This article was written by Mark Armour
“Billy Williams,” said his manager Leo Durocher, “never gets excited. Never gets mad. Never throws a bat. You write his name down, in the same spot every day, and you forget it. He will play left, he will bat third. Billy Williams is a machine.”i This was not wholly hyperbole—at the time Durocher made this statement, Williams had not missed a game in six years, and in Leo’s four years at the helm Williams had batted in the third spot in the order in all but seven games—four times he batted elsewhere in the lineup, and three times he pinch-hit.
“Billy is the best left-handed hitter I ever saw,” said Willie Stargell late in Williams’ career. “But for all you hear about him you’d think he was playing in the dark. Can he hit the ball hard? I remember one time I was playing first base and he stung one through my legs before I could even move my glove. Bam. It was gone. I always keep my eyes open when Billy is batting. He could hurt you, know what I mean?” Ernie Banks, Williams’ long-time teammate and friend, needed fewer words. “Billy Williams can hit,” said Mr. Cub.ii
Billy Leo Williams was born on June 15, 1938, in Whistler, Alabama, the youngest of five children (following Clyde, Vera, Adolph, and Franklin) born to Frank and Jesse May Williams. Whistler was a small town about seven miles northwest of Mobile, later annexed by neighboring Prichard. Frank worked as a stevedore unloading banana boats on the docks down in Mobile. Jesse May did day work for many of the white families in Prichard, a town strictly segregated geographically and socially. Billy often accompanied his mother on her workdays.
Life was not easy for a black child in the Deep South in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Williams kids had a close family, and as much fun as they could muster without money. Eight Mile Creek ran through Whistler, and Billy and his siblings spent a lot of time swimming and fishing there. (Fishing remained a life-long love and passion for Williams.) He also played volleyball, tennis, horseshoes and other physical games. He had a paper route, and put in many miles on his bicycle. On Saturday nights the family would head into town for a fish fry, or a community movie, or to watch the planes take off from the local airport. Their parents were strict Methodists and usually spent all day Sunday in church services, Sunday school, and church activities. “I always liked to sing,” Williams recalled. “I used to sing in the choir. Later, I even sang in the outfield sometimes.”iii
Frank Williams had played semi-pro baseball for the Whistler Stars, and was called “Susie” for his grace around the first base bag. All the Williams boys played baseball in local sandlots, encouraged and instructed by their father. The older boys played for a team called the Mobile Black Bears, a club with uniforms that traveled around the area, and Billy began filling in occasionally by the age of 13. Billy attended Whistler Elementary School and then Mobile County Training School. He played high school basketball, ran track, and was a 155-pound defensive end in football, earning a football scholarship to Grambling. His school did not have a baseball team, but he played full time on the Bears throughout. “All my boys played baseball,” recalled Frank Williams. “They were all good ballplayers. They could have been like the Alou brothers, but they wanted to marry. You can’t hold them back if they want to marry.”iv
Williams played on the same team with Tommie Aaron, whose brother Hank was already starring with the Milwaukee Braves. A Chicago Cubs’ scout named Ivy Griffin, a long-time minor league player and manager who had played three years with the Philadelphia Athletics years earlier, came to Mobile to scout Tommie Aaron, but instead signed Williams. His bonus, he liked to say, was a bus ticket to Ponca City, Oklahoma, and a cigar for his father. (Williams’ older brother Franklin had signed a year earlier with the Pirates organization and would have a six-year minor league career.) Two days after he graduated from high school Billy Williams got on the bus and left home. He would miss his family, but would especially miss Shirley Williams (unrelated) who he had been dating for the past year.
Ponca City had a team in the Class D Sooner State League. Williams had been an infielder growing up, but the Cubs moved him to the outfield right away. He barely played that first summer (just 4-for-17 in parts of 13 games). The team travelled in two station wagons, and Williams was one of the players who did not even travel on road trips. The 19-year-old returned to Ponca City in 1957 and was one of the best players in the league, batting .310 with 17 home runs and a league-leading 40 doubles. He played all 126 games, foreshadowing his major league career. He was well on his way to becoming a big-league hitter, though he struggled with all aspect of defense—ground balls, fly balls, and throwing.
Williams’ rise through the minor leagues was steady and consistent. He began the 1958 season with Pueblo, Colorado (Single-A Western League), where he hit .250 in 20 games before he was afflicted with mysterious stomach pains. It took him a few weeks to recover, so the Cubs sent him to Burlington (Iowa) of the Class B Three-I league, where he .304 over the rest of the summer.
Williams moved to San Antonio (Double-A Texas League) in 1959, where he hit .318 in 94 games, splitting his time between first base and the outfield. For the first time he teamed with a man who would be a longtime teammate, Ron Santo. “Billy was actually not a good fielder,” Santo later recalled. “He played first base, and he couldn’t even catch popups. They moved him to the outfield and he had trouble adjusting.”v
In the middle of his year in San Antonio, he jumped the club and went back home. “I was not accustomed to being treated like an animal away from the baseball diamond,” he later recounted. ‘”I couldn’t take the bigotry discrimination, and overt racism.”vi Although he had grown up in a segregated town, trying to live as an adult in a white world, trying to eat in restaurants or stay in hotels was a new experience. He finally snapped. After Williams was home a week, Buck O’Neil, a Cubs scout, headed to Whistler to talk him into returning. It took him a couple of days to do so.vii After a few weeks back in San Antonio Williams was promoted to Ft. Worth (Triple-A Texas League) where he hit 10-for-21 (.476) in his first week before he was called to the major leagues. He barely played in his first trial (5-for-33 over the last eight weeks of the season), and was frustrated sitting on the bench. But he had reached the major leagues at age 21.
Along with his suddenly bright future in baseball, Williams had another future in mind that offseason—on January 25, 1960, he and Shirley Williams were wed. “I married her, but I didn’t change her name,” joked Billy.viii The couple would raise four daughters.
Williams went to spring camp with the Cubs in 1960 but was assigned to Houston for a full year of Triple-A. “I felt real bad,” he recalled. “I knew I was good enough to make the club.” The Cubs likely wanted him to improve as an outfielder, though this remained a struggle. He hit .323 with 26 home runs, making it clear that he was ready as a hitter. The Cubs, long out contention as usual, brought him up in September and he started the final 12 games of the season. On October 1 he hit his first big league home run, off Stan Williams in the LA Coliseum. The next day, the final of the season, he hit another long ball off Ed Rakow. He ended up hitting .277 with those two homers.
In 1961 the Cubs went without a manager for the first time, instead having a “head coach” that would rotate depending on how the team was doing. Williams made the team in the spring and began the season in the regular lineup, playing both right and left fields. A late May slump sent him to the bench—Ernie Banks, their longtime star shortstop who was battling sore knees, was playing left field. On June 16, Banks knees moved him again, to first base, putting Williams back in the lineup. He responded with a long grand slam off the Giants’ Billy Loes, and started every game the rest of the season. For the year he hit .278 in 146 games, with 25 home runs and 86 RBI. He was named the league Rookie of the Year after the season, beating Milwaukee’s Joe Torre in the balloting.
Williams’ next several years are somewhat indistinguishable. From 1962 through 1969, he averaged 162 games per year (missing three in 1962, one in 1963, and then playing every game for seven years). He also averaged 28 home runs, 95 RBI, and a .293 batting average, hardly varying from those totals from year to year. While he never had that one signature superstar season (never reaching 35 homers, 120 RBI, or a .320 batting average in the 1960s), he also never had an off year. The closest he came to becoming a household name was in 1964 when he began the season on a tear and was hitting over .400 as late June 7. He played the entire All-Star Game, held at New York’s Shea Stadium, belting a fourth-inning home run off John Wyatt in a game the NL eventually won 7-4. He cooled down over the last half of the season, settling for a Williams-like .312 average at the end.
This level of consistency takes a lot of work, waging a constant battle to keep up with the pitchers who are trying to figure out how to get you out. Williams studied pitchers from the dugout and from the on-deck circle, figuring what the pitcher was throwing, what was working and what was not working. He knew how the pitcher had worked him in the past, but he also learned how to recognize pitches on the way to the plate. “The way the ball spins—fastball. The arch of the ball—curveball. When I get into the box, the only thing I look at is the hand and the ball. I try to pick up the ball as close to the hand as possible. If I’m lucky, halfway to the plate I should know what the pitch is going to be, by the spin, by the arch.”ix On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the Cubs, striking out 14, including Williams twice. Five days later he faced Chicago again, this time at Wrigley Field, and had a shutout through five. When Williams, 0-for-2 on the day, came up in the sixth inning he finally believed that he had figured out what Koufax was going to do. He told Glenn Beckert before his at-bat that Koufax was going to start him off with a fastball away and he would be ready. Sure enough, Koufax threw a fastball away, which Williams drove for an opposite field two-run home run to left field, leading the Cubs to a 2-1 victory.
Williams was long admired for his picture-perfect swing. He was not a big man, just 6’1” and 175 pounds, but his graceful stroke earned him the enduring nickname of “Sweet Swingin’ Billy.” Ron Santo called it “probably one of the shortest swings in baseball, and one of the prettiest.” Willie Stargell, who played against Williams for 15 years, agreed. “His swing is poetry in motion, really.” Though he had the same stroke his whole life, Williams credited Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs batting coach at the start of his career who worked with Williams in the minor leagues, for teaching him to think and focus at the plate.
While Williams came to the major leagues a skilled hitter, his defense remained a work in progress. He led league’s outfielders with 11 errors as a rookie, and remained error prone the first few years of his career. By the mid-1960s he had become competent enough that his defense no longer was remarked on, but it never became a strength. He made a lot of fine plays over the years, of course, and he often recalled with pride catches he made in the outfield to save no-hitters by Ken Holtzman and Burt Hooton.
For all his consistency, he did have his share of outstanding games. On July 17, 1966, he hit for the cycle in Chicago’s 7-2 victory in the second game of a doubleheader at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium. Making the feat even more rare, his was a “natural” cyle—he got his four hits in order: single, double, triple, and then home run. But no matter what he did at work, 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he did not change. “A lot of my friends used to not know how to read Billy,” said Shirley Williams. “They thought he was mean because he never talked. But he was just shy, quiet. That was his way. He really hasn’t changed much. A lot of nights he’ll come home and sit around and watch television and not say a word. But we understand that’s how he is.”x
“He’s a well-disciplined man,” said Ernie Banks. “Billy Williams’ life is a system. He gets up at the same time. He eats at the same time, leaves for the park at the same time, gets home at the same time. Nothing distracts him from his system.” Billy’s favorite off-field endeavor was fishing, which he loved from his days in Whistler. When Ferguson Jenkins joined the club in 1966, he and Williams became great friends and often fished together. They bought a boat and after day games at Wrigley Field would often head out to Lake Michigan to get in some fishing.
While Ernie Banks had been a virtual one-man show in Chicago in the late 1950s, the additions of Santo and Williams gave the Cubs three very good players in the lineup every day. Still, three players proved not to be enough. Though they finished 82-80 in 1963, their first season since 1946 over .500, they were still in 7th place. In 1965, the three stars combined for 95 home runs and 315 RBI, but no other player had more than six home runs or 34 RBI. Leo Durocher was hired in 1966 with much fanfare, but the club won just 59 games and finished last. Still, with the acquisitions of Jenkins, Bill Hands, Randy Hundley, and Beckert, along with the advancement of Ken Holtzman and Don Kessinger, the Cubs finally broke through with a solid 87-win 3rd place showing in 1967, and an 84-win 3rd place repeat in 1968.
The 1969 Cubs finally put it all together … for five months. On September 2 they led the surprising New York Mets by five games and appeared to have the race in hand. Shockingly, the Cubs dropped the next eight while the Mets were going 8-2. The Cubs lost the lead and finished eight games behind the rampaging New Yorkers. Chicago finished with 92 wins, its best record since 1945. Although Williams hit .278 with six home runs during that fateful September, his team hit just .215 with 17 homers. On September 5, Williams hit two doubles and two home runs off Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass, but these were the only four hits Blass allowed in a complete game 9-2 victory. Losing or winning, Williams just kept playing every day, playing the same game he always played. “I am not tough to live with after the loss,” he admitted. “I don’t carry the game home. I do what I can, and when I’m done I leave the park. I leave my glove and I leave my spikes and everything about the game behind me.”xi
The Cubs honored Billy Williams with a “day” on June 29, 1969. The Cubs hosted the Cardinals in a double-header, and in the second game Williams broke Stan Musial’s NL record by playing in his 896th consecutive game. In the first game, when Williams tied the record, he finished 1-for-4 while Ferguson Jenkins bested Bob Gibson, 3-1. In the nightcap, Williams celebrated his record by finishing four-for-five, including a double and two triples, in a 12-1 rout. Between games the Cubs held a ceremony, for which they had flown Williams’ mother and aunt in from Whistler. Williams was showered with gifts, including a Chrysler Imperial automobile, capping one of the most memorable days of Williams’ career.
The 32-year-old Williams had his best season to date in 1970, establishing career highs with his .322 average, 42 home runs, 129 RBI, 205 hits, 373 total bases and 137 runs, the latter three league-leading figures. Williams made news on September 3 by not playing at all, ending his 1,117 game streak. The day off was something he wanted, and he was relieved when Leo Durocher suggested it. The Cubs got close in September, but ended up second again, trailing the Pirates by five games. After the season, Williams finished second in the MVP voting to Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench.
Williams had another great individual season in 1972, hitting .333 to win the batting title, slugging a league-leading .606, while also hitting 37 home runs and driving in 122. He had one of the best days of his career on July 11, when he finished 8-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Astros at Wrigley Field, homering in each game. Williams had a chance at the Triple Crown late in the season—he ended up three home runs and three RBI short of Johnny Bench’s league-leading totals. He also finished a distant second to Bench in the MVP voting, as he had in 1970. Williams did win The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year award.
Suddenly, after more than a decade of stardom, people were talking about Williams. “It’s kind of funny,” said teammate Bob Locker, a veteran pitcher. “Here’s a guy who does it the way it’s supposed to be done, day in and day out, according to the book. And people don’t notice him because he’s not flashy—only good. It makes you wonder.” Dave Cash, Pirates second baseman, echoed the thought. “When I got to the Pirates I found out there were guys who weren’t half as good as I had heard they were. But when I saw Billy Williams I said, ‘This man is a ballplayer, and nobody writes about him.’”xii
The next two years, 1973 and 1974, Williams regressed a bit at the plate, though he was still a productive hitter. He hit 20 home runs and batted .288 in 1973, then 16 and .280 in 1974 in just 117 games, 65 of them at first base. Most of the Cub stars of the 1960s had either retired (Banks) or had been traded or sold (Jenkins, Santo, Beckert, Hundley). Williams was next. On October 23, 1974, he was traded to the Oakland A’s for pitchers Darold Knowles and Bob Locker and infielder Manny Trillo. Williams had to approve the trade, and did so because he wanted a chance to play in a World Series—the A’s had won the last three world championships.
The 37-year-old Williams had a fine year in 1975 as the Athletics’ full-time designated hitter, playing 155 games (including 7 at first base), hitting 23 home runs, and batting .244 in a much tougher park that he had been accustomed to in Chicago. The A’s did return to the playoffs, but Williams was hitless in seven at bats while the club was swept by the Red Sox. Sadly, this was the only post-season appearance of Williams’ career. In 1976 Williams hit just .211 in 120 games, as the A’s dropped back to second place. After the season the A’s released him, and Williams decided to retire.
After his playing career, Billy bought some property north of Sacramento and built a house. Williams enjoyed spending time with his four daughters, and the avid outdoorsman also loved the chance to fish on neighboring lakes with his brother Franklin, who had lived in the area for years. In 1978 he became a minor league instructor for the Cubs, visiting minor league clubs throughout the summer but spending most of his time at home with his family and his fishing rod.
In 1980 the Cubs promoted Williams to their major league coaching staff. In all he spent 19 seasons as a major league coach with the Cubs (15 years), the A’s (3 years) and the Indians (1 year). After Billy returned to the Cubs in 1980 the Williamses sold their house in California and bought one in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where they remained in 2013. Billy and Shirley raised four daughters: Valarie, Nina, Julia, and Sandra.
Williams was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1987, and he was joined at the Cooperstown ceremony by his sister and brothers, along with his wife and daughters. In his induction speech, he took the opportunity to make the case for further advancement for African-Americans. “The road is rocky and long, but the time has come for true equality. The next courageous step rests with the owners of the 26 major-league clubs. They can make the difference by not looking at the color of a man`s skin but by examining his talent, knowledge and leadership. If this is the land of opportunity, then let it be truly a land of opportunity for all.”xiii One of the men he had in mind was himself, but he never got the opportunity to manage in the big leagues. A few weeks later, in August 1987, his number 26 was retired by the Cubs. He was the second Cub to receive the honor after Ernie Banks.
During the 2010 season the Cubs unveiled a statue of Williams outside Wrigley Field. Many of his former teammates were on hand, including Banks (who had his own statue), Santo, Jenkins, Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Randy Hundley. “I really appreciate you guys being here,” Williams said. “You could see how much fun we had in the ’60s. It’s a joy to know these individuals.”xiv In 2011 he was named a member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, allowing him to make a strong case for his dear friend Santo, who finally made the Hall in 2012, 18 months after his death.
Billy was always a notch below his illustrious fellow 1960s outfielders Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Roberto Clemente—a tough standard to meet. He was overshadowed by his friend and teammate, Ernie Banks, forever “Mr. Cub.” He rarely made news during his career; there are no zany quotes or anecdotes about this quiet, dignified man. And he is the victim of his own incredible consistency, as one excellent season followed another.
But Williams is most assuredly not overlooked in Chicago. He has remained a public figure throughout his post-playing years, and has served the Cubs as a longtime coach and, in recent years, as a senior advisor. If anyone might be apt to forget Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams from Whistler, Alabama, they will be reminded when they see the large bronze statue outside the southeast entrance to Wrigley Field, depicting a man finishing a perfect swing.
i Arnold Hano, “Billy Williams, Professional,” Sport, September 1970, 69.
ii Barry McDermott, “Bend An Ear To Billy’s Music,” Sports Illustrated, July 23, 1973.
iii Billy Williams and Irv Haag, Billy—The Classic Hitter (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1974), 43.
iv McDermott, “Bend An Ear To Billy’s Music.”
v Williams and Haag, Billy, 58.
vi Billy Williams and Fred Mitchell, Billy Willams—My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime With The Cubs (Triumph, 2008).
vii Hano, “Billy Williams,” 74.
viii Williams and Haag, Billy, 68.
ix Hano, “Billy Williams,” 74.
x McDermott, “Bend An Ear To Billy’s Music.”
xi Hano, “Billy Williams,” 76.
xii McDermott, “Bend An Ear To Billy’s Music.”
xiii Jerome Holtzman, “Fanfare for a Quiet Man,” Chicago Tribune, July 27, 1987.
xiv Ally Clark, NBC Chicago website, September 7, 2010.