up for Martin–something he had done often. Once he realized that Billy was dead, he told the truth. “She’s been driven by money all her life,” said Mr. Reedy. “I thought when she remarried she’d give it up and move on.”

The battle is over so little. Martin died with more than $400,000 in life insurance and a $72,000 trust for the children to fulfill $941,233.07 in debt and liabilities. Those included the $290,415 owed to the I.R.S. Mrs. Martin, as the widow, inherited their marital property, including a $475,000 house in Fenton, N.Y., and $37,000 in cars and a boat.

This despite the fact that Martin–who grew up poor, “eating mustard sandwiches,” said his son–was a big celebrity and in his final years collected royalties from the western wear stores, fees from his personal appearances, a salary from advising George Steinbrenner, and even owned a small company producing hams in his name. Part of the problem, Mr. Reedy recalled, was that Martin was the easiest touch in the American League for a loan that would never be repaid. He also enjoyed the lush life. Not only did he employ his longtime driver, Tex Gernand, but “they had a limousine with a whole bunch of nonsense in it,” said Mr. Holmes.

Cutting Off the Kids

The probate got thorny in early 1995 when the estate had to divide up a $2.5 million wrongful death payout by the Ford Motor Company and Mr. Reedy’s insurance company. That’s when Billy Joe went to Judge John Thomas of Broome County Surrogate’s Court in Binghamton.

He asked Judge Thomas to confirm that there had been a settlement–he hadn’t been notified–and to order the funds deposited if there had been. Judge Thomas presided at a trial in January 1996 in which each party presented a case for their individual financial loss from Billy Martin’s death.

Judge Thomas issued a ruling in January 1997. He concluded that Jill had come between Martin and the rest of his family, by falsely telling him his son wasn’t attending school and had a drug habit. Billy Joe testified in court that she then declined to pay his tuition at Texas A&M. His sister, Kelly, did have some problems. “Several witnesses testified that Jill would not pass on Kelly’s calls to the decedent,” wrote Judge Thomas. “Jill’s proven attempts to shut off communication between her husband and his children unquestionably exacerbated the situation and jeopardized her relationship with him,” he concluded. As had her secret taping of his phone calls and, as the judge put it, her “extravagant spending habits and the overly ambitious remodeling of the house.”

Of the son, who is in the sports agent business with the son of Phil Pepe, the sportswriter, Judge Thomas determined: “This young man has no particular talents except for his association with the baseball world obtained through his relationship with his father and association with his father’s friends and professional colleagues,” he wrote in the decision. “The relationship was a solid loving relationship with a great dependency on the part of the son for guidance, financial support, and future business opportunities from the father.”

Nevertheless, the judge decided, based on Martin’s prior history of support, that Billy Joe should receive 30 percent of the wrongful death payouts, Kelly 10 percent and Mrs. Martin 60 percent. In Mrs. Martin’s favor: a draft of a redrawn will that gave her an even larger share, which Martin had scheduled to sign in January 1990.

The case went to the Appellate Division, where the panel approved Judge Thomas’ ruling that the guns and necklace be counted as part of the larger estate. However, they overturned his decision to grant Mrs. Martin summary judgment–which means that, upon request, she will have to offer an account of the proceeds from the more than $2 million Martin earned during the last three years he was alive.

The Legend of Billy

All this scrapping might not be necessary if more money could be generated for the estate. And that would happen, Billy Joe believes, if Martin’s image were being carefully nurtured by his stepmother. The way he sees it, Martin was the Yankees’ No. 1, a second baseman who played on legendary teams (and whose jersey number is forever retired in his honor). He was only a career .260 hitter, but his stature was enhanced by the company he kept: Mantle, Yogi, Whitey.

It was as manager that Martin shined. The Elias Sports Bureau twice–in 1988 and 1992 –ranked Martin as the premier manager of all time.

Mr. Purdy scoffed. “If you used the quote ‘Martin is the greatest manager of all time,’ you’d generate a lot of snickers. I’d be hard pressed to put him in the top 50. Joe McCarthy and that little guy, what’s his name”–Miller Huggins–”both of them are past him just among Yankee managers.” (Elias ranked McCarthy No. 4 of all-time, Huggins No. 8.)

Those kinds of comments have Billy Joe and his lawyer fuming. “Billy Martin had a pretty legendary name. It’s not like Mantle, but it’s a good name,” said Mr. Holmes. “The Mantle family is generating lots and lots of income. Jill is not. She is not doing anything, so far as we can tell. And she won’t work with Billy Joe. We just feel in the dark and we don’t know what is going on.”

Mr. Pearl said his client “had fulfilled her fiduciary duty to the estate completely and was hopeful that she could resolve the estate soon.” Asked whether there were any other ways that Jill had tried to further Billy’s legacy, Mr. Pearl said that, from 1992 to 1994, she had recorded public service announcements and created brochures for Towing Operators to Eliminate Drunk Driving, in Ocala, Fla.

Billy Joe contended that Martin’s image is larger than any baseball stats can capture–and bankable. “Just like anybody else, he had his own paranoias about things,” Billy Joe said. “I think he got bored very easy, almost manufactured trouble at times in his life. Because of his boredom. He had to be out there on the edge. In the middle of the action.”

But that’s the sizzle that sells. Come August, Doug Newton, Billy’s agent in the late 1970′s, will be opening his fifth Billy Martin Western Wear store, in lower Manhattan (Martin’s royalties ran out in 1994). “Billy Martin was a rebel and a fighter and an underdog,” said Mr. Newton. “He had balls and was not afraid to tell the truth and speak his mind. Lots of people gravitate to and greatly respect these qualities.

For Billy Joe, the way this thing is being handled is not only an insult to him, but to his mother, Gretchen. “My mother was married to him for 26 years,” said Billy Joe. “She was married to him for 23 months. She gets his pension for the rest of her life but yet holds on to these things that she knew he wanted me to have. Why, why would you do that? How can you be that mean to somebody? It can’t be just about money, because I don’t believe we’re talking about that much money. It’s just purely spite.

Chances of working things out are slim. “Mr. Pearl and I don’t communicate that frequently, and never lovingly. It’s been extremely acrimonious,” said Mr. Holmes.

Mr. Pearl: “I don’t know if there’s any purpose served in her or her counsel being quoted on the way the litigants have behaved.”

He added: “There were contested issues and she’s satisfied with the resolution of those.” As if the matter were closed.

You can reach N.Y. Law at mfleischer@observer.com.