Witness Post: Billy Martin
So as not to mislead the reader, there are several sports “Hall of Famers” named Billy Martin. The one featured in this Witness Post did not coach for the A’s, Twins, or Yankees. He didn’t even play baseball.
Granby High School
Instead he was a simple Philosophy teacher and a mighty wrestling coach at a high school in Norfolk, Virginia. This Billy Martin died several years ago (March 2007) at the age of 89. His local fame was recorded along with his teams’ remarkable string of victories: 21 Virginia state titles in 22 seasons at Granby High School (1949 – 1970). Known as the Father of Virginia Wrestling, his teams at Granby won all but two dual meets in the decade of the 1960’s.
Martin’s fame spread like wildfire along the dune grasses of Virginia Beach, where he conducted the annual week-long series of camps, known as the “Granby School of Wrestling.” My dad had read about the camps in the Amateur Wrestling News and he scheduled his summer vacation around the week. He drove my brother, Ned, and me to Virginia Beach for those hot summer sessions of takedowns and rolls and pinning combinations. These were some of our formative years in the sport of wrestling and the clinics and clinicians are fun to recall.
That first summer, since there were few motels nearby, Dad stayed at the Martin’s home. Billy Martin got to talking with Dad about wrestling, of course, and my Dad said he had wrestled at UNC. The conversation soon got around to one of Dad’s UNC teammates, Oscar Gupton, known as “Gup.” He was the roommate of Phil Kemp, whose older brother, Bill Kemp, wrestled with our Dad and was an usher at his wedding. Dad said that Gup was one of the strongest wrestlers he had ever seen; more brawn than brain. Billy Martin said, “Gup didn’t start wrestling until he was in college. If he had wrestled with me at Granby, I could have turned him into a National Champion.” Martin knew what he was talking about, because he had done it before and after many times over.
Most of the college wrestlers who were helping Coach Martin with the demonstrations were former Granby greats. One of the best clinicians was Gray Simons, who was National Champion at Lock Haven State, PA. We also had assistant coaches Joe Boone (Oklahoma), Keith Lowrance (Michigan State), and Billy Martin, Jr. (Oklahoma State), among others. The days were full of tried and true take downs, bottom moves, one-on-one matches and drills of all kinds. Because of the intensity of the Virginia summer heat and humidity, we sweat like hell! We had plenty of food, which Martin claimed was “the best camp food ever” (we disagreed) and the water breaks were frequent enough, but with wrestling clinics it is hard to eat and drink enough to match the calorie burn-off. Ned and I always lost weight.
The two summers in the late 1960’s when we attended, the Granby clinics were conducted in a gym situated just steps from the beach. Although it sounds glamorous, as in “my vacation home — just steps from the beach,” the close proximity to the ocean also meant tons of sand. The prevailing winds blew in sand daily. It was in our clothes, hair, shorts and teeth. Even on calm days, when the wrestlers had been warned to carefully remove their shoes, the sand still worked its way onto the mats and into our faces as they were mashed on a newly demonstrated wrestling move. Mighty gritty and rash inducing!
Who Needs Thumbs?
There were a few physical attributes about Billy Martin, which I latched onto when I first met the man. He picked me as his demonstration dummy that first summer, because I was about his height. The first thing I noticed is that he had a remarkable way of hooking my arm. He didn’t grab it, exactly, because he was missing his right thumb. (Apparently Martin lost his thumb in an accident at age 5.) Instead he used a hooking motion to pull the opponent and lead them, which proved to be a clever deceptive. He told me he had a stronger wrestling grip, because he had no thumb for his opponent to bend or pry. He had me try to escape while standing, with him behind me. In front of the other wrestlers, I had an embarrassing and frustrating few minutes trying to escape his clasp, until I finally gave up and reverted to a standing roll. He still foiled me.
The other prominent physical feature of Billy Martin was his hair. Billy had the most pronounced “swoops” I had ever seen at the time. He seemed to pull hair from the far back of his head and comb it up and over to approximate a head of hair. The problems became apparent when he was demonstrating a move. If the opponent’s arm grazed his head, Billy’s whole set of combed locks would move in unison, as if the top of his head were coming off. It looked pretty funny and always got a few chuckles from the kids in the crowd.
During those clinics, Martin was always in selling mode. He would start off his demonstrations with a statement like, “This is the best hold in the world,” or “If you only learn one move this week, learn this one.” He was a terrific promoter, which was very convincing to us junior high boys. He used his Philosophy training as much as he used his wrestling techniques. In my notebook I wrote one of his favorite expressions: “You don’t need to out-muscle them. You can beat most wrestlers by out-thinking them.” It took me years to understand what that meant, but it is a Martin “truism.”
One of the highlights of the clinics was the nightly movie. Long before the age of YouTube, we watched grainy black and white 8mm recordings. Since the Granby graduates had been extraordinarily successful wrestlers (108 VA State Champions, 6 NCAA Champs, and a two time Olympian) they had some reel to reel footage of their greatest matches.
One film was of Gray Simons against Mark McCracken of Oklahoma State, who wrestled bare chested without a uniform top. Simons had a near flawless match, winning 7 – 2. Gray modestly narrated the finals for us. He left out the color commentary of his personal successes the match, so Billy Martin chimed in and did the selling. Martin told us about Gray’s records, over the objections of the shy Simons. “Starting for my team back in ’56, Elliott ‘Gray’ Simons was one of my best VA State wrestling champions. He went off to Lock Haven after high school and wrestled in the 115 pound weight class. He compiled a great record (91 – 2), with a winning streak of 84 matches in a row. He was voted Outstanding Wrestler in at the NCAA tournament in both ‘61 and ’62. He earned a spot on the Olympic freestyle teams in 1960 and 1964. I am proud to call Gray Simons a Granby wrestler!”
Simons went on to coach at Old Dominion, where he had a skein of successful teams over the years, even coaching Billy Martin’s son, Wayne.
The other five NCAA title winners from Granby were Pete Blair (Naval Academy, 1954 – 1955), Eddie Eichelberger (Lehigh, 1955 – 1956), Jim Harrison (University of Pittsburgh, 1963), Fred Powell (Lock Haven State, 1964), and George Radman (Michigan State, 1967). My dad lists Eichelberger as one of the most complete wrestlers he has ever watched in person.
The wrestling camp “clinicians” were meant to be a mature influence on the younger students, and these college guys also served as our dorm counselors. Living by the motto: ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,’ the counselors were frat boys after all and they wanted to have fun at night. Many mornings they showed up looking as if it had been a rough night, and not because of our noise. Sometimes we were invited along for the ride. They always picked one mid-week evening to take all of wrestlers in their bunks to the Virginia Beach boardwalk for some games. After losing money at ski-ball, baseball tosses, and swinging a sledge hammer to ring the bell, we had some laughs but few prizes to show for our efforts.
One of our counselors, Joe Boone, won a prize measuring stick. He brought it back to our dorm to show us. Called a Peter Meter, it allowed the prepubescent boys to check their manhood against a ruler. Were we water spouts or WOW? Too embarrassed to put our willies to the test, most of us shrunk off to bed with our sleeping bags.
The Granby Roll
It seems strange for a school to be famous for one move, and it would be unfair to characterize the “Martin Method” as a single technique, but the fact is that a good wrestler, who masters the Granby Roll can do it almost anywhere, when the other wrestler is ‘in control.’ The move is executed by the bottom wrestler and takes advantage of an aggressive top wrestler, using that aggressiveness against them. The move can be done from standing (with top wrestler behind) and from the mat. It can be done for quick reversal points. Most Granby Rolls are used for an escape or reversal, but those who are good at it can earn lots of predicaments and near falls.
In the early days, referees were reluctant to award back points for a wrestler who reversed with a Granby Roll. It did not seem right that someone on top had his back to his opponent’s chest. But after a while, when the Rules Committee became convinced that the one who executed the roll had solid control, the points soon racked up. My college teammate at Yale, Jim Bennett, executed a Granby Roll in the finals of the NCAA’s in 1975. He won the match handily.
As Gray Simons said, Billy Martin’s Granby Roll and Granby teaching techniques “changed wrestling,” and Simons was one of its chief disciples. Wrestling was revolutionized from a “stand-up and switch” mentality to lots of possibilities to score from the bottom. It all started with that roll! Martin may have stolen the original move from the Russians, as some have claimed, but he perfected it with his boys on the mat. They learned to do the roll effectively in so many positions, it seems impossible not to give him full credit and the school the naming rights.
We all had our spiral note books to write down the moves in those days, but with sweaty hands and language hurdles, we found it difficult to capture a move or a technique with words on paper. Today the rampant use of recordings and videos makes it much easier to explain what the wrestlers are doing; the technology has brought the sport up to speed. Keith Lowrance, another one of our regular clinicians, has been as active as anyone in promoting the Granby Techniques on video, which are excellent: http://granbysystemwrestlingvideos.com/keiths-bio/
It is hard to grow up in a family where your dad is a wrestler, and you don’t wrestle. My brothers can vouch for that. But having a physically fit and active wrestling dad also has its rewards. All four of the Martin boys were wrestlers and were good enough to extend their time on the mat from high school into the college ranks. Two of Martin’s sons became excellent coaches in their own right.
I was about the same size as Billy’s son, David Martin, during those summer clinics. We rolled around together at the camps in those days. David was long and wiry and I found it nearly impossible to escape from his rides. He was also quick on his feet, consistently taking me down. David went on to wrestle at Indiana State, qualifying for Nationals. Billy Martin, Jr., who later went to Oklahoma, was one of our counselors, and he looked like his dad’s younger twin. Wayne Martin went to Old Dominion, and Steve Martin went to Iowa. After college Wayne and Steve joined forces and they began a second Martin coaching dynasty at Great Bridge High School. Great Bridge won 17 Virginia state titles between them from 1987 to 2005.
Billy Martin, Sr.
Billy Martin, Sr. was born in South Creek, North Carolina in 1918. His mother was a dressmaker and seamstress. His father ran a saw mill near the mouth of the Pamlico Sound. His father died when Billy was 10 and his family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and settled in with a relative in Park Place.
A voracious reader, Martin attended Maury High School and graduated a year early. He stumbled into wrestling, when he passed by the YMCA one day and saw a man demonstrating holds. He was hooked. Martin wrestled at Michigan State, where he majored in Philosophy.
Martin began teaching at Granby High School in 1948. He farmed to supplement his meager teaching income, $1,200 a year to start, buying 120 acres in the heart of Kempsville, VA. Farming, family and wrestling became the pillars of Martin’s life. He and his wife, Mary Lou, raised seven children on their farm, including four sons, all of whom became wrestling champions. Martin’s farm became one of the nation’s top wrestling laboratories, with state and national championships, even Olympians, coming from far and wide to grapple on sawdust in the woods. Many of his best wrestlers came from Ocean View, working-class boys who never dreamed of attending college until Martin planted the seed. And many earned scholarships to college.
“That was really his legacy,” said his son, Wayne. “Dad loved helping people.”
As a coach, he was known for his gentle demeanor (he rarely raised his voice) and for his absent-mindedness. He left his overcoat at gyms so often that Mary Lou sewed his name in the lining. More than once, he left his sons at practice, and had to return to pick them up for supper. “When it came to wrestling, he didn’t miss a beat,” Wayne Martin said.
Martin was considered a master at getting the most out of his wrestlers, knowing just the right things to say to build their confidence. He traveled all over to pick up techniques, and he taped and studied wrestling matches before it was fashionable.
He retired from active coaching after the 1970 season (with a dual meet record of 259 – 9), and devoted more time to his thriving strawberry farm, pioneering the “pick your own” concept locally. In 1976, after turning down developers’ offers for years, he sold the land he had paid $8,000 for in 1946, and was rewarded with a sale price of $1.2 million. The Martin farm became the Salem Woods Development.
In retirement Martin and his wife moved to Knotts Island, North Carolina, and began an orchard business, now known as Martin Vineyards. He stayed active in wrestling, watching his sons’ coaching careers flourish and studying tapes for hours in an armchair overlooking the Currituck Sound. A former gymnast and acrobat with a rippled physique, Martin wrestled well into his 60’s.
Martin was elected to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1980, one of the first high school coaches to be inducted. Lee Roy Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, at the induction said, “Martin’s impact on, not only those he coached at the high school level, but those who would go on to win championships in college and the Olympic games, is a tremendous credit to his impact on the sport of wrestling. People appreciated his creative technical passion for the sport. How many people create a system that people all over the world use today? It’s a system he developed and enhanced 30-40-50 years ago that continues today. What a legend he’s been and will always be. We’re proud that his legacy will continue to be appreciated for years to come, forever.”
Martin was survived by his wife, Mary Lou, seven children, 20 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.