Dick Williams, RIP: The Chain Gang Boss

Dick Williams, who died Thursday of a ruptured aortic anuerysm at 92, saw the future from the utility bench of the 1964 Boston Red Sox, where he was winding down his career as a marginal infielder-outfielder. He’d seen up close and personal what nervous youngsters and lackadaisacal, insubordinate veterans, the latter personified by power-hitting/puny-fielding first baseman Dick Stuart, had done to manager Johnny Pesky.

Pesky had earned a reputation as a great teaching manager in the Red Sox farm system, but managing the parent club the former infield mainstay wasn’t allowed to bring even minimal order to his players. If Stuart led the pack of players dedicated to undermining (if not humiliating) him in the dugout, general manager Pinky Higgins seemed dedicated to letting Pesky twist in the wind, refusing to make trades that would bring useful players in and ship the malcontents and malingerers out.

Finally, Higgins executed Pesky toward the end of the 1964 season. “If you remember,” infielder Ed Bressoud would remember (to Peter Golenbock, for Fenway: An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox), “Dick Williams was a player on that [1964] team. And when he took over as manager, he became a tyrant. He thought to himself, ‘If I become manager, you will not do that to me.”

Approaching the end of his reign of terror . . .

After two more years of indifference, with Billy Herman lacking even Pesky’s inclination to teach those few players who could be taught, Williams got his chance. He got it after the Red Sox brass finally tired of Higgins’ cronyism and indifference and hired Dick O’Connell as general manager. O’Connell was unshy about rebuilding the Red Sox system, and Williams was unshy about ushering in a new age on the Red Sox playing field.

He made and enforced rules, some of which hadn’t been seen in a Red Sox camp in years, if at all. He made Carl Yastrzemski the team leader, though he removed Yastrzemski’s team captain title (a title Yastrzemski never really wanted in the first place), and got a Triple Crown season out of his future Hall of Famer. He turned loose talented youth, adroitly maneuvered useful veterans. He insisted on sound fundamentals and brooked no nonsense. And the 1967 Red Sox got to within one game of winning the World Series.

“Dick was exactly what we needed,” shortstop Rico Petrocelli would remember, and he should have known if anyone did: Williams paid special attention to the sensitive Petrocelli, whose confidence had been destroyed by Herman. (Among other things, Petrocelli had been slapped with a heavy fine by Herman, after the nervous infielder left a game midway because he’d learned his pregnant wife developed severe stomach trouble.) “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.”

Unfortunately, the near-triumph exposed Williams’s wounding flaw. He was strikingly incapable of self-criticism. When he battled for and got a three-year contract beginning with 1968, Williams appeared at a press conference and, reflecting on the otherwise miraculous season, said, “We made some mistakes.” When a reporter followed up by asking which mistakes he thought he’d made, Williams didn’t flinch. “I didn’t say the manager made any mistakes,” he said, “I was talking about the team.” But had the manager made mistakes? “No,” Williams said flatly.

It was a post-mortem that proved to be a little too arrogant for comfort. Williams couldn’t and didn’t even own up to leaving an obviously spent Jim Lonborg in Game Saven after Lonborg, on two days rest and obviously spent, was pried for ten hits and six runs in spite of a bullpen at the ready. For a man who prided himself on making the move he felt right, as opposed to popular or on-demand, Williams gave in to real or reputed pressure to send his freshly-established ace to the mound despite only two days’ rest when he had better-rested if less popular options to work with.

And anyone who thought the 1967 Red Sox could have played to the tune of Sam Cooke singing “That’s the sound of the men/working on the chain gang” hadn’t seen anything yet. Williams rode his team even harder in 1968. By 1969, he had divided the Red Sox into pro- and con-Williams factions, with Yastrzemski among the cons. Williams had been fool enough to press his future Hall of Famer into service despite a bad ankle, and when the ankle kept Yastrzemski from scoring from third on a routine base hit, Williams foolishly reamed him in the dugout. Already making life miserable for the younger players Yastrzemski mentored and befriended, Williams also alienated owner Tom Yawkey by expressing resentment for Yawkey’s habit of mingling with his players in the clubhouse. Three weeks after the Yastrzemski incident, Williams was executed himself.

Which may be why Williams refined himself to a considerable extent when he became manager of the Oakland Athletics for 1971. This time, he won three straight American League Wests and two straight World Series, managing a Mustache Gang whose signature characteristic seemed to be renegade. In fact, Williams himself would have been seen as renegade by the Dick Williams of 1967-69.

On the threshold of a mustache . . .

I can just see it now. I’m pitching for the Oakland Athletics and I walk into the clubhouse on the first day of spring training. And there, in the middle of the clubhouse, wearing a funny coloured sweat shirt, wearing hair that curls way below his collar, wearing a mustache, for God’s sake, is my manager. My manager. It is not Ralph Houk.

. . . [H]e turned up at Oakland and he wasn’t so tough anymore. He let people do things their way, just as long as it helped win baseball games. “Times change,” Williams said. “I had to change with them.”

Williams made a conscious effort to change. Or at least a conscious effort to suppress the old crew-cut personality. I think he realised what’s the point of having rules if they don’t make guys play better . . . Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any one homestand.

Williams understood that screaming and fighting and complaining about the other guys on the team and about the manager, too, wasn’t so terrible. Being permissive, letting the guys get angry at each other, didn’t stop you from winning games . . .

Which doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way. That was maybe 10% or 15% of the reason. The other 85% was because they had a lot of good baseball players. Williams could have tried his long hair, his mustache, and his lack of rules with the Cleveland Indians, for instance, and he would have gotten a lot of long-haired .220 hitters. In fact, there would have been a lot of people blaming his permissive ways for why the Indians didn’t do so good.

—Jim Bouton, in I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad. (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973.)

Only one thing could remove Williams from Oakland, and that was standing by his man in spite of mercurial owner Charlie Finley. Say what you will of Dick Williams, but once he decided you were his guy, he stuck by you through thick, thin, and this-has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed.

The “You Gotta Believe” New York Mets were giving Williams’s A’s a run for it in the 1973 World Series. When Game Two went to extra innings, Mike Andrews—once a promising second baseman whom Williams had and liked on the Red Sox, brought to Oakland at Williams’s request, but somewhat sapped by injuries—manned second base as the Mets pushed to break a six-all tie in the top of the twelfth. After one grounder took a bad hop through Andrews’s legs, and a throw to first sailed past an out-of-position first baseman, allowing the Mets to score what proved the winning runs, Finley tried to force the hapless infielder to sign a statement saying he was injured, the better to remove and replace him on the roster.

After the A’s held on to win it in seven, the only time those early 1970s A’s were taken to a seventh Series game, Williams resigned rather than brook Finley’s surrealistic meddling. The Yankees, whose longtime manager Ralph Houk had resigned, were only too willing to snap Williams up. But Finley insisted Williams remained under contract for 1974—even though he’d said earlier he’d be willing to let Williams go—and demanded compensation if the Yankee deal was done, even attempting to take the beef to court. Uncertain as to the precise status of Williams’s contract, the Yankees went instead with Bill Virdon, once a graceful Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder but now making an impression managing in the Yankee system.

Williams wouldn’t be unemployed for very long; early in 1974, the Angels’ experiment with successful college coach Bobby Winkles, whose Angel tenure would be marked by dubious in-game strategies and a perception that Frank Robinson, winding down his Hall of Fame playing career, was maneuvering to get himself named the team’s manager, ended in June.  Williams would last almost three full seasons in Anaheim before he’d be executed. He’d reverted to his Red Sox ways, riding hard herd, delivering sarcastic dugout reamings, leaving successor Norm Sherry to convince his players that they “had to stop thinking a pop-up or error or wild pitch was the end of the world.”

When he became the Montreal Expos’ manager, stories abounded that Williams had mellowed again for the most part. He still stressed fundamental execution, perhaps a little arduously, but he left his tyrannical side behind and molded the club into a near-contender, shepherding Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines to greatness. At least, until the split season of 1981, when he reverted to type yet again as the Expos looked like they were going to blow a shot at the postseason. Williams was replaced by easygoing Jim Fanning, who led the Expos to the National League Championship Series.

Still, bad clubs looked to him to turn them around. The San Diego Padres certainly did. It took him two seasons but he got the Padres to the World Series. And he helped wring the kinks out of the game of a young outfielder named Tony Gwynn. This time, it wouldn’t be his authoritarianism that cost him his job, it would be a front-office power struggle. Supposedly, team president Ballard Smith and general manager Jack McKeon were angling to buy the club from Smith’s father-in-law, Ray Kroc, whose health was failing and whose hire Williams was. Fearing Williams might obstruct their ownership plans, they fired him before spring training 1986.

Williams would have one final round almost at once, the Seattle Mariners hiring him. Again, he improved a club normally mired at the bottom of the standings. And, yet again, his authoritarianism alienated his players and his bosses.

Is it fair to surmise that Williams was an ideal manager to turn a club around but not to keep it there for the longer haul?

“I’d get fired within a week,” he said on a conference call after his election to the Hall of Fame three years ago. “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 getting bigger and they’re stronger. But I don’t think they know baseball as well as we knew it or still know it.”

Perhaps his least known legacy is his ability to rescue players given up for lost or forced to misplay. He restored Petrocelli’s destroyed confidence. He stuck by Andrews, though the injuries took their toll and Andrews left the game after that fateful World Series. He yanked Gary Carter out of the outfield and put him back behind the plate. He straightened out Tony Gwynn’s early confusions, grounded him in fundamental soundness, and shepherded him, too, to the Hall of Fame. And he rescued Garry Templeton, who had played his way out of St. Louis with questionable attitude (and a flip of the bird to booing fans, incensing manager Whitey Herzog), and got a fine career out of the formerly mercurial shortstop while making him the kind of thinker who becomes a manager.

“He pulled me down one time,” says Templeton, now managing in the North American League for the Na Koa Ikaika Maui, “and said, ‘Hey, sit next to me. I want to show you how to run a game.’ I had a day off and I sat next to him and watched how he ran the game and how he saw things as a manager, and it really made me realise what goes on as a game is played and what does a manager think—two or three innings ahead.

“When he had a meeting, he basically just told the team what was on and what they needed to do. That’s what I try to do, I try to go about it the same way. ‘Hey, look, this is the area where you have got to improve in and you guys are (expletive?) in this area. You know, as a team we have got to get better in this way and that way.’ I tell them also, ‘That I am looking for someone who can come in and get the job done’.”

That’s what the teams who hired Williams were looking for, too.  And in the short haul, that’s what they got. It might not have been good for the long haul, but it was good enough—in hand with winning pennants in each league—to make Williams himself a Hall of Famer.

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