About five years ago, I was sitting in a gate area at LaGuardia Airport in New York, waiting for a flight home to Chicago.
I looked up and saw sitting, not fifteen feet from me, Billy Williams. I'd have recognized him anywhere, despite the fact that he was then about 63 years old. He had his Hall of Fame ring on his finger, and was sitting by himself.
I was frozen. I could have had a nice conversation with him, perhaps gotten a photo with my camera phone, or had him sign an autograph. But I couldn't say a word.
That's what you get when, as an adult, you find yourself suddenly in the presence of one of your childhood heroes. While other friends of mine, Cub fans of my generation, idolized Ernie Banks for his production and sunny personality, or Ron Santo for his passion for the game and great play at third base, Billy Williams was my favorite player.
I loved the way he approached the game -- quietly, consistently producing year in and year out, literally never missing a game for years, playing in 1117 consecutive games from 1963 through 1970 (a then-NL record I wish were still his, rather than held by the current recordholder). He played in 150 or more games for twelve straight seasons, 1962-1973, and, along with Santo, is the co-club record holder for games in a season, 164 (all the decisions plus two tie games in 1965; only one man, Maury Wills, has ever played in more regular-season games in a year, and it took a three-game playoff against the Giants in 1962 to do that). I loved the "sweet swing" that got him his nickname; I used to imitate it when my friends and I played "fastpitch". I can still see Billy, the big blue number twenty-six on his back, in that left-hand batter's box at Wrigley Field, bat standing almost straight up and down, then whipping with amazing bat speed to send another rope of a line drive down the right-field line, or into the bleachers.
Billy Leo Williams was born on June 15, 1938 in Whistler, Alabama. These are facts known to every Cub fan of my generation, because Jack Brickhouse used to remind us of them constantly. He was signed in 1956 out of high school, and began playing in the Cubs' minor league system. In 1959, playing at the Double-A level in San Antonio, Williams got homesick, jumped the team, and went home to Alabama.
Buck O'Neil, then a scout for the Cubs, went to visit Billy. Although O'Neil hadn't been the one personally responsible for signing Williams, he knew of Billy's talent and thought he could become a major league star. In his wonderful and highly recommended book "I Was Right On Time", O'Neil describes how he got Williams to return to play in Texas:
The next night his mother fixed dinner, and after the table was cleared, I said to Billy, "C'mon. Let's go out to the ballyard. There's a player I want you to see." This was just a pretense, of course, although you never knew what you might find in Mobile, the garden of such delights as Henry Aaron and Willie McCovey. When we got to the ballpark -- it was just a little sandlot league -- Billy was mobbed by the younger ballplayers. "Billy, we hear you're doin' great." "Billy, have you met Ernie Banks?" "Billy, what brings you home?"
They treated him like a superstar, and I could see that Billy enjoyed the attention. I spent five days in Mobile with the Williams family, and I never said one word about him going back to San Antonio. I never had to. What sold him was those other hungry young ballplayers. He saw what a great thing he had going, and he knew that if he blew it, there were a hundred guys waiting in line to take his place.
Out of the blue one day, Billy said, "I think I'm ready to go back." I called the office to give John Holland [the Cubs' GM] the news, and he said, "Put him on a bus and send him back to Texas." I said, "I'm not putting him on any bus. I'm putting him in my car and driving him to San Antonio." On our way to Texas we talked about a lot of things. It seems that in addition to being homesick, he was having a little crisis of confidence. I told him one day he was going to be right up there with Ernie Banks and the other big stars. "Do you really think so?" he said. "I know so," I said. Sure enough, Billy Williams is right up there with Ernie Banks -- in Cooperstown.
So credit Buck O'Neil with a "save" -- saving the professional baseball career of a kid who wasn't sure of himself, but had the talent to be a superstar, and over the next seventeen years, proved it over and over again.
Having gotten some coaching help at San Antonio from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, Williams made it to Chicago in the late summer of 1959. He made his major league debut on August 6, in an otherwise unremarkable 4-2 Cub win over the Phillies. He hit only .152 that year, and a little better -- .277/.346/.489 -- in 47 at-bats in 1960, including his first major league home run, off another Williams, Stan of the Dodgers, on October 1, 1960 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In 1961, at the age of 23, Billy was installed as the Cubs' regular left fielder. The team was terrible -- they finished 64-90 and would have finished last if not for the even more awful Phillies -- but Billy blossomed. He hit .278/.338/.484 with 25 HR and 86 RBI, and was named National League Rookie of the Year, the first of two straight Cub ROY's (the late Kenny Hubbs being the next, in 1962).
The following year Billy began a remarkable streak -- no, not his consecutive game streak, but a series of twelve straight years in which he would drive in no fewer than 84 runs, and in ten of those years (all except 1967 and 1973) he had ninety or more. He was primarily a left fielder, although in 1965 and 1966, he played mostly in right field. He didn't really have the arm or the range to cover RF -- he played there mostly because the other options, guys like Doug Clemens, Don Landrum and Byron Browne were even worse -- and so in '67 he moved back to left field, to stay there until an ill-advised attempt to make him a first baseman in 1974.
On September 21, 1963, Billy sat out an otherwise ordinary 4-0 loss to the Braves -- Warren Spahn was pitching, and perhaps Bob Kennedy sat him against "a tough lefty". It would be the last game he would miss for nearly seven years. The next day, Billy began a consecutive-game playing streak that lasted until September 3, 1970, when Billy told manager Leo Durocher he wanted to end the streak -- it had gotten too big for him, he thought, and he didn't want the added pressure as he approached what was then the second-longest streak in history, Everett Scott's 1307 games (and after the streak had been kept going the previous year in mid-June with three token pinch-hitting appearances after he had suffered a minor injury in Cincinnati). Billy's record, which we all thought would last forever, was broken by Steve Garvey on April 16, 1983. Interesting note: had Williams not skipped that September 1963 game, his streak would have been 166 games longer (1283), as he had played in all 155 previous games that year, and the final 11 games of 1962. Along with Ron Santo, he holds the club record for games played in a season, 164 in 1965 -- the entire schedule plus two ties.
One of Billy's biggest disappoinments was never winning a MVP award, even in his two biggest years, 1970 and 1972. In 1970, a hitters' year, he hit .322/.391/.586, with 42 HR and 129 RBI. He led the National League in runs, hits (tied with Pete Rose) and total bases, but lost the MVP to Johnny Bench, who had a spectacular year for the eventual pennant-winners, the Reds. Two years later, it was the same story -- Billy won the batting title (the first Cub to do so since Phil Cavarretta in 1945) with a .333 average; the rest of his line included a .398 OBA, a .606 SLG, and finishing second in RBI (by two) and third in HR (by three) -- to Bench, who again won the MVP. That's about as close as anyone has come to winning the Triple Crown in the last forty years. Billy also led the league in 1972 in total bases, slugging percentage, OPS and extra-base hits. During one 12-game stretch in mid-July 1972, Billy went 28-for-53 (.528) with 6 HR and 17 RBI.
In a rare display of displeasure, Billy expressed his disappointment at losing out on this award, finishing a fairly distant second, twice:
Well, after 13 years in the big leagues I'm going to let the other guy be the nice guy. I'm going to speak out if I see something. You get tired of people saying it's easy for you to hit .300. It's not easy. It's a lot of work.
The Cubs and Cubs fans had given their own recognition to Billy three years earlier; on June 29, 1969, the Cubs held "Billy Williams Day" at Wrigley Field, the day that Billy broke Stan Musial's NL record for consecutive games (895). With the Cubs flying high in the NL East at the time, it is possible that more people were either in Wrigley Field or attempted to get in, than on any other day in history. The announced attendance was 41,060, but contemporary estimates said that perhaps as many as 50,000 people were turned away at the gate. My friend Dave says that's the only day ever that he wanted to get into Wrigley Field and couldn't.
I wasn't there, unfortunately -- I didn't attend that many games as a 12-year-old -- but those who were not only saw a special man get a special honor and gifts from the Cubs, but also a doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals, 3-1 and 12-1, and Billy had a big on-field day as well, going 5-for-9 in the DH, with a double, two triples, four runs scored, and three RBI.
At the end of the 1973 season, the Cubs "backed up the truck" and dealt away so many of the stars we thought were going to win it all for the club. Billy was one of those who survived the initial purge, but was unhappy because the new manager, Jim Marshall, tried to play him at first base, a position he had played only briefly before 1974. The Cubs sunk to a 96-loss depth and Billy was traded to the Oakland A's shortly after the 1974 season ended, for Darold Knowles, Bob Locker, and Manny Trillo.
At Oakland, Billy was one of the first veteran stars to be used as a fulltime DH. Though he hit only .244 in 1975, he hit 23 HR and drove in 81 runs, including his 400th career HR on June 12, 1975 in Milwaukee, a game which featured a HR from a 400-HR man (Williams) and a 700-HR man (Henry Aaron) -- and it was also the first home run Aaron hit in Milwaukee as a Brewer. The A's won the AL West that year, and Billy Williams became the only position player among the famed 1969 crew (Kenny Holtzman was the only pitcher) to play in the postseason. Unfortunately, he didn't do very well -- going 0-for-7 -- and he retired as a player after the following year.
Seven years post-retirement, Billy was invited to play in a pre All-Star Game event, an AL vs. NL Old-Timer's game, at the old Comiskey Park, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star game in 1933. In those days, baseball didn't do the big whoopty-do that surrounds the ASG now, and that Old-Timer's game was one of the very first such events, which I had the good fortune to be able to attend.
At age 44, still in playing-shape trim, he was one of the youngest players in that game. And early in that three-inning affair, he came up to bat against Hoyt Wilhelm, and promptly hit a monstrous home run into the right field upper deck.
Now, consider the sort of game this was, and that the man who was pitching was nearly 61 years old. But that home run was the talk of many national sportswriters covering the event, and got people remembering how good a hitter Billy was, and I believe it became a factor in his eventual Hall of Fame election, something that some of the writers who subsequently voted for him confirmed. His HoF vote total, 23% in 1982 and 40% in 1983, steadily climbed after that, and he was elected to the Hall in 1987 (after missing by only four votes in 1986). On August 13, 1987 the Cubs retired his uniform number 26.
Billy coached for the Cubs in varying capacities (mainly as first base and bench coach) for fifteen seasons after his retirement as a player, also spending three years in Oakland as an A's coach in the mid-1980's. The thirty-one seasons in which he wore the Cub uniform are more than any other single individual; I estimate Billy participated in over 5,000 Cubs games as a player or coach. And in each and every one of them, he conducted himself with class, dignity and grace.
Billy Williams has resided in the Chicago area since he retired from baseball; I happened to see him one other time in recent years, while I was in Arizona for spring training. I was at a restaurant and he was at a nearby table dining with his wife and some other family members -- yet another time I didn't feel I could approach him, because I think it's respectful of public figures to give them this sort of time with their families without interrupting them. But Billy, if by some chance you ever read this profile -- know this: one child of the sixties grew up idolizing you, and you lived and played the game the right way. You'll always be one of my biggest heroes.