A Fitting Tribute to Billy Williams

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, September 9, 2010

Whenever announcers or writers refer to a star athlete as "a natural," I believe that they are discounting all the hard work that it takes for that player to make it to the top of his profession.

Much has been said and written about the wonderful, "sweet" swing of Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams, and it is often said that the Hall of Famer was blessed with that swing. It is true that Williams brought a great deal of natural ability with him when he became the Cubs everyday left fielder in 1961, but I wonder how many people realize how hard the man worked to become one of the finest hitters of his era.

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Every player who reaches the major leagues is blessed with natural ability, but it is that commitment to excellence that makes the great ones stand out. Nobody worked harder at becoming a great hitter than Billy Williams and few played the game with as much class.

The statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield that was dedicated by the Cubs to Williams on Tuesday was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Cubs of all-time, a man who even now remains in the shadow of Ernie Banks.

"(Williams) is a good person," teammate Randy Hundley recalled in Wrigleyville (Peter Golenbock, St. Martin's Press, 1996). "But as far as the media, he didn't get much media attention, like Ernie did, because Ernie had all these quotes going on all the time."

Williams - who finished his 18-year major league career in 1976 with 2,711 hits and 426 home runs - let his consistently great play do the talking. He batted over .300 five times, scored more than 100 runs on five occasions, and drove in more than 100 runs in three seasons.

"Billy Williams was Ernie Banks without the PR," Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001). "Billy took everything as it came to him, soaked everyhthing in, enjoyed it quietly or suffered through it in silence. When a reporter asked him why he didn't get as much publicity as some other players, he said, 'That's up to you guys. I can't write about myself.' When a teammate asked him if he was a hot-weather hitter, he said, 'I hope so. That's the only weather I've got right now.' When he was asked the secret of his success as a hitter, he said, "When the pitcher hangs a curveball, hit it. The difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is just 20-30 hits a year. You hit those 30 hangers, you'll be up there in the paper.' He enjoyed playing in Wrigley Field. enjoyed playing day baseba ll, enjoyed hitting, enjoyed playing the field. But unlike Banks, he wouldn't go out of his way to tell you about it."

Williams became a pet of Cubs roving hitting instructor Rogers Hornsby when he was a 21-year-old playing at Class Double-A San Antonio. It was under the tutelage of The Rajah - perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter ever - that Williams began to refine his sweet swing.

"Rogers Hornsby taught me the strike zone," Williams told Rick Talley in The Cubs of '69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). "That you only get one good pitch to hit, to be patient, and the quick hands helped me be patient, to get that bat into the hitting area.

"Good hitters don't have bad swings. My stance and my swing were always the same. So was my bat (34.5 inches, 32 ounces), and it helped me against power pitchers."

Williams had 10 home runs against Bob Gibson. He hit .396 off Warren Spahn, .467 off Phil Niekro, and .377 off Jim Bunning.

Williams was the first Cubs player to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, in 1961, and played in a then-NL record 1,117 consecutive games. He played in every Cubs game from Sept. 22, 1963 to Sept. 3, 1970 when he asked out of the lineup because of "the pressure involved in keeping such a streak alive."

Two decades before Tony Gwynn was famously breaking down videotape, Williams and Banks were studying films of their swings.

"I had technical flaws, but the key is knowing yourself," Williams told Talley. "Ernie and I would watch those films taken by Barney Sterling, the team photographer. Keep the hands in a certain spot. Keep your balance. Don't overstride and swing too hard. That's how I kept in the groove longer than some other hitters. I know myself, and I watched myself on film back when a lot of guys weren't doing it. If I remember right, Ernie and I bought Barney's camera for him."

A National League player has not won the Triple Crown since Joe Medwick in 1937, but Williams came pretty darned close in 1972 - but he was snubbed by the writers in that year's MVP voting and finished second to Johnny Bench. It is perhaps the one thing in his career that Williams is bitter about.

"I think I was done an injustice by the Baseball Writers of America," Williams told Talley. "I was bitter about it for a while. I think the only way I could have won was to win the Triple Crown or the Cubs win the pennant."

Williams won the batting title with a .333 average, finished third with 37 home runs behind Bench (40) and Nate Colbert (38), and was second with 122 RBI behind Bench (125).

Richie Allen of the White Sox won the AL MVP with a .308 average, 37 homers, and 113 RBI.

Williams was far better than Bench and Allen in a plethora of categories, ranking first among the three with 95 runs (Bench/87, Allen/90), 191 hits (Bench/145, Allen/156), 34 doubles (Bench/22, Allen/28), six triples (Bench/2, Allen/5), and 348 total bases (Bench/291, Allen/305). Bench hit .270.

Williams also finished second to Bench in the 1970 MVP balloting when the Cubs left fielder hit .322 with 42 homers and 129 RBI.

"Everything wasn't easy," Williams said at the dedication ceremony of his statue Tuesday. "I am living proof that perseverance really can make a dream come true. And I dreamed. If you dream, those dreams might come through."

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The author with (left) son, Will, and (right) friend, Phil, while checking out the new Billy Williams statue.

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