Billy Martin, Chinese Aviator: One of the First Great Beefs in Brewers History
In 1973, the Brewers were in a tight spot. Three seasons of miserable baseball had worn out the novelty of a Big League team back in Milwaukee. Attendance dropped each season, plummeting to a league-worst 600,000 in 1972. Only 13,800 people showed up for Opening Day in 1973 and it seemed that the fan base that so eagerly supported the Braves over 13 winning seasons had little patience for the scuffling Brewers. But on May 1, when Johnny Briggs slugged a walk-off homer to beat Blue Moon Odom and the defending World Champion Oakland A’s, the Brewers quietly took sole position of first place in the AL East – the first time they had ever held a piece of first outside April.
Their record – 10-9 – was hardly indicative of a true contender but, despite losing four of their next six games, the Brewers remained near the top of the division. After winning two straight against the defending division champion Detroit Tigers, the Brewers were a full game up on Detroit, sitting at 14-14 on the year.
Billy Martin, a fiery and hard-drinking former infielder, managed the Tigers. He had managed the Minnesota Twins to a division title in 1969, but also knocked out two of his own players in barroom brawl late in the season. He was fired that offseason. He took over the Tigers in 1971 and led them to a division crown the next year. On his 1972 Topps baseball card, he secretly flipped the photographer the middle finger. It was a tidy summary of his feelings towards the press.
But it was losing that Martin truly hated. And dropping two in a row to the lowly Brewers – and sitting behind a .500 club in the standings – was too much. “If they can win with this club,” Martin shot off to reporter following the game, “then I’m a Chinese aviator. The Brewers have a good young ballclub, a hustling ballclub. But to be honest about it, no way are they going to win.”
It was an odd comment, one he later admitted making just to “shut [the reporter] up.” But back in Milwaukee, the press – eager to raise any stink they could – ran with it. For days after the team left Detroit, the papers ragged Martin on his dismissal of the up and coming Brewers club. When an AP photographer snapped a picture of Martin with his arms outstretched, dodging an errantly-tossed bat before a game in New York, the Milwaukee Journal ran it with a caption suggesting that Martin was “practicing his landing technique” in advance of an upcoming Tigers visit to Milwaukee. One sportswriter wrote that Milwaukee fans “haven’t been this wrought up since the Braves pulled up stakes and moved to Atlanta.” As the Tigers arrived in Milwaukee for a weekend series, the Brewers were just two games behind them in the standings. The club announced that advance sales for the series had outpaced anything from the previous two years.
For the Sunday doubleheader, 41,655 fans jammed County Stadium – the second-biggest home crowd the team had yet seen. Fans jeered Martin and waved banners referencing his “aviator” comment. One read succinctly, “To Hell With Chinese Aviators.” Martin was annoyed with all the attention. Asked during the series if he would put the Brewers in the same class as his Tigers, he snapped, “I don’t want to classify teams. You’ll write it derogatory if I say anything, anyway.”
The Brewers split the doubleheader and went on to lose eight of their next 10 games, during which the Martin controversy seemed to die off. But when June arrived, so did the Brewers. The opened the month with a three-game sweep of the White Sox. Then took two of three from the A’s. Then they swept the Angels and Twins and again took the Sox for three straight. By June 19, the Brewers had completed a 11-1 road trip and had won 15 of their last 16. The unlikely hot streak had the team sitting at a 34-27 mark, and sitting in first place in the East, two games up on the Tigers.
With the Brewers set to return to Detroit in late June, the press again ran with the aviator remark. The team organist was said to be polishing up on his “Oriental songbook” to greet Martin when the Tigers came to Milwaukee in August. Indeed, the “Oriental Riff,” otherwise known as the highly stereotypical music that accompanies Asian characters in old TV shows and movies, was played at the stadium for years afterward when Martin was in town. But Martin refused to stoke the matter any further. By late June, he had imposed a gag-order on himself, citing the backlash to his comment in Milwaukee and all over the country. “People all over the country have been after me because of it,” he said. “One guy asked me, ‘What have you got against the Chinese?’ It gave me a bad reputation.”
The Brewers faded in July, but were still within a few games of .500 when Martin and the Tigers came back to Milwaukee. The Brewers designated the third game of the series, August 1, as “Chinese Aviator Day,” inviting fans to show up in costume and “show Mr. Martin what a ‘Chinese Aviator’ looks like.” Martin, perhaps finally having a little fun now that his Tigers were winning, agreed to judge an on-field contest of the best costumes. Cringe-worthy as it is today, scores of fans attended the game in various degrees of costuming, displaying what they imagined a “Chinese aviator” might look like.
Despite the uproar over the comment, the Brewers were no more a winning team in 1973 than was Martin any kind of aviator. They finished the season at 74-88, 23 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and 11 behind the Tigers. Head to head, Detroit pounded the Brewers, winning 12 of their 18 match-ups.
As a postscript to this little piece of Brewers lore, it is worth noting that Martin actually used the “Chinese Aviator” quip quite a bit after 1973, despite his self-imposed gag order. He claimed that Tigers fans knew “as much about baseball as a Chinese aviator” after he was fired. When Alvin Dark assigned Martin to coach first base in the 1975 All-Star game (held in Milwaukee), he said that if Dark was a great manager, “then I’m a Chinese aviator.” Of the new Metrodome in Minneapolis, after seeing it for the first time, “If this place is a ballpark, then I’m a…” And so on and so on.