Boston Red Sox fans got the worst and the best of Dick Williams, witnessing his final season as a player and his first as a manager.
As a player, Williams defined the word scrappy and he hustled his way to a 13-year career with five teams as an infielder doing whatever was asked.
Along the way he picked up all the tricks of the game, swapping starters at the last minute, playing mind games to get players to respond and arguing, always arguing. By his reckoning he was ejected from more games as a manager than nearly anyone else who ever managed with the exception of Earl Weaver.
By 1964, he was a utility infielder for the Red Sox, having been acquired the year before. He played in 61 games and batted just .159. It was the heart of the “country club” era for the Sox, and Williams hated it. But the Red Sox organization saw Williams’ talent and they made him the manager of their Toronto Maple Leafs minor league team.
After two dominant seasons in the minors, the Sox brought Williams to Boston for the 1967 campaign. After eight straight years of losing records, Williams promised the club would be above .500.
“I guarantee you we’ll have a hustling ball club and they won’t quit,” he said at his inaugural press conference. And they did not.
Williams ruffled a lot of feathers when he took charge. He stripped Carl Yastrzemski of his captain status, a wakeup call to the team that everyone would be treated equally — a change from the Tom Yawkey star system.
And during spring training he set up a volleyball net along the third base line and got the pitchers sneakers so they would spend their time between starts playing to get into better shape. The volleyball so disgusted the retired legend Ted Williams that he left camp.
But Williams’ shake-up worked, and the Red Sox uncoiled the exhilarating Impossible Dream season that carried the team all the way to the seventh game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and it remains easily one of the most loved Red Sox teams in history.
Williams, of course, wore out his welcome quickly, as he did everywhere. A childhood spent under the wilting criticism of his father in St. Louis and later Los Angeles had taught Williams to be unyielding to the point of pig headedness, and his relations with Yawkey soured. By the end of the 1969 season, after again clashing with Yastrzemski, he was fired. In all, though, Williams would spend 21 seasons as a manager with six teams, take four trips to the World Series and win two world championships.
He never mellowed much, though. Upon induction into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2008, he told a reporter he wouldn’t last a day as a manager given the current climate in the game. But he never backed down from his approach: “If some guys couldn’t stand the heat, then they didn’t belong in the major leagues … I don’t know anybody who refused the World Series checks I helped them get.”