Dick Williams wasn’t happy when, at age 13, he moved with his family from St. Louis to Pasadena — he wasn’t ready to leave his friends or his beloved St. Louis Cardinals behind.
But he would eventually become quite familiar with changes in scenery and shifting baseball loyalties.
Williams will be inducted July 27 into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in recognition of a no-nonsense, hard-driving managerial career in which he displayed an unparalleled ability to quickly turn struggling teams into winners — and wear out his welcome just as fast.
He is one of only two managers to take three different teams to the World Series, a testament to both his skill and his transience.
In his first year as a manager, Williams took a Boston Red Sox team that had endured eight consecutive losing seasons to within one game of a 1967 World Series victory, a feat Williams said he accomplished by reversing the team’s “country club” atmosphere.
The team’s run was so improbable it’s known in baseball lore
as the “Year of the Impossible Dream.” But two years later, Williams was fired.
“I had a falling out with the owner. He thought I was too tough on his players,” Williams said. “It wasn’t really that I was tough on the players, it was that the players didn’t know how to play the game properly.”
It was a pattern that would repeat itself in five more baseball cities before Williams’ career was over. An old-school coach working in a game that was entering a new era — one in which players’ salaries were rising and their tolerance for abuse falling — Williams found his my-way-or-the-highway approach often resulted in him being the one to hit the road.
The first move of his life turned out to be a winning one, as the 13-year-old Williams quickly warmed up to the idea of a life in Southern California. “After a while, I was very happy [in Pasadena],” said Williams, who now lives in Las Vegas. “You could play baseball year-round out there.”
By age 15, he was attending Eliot Middle School in Altadena during the week and playing semi-professional baseball for the El Monte Cardinals on the weekend. He played weeknights in an overhand softball league at Brookside Park, encountering the still-growing legend of Pasadena’s greatest baseball son, Jackie Robinson — who had played in the same league just a few years earlier.
Williams knew Robinson’s older brother, Mack, from a city basketball league in which they both played. But he didn’t know Jackie at the time. “He was already putting 40,000 people in the Rose Bowl for football games at Pasadena Junior College,” he said.
Williams himself moved on to the high school division at Pasadena City College — known then as Pasadena Junior College — where he starred in three sports. The Brooklyn Dodgers drafted him in 1948, and after a few years in the minors he made it in 1951 to the big league club, where he became a teammate of Robinson — who he now refers to simply as “Jack.”
In the first at-bat of his major league career, he appeared as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning in the first game of a doubleheader and hit a slow roller back to the pitcher on a full count. He started the second game and batted 4-for-5.
A shoulder injury in his second season robbed him of the throwing power that was so essential to his outfield position. “I couldn’t throw a lick,” he said.
But Williams adapted, learning to play several infield positions well enough to last 13 years in the big leagues as a player for five different teams, mostly riding the bench as a “utility” infielder.
His playing career ended in 1964, but Williams had known throughout his time on the bench as a player that he intended to stay on as a coach. After two years managing in the Red Sox minor league system, he took over the big league club and embarked on the “Impossible Dream” season.
Williams said he preached a simple brand of baseball, a “Branch Rickey type” of game that he learned with the Dodgers, referring to the club’s legendary general manager.
“Throw to the right base, know how many outs there are, hit behind the runner, give 100 percent effort all the time, keep in good physical condition” were Williams’ commandments to his players, he said. “The guys that didn’t agree with me didn’t stay around too long.”
But it was Williams himself who never stayed with one team for too long. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey fired him before the end of his third season with the team.
He took over the Oakland A’s in 1971, led them to titles in 1972 and 1973, and then resigned after tiring of hands-on owner Charlie Finley.
“I went three years with Finley — nobody else ever went more than one year with him,” Williams said.
He took over the California Angels in 1974, but the players did not respond to his autocratic style of managing and he was fired in 1976. “Lousy club,” said Williams.
Williams was hired to manage the Montreal Expos in 1977 when the team was coming off a last-place finish in its division. The club quickly improved, winning more than 90 games in both 1979 and 1980, finishing second to the eventual league champion both years. But after publicly criticizing players and management, Williams was fired in 1981.
The next year, he took over the perennial doormat San Diego Padres, and within two years he had them competing in their first-ever World Series. The team faltered a bit in 1985 and he was fired after the season as the club underwent a transition in ownership.
His last managerial job was a mostly unsuccessful stint with the Seattle Mariners that lasted less than three seasons.
Williams said the brand of baseball he taught was becoming “a lost art.”
“Today, the money is brought in by the homerun, as far as players go,” he said. “Even your 150-pound, five-foot, seven-inch guys are swinging from the end of the bat.”
Bill Plaschke, longtime Los Angeles Times sportswriter and co-author of Williams’ 1990 autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” said Williams’ short tenures were the result of a change in baseball culture — a change that Williams wouldn’t accept.
“He came along at a time when players were starting to be coddled,” Plaschke said. “They couldn’t take his honesty, couldn’t take his intensity. They’d eventually rebel.”
Plaschke believes that honesty is part of the reason why Williams was only now elected to the Hall of Fame, 15 years after he first became eligible. During his career (and in the book) Williams was unafraid to level criticism against some of baseball’s more revered figures, including former owners and his former Dodgers teammates.
“It probably took time for some of those hurt feelings to heal,” Plaschke said.
But Williams never doubted he would eventually be elected into the Hall.
“I knew the record spoke for itself, and the record wasn’t going to change,” he said. The delay in his election, he said, was caused each year by factors including “who’s eligible to get in and who’s kissing whose rear end.”
Still, he was waiting by his phone in Las Vegas on the morning of the election.
“They said if I had made it, they’d call around seven that morning. The call came at 7:02,” he said.
Today, Williams spends most of his time enjoying his family — “He’s like putty in his wife’s hands,” Plaschke said — and still, of course, baseball. He pays particularly close attention to the teams he played for and managed, but don’t ask him to choose favorites — particularly managers.
“I don’t have any favorite managers,” he said. “They’re all on their own.”