As The Hitter settles into his stance in i the batting cage, both the Chicago Cubs and the players in the opposition dugout concentrate on his coiled figure with the intensity men reserve for strange noises in the night. The Hitter holds the bat straight up, his arms out away from his lean body, the forearm tendons taut with expectation. As he swings, his right foot minces forward, the bat blurs, there is a sharp, cracking sound, and the ball shoots out into the field as surely as if it had been thrown there. The line drives rattle from the cage like hailstones stinging a car roof, the batting-practice pitcher crouching behind his protective netting. Billy Williams is playing his song, the hot sun his spotlight, perspiration his makeup, the batting cage his stage. The bat and ball are his tympani, and the music is sweet, as rich and pure as any in baseball.
"Billy Williams can hit," says Cub Coach Ernie Banks in his lilting manner, his voice rising for emphasis at the end of the sentence, the words dramatizing the tableau and giving it an aura of church and preacher. "Yes. Yes. Billy Williams can hit. Yes. That's right. He's going to lead us to The Promised Land. And you know why? You know why, don't you? Because he can hit the good pitches. Yeah. For home runs. All of us can hit the had pitches. The mistakes. But Bill Williams can hit the good pitches. For home runs. Yeah. Billy Williams is going to lead us to The Promised Land." You almost expect the surrounding ballplayers to break into murmurs of Amen. Yeah. Amen.
For 12½ seasons Billy Williams' left-handed swing has reminded National League pitchers of the fallibility of their out-pitches. In his last three years he has hit .322, .301 and .333, winning the major league batting title last season, a year in which he knocked in 122 runs and hit 37 homers. Someday in the future he may surpass 3,000 hits, which only 11 other players have managed. But as for The Promised Land, it has remained way over yonder.
Chicago has not won a pennant since 1945. The Cubs came closest with Billy in left field in 1969, when they led for most of the season only to collapse before the onrush of the New York Mets. That was the year Manager Leo Durocher took off in the middle of the pennant race and visited the son of his new bride for a weekend at Camp Ojibway in Wisconsin. From Sept. 4 to 23 the Cubs went from five games ahead to six behind, with the worst record in the majors. It is a stain on their hands that they want to cleanse, but no matter how hard they rub, like Lady Macbeths in spiked shoes, the traces linger. "That year," says Williams, "we played three-quarters of a season and forgot about the other quarter. The year 1969 is something you'd like to forget. I know I don't hear anybody talking about it around the clubhouse."
July 22, 1973
Now the Cubs are out in front again, this time with a new manager, Whitey Lockman, and a new style. Lockman is a leader who gives his regulars a rest now and then—Durocher's attitude was play, play, play—and Lockman has assembled a strong bench in men like Gene Hiser, Carmen Fanzone, Paul Popovich, Ken Rudolph and Adrian Garrett. The rested regulars are responding, and the Cubs have displayed late-inning punch, the mark of pennant winners. During one seven-game stretch in late June they scored the winning run in five games after the sixth inning.
Rightfielder Jose Cardenal, traded away by five other major league teams, is having a phenomenal year. The Wrigley Field organist plays chords from Jesus Christ Superstar whenever Jose lopes to the plate, and it is apt if irreverent music, for Cardenal leads the Cubs in game-winning hits. Third Baseman Ron Santo, happy to be out from under Durocher's yoke, is having one of his best seasons, and Centerfielder Rick Monday already has hit more home runs than he ever did before in a full major league season.
But those are things that bring teams only to the border of The Promised Land. The crossing is strewn with obstacles. Last week the Cubs were on a road trip that pitted them against two of the stronger teams in the Western Division. In San Francisco, and then Los Angeles, the phlegmatic Williams found himself searching for the elusive catalyst that triggers his surges of batting excellence.
There were moments that suggested he had found the answer to the mystery that had deprived him of an RBI in 21 days. Against the Giants he stroked two base hits Tuesday night, the second a line drive that caromed off the right-field fence with such force that he was held at first base with a 375-foot single. The next day came a home run that broke the RBI drought, but he went hitless Friday night in the opener of the Dodger series. "It seems like I'm swinging the bat the same," he said, "but I'm not hitting the ball good. From day to day I can't find the groove. One day I feel good, the next I don't."
By Sunday night the siege was over. A split against the Giants and three straight losses to the Dodgers, but three more RBIs for Williams, whose average was steady at near .290. One more week had ended with the Cubs in first.
Many more weeks may end the same, but it all depends on how Williams hits. Don't mention this, however, because Williams is Chicago's secret. "Billy is the best left-handed hitter I ever saw," says Willie Stargell of the Pirates, no mean lefty himself, "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?"
His reputation as the quiet man of baseball is nettlesome to Williams, but he does not know what to do about it. Except with the bat, he is quiet. He is soft-spoken, brief and to the point with interviewers. Anecdotes dry up in his mouth. He does not gloat, and humble pie does not make a tasty journalistic dish. Early in Williams' career the publicity-makers learned to search elsewhere at Wrigley Field for superlatives. Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were as exuberant as Williams was not. The ink flowed to them. And later there were picturesque stories about Joe Pepitone and Durocher. "It's kind of funny," says 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."
Williams is a book that never gets read because people put him back on the shelf after a couple of pages. "If I want to tell you something, I don't go through all the bull," says Billy. "I just tell you straight. That's how I was brought up. When you first come to the big leagues, the way you carry yourself then, this is what you are going to live with the rest of your career because the writers brand you."
Says Dave Cash of Pittsburgh: "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." He's been playing 13 years and people are just now starting to recognize his talents. He can do as much with that bat as anybody. When you see Billy Williams you are looking at a .300 average, 100 RBIs and 20 to 30 home runs a season."
On a humid evening in St. Louis this year the Cubs lost a doleful game to the Cardinals. Williams, always a streak-hitter, was on a cold one. Nevertheless, after the game one florid fat man wearing a blue batting helmet shoved up against Williams. The man began yelling, "Billy Williams is the greatest ballplayer of all time. Billy Williams is the...." A crowd was attracted, and Williams patiently autographed programs, pieces of paper, baseballs, caps and other clothing all the way back to the team's hotel, two blocks away, the fat man leading the entourage as if he were the town crier announcing the arrival of a great and famous personage.
One Sunday long ago, a hot and humid Alabama Sabbath, two skinny kids, their dark arms covered with a light yellow film of ball field dust, were watching the play of the semipro Mobile Black Bears. The youngsters had ridden their bicycles from nearby Whistler, Ala. to watch this game, and perhaps to capture a stray foul ball or two.
"Who's that guy?" Billy Williams asked his friend as the Black Bears' second baseman legged out a hit.
"Think his name's Henry Aaron," was the reply.
Billy Williams was the youngest of four boys and a girl born to Jessie Mary and Frank Williams in Whistler, a town with a plywood factory and a ribbon of railroad. Frank made his living for 30 years on the docks of Mobile, unloading banana boats through the night for handfuls of silver dollars, and he also was a respectable baseball player. He claims to have batted against Satchel Paige, to have reached base against him. "Satch's about 72 or 73 because I'm 71," says Frank Williams. "He's an old man like myself. I told my boys that I could hit any of them. Of course I didn't go for the home run. The only thing I tried to teach Billy was to make him into a switch hitter, but he wouldn't take on it. He told me, 'I got to bat my way, Daddy.' All my boys played baseball. 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."
Some days Frank Williams goes over to the next town to visit with Aaron's father. Mostly they talk baseball and about Henry's chances at Ruth's record and Billy's hopes of getting into the World Series. If the Cubs make it Mr. Williams is going to get on a bus, since he refuses to fly, and go see his boy play in the Series.
Billy Williams still has a scar over the left side of his upper lip from the time he stepped into the path of a bat swung by a brother. The Williams boys would take a broomstick and a bucket of bottle caps from the store and play all day long. The caps could be thrown so they would sail up or down, in or out. By comparison, hitting a curveball was easy.
The area around Mobile was rich with ballplayers. Besides Williams and Aaron, Henry's brother Tommie, Willie McCovey, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee and Amos Otis all came from that part of the country. "Mobile's got guys who can hit," says Williams with pride. "From just around there we've got over 1,500 home runs in the majors."
During high school Billy organized a sandlot team he named the Whistler Cubs. His high school, Mobile County Training School, did not have a baseball team, so Billy played on the school fast-pitch softball team. During the summer he played with the Whistler Cubs or with the Mobile Black Bears. "He always looked like a ballplayer," recalls Frank Williams.
It was in high school that Billy met his wife Shirley. "A lot of my friends used to not know how to read Billy," she says. "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."
Billy played a season of football his senior year in high school and was good enough to be offered a scholarship to Grambling College. He turned it down. He weighed only 155 pounds and realized his future was in baseball. Two days after he finished high school he was on his way to Ponca City, Okla., a Class D team, signed to a contract by a scout named Ivy Griffin who died in an auto crash and never saw Billy play in the majors. "My brother had played in the Pittsburgh organization," says Billy, "and he warned me to make sure I signed for a good bonus. Well, when Griffin came to talk I was so thrilled that I couldn't wait to sign. My father got a cigar and I got a bus ticket to Ponca City." It was 1956.
That first season was a lonely one for Williams. He was on the team only because Lou Johnson, who later would play for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, had lost an ear in an automobile accident. Billy showed up with his own bat, a splintered Jackie Robinson model that had been mended with black tape, and an old three-fingered glove. He made about $175 a month and was not even included on the Ponca City traveling squad.
By 1959 Williams had moved up to the Cubs' San Antonio team. Once, homesick, he jumped the club, although he was leading the league in hitting at the time, and went back to Whistler to see Shirley. But he returned to San Antonio and hit .318. There is a story that Rogers Hornsby, then a hitting instructor for the Cubs, saw Williams during a tour of the farm teams. SUGGEST YOU BRING UP WILLIAMS. BEST HITTER ON TEAM, Hornsby wired Chicago. Chicago phoned back. "He's better than anyone else down there, huh?" "He's better than anyone up there," Hornsby is said to have replied.
Williams was called up to the Cubs at the end of both the 1959 and 1960 seasons and made the team for good in 1961, when he played regularly in left field, hit .278, had 25 home runs and was Rookie of the Year. He had a slow start that first season, and by June was in danger of being sent back to the minors, but those were the days of the Cubs' revolving manager system, and the newest entry, Elvin Tappe, decided to stick with the youngster. On June 15, his 23rd birthday Williams hit a grand-slam home run and was in the lineup to stay. From Sept. 22 of that year he appeared in 1,117 consecutive games, a National League record. No. 1,118 would have been Sept. 3, 1970; Williams asked Durocher for the day off.
In left field Williams at first resembled a pedestrian eluding a taxi. He made 10 errors his rookie year, which embarrassed him. The following spring he had the Cubs hit fungoes to him by the hour. He became a good fielder and he knows the habits of opposing hitters as well as any man.
His best day at the plate came in a Wrigley Field doubleheader with Houston last July 11. Doubleheaders have been bountiful for Billy. In one he hit five homers. In another he went seven for eight. On this day he did better. In the first game he hit two singles, a home run and a sacrifice fly in four trips to the plate. In the second game he assaulted starter Don Wilson with a double, single and home run, got to Reliever Jim York for a single and came to bat in the last of the eighth inning with Houston Pitcher Joe Gibbon and the rest of the ball park aware that another hit would give him a perfect day, eight for eight. He singled to right.
"When I'm in the on-deck circle," says Billy, "I'm aware of the game and the people around me. But when I step up to bat there's nothing on my mind but hitting. I see only the pitcher. I might step out and look away, but I really don't see anything. I know some hitters have said they can pick up the rotation of the ball and tell whether it's a curve or a fastball. I can't. With me it's all instinct."
Williams well remembers his most severe test as a hitter. The Cubs were playing the Cincinnati Reds, and Jim O'Toole, a pitcher who lettered T-H-I-N-K on his glove as a reminder, was on the mound. O'Toole had two strikes on Williams, and the next pitch was a fastball that hit him on the back right side of the head, much of the blow absorbed by the batting insert under his cap. Williams believes it is the only time a ballplayer may have tried to hurt him. "I could have gone two ways then," he says. "I could have been more determined or I could have been a little shy at the plate. I chose to be more determined. I had gotten my share of hits off O'Toole—and after that I got more off of him because I had to show the rest of the pitchers that I wasn't afraid."
Williams is not bitter that Dick Allen was able to arrive in Chicago a year ago and excite the town in a way he never could—although when he sees Allen on television he tends to examine his performances as through a jeweler's loupe. Recently Williams was at home viewing a White Sox game when Allen gave chase to a foul ball that dropped just out of his reach down the right-field line. The TV announcer was ecstatic over Allen's "fantastic effort" and "all-out hustle." You would have thought Allen had made his sprint across a field of razor blades. "What's he supposed to do," asked Williams, "just let the ball go?"
What bothers him more than Allen's charisma is that he lost out to Cincinnati's Johnny Bench in the balloting for Most Valuable Player last year, although he missed winning the triple crown by only three home runs and three runs batted in. He still does not know how he finished in the voting. He read the story announcing the award while visiting Hawaii during the off-season, and was so upset that he never finished it. "I understand that one guy in Montreal did not even put me in the top 10," he says, shaking his head. "They say the team didn't do good enough. Well, Ernie won it in 1958 and 1959. Maybe they had a different way of voting then. You say to yourself, "Try and forget about it.' But it always seems to keep popping up. It makes you think about what Leo said about nice guys. It seems to me that you get more things done when you complain a little bit."
After a dozen seasons in the majors Williams made his first TV commercial this summer. During a trip to New York for a series with the Mets he found himself outside a Manhattan warehouse. Despite the heat and humidity he was wearing a suit and tie, his everyday uniform. The name "Mother's Studio" was written on a wall, along with instructions to ring three times for the elevator. Williams was there with Frank Scott, who represents athletes and had set up the deal; Tom Keating, a lineman with the Oakland Raiders; and Dick Barnett of the New York Knicks. Even Scott was surprised when he learned that Williams had received only $333 from a bat company for winning the hitting title. "This guy should have had commercials before, as great as he is," said Scott. "There's been like three stages with black athletes and commercials. One, they didn't use them at all. Then they had tokenism. Now it's a little better. Take Aaron. How many commercials do you see him in? If he was a white face, he'd be all over town."
At the studio Williams was startled to hear that one of the child actors appearing with him, a chubby 9-year-old boy who wore glasses and had the type of face mothers love and bullies hate, made $35,000 last year. The TV taping went smoothly. In Billy's segment he appeared with the child and a mammoth golden retriever. All Billy had to do was smile.
Shirley and Billy Williams, their four daughters, two dogs and a parrot live in a red brick, four-bedroom home in Chicago's South Shore community. Their neighbors are upper-class blacks, a banker and a doctor, but the Williams plan to move soon to a roomier place on the northwestern edge of town.
When Billy gets home from the ball park the neighborhood children spot his two-year-old Buick with the license plate "BW 26" and are waiting with material to be autographed by the time he climbs from the car. Sometimes he brings them baseballs and occasionally he joins them in street games, but usually he stays inside his house and watches television and talks to the friends who stop by or call on the telephone. He eats a late dinner and is in bed by 11 p.m.
"He's a well-disciplined man," says 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." It is a process so thorough that Williams always tries to sit in the same airplane seat, 16-D, during Cub charter flights.
In Williams' home are many baseball mementos. There are also two portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, one done by Curt Flood, the other by a penitentiary inmate. It is at home with his wife and daughters that he is most comfortable. "I admire him for being able to have a private life," says Banks. "That is almost unheard of in our business. He realizes that by not being out in the public eye his family can come first, then baseball."
At 35 Billy is well into athletic middle age and resigned to the fact that his talents are largely obscure to the public and likely to remain so. Once he spent several hours at the Hall of Fame searching for the scorecard of his 1,000th consecutive game which he had sent to Cooperstown. He finally inquired, and a curator told him it had been lost. Too much of Billy Williams has been lost. With luck, in October, a little of the man might be found.