"belli," But Tough
Billy Martin was born Alfred Manuel Martin, the son of Joan Salvini Pesano Martin, an Italian-American woman whose mother had immigrated to California from near Foggia, Italy, and Alfred Manuel Martin, a Portuguese man from Hawaii. Billy never used "Jr." as part of his name, however. In fact, until he entered grade school he thought his given name was Billy, a corruption of the nickname his grandmother gave him at birth: "Bellissimos" (most beautiful), shortened to "Belli" and then transformed to Billy by his playmates. Billy's natural father left the family when Billy was eight months old. His mother later married Jack Downey, who was the only father Billy ever knew.
Growing up poor in a tough West Berkeley neighbor-hood during the 1930s and 1940s, Billy learned to fend off members of the massive street gangs. This "scrappiness" would follow him throughout his life. From childhood, his biggest dream was to be a major league baseball player. After graduation, he hoped to be signed by a Pacific Coast League team, but no one was interested because he was too small and thin. Finally, he got a call from an Oakland Oaks farm team, which sent him $300 to buy good clothes and a suitcase and hired him to play ball. Several weeks later he was playing in the Arizona-Texas League at Phoenix. He led the league in hitting (.392) and runs batted in (174) in 130 games, and at third base led the league in errors (55), putouts, and assists. This won him a spot with the Oaks, where he played for Casey Stengel, who immediately loved Martin for his outspoken toughness. He was a kid after Stengel's own heart.