Earlier this season, when many AN'ers were calling for the head of Bob Geren, there arose differing opinions (to put it nicely) on a manager's true worth to a team.
In the case of Dick Williams, who died yesterday from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, there is little doubt what he meant to an up-and-coming Oakland A's club in the early 1970's. Just ask his superstar right-fielder:
"He came to us at a very good time in our development and certainly for me as a young player full of talent ...We were young and needed to understand how to go about winning and take the final step to become a great team," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said. "He was very important in that. He demanded excellence."
Williams comes from a long line of former Kansas City A's players who found much more success filling out a lineup sheet than swinging a bat.
His first shot as a manager came in 1967 when he took the Red Sox- sixth-place finishers the season before- to within one win of being crowned champions of baseball. As it was, his club's magical ride to the American League pennant helped long-suffering fans in Boston to realize an "Impossible Dream".
Perhaps even more stunning was Williams' ability to remain employed under Charlie Finley for longer than one season. In his first ten years as A's owner, Finley hired- and fired- just as many managers. Not one of them lasted two full seasons in succession.
That streak ended with Williams.
My sister Tonianne recalls his hiring:
"The thing that sticks most in my mind about Dick Williams is the word ‘fundamentals.' I remember the first spring training, that's all he talked about; making the basic plays and playing fundamental baseball. It didn't go over right away here. The opinion was just because it worked in Boston, didn't mean it was going to work here. But we won over 100 games that first year and although we lost in the playoffs to the Orioles, we felt like we were on the verge of something big. I think he played a major part in that."
Indeed, Williams led the A's to 101 victories in 1971- an Oakland record that stood for 17 years- and their first (of five consecutive) American League West titles. Having been swept by Baltimore in the ALCS, the A's got their first taste of playoff baseball. Over the next three seasons- two of them under Williams- they would find the flavor very much to their liking.
Dick Williams proved he could adapt just as well off the field as on it. He ran the Red Sox almost like a Marine drill sergeant, and he wore the crew cut to match. In Oakland, after unsuccessfully convincing Reggie Jackson to shave his mustache, he grew one of his own. But beyond the garish green-and-gold uniforms, long-flowing locks, and the need to beat each other up on occasion, the A's were all business between the white lines.
They would earn a reputation for coasting through the regular season (winning no more than 94 games in 1972-74) and making things terribly difficult on themselves during the playoffs. The A's played the maximum amount of games in the 1972 ALCS and World Series, and they repeated that too-close-for-comfort trend the following season.
And they always made sure to win the last one.
In a thrilling ALCS that put the additional playoff series on the map, the A's disposed of the Detroit Tigers in five hotly-contested games. Three were decided by one run, two went extra innings, and one included Campy Campaneris flinging a bat at Tiger's pitcher Lerrin LaGrow.
With Williams at the helm, the A's were back in the World Series for the first time since 1931. They would have been underdogs anyway, but without the services of Reggie Jackson, who pulled a hamstring stealing home in the clinching game at Detroit, some wondered if the A's would win a single game.
They won four.
The Fall Classic was billed as "Hairs versus Squares" with the hirsute A's taking on the clean-cut Cincinnati Reds. As they had done in the American Championship Series, they clinched the finale on the road. By one run. In a Series chock full of surprises, Williams pulled a rabbit out of his A's hat in Game 3. With National League MVP Johnny Bench at the plate, a full count and first base open, Williams decided not to roll the dice. Or did he?
Bench came to bat in the eighth with a chance to produce at least one insurance run. Runners were at second and third with one out when Williams raced to the mound to talk to Fingers, in there relieving again. Well briefed, Tenace held his arm out at shoulder level to fake a call for a fourth ball, but then ducked back in behind Bench, and Fingers threw a strike right past the best home run and RBI man in all the major leagues.
Rollie Fingers was on the mound for the last out, too, after the A's had let a 3-1 Series lead slip away and sent back to Cincinnati. Now with the score 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, Fingers hit Darrell Chaney with a pitch, putting the tying run on base, and bringing to the plate Pete Rose, who flied out harmlessly to left. After losing a Game 7 in '67, Dick Williams finally had his championship. It wasn't easy:
Never has a Series winner had to fight as hard as the A's. Maybe never has anyone had to. Six of the seven games played were decided by one run, and records show that the closest thing to that happened in 1924 when the Washington Senators won their only title while playing four "one-runners" against the New York Giants. The A's won without their best player, Reggie Jackson. They won with only eight pitchers, and none of those pitched a complete game.
They made sure to win the last one.
The 1973 season would be Dick Williams' last in Oakland, and he'd go out on top. In HBO's documentary Rebels of Oakland, Williams admitted to having an easy job as A's manager, because in Oakland the target of discontent was almost always Finley. And when the owner tried to "fire" second baseman Mike Andrews' after his two errors contributed to the A's 10-7 loss in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, Williams decided that was one straw he was not going to sip from. He told his team that, win or lose, he was calling it quits after the Series. For a minute it looked as if the upstart New York Mets were going to repeat their miracle performance of 1969, taking a 3-2 Series lead back to Oakland. But the champion A's rose up to claim the next two games and send Williams out a winner.
He would win in other places, too. In fact, he's only one of two men to ever lead three different teams to the World Series. But only with the A's did he win "the last one". And it was the A's cap Williams chose for Cooperstown.
It's been a rough several months for former Oakland A's managers. Steve Boros died last December, and Chuck Tanner passed away in February. The latter is forever linked with Williams:
In the entire divisional era of MLB history, 1969-2010, only one pair of managers has faced each other over 200 times, Chuck Tanner and Dick Williams. Tanner faced the Hall of Famer 218 teams-and got the better of him, winning 117 of those contests.
The two could not have been any different. Tanner was the ultimate nice guy. Williams was...not:
Williams even directs barbs at the cuddly likes of the Phillie Phanatic. Once, when that verdant mascot gamboled dangerously near Williams while the manager was changing pitchers, dour Dick advised him, "You don't leave this mound right now, you little green---, I'm going to kick your ass."
When Williams' A's battled Tanner's White Sox for the AL West title in '72, "dour Dick" resurfaced once more. The Sox had just beaten the A's in a critical game that lasted 15 innings. Ron Bergman, from his book Mustache Gang:
With thirteen games left to play, the White Sox were four games back.
"If we win tomorrow," said Chuck Tanner, "We win the pennant."
"Good for Chuck Tanner," Williams said. "That's a nice quote. What else can he say? He's got to think positive. I like our position. We're going to win it, but the only thing we did tonight was set some records that aren't worth a shit."
Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Dick Williams was when Reggie Jackson was asked to name his defining moment in Oakland. Interestingly enough, it was a play on defense he remembered most. And it came one season after Williams left the team.
"It was World Series Game 5, Dodgers and A's, 1974," Jackson said. "We threw out Bill Buckner."
That was the deciding game, and Joe Rudi's seventh-inning homer gave the A's a 3-2 lead. Buckner led off the eighth with a single and kept running because of center fielder Billy North's error. Jackson, playing right, retrieved the ball and fired it to second baseman Dick Green, whose relay to Sal Bando at third nailed Buckner.
The play epitomized the dynasty that was the 70's A's. Picking a teammate up. Positioning. Trusting. Fundamentals.
Quite simply, it was a play that had Dick Williams' fingerprints all over it.