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Billy Williams’ consecutive-game streak could have been more than a season longer

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There was a time in baseball history when these streaks were seen as important.

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Today, June 15, is the 82nd birthday of Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams, so a big Happy Birthday! to the player who was my childhood favorite.

Today is also the anniversary of a date in 1969 when Billy, having suffered a minor injury, pinch-hit in both games of a doubleheader to keep his consecutive-game streak going.

Billy had to leave a game in Cincinnati in the ninth inning June 13, 1969 after fouling a ball off his right foot. Just to show you how things like that were treated in those days, this event happened in the sixth inning. Williams stayed in that game for three more innings and hit a two-run homer in the ninth, giving the Cubs an 8-6 lead. Only then did Leo Durocher take him out of the game.

At the time, Billy was about two weeks away from breaking Stan Musial’s N.L. consecutive game record, and a day had been planned for him at Wrigley Field June 29, the date the record would be broken, presuming Billy wouldn’t miss a game.

You know, in modern baseball we don’t consider consecutive-game records a big deal. The active leader in consecutive games played is Whit Merrifield of the Royals, who has a streak of 247 games entering the 2020 season. Only five players (Merrifield, Starlin Castro, Marcus Semien, Jorge Soler and Jonathan Villar) played all 162 games in 2019. No one’s had a streak of any significant length since Miguel Tejada’s from 2000-2007. That one lasted 1,152 games and ended when he was hit on the wrist by a pitch by Doug Brocail.

But in 1969, playing in all games made you “tough,” plus the idea of a long consecutive-game streak, first established by the “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig, was only three decades old. That was within the lifetimes of many in the game, including Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who had been a teammate of Gehrig’s in 1928 and 1929.

For all those reasons, it was deemed important to have Williams play in games, even if he could barely walk. Thus he pinch hit in the remaining three games of the series at Cincinnati, hitting into a fielder’s choice in the first one June 14 and drawing walks in the other two, a doubleheader June 15, each time replaced by a pinch-runner. The injury was deemed just a bruise, and after some treatments over the three days, Billy returned to the starting lineup June 16.

The streak eventually got to be too much for Williams, as you know, and he ended it September 3, 1970 by asking Durocher to bench him that day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won that game 7-2, and Billy’s streak ended at 1,117 consecutive games, later broken in the 1980s by Steve Garvey, whose N.L. record is 1,207 straight games.

But if not for a decision late in the 1963 season, Billy’s streak could have been 167 games longer!

The streak began September 22, 1963. Bob Kennedy had sat Billy out of a game against the Braves at Wrigley Field the previous afternoon, September 21, 1963. Future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn started for the Braves, Kennedy probably figured he’d give Billy the day off against a “tough lefty.” Spahn, even at age 42, was one of the best pitchers in the National League that year, going 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA and 4.0 bWAR, a good enough year to get him 12th place in N.L. MVP voting. With the season nearly over, Kennedy must have thought it was a good day to sit his star outfielder.

Williams had played in all 155 previous Cubs games in 1963 — in fact, he played every inning of those 155 games — and the last 11 games of 1962.

If he’d have played in that game at Wrigley against the Braves September 21, 1963, Billy’s consecutive-game streak would have been 1,284 games (presuming he’d still have ended it on the same date he actually did) and he’d still hold the N.L. record. And no, Garvey couldn’t have simply held on to pass Williams — because like Tejada’s, Garvey’s streak ended with an injury when he tried to head-first slide across the plate on a wild pitch July 29, 1983 (the link says June 30, but July 30 is the actual date Garvey missed a game for the first time since 1975). He tore ligaments in his left thumb and missed the rest of the 1983 season.