September 14 – Happy Birthday Stan Williams
Stan Williams was the first Yankee player I can remember disliking. The guy did absolutely nothing to deserve my animosity except get traded to the Yankees for one of my favorite Bronx Bombers, Bill “Moose” Skowren. The deal took place after the 1962 World Series and even though I was just eight years old at the time I remember wondering why after winning their second straight championship the Yankees would break up the infield that helped get them those two rings. Part of the answer of course was that New York had a young and extremely talented first baseman named Joe Pepitone sitting on the bench and even though the Moose was just 32 years old, he had suffered for years from a chronic bad back.
The other reason the Yankees made the deal was to add some much needed depth to their starting rotation. In 1962 only Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford pitched in that rotation the entire season. At the time, Williams was a prized 26-year-old right-hander who had won 44 games over the previous three seasons for LA. At 6’5″ tall and 230 pounds, the guy they called “Big Daddy” posed an intimidating figure on a pitching mound. The Yankee front office was certain Williams would be a big winner for years in the Bronx and give young Yankee pitching prospects like Jim Bouton and Al Downing time to mature into big league starters. Well that didn’t happen.
Williams achilles heel when he was with the Dodgers was his lack of control and he seemed to have an even more difficult time throwing strikes when he put on the pinstripes. Even though he had a good spring training in 1963 and an impressive five hit victory in his regular season debut, Williams was consistently erratic for New York, walking hitters at an alarming rate. In one three game stretch of starts he didn’t make it past the third inning.
Instead of being able to bring Bouton and Downing along cautiously, Williams’ wildness and an injury to Stafford forced Houk to depend heavily on both their young arms. The 24-year-old Bouton had a gem of a season going 21-7 while the 22-year-old Downing was almost as impressive going 13-5. That’s why New York was able to make it to their fifth straight World Series despite the fact that Williams finished the year with a disappointing 9-8 record.
Williams did not even make Houk’s World Series starting rotation against his old team, the Dodgers. In one of the most dominating cumulative pitching performances in World Series history, Los Angeles swept New York in four games. Houk did give Williams the ball after Whitey Ford fell behind Sandy Koufax, 5-0 in Game 1. Big Stan came in and delivered three solid innings of scoreless, one-hit relief, striking out five of the ten batters he faced without giving up a single base-on-balls. That would prove to be Williams’ finest moment in pinstripes. In the mean time, Skowren took advantage of the Series matchup to feed the Yankee front office some crow by hitting .385 and homering against his old teammates. In 1964 Williams hurt his arm and finished his second and final Yankee season with a horrible 1-5 record. The Yankees sold him to Cleveland just before the start of the 1965 regular season.
He would spend much of his first three seasons with the Indians pitching his arm back into shape in their Minor League system. In the process he turned himself into a very effective starter/reliever winning 29 games while saving 36 more over a three-year period. That included a superb 10-1, 15-save, 1.99 ERA season for the Twins in 1970. He retired after the 1975 season with a lifetime record of 109-94 and 43 career saves.
As it turned out, the Yankees traded Skowren at just the right time and Pepitone was physically ready to take over first base when he did. But whenever I think of Williams or see his name, I’m reminded of the first Yankee deal I did not like and the moment in history when the Yankee dynasty began showing the first signs of cracking.