Commentary

Unyielding, gruff Williams was an innovator

Originally Published: July 25, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- As Dick Williams limbers up his vocal cords in preparation for his induction speech, it's time for a few testimonials from the players who helped him win 1,571 career games and earn a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Let's begin with Tommy Hutton, who spent four seasons under Williams with Montreal in the late 1970s and early '80s.

"I always respected what Dick did on the field," Hutton said. "But he was a gruff guy. You could get in an elevator with him in the team hotel, and he wouldn't say anything. I could go a couple of weeks and not hear from him."

Then there's Mike Andrews, who played for Williams with the Triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics over a span of six seasons in the 1960s and '70s.

"I consider Dick a friend, but I can remember going months without talking to him," Andrews said. "He would make you so damn mad, but it made me play harder -- like, 'I'll show him.' Other players quit. And when they quit, he got rid of them."

Finally, it's time for a few words from Sal Bando, third baseman and captain of the great Oakland teams that Williams managed from 1971 through 1973.

"I think we caught Dick at the right time," Bando said. "He was very fair and open to the guys who were the nucleus of those teams. But he could be hard on guys on the fringe. He expected you to work hard and be ready, and if he thought your mind was wandering or you were goofing off, he got on you. I remember him having a few drinks and airing guys out on the plane."

I'll never forget what he said when he took the captain's title from Yastrzemski. He said, 'There's only one chief, and that's me. Everybody else is the Indians.'

--Former Red Sox infielder Mike Andrews

OK. Now that we've completed the warm-and-fuzzy segment of the program, it's time to acknowledge the obvious: Williams was one terrific manager. But as a pal, confidant and wind beneath your wings, he could be a challenge to warm up to.

Although Hall of Fame induction weekend is usually a time for gushing praise and universal sentimentality, any honest assessment of Williams' career must acknowledge his tough outer shell. This is, after all, a man who titled his autobiography, "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

Long before Jim Leyland was roaming the clubhouse communicating with players and Ron Gardenhire was grappling with the latest demands from Francisco Liriano's agent, Williams brought his high standards and old-school sensibilities to six teams over more than two decades.

The résumé speaks for itself: Williams is one of only seven managers to win pennants in both leagues, and he and Bill McKechnie are the only managers to guide three franchises to the World Series.

Williams was a visionary in many ways, driven to a fault, and so principled and devoted to the game that he refused to take shortcuts. Yet the adjectives used to describe him typically include crotchety, grumpy, blunt, caustic, sarcastic, abrasive, uncompromising and demanding, along with a few things that might not make the editor's cut in your morning paper.

During a recent Hall of Fame conference call, Williams admitted that his approach wouldn't translate very well to the modern era.

"I'd get fired within a week," Williams said. "My style of play doesn't fit in with all these millionaires now. Listen -- more power to the player. He's getting that money, and they're bigger and they're stronger. But I don't think they know baseball as well as we knew it or still know it."

Williams, who will enter the Hall on Sunday with Goose Gossage and four others, learned his baseball in the ultimate developmental lab. He broke into pro ball with Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and hit .260 with 70 home runs over a relatively undistinguished 13-year career in the majors.

Managing was a natural fit over the long haul, and when Williams' big opportunity arrived, he took it and ran with it.

In the spring of 1967, Boston was regarded as a great place to swing for the fences, bask in the largesse of the team's beneficent owner, Tom Yawkey, and be content with finishing at the bottom of the American League standings. The Red Sox had endured eight straight losing seasons before Williams' arrival, and attendance was a meager 811,172 in 1966.

The Red Sox were 100-1 long shots to win a pennant in 1967, and the Boston press wasn't exactly breathless with anticipation.

"Another endless summer for Uncle Tom's Townies begins Saturday morning when recreation director Dick Williams asks them to try to touch their toes a few times and throw the baseball around just to get the feel of things," Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins wrote that spring. "He won't ask them to do anything hard right away, like catching the baseball. They will have trouble doing that in August, and to ask it of them now would only break their spirits before the season has begun."

Dick Williams
AP PhotoWilliams had a career mark of 1,571-1,451 (.520), winning pennants in both leagues and 90 or more games seven times.
Little did they know. Williams, the new guy, walked into the clubhouse on the first day of spring training and introduced a revised world order: He instituted a dress code, vowed to drill the players on the fundamentals until they dropped, and stripped the team's resident star, Carl Yastrzemski, of his captaincy.

"Dick was in charge," Andrews said. "I'll never forget what he said when he took the captain's title from Yastrzemski. He said, 'There's only one chief, and that's me. Everybody else is the Indians.' He wasn't going to be intimidated by the big league players. He stuck to his guns."

For all their carping, the players sensed that a welcome change was in the air. The Red Sox survived a dramatic four-team race to make the World Series for the first time in 21 years. Even though they lost to St. Louis in seven games, that "Impossible Dream" team helped rekindle interest in the Boston franchise throughout New England.

Baseball fans were suddenly bringing their radios to the beach and listening to Ken Coleman, Ned Martin and Mel Parnell on the front porch. Attendance more than doubled to 1.7 million. And the Red Sox would suffer only five more losing seasons over the next 40 years.

"Dick was exactly what we needed," said former Boston shortstop Rico Petrocelli. "The Red Sox had a reputation for being a country club, and fans wanted a disciplinarian manager who would stand up to the players. The guys who had been here, like Yaz and myself, were willing to do whatever Dick wanted us to do. We were tired of losing."

The magic wouldn't last. Williams clashed with Yastrzemski, fell out of favor with Yawkey and was fired by Boston in 1969. He eventually moved on to a budding powerhouse in Oakland, where he compiled a 288-190 record over three seasons before crossing paths one too many times with the Athletics' interventionist, tightwad owner, Charles O. Finley. After the A's beat the New York Mets for their second straight title, Williams took a hike.

"I got along well with all the players," Williams said last week. "They all hated Finley, so they loved me. And it made my job easier."

Williams spent three years in Anaheim and five in Montreal, guided the San Diego Padres to their first World Series in 1984, and finished up with Seattle in the late 1980s. An indecent exposure incident in 2000 appeared to be the death knell for his Hall of Fame chances, but Williams' list of accomplishments ultimately won out with the Veterans Committee.

Now that he's arrived, it's time to recognize him for the innovator he was. Williams was renowned for his masterful approach with a bullpen. And his son, Rick, who accompanied him on road trips as a young boy in the 1960s, remembers his dad buying sketch pads at the art store and sitting up until 2 in the morning at the team hotel doing color-coded spray charts.

"Baseball-wise, I think his mind worked differently than most other people," said Rick, now a scout for the New York Yankees. "He saw the game much more clearly."

When Williams' 79-year-old eyes scan the landscape Sunday in Cooperstown, he'll see several former players who benefited from his tutelage. He will share a podium with Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Tony Gwynn, among others.

Williams' wife, Norma, also will be in the crowd with his two children, Rick and Kathi. They don't necessarily see Williams as "warm and fuzzy," either, but they know there's a lot more to the man than his legendarily cantankerous clubhouse presence might suggest.

Once the program begins, Williams will try to rely on a piece of speechmaking advice he received from Gwynn, who told him that if he wants to maintain his composure and avoid crying like a baby, he should avert his eyes from his family and just "look at the trees."

"Well, I guess I'm going to have to dress up like a tree," Rick Williams said.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer