May 7 – Happy Birthday Dick Williams
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was actually George Steinbrenner’s first managerial hiring as the owner of the New York Yankees. There would be many many more such hirings, each of them controversial and this very first one served as a sign of things to come. When Steinbrenner took over the team, he inherited long-time Yankee skipper (and one-time GM) Ralph Houk as his team’s field boss. Nicknamed the “Major,” Houk had come home from WW II with a Bronze and Silver Star and began his Yankee career as one of the team’s back-up catchers. When his playing days ended, he became a highly successful minor league manager in the organization, then a coach for Casey Stengel and then Stengel’s successor as Yankee Manager in 1961. He won two straight World Series in his first two years managing New York and led them to three straight AL Pennants before accepting the GM job. It was as Yankee GM that Houk first encountered failure. He presided over the dismantling of the Yankee dynasty in the mid sixties and it seemed almost as if he was being punished for that failure, when he fired Johnny Keane in 1966 and took back his old job.
Back then, the Yankees were owned by CBS, who seemed to ignore all aspects of the team’s operation and let the franchise run itself. That’s how George Steinbrenner, a shipbuilder’s son from Cleveland was able to pretty much steal the franchise from the huge entertainment company for practically nothing. But unlike CBS, Steinbrenner was a hands on owner. Actually, he proved to be more like a vise grips owner and Houk hated the change in his work environment. The “Major” who had led men on the battlefield’s of WWII was now being ordered by the “Boss” with a silver spoon in his mouth to tell his Yankee players when they had to shave and when it was time for a haircut.
While all this had been happening in New York, Dick Williams also had his hands full working for his own controversial hands-on team owner. Williams had began his playing career as an outfielder in the Brooklyn Dodger organization. An injury to his throwing shoulder early in his career sapped the strength in his throwing arm and forced Williams to become an infielder. The Brooklyn Dodger infield of the early fifties was loaded with All Stars so Williams sat the bench but instead of wasting his time there, he learned how managers made decisions and he learned how to become one of baseball’s great bench jockeys. His big league career as a utility infielder would last for 13 seasons and when it ended in 1964, he took a job as manager in the Boston Red Sox farm system. His big break came when he skippered the 1967 Red Sox to their Impossible Dream Pennant.
During his three seasons in Beantown, Williams developed a reputation as a tough, no nonsense manager who was not afraid to discipline his players in private or in public. That caught the attention of A’s owner, Charlie Finley. Finley had been assembling a roster full of marvelous young players over in Oakland and he knew Williams would be the perfect choice to manage them. Williams became the A’s field boss in 1971 led them to three straight pennants and World Championships in both 1972 and ’73. But it was during the 1973 World Series that Williams long-time resentment of Finley’s meddling ways came to a head. When Oakland second baseman, Mike Andrews made two errors on back-to-back plays in the 12th inning of Game 2 against the Mets, Finley forced the infielder onto the DL. When Williams defended Andrews and resigned as A’s Manager immediately after winning that series with a Year remaining on his contract, the sports world praised him for giving up a World Series winning team on a matter of principle. As Williams would later admit, he was angry but not foolish.
It seems that a month before the Series began, Steinbrenner had ordered his Yankee front office to approach Williams with an offer to manage the Yankees. George had already decided that Ralph Houk had to go and when Houk obliged him by tendering his resignation as manager at the end of the 1973 season, the Yankee owner was ecstatic. Back then as now, making offers to players and managers already under contract to another team is considered tampering and not permitted by any professional sports league. Steinbrenner knew that but as the Boss would later prove many times, he felt rules were simply obstacles that needed to be overcome and not necessarily followed. So when Williams requested that Finley release him from the final year of his contract so he could become the Yankee manager, the thrifty millionaire insurance magnate refused. That didn’t stop Steinbrenner from hiring Williams any way, even holding a Yankee Stadium press conference to introduce him as the new Yankee skipper. The case went to the baseball commissioner’s office. Finley was demanding the Yankees give him Otto Velez, New York’s best hitting prospect and Scott MacGregor, their best pitching prospect as compensation for Williams. Steinbrenner countered with a list of lesser prospects but Bowie Kuhn ruled the Yankee signing had violated the rules and declared it null and void.
That’s how George Steinbrenner was forced to replace the first Yankee manager he ever hired before the guy got to manage a single game and that’s why Bill Virdon managed the Yankees in 1974. Finley would let Williams accept an offer to manage the California Angels in June of that 1974 season. Williams would manage in (and lose) one more World Series with San Diego in 1984. He got elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008. He passed away on July 7, 2011.