This article was written by Peter M. Gordon
Stan Williams worked in professional baseball for more than 50 years. The Dodgers signed the big, tall, right-handed fireballer after he completed high school in the 1950s, and he was still on a major-league payroll as a scout as late as 2010.
Williams had a knack for contributing to winning teams. In just his second season, his team, the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers, won the World Series. Williams was a member of two starting rotations that Bill James considered among the greatest of all time – the 1963 Dodgers and the 1968 Indians.1 As a pitcher, Williams sometimes struggled with control of his pitches and himself.
After his playing career, Williams became an effective mentor as pitching coach, scout, and adviser to several teams. As a pitching coach, he helped the Red Sox, Yankees, and Reds win division, league, and World Series championships.
Stanley Wilson Williams was born in Enfield, New Hampshire, in 1936 to Irving Williams, a construction worker, and his wife, Evelyn. Stan was the baby of the family. He had two older brothers, Irving Jr. and Gordon, and an older sister, Doris. The Williams family relocated shortly after Stanley was born. US Census records show the family in Denver by 1940, when Stan was 3. He grew up on Denver’s East Side, starring in baseball and football for East Side High. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Denver-based bird-dog scout Manuel Boody and the Dodgers’ Bert Wells signed him out of high school in 1954 when he was 17. He attended spring training with the big-league club, and more than 50 years later still talked about how Jackie Robinson impressed him with his desire and work ethic.
Williams started his pro career with Shawnee of the Class-D Sooner State League. He went 3-5 with a 4.57 ERA. Williams’s potential was seen as so great that even after that rocky first season the Dodgers promoted him to Class-B Newport News (Piedmont League). There in 1955 Williams came into his own, winning 18 games against 7 losses with a 2.42 ERA.
It’s not surprising that the Dodgers kept an eye on Williams. It would be hard to ignore a 6-foot-4, 225-pound pitcher with a fastball over 90 miles per hour. The team continued to advance him despite occasional struggles. In 1956 his ERA was over 5.00 at Double-A Fort Worth, but the Dodgers promoted him to Triple-A St. Paul. He pitched a little better in St. Paul, with an ERA just over 4.00. In 1957 the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and Williams stayed in St. Paul.
In Williams’s first full Triple-A year he pitched well enough for a 19-7 record and a 3.04 ERA. He struck out 223 batters in 246 innings but walked 148. He started the 1958 season again in St. Paul, but after he went 2-3 with a 2.81 ERA, the Dodgers brought him to Los Angeles.
Williams joined a pitching staff that included another 21-year-old, Don Drysdale, fastball phenomenon Sandy Koufax, and Johnny Podres, winner of the game that gave the Brooklyn Dodgers their only world championship. Many players from Brooklyn had trouble adjusting to the unusual dimensions of the Dodgers’ temporary home, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the team finished seventh.
Williams made his major-league debut on May 17, 1958. Manager Walt Alston brought him in against the St. Louis Cardinals after Don Newcombe and Sandy Koufax had been knocked out. Williams pitched three innings and gave up four hits, two walks, three runs, and his first major-league home run, to Joe Cunningham. He pitched much better in his next appearance (and first start), on June 1 against the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field. He threw a two-hit shutout to win 1-0. Alston made Williams a regular part of the rotation, and he finished the season with a record of 9-7 and an ERA of 4.01. In 119 innings he struck out 80 but walked 65, demonstrating the control problems that would plague him during most of his career.
Williams was a 21-year-old who proved he could win with a seventh-place team, and was considered a big part of the Dodgers’ future. His size and strength earned him the nickname Big Daddy. His penchant for throwing at batters to intimidate them earned another nickname: The Big Hurt. Williams fit right in on a Dodger pitching staff that included two of the most intimidating fastball pitchers of all time – Drysdale and Koufax. It’s a safe bet that batters were not digging in deeply against the Dodgers. Several sources reported that Williams kept a booklet he called “The List,” which was a list of batters he wanted to intimidate. When he hit a particular batter, he would make a mark in his list.
In Williams’s second year, the Dodgers won the World Series. Alston used Williams as a spot starter and reliever during the championship year, as Roger Craig took a spot in the rotation. Williams started 15 games and completed 8, finishing the year with a 5-5 record and an improved 3.97 ERA. He pitched more innings in 1959 than in 1958 – 124⅔ to 119 – but given that Williams walked 86, Alston may have feared using him in some crucial situations.
When Alston did use him, in the most crucial game of the season, Williams won the pennant. The Dodgers finished the regular season tied with the Milwaukee Braves, pennant winners in 1957 and 1958. That led to a best-of-three playoff that gave the Dodgers a chance to erase the memory of their 1951 playoff defeat.
Williams didn’t pitch in the first game, which Larry Sherry won 3-2. The second game was a reverse of the 1951 final playoff game. The Dodgers fell behind early as the Braves knocked Don Drysdale out of the game in the fourth. The Dodgers tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the ninth off the best Braves pitchers, Lew Burdette, relief ace Don McMahon, Warren Spahn, and Joey Jay. Alston brought in Williams in the top of the 10th. He held the Braves scoreless for three innings, striking out three, until the Dodgers pushed a run across in the bottom of the 12th for the pennant.
Although Williams won the pennant winner, the only action he saw in the World Series was in Game Five. He pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Sandy Koufax in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. The Dodgers won the Series in six games for their first world championship in Los Angeles. In 2007 Williams told the Denver Post, “I guess the first one always is special for a player. It was only my second year in the big leagues and I was wide-eyed and wondering what was going on.”2
Bill James called the 1959 Dodgers one of the weakest world championship teams in the history of baseball.3 The team fell to fourth in 1960 but Williams had his only All-Star season. He won 14 and lost 10 with an ERA of 3.00 and twice as many strikeouts (175) as walks (72). He hit two of his five career home runs.
It must have been wonderful to be young and a Dodger in the movie capital during the 1950s and ’60s. In the book Pen Men Larry Sherry told of Williams’s love of the night life and a good practical joke. During spring training in 1960 Williams roomed with Sandy Koufax. Sherry said he hosted a poker game in his room one night that broke up late. That noise woke up manager Walt Alston just as Williams and Koufax were returning from a night of carousing. Sherry locked his door to pretend he was in bed. The curfew violations so upset Alston that he “smashed his World Series ring” on Sherry’s door banging it so hard.4
Another story about a prank that went wrong involved Frank Howard, who was a rookie in 1960. Williams was big at 6-feet-4 and 225 pounds, but Howard, at 6-feet-7 and 275 pounds, was massive. One day in Philadelphia, Howard wasn’t playing and wanted to watch a game from the bullpen. Williams thought it would be funny to borrow a rope to tie Howard up so he couldn’t leave the bullpen. Sherry said, “Williams comes around a dirt pile with a noose, and Howard just picked him up and threw him over the dirt pile in the bullpen. Howard didn’t even get mad.”5
The Dodgers gave Williams a $5,000 raise to $16,000 in 1961. He mostly remained in the starting rotation, but occasionally relieved. He went 15-12, but his ERA grew to 3.90 in the second-place Dodgers’ last year in the Coliseum. Williams walked over 100 batters as he continued to struggle with command of his pitches.
In 1962, the team’s first year in Dodger Stadium, the team won 102 games and finished tied for first with the San Francisco Giants. This led to Williams’s second pennant playoff in four years. The Dodgers lost the first game, but in the second game at home they came back to take a one-run lead going into the eighth inning. Williams came on in relief with Giants on board and got out of the inning after giving up a run to tie. He retired the Giants 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, and the Dodgers scored in the bottom of the inning to give Williams the blown save and the win.
The Dodgers remained at home for Game Three, on October 3, 1962. Juan Marichal started for the Giants and Johnny Podres for LA. The Dodgers moved ahead 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth on Tommy Davis‘s two-run homer. They scored another run to take a 4-2 lead into the ninth. Ed Roebuck had pitched well in relief of Podres, but didn’t have much left. The Giants scored a run and had the bases loaded with pinch-runner Ernie Bowman on third, Felipe Alou on second, and Willie Mays on first.
Williams and left-handers Larry Sherry and Ron Perranoski, were warming up. Right-handed Orlando Cepeda was at the plate, with lefty Ed Bailey on deck. Alston, in what would become one of the most second-guessed manager’s moves in baseball history, brought in Williams. Perranoski assumed Alston wanted the platoon advantage. As Williams left the bullpen, Perranoski told him, “You get Cepeda, I’ll get Bailey.”6 Dodgers catcher John Roseboro said, “We all worried about Williams. He was wild and inconsistent. (Coach) Leo Durocher came to the mound to make the change, and while we waited for Williams, Durocher said to me, ‘He’ll walk the ballpark.’ I said, “He’ll be okay.” I wanted him to be.”7
Williams had pitched the day before, and struggled with control all season. In his book Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher said he begged Alston to bring in Don Drysdale, but Alston said he was saving Drysdale for the World Series. Drysdale had also thrown over 150 pitches in the first playoff game.
Williams got Cepeda on a sacrifice fly that plated Bowman with the tying run and sent Alou to third. One more out would give the Dodgers a chance to win it in the bottom of the ninth. Ed Bailey strode to the plate. Williams said, “I figure that’s it for me – Ronnie will be pitching to him – so I started walking to the dugout, then looked up and saw Alston wasn’t coming.”8
It couldn’t have worked out worse. Roseboro said, “Trying to throw one by Ed Bailey, Williams threw into the dirt. I made one of the better blocks of my career and kept the runner on third, but the runner on first (Mays) went to second.”9 Alston ordered Bailey walked to set up a force at any base. That also left Williams with no place to put the next batter, third baseman Jim Davenport. Williams battled Davenport, but ultimately walked him, forcing in Alou for the go-ahead run. Perranoski came in and got the next man to hit a grounder at second baseman Larry Burright, who kicked it, dropped it, and didn’t make a play. That put the Giants ahead by two before Perranoski struck out pinch-hitter Bob Nieman to end the inning. The Dodgers went down in order.
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders quotes Williams about his walk to Davenport: “It never bothered me that much because I gave it all I had and it didn’t work out. Had I let up and thrown a half-assed fastball and the guy had gotten a base hit I never would have forgiven myself. But I walked him at 100 mph, giving my best shot.”10
That was Stan Williams – throw the high heat and take your chances. The Dodgers decided they didn’t want to gamble with Williams any more, and traded him to the New York Yankees for Moose Skowron. Williams became part of a rotation that Bill James reckoned one of the best of all time. It included Whitey Ford (24-7), Jim Bouton (21-7), Ralph Terry (17-15), and Al Downing (13-5). Williams went 9-8 with a 3.21 ERA, 98 strikeouts, and only 57 walks in 146 innings. In 1963 he pitched three innings of scoreless relief for the Yankees as his former team, the Dodgers, swept the Yankees in the teams’ first World Series matchup since 1956.
Williams also pitched for the pennant-winning 1964 Yankees, but was hurt and didn’t pitch well. He finished with a 1-5 record and the Yankees traded him to the Indians for the 1965 season. Years later, Williams explained his injury to a fan in a letter. “I injured my arm on one freak pitch. Slipped on rubber. My arm got progressively worse each year for 6½ years. Three of those years home or in the minors. One day, I lifted my arm. Something ‘popped’ (hurt like crazy) – but suddenly my arm was sound again. Within a month, I was back in Majors and stayed another seven years.”11
Williams pitched in Spokane in 1966, but returned to the Indians in 1967 for a 6-4 record and a 2.62 ERA. In 1968 he became a full-fledged member of another rotation that made Bill James’s list of one of the all-time greatest rotations. The big pitching stars for the team that year were Sudden Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant, a pitcher who became a close friend and one Williams would later coach on the Red Sox. Tiant and McDowell recorded over 200 strikeouts and ERAs under 2.00. Tiant won 21 games, McDowell 15, and Williams went 13-11 with a 2.50 ERA and 147 strikeouts.
Before 1969 the owners lowered the pitcher’s mound and shrank the strike zone. Not every pitcher could adjust. Williams went 6-14 for a terrible Indians team and after the season he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. Williams performed marvelously in relief for the division champion Twins, posting a 10-1 won-lost record, a 1.99 ERA and 15 saves. He pitched six scoreless innings in relief during the Twins’ 3-0 ALCS loss to Baltimore. That gave Williams a 0.00 postseason ERA for his career.
After the 1970 season the Twins gave Williams a 33 percent raise, from $30,000 to $40,000, the most he ever made as a player. He pitched poorly early in 1971, and the Twins traded the 35-year-old to St. Louis. Williams landed with the Red Sox in 1972, but ended up back in the minors before the year was over, and he didn’t pitch in the majors again. After a year out of the game, Williams managed the Red Sox’ Eastern League affiliate in Bristol (Connecticut), and won his division. Williams even pitched and won a couple of games for the team himself.
Williams may have had control problems as a pitcher, but his early success as a minor-league manager led Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson to bring him to the big leagues as pitching coach. Williams coached a staff that included his former Indians teammate and good friend Luis Tiant, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Oil Can Boyd, and other eccentrics. In Williams’s first year coaching, the 1975 Red Sox won the pennant. Their World Series against the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati has been considered one of the greatest of all time.
Williams stayed in baseball for the rest of his working life. After the Red Sox, he coached pennant-winning staffs for the Yankees (1981) and Reds (1990). While in general the work of coaches tends to take place behind the scenes, Williams’s winning record as a coach is evidence that his work with players paid dividends.
For example, Red Sox reliever Steve Barr credited Williams with teaching what he needed to know to stay in the big leagues for the 1975 season. Barr told a reporter that Williams “totally tore my game down and built it up piece by piece, If it wasn’t for Williams I don’t know if I’d have the opportunity to make the club that I have now.”12 Williams helped all the pitchers on his team, not just the stars.
More crucial to the Red Sox’ success in 1975 was Williams’s role in keeping Luis Tiant in baseball. Both had been traded from the Indians to the Twins in 1970. The Twins released Tiant after the 1970 season. Mark Frost, in Game Six, his book about the legendary 1975 World Series game, quoted Williams as saying:
“I thought what was happening to Luis was a tragedy, I knew Luis when he was sound and I was so sure in my heart that he wasn’t finished. He’s the best friend I ever had in baseball; I respected him as an athlete and I loved him as a person. I also knew how much this game means to him, which has nothing to do with cheers and headlines.”13 Frost added, “Williams worked the phones and called every team. He convinced a Braves scout to give Tiant a 30 day contract.”
The Braves wanted to go with youth and released Tiant after the 30 days. The Red Sox grabbed Tiant, and he went 15-6 with a 1.91 ERA in 1972, Williams’s last year pitching in the majors. From 1972 to 1976 Tiant won 15, 20, 22, 18, and 21 games for the Red Sox. As Williams told a reporter before Tiant started in the sixth game of the World Series, “Luis doesn’t want to impress them. He only wants to beat them.”14
The Red Sox finished third in 1976. Longtime owner Tom Yawkey died, and his widow, Jean, fired manager Darrell Johnson and replaced him with coach Don Zimmer. Zimmer wanted to pick his own coaches, and after the season Williams was replaced by Al Jackson. Bob Lemon, the new manager of the Chicago White Sox, tapped Williams for his pitching coach. The White Sox finished 90-72 and contended for the division title. In 1977 the team reversed its record. After Lemon led them to a 34-40 record, owner Bill Veeck replaced him with Larry Doby. The team didn’t play better; Doby led them to a 37-50 record for a season total of 71-90. Not surprisingly, Doby didn’t bring Williams back in 1979, which meant Williams missed the opportunity to enjoy the White Sox’ infamous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion.
In 1978 Lemon managed the Yankees to a come-from-behind win of the Eastern Division thanks to Bucky Dent‘s famous home run against the Red Sox. It’s probably not a coincidence that after he left the White Sox, the Yankees hired Williams as an advance scout. In 1980 Dick Howser became the Yankees’ manager and made Williams his pitching coach, reuniting him with Tiant. Tiant was at the end of his career and won only eight games for the Yankees as a spot starter. However, Tommy John won 22 games and Ron Guidry 17, and the Yankees won 103 games and the Eastern Division championship.
After the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, owner George Steinbrenner accelerated his revolving carousel of coaches and managers. In 1982 the team had three managers and five pitching coaches. Williams replaced Jeff Torborg after 14 games of the season. (Williams had been demoted from the Yankees staff after 1981.) Clyde King replaced Williams in June. In July Steinbrenner brought up Columbus Clippers pitching coach Sammy Ellis and sent Williams to Columbus.
In 1984 Cincinnati Reds manager Vern Rapp brought Williams back to the majors to coach the Reds’ pitchers. The Reds performed poorly and in August Rapp was fired and replaced by Pete Rose, who replaced Williams in August with Jim Kaat.
Williams’s next chance in the majors came in 1990, when Lou Piniella, who knew him from the Yankees teams of the early ’80s, became manager of the Reds and made him the pitching coach. The Reds won the Western Division, beat the Pirates in the NLCS, and swept the heavily favored Oakland A’s in the World Series. Williams helped develop the three relievers who came to be known as the “Nasty Boys”: Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers. The trio pitched well during the season, and didn’t allow any runs during the World Series. Williams called the Nasty Boys the best three-man bullpen “in the history of relief.” Williams said, “when you have a left, righty, lefty combination like that, you gotta like your chances, every time you send them out.”15
The Reds slumped during the summer of 1991 and fell out of contention. Owner Marge Schott, notorious among baseball owners and fans for her many eccentricities, decided the team’s losses were the fault of bad pitching and fired Williams over the pleas of manager Piniella. A year later Piniella was gone, too. Piniella moved on to manage the Seattle Mariners, and in 1998 he brought in the 62-year-old Williams as pitching coach.
The 63-year-old Williams got involved in a brawl during a Yankees-Mariners game on August 7, 1999. Yankees and Mariners pitchers exchanged beanballs, leading to a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning after Mariners pitcher Frank Rodriguez attacked Yankees catcher Joe Girardi in the on-deck circle. In the melee, Williams grabbed Yankees slugger Paul O’Neill, 30 years his junior, by the neck to pull him out of the fight.16 Despite his toughness in a brawl, new GM Pat Gillick chose not to retain Williams after the season.
Seattle was Williams’s last stop as a pitching coach, but it did not end his work in baseball. He followed old friend Lou Piniella to the Rays when Piniella became their manager; Williams scouted for them. As late as 2010, when he was 74 years old, he scouted for the Washington Nationals before officially retiring from baseball.
In April 2013 the former Denver high school star was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Even at the age of 77 he still had the competitive spirit. He told the audience at his induction, “I would still want to pitch every day.”17
Cairns, Bob. Pen Men (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
Durocher, Leo, with Ed Linn. Nice Guys Finish Last (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).
Frost, Mark. Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston and the 1975 World Series (New York: Hyperion, 2009).
James, Bill. The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers (New York: Scribners, 1997).
James, Bill. Solid Fool’s Gold (Chicago: ACTA Sports, 2011).
Neyer, Rob. Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders (New York: Fireside Books, 2006).
Lakeland (Florida) Ledger.
Los Angeles Times.
New York Times.
1 Bill James, Solid Fool’s Gold, 91-93.
2 Irv Moss, Denver Post, October 26, 2007.
3 Bill James. The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, 202-204.
4 Bob Cairns, Pen Men, 207-208.
5 Cairns, 210.
6 Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, 113, 114.
7 Neyer, 115.
9 Neyer, 116.
11 Tom Owen, http://baseballbytheletters.blogspot.com/2010/07/stan-williams-escapes-baseball-card.html
12 Richard Lemanski, Lakeland Ledger, February 27, 1995.
13 # Mark Frost, Game Six, 62.
14 Frost, 63.
15 Cairns, 341-42.
16 Buster Olney, New York Times, August 8, 1999.
17 Irv Moss, Denver Post, April 18, 2013.