24 years ago, I was a junior at Berkeley High. On Christmas Day of that year, Billy Martin, one of Berkeley’s most famous public school graduates, passed away. After reading a tribute article in Sports Illustrated about Martin’s childhood in West Berkeley, my friend Jason Brand and I dug up a cartoon in the 1946 Berkeley High yearbook featuring Martin arguing with an umpire, which of course reminded us of his legendary fights with umpires as a major league manager.
We sent the cartoon to Sports Illustrated on a whim, and were stunned when the magazine agreed to publish it as a letter to the editor. For 16-year-old sports fans, having a letter published in Sports Illustrated was pretty much the only thing on our bucket list.
By the way, the column we read about Billy Martin’s childhood, which prompted us to send in the cartoon, was written by famed sports journalist and Berkeley High alum Ron Fimrite. It is an illuminating glimpse into life in West Berkeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For example, check out this description of Burbank Junior High (which was located on the site of the current BUSD offices at 2020 Bonar street):
West Berkeley was where . . . impoverished newcomers could afford to live, and it is where they sent their children to school. And so those schools, most specifically Burbank Junior High, became mini-war zones in themselves, beachheads where the entrenched fought fiercely to preserve their turf from the invading hordes. Billy went to Burbank Junior High, and so, a little later, did I. I can recall, on my first day there, inquiring of a classmate what the kids did for amusement at recess. This boy regarded me as if I had just debarked from a spacecraft. “We have razor fights,” he said levelly. That kind of took the kick out of recess for me. There were, in fact, two ways to survive Burbank’s tribal wars—learn to be a terrific street fighter, as Billy did, or become the companion of somebody who could fight better than all the rest.