It just so happens that in the daily countdown I've been doing here at BCB counting the days to spring training 2015, that today is the day that lands on the number of one of Ernie Banks' longtime teammates, Billy Williams. I am certain Billy, along with the rest of us, is mourning the passing of a dear friend today. But I've decided to run this daily countdown article anyway, because in thinking about it, Ernie would want it that way. He loved baseball and life and would want us to celebrate it each and every day. Here's a brief look at the career of the Cubs' No. 26.
Billy Williams sometimes took a back seat in popularity among the famed late-1960s Cubs to Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, or the more-passionate Ron Santo. But Billy's consistent star play was what made him my favorite of that group. Beyond his consecutive-game playing streak, he hit 20 or more home runs in 13 consecutive seasons, drove in 90 or more runs 12 straight times, and eventually posted 61.6 career bWAR as a Cub (even though that number didn't exist in Billy's time).
His 1970 and 1972 seasons brought him second-place finishes in the MVP voting, and given the way sportswriters voted in that era, if the Cubs had made the playoffs in either season, Billy probably would have been voted MVP. In 1972, he won the batting-average title and missed the Triple Crown by three home runs and three RBI, just about as close as any N.L. hitter has come to accomplishing that feat since 1937.
Beyond that, Billy was loyal to the Cubs organization after he finished his career playing in Oakland. In three different stints (1980-82, 1986-87 and 1992-2001) he wound up coaching 15 seasons for the Cubs and thus spent 31 seasons wearing the blue pinstripes, a total of more than 5,000 games. That's the most years and games anyone has worn the Cub uniform.
Billy's number 26 was retired August 13, 1987, just after his induction into the Hall of Fame. But the Cubs were still catching up on retiring numbers after a long-standing Wrigley family policy of not doing it. The number was worn by Larry Biittner and Fritzie Connally (yes, "Fritzie" was his full given name) after Billy, before its retirement.
The stars of that era are getting older now; Santo and Banks are gone, and Billy will turn 77 in June. He's often at the ballpark, and I'd certainly like to see him participate in as many Cubs events as possible while he's still here.