On June 15, 1938 Billy Williams was born. This week Richard looks back on his life and career.
Somehow—I’m not exactly sure how—the one truly specific fact I know about Billy Williams (besides the obvious: Hall of Famer, long-time Cub, etc.) was that late in his career he moved from the Chicago Cubs to the Oakland A’s.
Studying the move a bit more, it seems like a yin/yang move for Williams. In the most obvious example, the Cubs played in the National League and the A’s in the American League. The A’s were three-time defending World Champions, the Cubs hadn’t won anything in decades (and still haven’t).
And the opposites continue. The Cubs had been playing in Chicago in one form or another since 1876 and played in the same park since 1916, more than two decades before Williams was born. The A’s, meanwhile, were on their third home city and fourth home park of Williams’ lifetime alone.
The Cubs were owned by the Wrigley family and had been since 1923. While the A’s had many years of consistent ownership under the Mack family, since Connie Mack died in 1956, the franchise had changed ownership hands three times in the fewer than twenty years before Williams joined the team.
The ultimate difference, of course, would be in the nature of the franchises. The Cubs were a traditional organization, wearing pinstriped uniforms at home and grays on the road. They played their games at Wrigley Field, with no lights.
|Billy Williams attempting to rally the Cubs to postseason glory. (Icon/SMI)|
And though the Cubs innovated occasionally—like the College of Coaches—it usually ended badly and was quickly abandoned.
The A’s, meanwhile, were a virtual wellspring of innovation, especially under Charlie Finley.
They played in garish green and gold uniforms, with white shoes.
It is difficult to imagine more different franchises, and yet Williams made the jump with seemingly no trouble.
Of course, that might be because, for Williams, it was nothing compared to the culture shock of his first minor league season.
Though he had grown up in Alabama in the 1930s and ‘40s, Williams was apparently unprepared for the racism he encountered. Suffering from home sickness, as well, he left the team. It took an intervention from Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil to persuade Williams to return.
That was to the Cubs’ benefit as “Sweet Swingin’ Billy from Whistler” made his debut for the team in 1959. It would take until 1961 for Williams to establish himself in the Cubs’ lineup, but that season was worth the wait as Williams swept the first-place votes and won National League Rookie of the Year after hitting 25 home runs, a figure still not topped by any Cub that age or younger.
Starting in 1962, Williams began work on another accomplishment, setting the National League record for consecutive games played. Williams would eventually play every game until September of 1971, putting his record at 1,117. It would stand until broken by Steve Garvey in the 1980s.
As he matured as a hitter, Williams developed into a solid player, albeit one (like long-time teammates Banks and Ron Santo) stuck on terrible teams.
In 1965, Williams hit .315 with 34 home runs. Santo was also one of the league’s best players, and Banks was capable at first base. But the team’s only other strength was in the bullpen while the rest of the offense was dreadful—shortstop Don Kessinger finished with a .485 OPS—and the team lost 90 games.
Williams continued to hit as the Cubs began rising to respectability and then contention, but in 1969 he suffered an off year at the worst possible time, posting his first sub-120 OPS+ since 1962 and last one until 1973 as the Cubs collapsed down the stretch. By the time Williams was hitting again, the Cubs had backslid to mediocrity.
He had his best offensive year in 1972, hitting .333 to win the batting title and leading the lead in slugging, OPS and total bases. That performance earned Williams a second place finish in the MVP vote, albeit not particularly close to winner Johnny Bench. Nonetheless, it was the second time Williams claimed the runner-up position in the previous three seasons, no small feat for a player well into his 30s.
After all his years of losing with the Cubs, Williams’ trade to the Athletics finally put him on a winning team. Filling the DH role, he helped Oakland win 98 games and earn a trip to the ALCS. Unfortunately for Williams, his Cubs’ past seemingly caught up to him as the A’s were swept out by the Impossible Dream Red Sox in three games.
After one more season in Oakland—during which the A’s missed the playoffs by fewer than three games—Williams retired. He finished his career with a .290 average, 426 home runs, 434 doubles, more than 2700 hits and a lifetime .853 OPS.
Williams spent just six years on the Hall of Fame ballot, speedily increasing from less than a quarter of the vote in 1982 to earning his election (along with Catfish Hunter, whose absence from the ’75 A’s perhaps cost Williams a trip to the World Series) with more than 85 percent of writers voting for him.
That same year, the Cubs retired Williams number nine, just the second player—after Banks—to earn that honor on the North Side. Williams’ connection with the franchise also included a number of years as a coach with the Cubs, one blog estimating he spent more than 5,000 games in the Cubs’ uniform, probably more than any other figure.
It is therefore fitting that the Cubs erected a statue in Williams’ honor outside of Wrigley Field, unveiling it during the 2010 season.