‘The Bronx Is Burning,’ Billy Martin, & the Misleading ‘Paternal Abandonment Script’

I’ve often criticized what one might call the “paternal abandonment script”–the standard assumption that if a father doesn’t remain in his children’s lives after a divorce or separation, it’s because he “abandoned the family” and/or chose to remove himself from his children’s lives. One example is discussed in my blog entry Dick Allen & the Misleading ‘Paternal Abandonment Script’. Recently I’ve been watching and following the ESPN mini-series The Bronx Is Burning.
The series discusses the year 1977 in New York–the famous power outage and subsequent riots and looting, the “Son of Sam” killings, the upset in the mayoral election, and the controversies surrounding the New York Yankees and their 1977 championship season. One of the main figures in the mini-series is Yankee manager (and former player) Billy Martin. (FYI for non-baseball fans, Martin was super intense and something of a nutcase, but had an uncanny ability to take over wretched baseball teams and turn them into winners. He was repeatedly fired from jobs, including a record five times from the Yankees by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, in part because of his drinking and propensity to get in fistfights. Martin is pictured with Reggie Jackson, his star slugger with whom he often clashed. This includes a fistfight in the dugout at Fenway Park after Martin pulled Jackson out of a game on national television because, Martin claimed, Jackson wasn’t hustling.) One of my childhood friends admired Martin (as did many New Yorkers), and I followed Billy Martin’s career as a kid. One way or another I’ve read a great deal about him over the years. Billy was scrappy, just like his mother Joan, who he idolized. We were always told that Joan raised him as a single mother after his father abandoned him. These two descriptions of Martin’s father’s “abandonment” from the mainstream media are typical: “His father walked out before he was born, leaving Billy to be raised by his strong-willed mother and his grandmother.” “Billy’s natural father left the family when Billy was eight months old.” In watching The Bronx Is Burning and reading some related material, it turns out that Martin’s father did not desert the family–he was driven away. (This is not to say that he was a great guy–we’re told he repeatedly cheated on his wife). A few things: 1) In The Bronx Is Burning, the character playing Billy Martin–apparently quoting the real Billy–says, “One time my mother caught my father cheating and she split his head wide open.” 2) According to ESPN, Martin’s father “was a philanderer whom [his mother] tossed out of their lives before Billy was born.” 3) Sportswriter Maury Allen interviewed Joan, and in All Roads Lead to October Joan says: “[Martin’s father] was no good. He told everybody he left me. I threw him out…When I found out about [his cheating] I busted his car with a hammer…He’s still alive around here someplace. I’ll spit on his grave.” Speaking of the only surviving picture of the young Billy Martin with his father, she says “Nobody’s ever seen this picture. Nobody ever will.” 4) Martin’s mother had been divorced twice–quite unusual for a woman during the 1930s. She called her first husband a “bum,” as she did Martin’s father, her second husband. Conclusion? Perhaps both of Joan’s ex-husbands really were “bums”–or perhaps Joan wasn’t so easy to get along with. Or perhaps both. Given Joan’s temper and violence, and her raging fury at her ex 50 years after their divorce, it’s unlikely that the breakup was all the father’s fault. Billy Martin’s father may have been a bad husband, but–contrary to what I’ve heard and read for 30 years–he didn’t abandon his child.

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