Remembering Earl Williams

The early days of 2013 have been tough for baseball. First, we lost Hall of Famers Earl Weaver and Stan Musial within 24 hours of one another. Then last weekend, former big leaguer and noted major league alums Chuck Hinton passed away. And now we are hearing about the death of former big league catcher Earl Williams, who passed away last Tuesday. He had been suffering from leukemia, losing his battle at the age of 64.

Intelligent and well spoken, Williams was one player who was never fearful of speaking his mind. It sometimes created problems for him; it sometimes created humor. His outspoken nature made him one of the more compelling characters of the 1970s.

Drafted as a 17-year-old in the first round of the 1965 draft, Williams struggled over his first three minor league seasons. Then came the bust-out of 1969. He put up huge numbers over a season that included a pair of stops in the Braves’ farm system. After another productive season playing at higher affiliates in 1970, the Braves deemed him ready for a late-season cup of coffee in Atlanta. He hit .368 in 10 games, creating a sense of anticipation for 1971.

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The Braves viewed Williams as a backup third baseman and first baseman, spotting two name brand veterans, Clete Boyer and Orlando Cepeda. Boyer then became involved in a vicious contract dispute with GM Paul Richards, who ended up releasing the veteran third baseman. Cepeda encountered knee problems that cut down on his availability. Those two developments created extra playing time for Williams.

Suddenly, in late June, manager Lum Harris approached Williams and told him that he would become the Braves’ starting catcher, a position that had been plaguing Atlanta. There was just one problem: Williams had hardly ever played the position. He had caught only a little bit in 1971, and not at all in four years of minor league ball.

“I came into pro ball as a pitcher, moved to the outfield, and then was made a third baseman and first baseman,” Williams explained to Braves Illustrated. “I worked at being a first baseman. I felt I was ready to play first in the big leagues. Then, all of a sudden I was told I was going to be a catcher. Well, I didn’t want to be a catcher.”

But Williams wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity. Becoming an everyday player, Williams played surprisingly well behind the plate and showed off a powerful arm. He also developed a reputation for hitting home runs in clutch situations; hence his Braves teammates dubbed him “Big Money.” He emerged as a major force of power, hitting 31 home runs, slugging .491, and earning National League Rookie of the Year honors.

After winning the rookie award, Williams wondered aloud why he didn’t receive any endorsement deals like Johnny Bench, who had become the first catcher to win Rookie of the Year back in 1968. As an African American, Williams knew that racism was at least one of the reasons for the lack of commercial opportunities. Although Williams seemed to have a legitimate point, at least in retrospect, he was branded as “militant” by some in the media. That’s what often happened to vocal black players in the early 1970s.

In his sophomore season, Williams didn’t play as well, taking a step backward defensively and struggling to handle Phil Niekro’s knuckleball. He committed 28 passed balls, most of them coming with “Knucksie” on the mound. Still, Williams hit 28 home runs and drew 62 walks, responded well to new manager Eddie Mathews (who had few rules), and had talent evaluators projecting him as a future superstar.

According to media reports that circulated at the time, Orioles manager Earl Weaver badly wanted a power-hitting catcher like Williams. He pushed the Baltimore front office to make a deal. So at the 1972 winter meetings, Orioles GM Frank Cashen put the finishing touches on a blockbuster five-for-one deal. Cashen sent veteran second baseman Dave Johnson, right-handers Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison, catcher Johnny Oates, and top infield prospect Taylor Duncan to Atlanta for Williams.

It was a huge haul of talent to surrender for Williams, but he would become a huge disappointment in Baltimore. Some Orioles observers have speculated that Weaver never really wanted Williams to begin with, but that contention is highly debatable. At the time, Weaver was widely quoted as saying, “Get me Earl Williams and we’ll win the pennant.” Weaver did write in his autobiography that he was “skeptical” of the deal, but that may have been an after-the-fact reaction, a case of revisionist history.

Here’s the bottom line. In 1972, the Orioles’ catchers were very unproductive. Oates was mediocre at best offensively, while Etchebarren and Hendricks had dreadful seasons that summer. Boog Powell was the team’s leading home run hitter with 21; the next best Oriole had 12 home runs. Given Weaver’s love of the home run, I tend to believe that he would have wanted a power-hitting catcher like Williams, especially after the loss of Frank Robinson the previous season. The Orioles needed power going into the 1973 season, and they believed that Williams would supply some of it.

Unfortunately, Williams and Weaver clashed practically from the start. Williams had a habit of reporting to spring training overweight and out of shape. He sometimes showed up late to the ballpark. Because of his repeated lateness, Weaver suspended him for a game in 1973.

Weaver and the Orioles’ coaches tried to work with Williams on his catching, but he was reluctant to change his habits. The two Earls clashed constantly, bickering about everything from defensive technique to pitch-calling. Furthermore, Williams did not like catching, and expressed a preference for playing first base, but the O’s already had Powell at the position. Powell played against all right-handed pitching, leaving little opportunity for Big Earl.

The burden of catching, not to mention the never-ending friction with Weaver, seemed to affect Williams’ hitting. His power fell off badly in 1974; he hit only 14 home runs and saw his slugging percentage fall under .400. On one occasion, Williams flied out with the bases loaded to end an inning, then returned to the dugout and threw a prolonged tantrum. Weaver removed him from the game.

Williams started the 1975 season with Baltimore, but did not appear in any of the early-season games. Rumors circulated that the Rangers, who were looking for catching help, had serious interest in him.

The rumors had some basis, but they projected the wrong destination. On April 17, the Orioles announced that they had traded Williams, but not to Texas. Surprisingly, Williams was heading back to Atlanta, in exchange for a fringe left-hander named Jimmy Freeman.

By now the Braves were owned by Ted Turner, who encouraged his players to wear their nicknames on the backs of their jerseys. Instead of a nickname, Williams chose the word “Heavy.” It was his way to have some fun with those who had criticized him for his weight problems.

This time around, the Braves no longer viewed Williams as an everyday catcher. He appeared in only 11 games behind the plate, spending most of his time sharing first base with journeyman Mike Lum. Williams actually hit worse for the Braves than he had for the Orioles; he finished with a career-low 11 home runs.

A poor first half in 1976 led to a trade in July, well after the June 15 trading deadline. With his value having plummeted, Williams cleared waivers. The Braves sold him to the Montreal Expos. After a mediocre second half north of the border, the Expos released him during spring training in 1977.

A week after his unconditional release, Williams signed with the A’s, whose owner, Charlie Finley, loved to take flyers on big name veterans. By the time he joined the A’s, Williams had his weight under control, but he was no less outspoken. The A’s had an awful team; they were headed to a 98-loss season. Williams ripped into Oakland manager Bobby Winkles and his coaching staff, calling the level of coaching “nonexistent.” Winkles did not appreciate the sentiment. He told one reporter that if the young players on the A’s followed Williams’ lead, they would be “losers all their lives.”

Amazingly, Williams and Winkles survived the 1977 season. The following spring, Williams broke his thumb. And then, just before the start of the regular season, the A’s placed Williams on waivers. None of the other 25 teams showed interest in the veteran catcher/first baseman/DH.

Given that he was only 29 and still healthy enough to catch, Williams was shocked. So Williams, with the help of his mother, did something unprecedented for an out-of-work ballplayer. They took out an ad in The New York Times, offering his services to any major league team that might be looking for help.

The ad included the following message:

Salary: Very Reasonable
Excellent Health-No Police Record
Have Bat-Will Travel-Will Hustle

The part about having no police record underscored Williams’ sense of humor. But would anyone take the ad seriously? According to The Sporting News, one major league team did show interest. Desperate for a third-string catcher, the Expos sent Williams three wires (in the days before e-mail) and even left a phone message at his mother’s house. When Williams did not respond (for reasons that remain unknown), the Expos signed veteran Ed Herrmann instead.

Still, Williams didn’t quit. He ended up signing a contract to play in the Mexican League. He put in two seasons in Mexico before receiving an invitation from the Pirates to attend spring training in 1981. The Pirates seemed interested in having him as a backup catcher/first baseman, but he failed to make the team and rejected an opportunity to play for their Triple-A affiliate, the Portland Beavers. Williams opted to end his playing career.

I had not heard much about Williams since then, until reading a note on Facebook that he had passed away after being diagnosed with leukemia in July. Like many other fans, I was saddened to hear that he had died relatively young.

I guess there’s always been some sadness with Williams. He had such talent, looked so promising those first two seasons, and had all the earmarks of a Hall of Fame catcher. He did hit 138 home runs, but there should have been more. For whatever reason, he was one of the few players whom Earl Weaver couldn’t reach. Perhaps things would have been better if he had remained in Atlanta.

Or perhaps Earl Williams’ saga is simply a reminder that baseball is just not that easy.

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Comments

  1. DevilsAdvocate said...

    So that huge trade to Baltimore…that is THE Davey Johnson that was involved in that deal, not to mention another future manager, Johnny Oates (who went to my college, as it turns out).  Just a bit of added color.

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    Just off the top of my head, I can remember more black catchers before Williams than after.
    1.  Roy Campanella
    2.  Elston Howard
    3.  John Roseboro
    4.  Manny Sanguillen
    5.  Paul Casanova
    On another note, one would think that great pitchers would require and be complemented by great catchers.  If a catcher’s responsibility is to call pitches, then his role is more than being a glorified backstop.  Which makes Williams an odd choice to start catching without any real experience, especially with an Oriole staff that was was always a cut above the norm.  How would he know better than Palmer, McNally, or Cuellar, about when to throw a curve or change up?  The relationship between a catcher and pitcher involves a level of familiarity and confidence that cannot be developed overnight.  Or maybe I am overestimating the catcher’s role in calling pitches.

  3. Jim G. said...

    @dennis – from the top of my head, black catchers after/during Williams:
    1. Cliff Johnson
    2. Charles Johnson
    3. Lloyd McClendon
    4. Raul Casanova
    5. Elrod Hendricks

    Not many there.

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Advocate, back then he was known as “Dave” Johnson and not “Davey” Johnson. I think that still creates some confusion today.

  5. Paul Wootten said...

    Big Money was said to have complained about everything. He didn’t feel he should have to warm up the day’s starting pitchers, insisting that Earl Weaver should let “those !@#$%^& bullpen catchers warm up the starter.” Those bullpen catchers, Etch and Ellie, did not take kindly to the suggestion.

    I suppose Earl had a soft side, as I vividly remember him in a Tastykake commercial with several other O’s during the 1973 season.

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