Throwback Thursday: Billy Martin Picks the New York Yankees' Lineup Out of a Hat

During the 1977 Major League Baseball season, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin jumpstarted his struggling team by literally picking his batting order out of a hat.

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Apr 21 2016, 2:45pm

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

The first time Billy Martin tried it was in 1968, as minor-league manager in Denver, after his struggling team encouraged him to do it. They made up slips with their names on them and put them a hat, and drew them out one by one to create the next night's batting order. Worth a shot, Martin figured. And his team won the game, 8-7.

Flash-forward to 1972. Martin was managing the Detroit Tigers, and his team had lost 10 of its last 14 games and slipped out of first place. They couldn't score runs; they were tight and they were struggling, and that's when Martin decided he would loosen things up in the most random way possible: he would once again draw the next day's lineup out of a hat.

Everyone's name, with the exception of the pitcher, was up for grabs. Martin wound up putting power-hitting first baseman Norm Cash in the leadoff position, and shortstop Ed Brinkman (a .205 batter) as his cleanup hitter. But it worked. Cash had two hits, and Brinkman drove in the winning run with a double off Cleveland's Gaylord Perry, who would go on to win the Cy Young Award that season. The Tigers won 3-2, and wound up winning their division by half a game that season over the Red Sox. Without Martin's ploy, maybe it never would have happened.

"It served the purpose," Martin said after the game. "It was supposed to relax the guys—and it worked."

Five years later, in need of more looseness in a high-pressure situation, Martin tried it again.

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Now it was April 20, 1977, 39 years ago this week, and Martin was in his second full season managing the New York Yankees. They'd gone to the World Series in 1976, where they got swept by the Cincinnati Reds, and expectations were high for the '77 iteration of the team, particularly with owner George Steinbrenner continually peering over Martin's shoulder. This was year that the "Bronx Zoo" reached its zenith, with Martin perpetually feuding with Steinbrenner and slugger Reggie Jackson. The Yankees had lost eight of their first 10 games; they hadn't scored more than five runs in any one game.

And so, with the Yankees preparing for two more games against the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, Martin once again drew names out of a hat. Catcher Thurman Munson hit second; first baseman Chris Chambliss hit eighth. The Yankees won, 7-5. The next day, Martin rode the same lineup, and the Yankees won, 8-6. This time, Chambliss went 4-for-5 with a home run and five RBI.

"All I've got to say is that Chambliss is one of the best No. 8 hitters I've ever seen," Martin said. "Beyond that I don't know anything."

The Yankees went to Cleveland after that, but nothing changed within Martin's out-of-a-hat lineup. The Yankees won the first game, 9-3, and then they swept a Sunday doubleheader by scores of 10-1 and 7-1.

"It doesn't make any difference to me batting eighth," Chambliss said. "The same guys are still hitting ahead of me and the pitchers are pitching me the same way."

Next stop: Baltimore, where the Yankees won again, 9-6. That made six wins in a row, the 2-8 start all but erased thanks to Martin's unconventional ploy. They would lose the next night, after Chambliss was bumped up to seventh in the order, and after that Martin resorted to a more conventional lineup. But the shakeup worked. The Yankees won eight of their next nine. By then they were 16-10, and in first place in the American League East.

The Yankees wound up winning 100 games that season, taking the division by 2.5 games over both the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. They beat the Royals in the ALCS, and then beat the Dodgers in the World Series, with Jackson hitting three home runs in Game 6. Once again, Martin's out-of-a-hat logic had jump-started a team in desperate need of momentum, and while nothing about it jived with baseball wisdom of the time—let alone our sabremetrically informed, lineup-optimizing modern understanding of the sport—it served as a reminder that the game is played by people, and people are weirdly and wonderfully unpredictable.

So, of course, Martin was going to try it again someday.

Billy Martin (center) during a 1979 mound conference. Photo by Jimmyack205/Wikimedia Commons

June 23, 1982: Martin was now managing the struggling Oakland A's, who found themselves 30-40 and mired near the bottom of the American League West. Facing the second-place Royals, Martin mixed it up once more. This time, third baseman Jeff Newman wound up as the leadoff hitter, center fielder Dwayne Murphy batted third, and perhaps the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, Rickey Henderson, was marooned in the No. 8 spot.

This time, no dice. The A's mustered just four hits against the Royals' Larry Gura, and lost 1-0.

"It really shook me up," Gura said of seeing Martin's unconventional batting order. "I figured immediately that Billy must have picked that lineup out of a hat. But that's what's great about Billy Martin—you never know what he's going to do. That's why he's so exciting."

Said Martin: "It's the first time it didn't work. We'll go back to our regular lineup next time. It was just something to try and snap the team out of it."