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Billy Williams: My Kingdom For a Ring

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Billy Williams: My Kingdom For a Ring

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Billy Williams played Major League Baseball for the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A’s from 1961 until 1976. He was enshrined as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1987. His uniform number 26 was retired by the Chicago Cubs.

Billy Williams: My Kingdom For a Ring

I love Chicago.

It’s where I’ve called home for decades. Where I’ve raised my children, where I’ve enjoyed some wonderful times with family and friends. With my career, the smiles on faces of kind strangers who know my name, who know what I do for a living. It would have to take an awful lot to get me to move from this great state of Illinois. I watched quite a bit of Ichiro play this past postseason. I was really impressed with how much he came alive after he left Seattle. He played some left field in addition to his natural position in right. You would be surprised what some veterans will do just to get that chance to play well into October. The chance to taste the thrill of victory sometimes makes superstars who spent a decade or two wearing a single uniform consider moving to another team.

I’ve been here in Illinois most of the past five decades, the exception being a time in my life where I went on a journey in search of some jewelry, searching for that championship ring.

I called the left field corner at Wrigley Field in Chicago my home for most of the first 14 years of my career; had been on the Cubs with the same few guys for nearly half that time. Our infield came together in 1965. Glenn Beckert, whom the organization drafted from the Red Sox a few years earlier, came up from the minor leagues – we were hoping he would be the answer at second base to replace our beloved Ken Hubbs, who died tragically before spring training in 1964. Our infield of Ernie at first, Beckert, Don Kessinger at SS and Ron Santo at third would be set for years to come. Mr. Wrigley brought Leo Durocher to the Cubs in 1966 and he was given the keys to the organization. If Leo wanted a player, Leo got ‘em. When Leo said, “I want this young kid on the Phils named Fergie Jenkins,” Mr. Wrigley made sure the general manager made all the arrangements, and Fergie became a Cub. When Leo said he wanted a catcher and pitcher from San Francisco, the general manager made it happen and Randy Hundley & Bill Hands appeared. Leo told the General Manager what to do.

Chicago was a great place during this time. I made great friendships and had a lot of laughs. The Windy City has always been known for its great restaurants, especially the steakhouses. Being that the games only took place during the day back then, the players had a lot of time on their hands. After ballgames, if an opposing player you were friends with would come through town, you would meet up at The Cottage. A good food & drink place, just about a three-dollar cab ride from the ballpark. If a player met you at the batting cage before the game and asked you where to go and what to do in town, they usually met up with you at The Cottage by the end of the night. There were times when management would get annoyed by this and use it to explain away lackluster play – that’s when the $50 fines for fraternizing with the opponents would get thrown around. That’s just how it was - having dinner and drinks at night with the guys you tried to beat the brains out of during the day. It was a very enjoyable time in my life.

Fergie Jenkins was and is one of my best friends in the game. When he first came to Chicago, he was a guy right down my alley, loved to fish, loved to hunt – we would ride back and forth together to the ballpark during the season. Fergie’s a big golfer, too. I’m more fishing and hunting. If I had my druthers between a nine-iron and casting rod, I’d choose a reel and rod over the 18th hole every time.

The Cubs as a team came close to making the playoffs, so close for so many years – 2nd place finishes in 1969, 1970 and finally 2nd place in 1972. It felt different in 1972, though. We had this rookie center fielder who hung around with Fergie and me, Billy North. During the strike, I had workouts with the other players, more to keep the guys together rather than have everyone all over the country, waiting for the season to resume. Billy wanted to get back to his home in Seattle until the strike was settled, but Fergie and I were able to get him an apartment – which wouldn’t matter much as the strike only lasted 10 days. Billy was a young pup then, but we took a liking to him. He ended up going back to AAA Wichita during the ’72 season, but the youth movement had begun. In ’68 when we finished third, we felt, "Ah, we'll get ‘em next year." By the middle of 1972, Ernie had since retired, become our first base coach and Leo had been let go. It was a changing of the guard. This was no longer a ballclub where the manager had the final say on player personnel moves.

Then the trades came. During the 1972 offseason, Bill Hands had been swapped to Minnesota. The following year, after the A’s beat the New York Mets in the World Series, one by one, my longtime teammates were being sent away. First, Fergie was shipped to Texas. That one hurt real bad. One month later in November, Beckert was traded to San Diego for Jerry Morales. I called Don Kessinger after I heard the news. He picked up the phone and I said, “And then there were four.” Kessinger laughed and we had a nice chat, trying to find some humor in the situation. December brought another phone call.

“They just sent Randy to the Twins,“ Donny said instead of hello.

“And then there were three,” I sighed with a little less humor this time.

We knew this number would be changing very soon. The club wanted to send Ron Santo to the Angels. Ronnie didn’t want to play in California, so he invoked the new 10-5 veto rule. The team ended up working out a deal with the cross-town White Sox.

And then there were two. 1974, here we come.

* * * * * * * * * *

By the middle of the season, I saw the writing on the wall. Our manager Whitey Lockman had been replaced by Jim Marshall. We had just fallen into last place in the NL Eastern Division, we weren't going anywhere. I had spent the entire season playing first base to that point. First Base was fine. A lot people think it’s a position where you go to die. There’s a lot of stuff you have to do over there - field a bunt, pickoff plays. It’s really not a simple position. After a few weeks, you get used to it. When Marshall became manager, I never played another game at first for the Cubs. August 19th, we’re going against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. We get out to a 6-2 lead in the 3rd, but L.A. claws its way back – they tie the game in the 7th and we go to extra innings. I come up in the 11th inning, two outs, Mike Marshall threw me a screwball that ran in and I smacked it off of Steve Garvey’s glove at first. Now, I’m racing Marshall to the bag. Garvey flips the ball to Marshall and although I always try to touch the outside corner of the bag to avoid a collision, our legs got caught up and I found myself sprawled outside the 1st base line, holding my leg in pain. I left the game with a sprained ankle - took about six weeks to get better. I sat there and watched the youth movement take shape without me for the next 21 days. Morales was enjoying a nice season in left, Monday was in center, Jose Cardenal in right. Andy (who would become known as Andre with the Indians) Thornton looked like the future at first base. I played five more games in left field that September and maybe about seven pinch-hitting appearances. I knew this would be my final season with the Cubs.

A few days after the Oakland A’s won their third straight World Series Championship, I’m at home when the phone rings. It’s John Holland, the Cubs’ general manager. “Billy, you know the ballclub’s in the middle of a youth movement,” John said. I had a nice relationship with John Holland and I knew this was coming, so it was an easier conversation than you might think.

“Well, John, I love Chicago,” I replied, “But I know what the club has to do. I would like to play for a team that has a chance to go to the playoffs.” Remember now, since 1972, there was this 10-5 rule, which stated that a veteran with ten or more years in the league and five or more years with the same team could veto any trade. There was really no need to be rude or curt on either side of the phone.

“I could get you Charlie Finley’s number,” John said. Charlie was an Illinois guy. I would see him socially at charity dinners or league banquets where he tried pushing those silly orange baseballs off on everyone. Either way, I had a nice, friendly rapport with Charlie. I had played in Chicago for so long, I didn’t want to go through another youth movement. I also wasn’t ready to start thinking about legacy, my place in baseball history. Once I finished playing, I figured I had a real good shot at making the Hall of Fame. I just wasn’t ready for this kind of conversation with myself. I always said, I’ll worry about that after I play my last game. Even with numbers like mine, you never know if people are gonna vote for you.

The next morning, I picked up my hunting gear, gave my wife Shirley a kiss goodbye and told her I was going out for the whole day. Some big changes were coming and I just wanted the afternoon to myself.

“If anyone calls, tell them I’m out and you don’t know where I am,” I said to Shirley as I stepped out the front door. That night, I got home and found a message on the kitchen table. Charlie had indeed called. By the time I finished reading the three-word note, the phone rang again.

“Billy,” the voice of a man very happy to speak to me said, “Charlie Finley.” We made some small talk before getting down to business. “We’d really like to have you in Oakland.” “Of course I’d like to try to play in the World Series,” I replied. “I’d also need a two-year contract to uproot my family and come out there.” Charlie was very agreeable to all my requests. “I’m pretty sure we can make that happen. You will instantly become one of the best designated hitters in the league.” I really didn’t love the sound of that. “Charlie,” I said politely, “I’m a complete player.” It was as if he never heard my response. “I need you as our designated hitter.” I knew what players Oakland had. Joe Rudi was in left, my old friend Billy North had blossomed into the great center fielder I always knew he could be; Reggie was in right. The A’s had three great outfielders, not even counting Claudell Washington, whom Charlie just adored. First base belonged to Gene Tenace and sometimes Rudi. DH was really the only spot for me on the team where I could play every day. Still wanted to use my glove in a baseball game, though. “Charlie, I’m a complete player,” I repeated. “Billy, we need a designated hitter. We need you.” “Let me think about it, Charlie. OK?” We ended the conversation there and I purchased two tickets for Shirley and me to see California.

When we arrived at the San Francisco International Airport, Billy North was there to greet us. We had a nice dinner together at Scoma’s in the Fisherman’s Wharf part of town, dining on excellent seafood while catching up on old times. The next day, Billy took us around the Bay Area. I really thought this would be a nice place to live. We enjoyed our weekend on the west coast and the day after we arrived home, we found a real estate agent and put our house up for sale. I had agreed in my mind to be traded to the Oakland A’s and most likely finish my career there.

Not so fast. The phone rings.

“Billy,” John Holland says, “We have to talk about the deal with Oakland.” “John, I liked Oakland from what I saw,” I replied, “I spoke with Charlie, we agreed on the two years for the contract, the money’s good-“ “Billy, the Baltimore Orioles just called.” I didn’t expect to hear that. “They are willing to meet the number you agreed to with Oakland, plus $50,000.” “Really,” I said. “Uh-huh. They also offered a better package than Charlie – Paul Blair PLUS two other players.“

I was flattered by Baltimore’s interest, but in my heart, I knew where I wanted to go.

“John, I gave Charlie my word. I’m going to play for the Oakland A’s."

You hate to get uprooted. We just moved into a place 13 months earlier in the Chicago suburbs. Had built the pool just that summer. It wasn’t like we were going out there without family, though. I had a brother in Sacramento and in-laws in Southern California. We settled in Walnut Creek, a nice area about 35 miles east of San Francisco. Friends and family came out, everyone wanted to see California. Lots of day trips that winter, taking people to see The Wharf, Alcatraz, all the sights. We would always ride on the trolley cars over the rolling hills of San Francisco. Someone from back east always made a Rice-A-Roni joke. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, our house wasn’t getting much interest and no one was looking to meet our asking price. This didn’t bother me in the least, but for the time being, my home was in California and I was playing for the Oakland A’s, where I hoped we would reach our fourth World Series in a row, which shouldn’t be hard with pitching like Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter….

Then Catfish left. That’s tough for any team to overcome, even a three-time Champion. We still had great starters. I was reunited with Kenny Holtzman, my old Cubs teammate. Vida Blue was still one of the great pitchers in the game. 1975 was a year where a lot of home-run hitters changed leagues. Can’t remember another season where more players with that many career home-runs went from the National to the American League. Myself, Hank Aaron going to Milwaukee; Bobby Bonds to the Yankees from San Fran; Lee May to Baltimore from the Astros. The pitchers in the American League had a lot more to worry about now.

* * * * * * * * * *

When I got to training camp in Mesa, Arizona in February 1975, I was resigned to being the everyday Designated Hitter. Might as well have been the Designated Hitting Coach as well. I had always made myself available to the younger players when I was in Chicago. Not much changed with the A’s - I spent almost as much time discussing the finer points of batting with the guys as I did preparing myself to hit. With all the new pitchers to learn, I had some homework to do, too. One request in particular was a surprise, though. Jim Bank, the traveling secretary for the ballclub, took me aside one afternoon outside the clubhouse toward the end of spring training.

“Reggie would like adjoining rooms with you when we travel on the road,” Bank said to me quietly during spring training, “If that’s OK with you.” I was extremely flattered that one of the up-and-coming superstars thought enough of me to make this request.

“It would be my pleasure,” I said to Bank. It was a crazy time in Reggie’s life. This was 1975 – this wasn’t the Reggie that had a candy bar named after him. This wasn’t the Reggie that became a sophisticated New York superstar. Before he was known as “Mr. October” to the world, he was just known as “Buck” to our guys. This was an extremely talented 28-year old man from Oakland that now had slick, fast-talking men coming from every direction looking to represent him with negotiations, companies big and small from all over the country looking to have his name and likeness on their products and services. After Catfish was gone, after seeing the money Catfish received in his Yankees contract, Reggie was smart enough to realize his life was about to change in a big way. Fans, would-be-agents, companies. Everybody. Nobody knew about brand management back then. We just knew how to hit and catch baseballs, maybe get out of a run down every once in awhile. Reggie asked me for advice, for guidance, to help him get through all this.

Then there was Charlie. You couldn’t throw a stone in the Oakland dugout and not hit someone who had an issue with Charlie. Ownership was different with me I think because I was a veteran with a two-year contract. Different story with the other players. He antagonized most of his veterans, boys he knew since they were in high school. Reggie, Bando, Rudi, Catfish, Tenace – Charlie drafted all these guys. He knew their folks, their hometowns. I think on some level this hurt Reggie deeply, like a betrayal of sorts. I tried to be there for Reggie with this and many other reasons. Watching Reggie perform on the field as the world directly around him was changing made 1975 one of my most personally rewarding seasons.

There were some adjustments to be made during the season off the field for me, too. Definitely not as many day games, that’s for sure. Much more night baseball. Got home at a much later hour, I ate differently, slept differently. Thank goodness Holtzman and Ray Fosse lived in my new area; the three of us would split the driving to and from Oakland Coliseum during homestands. Overall, I had a decent year with the bat, though. Gave Reggie and the guys some protection in the lineup. Hit 24 Home Runs. Always tough switching leagues and getting to know new pitchers. I’ll tell you one guy I hit really well – Fergie Jenkins. He was coming off a great season – won 25 games in ‘74, nearly carried the Texas Rangers on his back to their first division title. Oakland had a tough time with Fergie the year before; he went 5-0 against them. I can say now, after looking it up, I hit a Home Run off Fergie in my first at-bat against him in the American League. I knew how Fergie pitched. I also knew he wasn’t going to hit me with a 90 mile-an-hour fastball if I hung over the plate too far. Throughout my career, you always had it in the back of your head, facing guys like Gibson, Sudden Sam McDowell, Drysdale, that the plate was theirs and you better not get too close. Fergie and I spent more than a few off-days in a fishing boat during '75 laughing about the hits I got, then thanking him for not dusting me.

Getting to the American League, of course the umpires were different. At that time, there were separate groups of umpires for each league. The National League was known as the low-ball league. The umps called the low pitch but not the high pitch. Whole different ballgame in the American League, literally. There was this one game in Kansas City. I turned to the ump behind the plate after a called third strike, shaking my head, “I played a lot of years and I thought I knew the strike zone until I came over here.” He didn’t like that too much, so he kicked me out. This was the first time I had ever been ejected from a ballgame in my career.

Even though Charlie kept pestering everyone and disturbing their concentration, the team performed well in ’75. I know you’ve all heard the stories about the fistfights, but this was a group of guys where we supported each other on the roster. We were a team and Charlie tried desperately to keep it that way. No superstars. Here was the crazy thing; while Charlie was trying to get all the guys on the All-Star Team – Tenace started at first, Campy started at Short; Rudi started in left, Reggie in right(Claudell and Fingers went as reserves) - he then tried to treat us like a unit of 25 anonymous guys. Maybe you could do that in 1960 or even 1970. Times were changing.

* * * * * * * * * *

Watching the Detroit Tigers sweep the New York Yankees in the ALCS this year, reminded me of Oakland clinching the division rather easily. One of the greatest nights of my life, clinching at home. The fans going crazy – a sound I longed to hear at Wrigley. The jumping into that pile on the field. Embracing each other in victory. “We won! We’re going to the playoffs!” For the first time in my career, I was headed to the postseason. This is why. This is why I left my beloved Illinois. This is why I agreed to be traded from my Chicago Cubs, from my Wrigley Field, the only home I had ever known in the game. Just for a taste of champagne I could easily buy at a fine liquor store a few miles from my house, but meant so much more in an underground room filled with balls, bats and dirty uniforms.

And my teammates.

You’ve seen the scene before. Players marching into the clubhouse through the dugout entrance. Guys yelling, cheering, uniforms tucked and untucked. Family members streaming in, too, joining the champagne shower upon arrival. Six, maybe seven thousand hours of Baseball on the field in my career and here I was with my first ninety minutes of clubhouse celebration. Outside of joys of family and friends, this may have been the happiest 90 minutes of my career to that point.

You know, the potential World Series bonus money was nice, really nice for certain guys, but for most of us it was all about the thrill of victory. Look at Sandoval this year with the Giants – everyone’s going to remember his night with the three home runs from now until the time he takes off that uniform and well after. When you do these kinds of things in October, when no one else is playing, when the whole world is watching, people remember you for a long time afterward, like Sandoval, like Bucky Dent. Like Reggie.

Toward the end of the night, Reggie and I posed for a photo along with my Chicago friends, Kenny Holtzman and Billy North. Reggie turned to me just after the photo snapped. “We’re gonna win the World Series for you, Billy,” Reggie said to me, “We’re dedicating this one to you.” After all the glory, the love and attention the world has given me, this moment made me feel really special.

It just wasn’t meant to be.

I’m looking at Detroit right now, as the old saying goes, “You can’t turn it on and turn it off.” We clinched with about a week to go in the season. We all worked out through the rest of the games, took some swings in the cage, a couple at-bats during the game and sat down to avoid injury. Some played half games to try and keep fresh, but you know, something was missing.

When we got to Boston for the ALCS, we played a very sloppy Game One against the Red Sox. A lot of mistakes. Cecil Cooper hit Oakland pitching really well, as a DH during the season mostly. In the playoffs, they had Cecil at first base and moved Carl Yastrzemski back to left field. Yaz played the Monster like he never missed a day. In the end, we struggled through a short series without Catfish. Catfish gave us innings, gave us depth. Without him we had enough to get there, but it would be a struggle to move on to the World Series.

Sure we still had Holtzman in Game One and Vida in Game Two, but then we had to bring Kenny back to start Game Three on two days rest. Even for 1975, that was a burden. The Red Sox took the first two in Fenway before returning to Oakland for the third game. We sure thought we could beat the Red Sox. We had firepower, we’d been there three years in a row. If we had Catfish, we could’ve won at least one game. After Game two, I still had hope, but as soon as Jim Holt grounded out to second to complete the sweep at the end of Game Three, the Red Sox swarmed and celebrated on our field just as we had done two weeks earlier. I sat in the dugout and watched Boston jump all over each other. Freddie Lynn, Fisk and all the Red Sox players, dancing on our turf, our front lawn. There were forced slaps on the back in our dugout, guys mumbling “We’ll get ‘em next year,” and I certainly hoped for that.

But I knew better. Deep in my heart, I knew this was it. 1975 was my shot. This was the year, if any year was the year, I would make it to the World Series. It was just not meant to be.

I felt the ballclub would be different in 1976. The issues between the players and Charlie didn’t get any better – much worse, actually. We’d come to the ballpark during Spring Training and just hear more and more bickering between the players and Finley – someone else important was gonna leave. A week before the ’76 season began, someone did. Charlie traded Reggie and Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles. For all his complaints about ownership, Reggie adored Oakland. This was his home. He was crushed by the deal. He didn’t want to leave at all. He didn’t report to the Orioles until early May. Everyone knows how this ends. Reggie finds himself up in the Bronx with the Yankees in ’77 and wins two more World Series Rings – one in spectacular fashion. With Reggie gone, the new manager Chuck Tanner turned our club into a bunch of base-stealers. He had to; Reggie was the catalyst – a great player. The trade brought Don Baylor over and he was a winning guy. Bando, Rudi, Tenace were all still there, too. Just tough to replace Reggie’s presence in the lineup. Billy North became our catalyst and Tanner let him loose on the basepaths, leading the American League in stolen bases. He would be the last Oakland A’s player left on the club from the dynasty years after everyone walked through free agency at the end of the 1976 season. It was hard to see Kenny Holtzman go, too. Tanner did a great job, keeping us in the pennant race until the last week of the season. We just didn’t have the pitching. As for me, I finished the year with more than 10 Home Runs, still a handful of walks, even got to start a game in Left Field during the final week of the season.

I missed Reggie in 1976, though. Not just as a bat in the lineup. I missed him as a friend. We spent a lot of time on the road, not just talking pitchers and batting stances, but about life. He was the star becoming the icon. Let me tell you something quickly about Reggie the person. About six years ago, Reggie was hosting a charity golf outing north of Los Angeles. He asked me “Why don’t you come out to California for the tournament.” I was like, “Reggie, it’s a pain in the neck, changing planes in L.A. then getting up to Carmel. It’s all a little much for us now.” Without hesitating, Reggie said, “Where’s the nearest private airport?” Reggie sent a plane for me and my wife to join him in California. That’s the Reggie Jackson I know.

* * * * * * * * * *

About a week after the season ended, the phone rang. It was the voice many of my now ex-teammates hated hearing. Didn’t bother me much.

“Billy,” Finley said in a cheerful voice, “How are you?” We had a nice conversation for 10-15 minutes; then, of course, Charlie wanted to get down to business. Although I had a two-year contract, there was an option for 1977, so I could have played another year if I wanted to. Finley made me well-aware of this. I was flattered Charlie wanted me for what was most likely going to be a serious youth movement. I should’ve known better. “So, you’re going to play next year, right?” “No. That’s that. I’m done.” “You’ll keep playing. You’re still among the highest-paid players in the game.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. “Charlie, I’m going home.” I was retiring, I told Finley. “The Mariners, that new team, just called me about you. Seattle’s a great town.“ The tone in his voice was very salesman-like. Finley said the Mariners’ ownership group had asked about me. He tried to convince me to sign up for another year so he could trade me for a young player or two. Finley spent 45 minutes trying to sell me on conducting my farewell tour with the Seattle Mariners for the 1977 season. “You’ll be back playing again,” Charlie laughed. I laughed, too, thanked him for the call and hung up the phone.

* * * * * * * * * *

My family loved our time on the West Coast. We ended up buying a 10-acre spread in Loomis, about 30 minutes north of Sacramento. Had a great fishing pond where I spent many relaxing hours. The kids, Shirley, we all loved it…but home was in the Midwest.

Five years later, we returned to Illinois, where we live to this day.

Sweet home Chicago.

**Photo courtesy of Corbis Images

Blog image: 
The Hall of Fame outfielder looks back at Reggie, Finley and his final chance at competitive glory.

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