Saturday, July 09, 2011
What made Dick Williams greatPosted by Bruce Markusen
The late Dick Williams was long deserving of the Hall of Fame. When he was finally elected in 2008, I felt that justice had been done.
In taking three different franchises to World Series berths, and winning two world titles along the way, Williams’ resume featured the appropriate Cooperstown credentials.
As a minor league player, Williams was strongly influenced by his Texas League manager, Bobby Bragan. Williams wisely noticed Bragan’s strengths as a manager: The ability to teach and instill discipline.
These attributes would become essential parts of the Williams dossier once he turned in his glove and bat for the managerial reins.
As a manager, Williams became a fiery, militaristic kind of leader. He patterned his “tough-guy” managerial style after that of two men, one from baseball and the other from football: Branch Rickey and Vince Lombardi.
Williams stressed the importance of fundamentals and basic execution, demanded absolute hustle from his players at all times, and challenged them to play for more than themselves and the lure of a contract.
Williams’ work with the Oakland A’s has always fascinated me. In a mere three seasons on the job in Oakland, Williams transformed the A’s from a talented young team with potential into a talented veteran team that executed the fundamentals, ran balls out and played hard, and developed a killer instinct that translated into winning games.
More specifically, Williams engineered the following maneuvers in leading the A’s to three division titles, two pennants, and two world championships.
*Immediate moves: Shortly after being named manager by Charlie Finley, Williams announced that he would retain Sal Bando as the team captain. He liked Bando’s leadership skills and saw no reason to strip away any of the responsibilities that made Bando respected in the Oakland clubhouse.
In addition, Williams affirmed that Reggie Jackson would be an everyday player, and would not be benched against left-handers. In two fell swoops, Williams bolstered the confidence of two of his most important everyday players.
*Early crisis: The 1971 A’s lost four of their first six games under Williams, but the players acted as if they were in first place. While on the team bus at the Milwaukee airport, one of the players decided to play a practical joke by stealing a battery-operated megaphone from the team airplane. Williams was not amused.
“Gentlemen,” Williams addressed his players, “some of you think you can be (bleeps). Well, I can be the biggest (bleep) of them all.” Williams then threatened to ban alcohol from all team flights for the balance of the season. Ouch.
Williams then turned his attention to the stolen megaphone. “The plane can’t leave without the megaphone, and we won’t leave until the plane does.”
Williams wasn’t done. “If any of you want to telephone Charlie Finley to complain,” Williams said, “I have three phone numbers where he can be reached.” Williams was challenging his players to go over his head. None of the players did. The reign of Dick Williams had officially begun.
The A’s responded by winning their next five games and 12 of their next 13. Under the guidance of Williams, the A’s were now off and running.
*Rollie Fingers’ transition: It was Williams, not Finley, who made the decision to move Fingers from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Fingers tended to get nervous before starts, sometimes so worked up that he was gassed by the opening pitch. “I just couldn’t handle a starting job,” Fingers conceded in later years. “If Dick Williams hadn’t moved me to the bullpen in 1971, I would have been out of baseball a long time ago.”
Instead of setting for a career as a mediocre starter—or something less—Fingers became one of the game’s three best firemen during the 1970s, along with Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle.
*The unveiling of Gene Tenace: Based mostly on a hunch, Williams started Tenace at catcher over the defensively superior Dave Duncan in Game One of the 1972 World Series. Tenace hit two home runs in the first game, sending the A’s to an early victory. Tenace would finish the Series with four home runs, earning MVP honors in Oakland‘s tough seven-game win over the favored “Big Red Machine.”
*Handling a pitching staff: Williams was a master of mixing and matching arms in his bullpen. He expertly used left-handers Darold Knowles and Paul Lindblad, and right-handers Bob Locker and Rollie Fingers, in creating favorable matchups in the late innings. In Game Two of the 1972 World Series, he smartly used Vida Blue in relief, calling on his onetime No. 2 starter to record the final seven outs of a critical victory over the Reds.
*Adjusting a lineup: With the A’s in need of a center fielder after the trade of Rick Monday to the Cubs, Williams showed confidence in the abilities of the unproven Billy North. He smartly gave North plenty of leash in becoming the A’s’ starter in center field.
Later on, Williams moved North to the leadoff spot, replacing Bert "Campy" Campaneris, a cogent move given North’s superior on-base skills. By switching North and Campaneris at the top of the lineup, Williams maximized Oakland’s run-scoring abilities.
These were just some of the moves that Williams made during his three-year run in Oakland. And he had to do it all under the thumb of Finley, who could be anything from unreasonable to tyrannical. Somehow, Williams maintained order, handling massive egos and major controversies, while leading the A’s to the most successful run in Oakland franchise history.
Dick Williams was a great manager. There should be no doubt about that.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.