Sunday, 24 July 2011

DICK WILLIAMS: IN MEMORIAM


I had meant to write something earlier about the death of baseball manager Dick Williams; sadly his career didn't really have much of a hook for a British paper's readership. Most of his obits in the States seemed to concentrate on his time with the Oakland As, which was to be expected, as he won two World Series with them ('72-73) and they were a collection of larger-than-life characters--Reggie, Catfish, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Blue Moon, Rollie, Sal Bando, Gino Tenace, Campy and so on, all orchestrated by owner Charles O Finley, who made an interesting fit with the irascible Williams', who, like his team, appeared to simply ignore Finley as much as possible and get on with the business of winning baseball games (in fairness, it should be noted that it was Finley who put those teams together, as well as tried to keep them poor and hungry). He called that Oakland team '25 versions of me...we looked like damn hippies...but didn't care about anything but winning.'

I remember Williams most fondly as the manager of what remains my favourite baseball team and season: the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, who won the American League pennant at the longest odds of any team in history. I was 16, starting as a junior on a prep school football team loaded with high-school graduates, and we played at Thompson Academy in Boston Harbor the same weekend the AL season was ended. I got dispensation to stay over at my uncle's in Chelmsford, and watched the season's final game, which the Sox won, and later won the pennant when the Angels beat the Twins that night. It cemented my lifelong obsession with the Red Sox (which has not even been dampened by their recent transformation into the Yankees-lite).

That '67 team was the perfect one to adore, and Williams was a rookie manager who made the perfect fit for that club for a number of reasons. Owner Tom Yawkey was the antithesis of Finley: he didn't need to make his living from the team and he adored his star players. Williams came in and used his 'my way or the highway' approach to shake some players of their comfort zone. He stripped Carl Yastrzemski of the team captaincy, sending a message that was taken on by the team's core of young stars: Yaz, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro, George 'Boomer' Scott, pitcher Jim Lonborg. Yaz would turn in one of the all-time great seasons, winning the Triple Crown, Lonborg would dominate as a pitcher, and all the others would raise their performance levels.

Williams' approach worked because the Sox were a young team; Yaz being the oldest regular at 27, and many of them had played for Williams in the minors. He also inserted Reggie Smith (cf) and Mike Andrews (2b) into the starting lineup, making it older and better. General manager Dick O'Connell got him some pitching pieces, and when Conigliaro was lost for the season when he eye was shattered by a pitch, he got Hawk Harrelson to play right field.

The Sox lost a great seven game World Series to the Cardinals, the strongest National League winners of that decade, when Bob Gibson out-duelled Lonborg in the seventh game. Lonborg was pitching on two days rest and didn't have it; as they did in game seven in 86 against the Mets, the Sox didn't show enough faith in the rest of their staff.

The team didn't repeat in 1968, though Williams managed well. Lonborg broke his leg skiing, which is another of the dozens of Red Sox 'what if' scenarios, because O'Connell went out and picked up Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth in the off-season' they won 16 games each and with a healthy Lonborg the Sox would have had the league's best rotation. Williams, meanwhile, fired pitching coach Sal Maglie, wanting his own guy: Maglie had made a winner of Lonborg, and other Sox pitchers like Dick Radatz, Earl Wilson, and Bill Monboquette, by insisting they pitch inside.

Yawkey fired Williams late in the 1969 season. He quit the As, mostly because Finley had tried to force him to place Andrews, now playing in Oakland, on the disabled list as punishment for making two errors in a World Series game. He early moved to the Evil Empire to manage the Yanquis, but Finley insisted on compensation, so he managed the Angels and Expos and then took the expansion Padres to a pennant in 1984, making him one of only seven guys to manage champions in both leagues. he was fired the next year, managed in Seattle, and then scouted for the Yanqui. As a manager he was great at changing the attiutude in a clubhouse, and getting the best out of players who wanted to do things his way. Eventually, of course, that approach wears itself out. As he said in a recent interview, about the current millionaire players, 'today I wouldn't last a week...(but) I don't know anybody who refused the World Series checks I helped them get.'

When I did the World Series for Sky with Rico Petrocelli we talked at great length about Williams, and how his drill sergeant approach worked in those heady days of the Sixties in Boston. The players were somewhat apart from the counter-cultural capital the Hub was (and if you doubt me listen to Earth Opera's song 'Red Sox Are Winning') but they were a team convinced of their own destiny; and if destiny worked they always had Yaz. Williams was the perfect face for that team, and we were always convinced that beneath his gruff exterior was a guy who'd fight for his players. He proved that in Oakland. RIP.

3 comments :

John McFetridge said...

In Montreal we think of Dick Williams as the guy who made the Expos respectable. Blue Monday would have been very different if Williams had still been in the dugout.

NW said...

1967 - what an experience. I grew up in Worcester and my father would get us tickets to one game each season. I remember him telling me that he checked at Gracia Tickets and that while they had tickets for the upcoming Orioles series, he decided to get tickets for the last game of the season because it was such a close race and maybe it would make a difference. Great game and a (mostly) great season. Dick Williams earned every Red Sox fan's gratitude that season.

Brad Riesau said...

Dick went through grade school, high school and the Army with my dd before he went on to the majors and my father was always proud of Dick's success. He was always one of the most competitive guys around even as a kid.

As a life long Yankee fan, (and die-hard Red Sox basher), I admit to having a soft spot for that '67 Sox team as well (forgive me Yanks fans, I was young and unaware of h0w difficlt this confession would be in later years). But I was thrilled to meet my first major leaguers that year when Dick brought the Sox into Anaheim for a series with the Angels. To meet Yaz, arguably the best player n the majors at the time, was quite a thrill. I had bought my only complete set of Topps baseball cards that year as well and still have it with two cards autographer by Dick and Yaz that day.

We also saw the A's in both Oakland and at a World Series game at Dodger Stadium. Little did I know at the time that Reggie Jackson would become one of my Yankee favorites in later years as he continued his run as Mr. October.

So thanks Dick for binging great baseball to all of us and for bringing a smile to my Dad's face every time he'd read of hyour successes, hour exploits and your take no prisoners style of winning.

Brad Riesau