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Reusse: Death of Billy Martin’s ex-wife triggers Twins mysteries

Minneapolis Star Tribune 12/8/2022 Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune
Billy and Gretchen Martin at home in 1969.. © William Seaman, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/William Seaman, Star Tribune Billy and Gretchen Martin at home in 1969..

Gretchen Creswell had dealt with cancer for five years and died late last month at age 87. She had been married for the past 27 years to Wiltie, an ophthalmologist by occupation, and living in the Fort Worth, Texas area.

Donna Baker learned of Gretchen's passing and put in a call to La Velle E. Neal III, Star Tribune sports writer and a gentleman known to frequent Al Baker's bar and restaurant in Eagan a couple of decades back.

Donna and her late husband Al were the owners, and she was hoping that La Velle — with his strong Twins contacts — could come up with a phone number for Betty Allison, Bob's widow, to give her the news.

The reason: Gretchen's first husband was Billy Martin, and the Allisons were close friends.

Gretchen Winkler was a young flight attendant. By all accounts, Billy went all-in with the old art of wooing Gretchen, including a marriage ceremony in 1961 that took place in Rome … the one in Italy.

The divorce didn't occur until 1979, making Gretchen eligible for beatification.

On Monday, a text arrived from La Velle saying, "Gretchen Martin died." A second message arrived saying he learned this from Donna Baker, who is the daughter of a fascinating gentleman named Howard Wong.

This caused my mind to race with the possibility of solving two mysteries that had lasted for decades:

Question 1: Why was Martin such a popular figure with the Twins' small, tight-knit group of employees in the '60s, when I later found him to be a lout?

Martin's run with the Twins lasted from June 1961, when the Milwaukee Braves traded him here for infielder Billy Consolo, until 1969 when he was fired after one winning season as manager.

Owner Calvin Griffith ended Martin's playing career with a release on April 3, 1962, but quickly put him to work as a scout. Later, he coached third, and then had that one raucous season as manager.

I never covered Martin here, but there were plenty of Martin tales to be heard from Twins insiders — hunting, fishing, pranks, many laughs.

Turns out, part of his popularity with the organization might be traced to Gretchen.

"Ask anybody still around who knew Gretchen in Minnesota," Donna Baker said. "She was just a great person, while putting up with Billy's … erratic behavior."

Question 2: How was it that Donna's father Howard, a small, much-older, Chinese gentleman and restaurateur from Bloomington, became one of Billy's longest-standing buddies?

Mickey Morabito, still a team official with the Oakland A's and such a Martin loyalist that he gave up a Yankees gig to join Billy with the A's, was asked this week about Howard's presence in Martin's inner circle.

"Billy's friends were a type," Morabito said this week. "Old ballplayers, old drinking buddies. Howard didn't fit any of those categories, but every time we came to Minnesota, there was Howard.

"Other places, too — Billy walking around in his cowboy hat, drink in his hand, and Howard beside him. They were the all-time odd couple."

The assumption had been the Billy-Howard relationship could be traced to the bar at Howard Wong's, opened in 1966 and one of the pioneer places on what would become the Bloomington Strip.

Nope.

"One of the places my dad had before we came to Minnesota was the Capitol Café and Lounge in Aberdeen [S.D.]," Donna Baker said. "Billy was representing for Grain Belt and he stopped to see the owner. And Dad said, 'I don't have time to talk, Mr. Martin. You see that station wagon out there. I'm about to join those men to go pheasant hunting.' "

Later that night, Billy and Howard met up and it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Before spring training, they would fish deep waters in Florida. After the season, Billy would fly into Minnesota and they would spend weeks hunting in the Dakotas.

"They had contacts with all the farmers out there," Donna said. "One of their friends there was Father Tom Burns. He became Billy's confessor. Billy would confess all his sins from the past season."

She laughed. She does that often when talking of her father's obstacles in his friendship with Billy.

Howard was at the Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington when Billy punched the marshmallow salesman in October 1979. "Dad was getting calls from George Steinbrenner, from the New York Times," Donna said. "He always said, 'The guy was being a jerk.' "

He also was in Reno, Nevada, when Billy punched sports writer Ray Hager and gave him a well-photographed blackened eye.

"Your dad was almost Billy's corner man," I said.

Donna laughed and said: "He'd seen worse. He came to the States at 13 with his dad. A year later, his dad cut his hand cleaning fish and died of an infection. So Howard was on his own at age 14.

"He headed east and was 17 in Chicago in 1929. He was washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, and right near it, there was the shooting — the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

"He heard it, saw the bodies. But a Chinese kid in Chicago … it was the whole see-no-evil, hear-no-evil thing."

That served Howard Wong, who died in 1993, four years after Martin, very well in his three decades as Billy's most wondrous friend.

©2022 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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