Only one Chicago Cub, all-time, is better loved, and better known. But none had a sweeter swing or was more respected than the man from Whistler, Alabama.
CINCINNATI—He leaned back on the rail of the dugout perfectly at ease, completely comfortable in his surroundings: the echo of wood on leather and the confident patter of batting practice.
Billy Williams, the former Cub and Hall of Famer, watched every move, every swing.
“The boys are feeling pretty good about themselves,” he said, watching players dodge in and out of the cage. Sammy Sosa was putting on a show, one shot after another clattering around the empty seats in the upper decks.
Aramis Ramirez, just over from the Pirates, was trying to match him and coming close. Money, it seemed, was on the line, but mostly pride and prowess.
“Ramirez may just get him,” Williams said. “He’s a great pick-up. He’ll play an important role. Besides what he gives them, Sammy will see more pitches.”
It was September, 2003. The Cubs were in town and headed to the playofffs for the first time since ’89, the second since ‘84.
“Before that,” Williams said, smiling broadly, “the first time since radio and the live ball. Believe me, I know.”
For 16 years of his 18-year career, Williams distinguished himself with the Cubs, manning left field and turning in one .300 season after another. He had power and a knack for clutch situations. What he lacked in defense, he made up for in spirit. For years, Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo formed a formidable trio, but one that only sniffed post-season play.
“It never affected the way we played or the love we had for the game,” Williams said. “Never did. No way. We loved this game, every one of us.”
In that moment, the smile that seldom seemed to fade from his face was gone. Making that point—even to a stranger—was important to Billy Williams.
“It’s been 40 years since we were out there,” he said, nodding toward the field. “So many memories. So many things I hold close. It’s been my life, and a good one.”
Time and again, people stopped by to say hello, and each was greeted with that smile as true and genuine as the September sunset lingering over Great American Ball Park.
Sean Casey, the Reds first baseman, called him “Mr. Williams.”
Barry Larkin removed his batting glove before shaking hands. “This man,” he said, “is a true Hall of Famer – in every respect. How are you, sir?”
Williams smiled as Larkin spoke. He always seemed to be smiling.
“Sir? Sir? C’mon, Barry,” Williams said, “but that’s awfully good of you to say.”
“It’s true,” Larkin said. “I have always admired you. Good seeing you, Billy. I got to run.”
“That young man is one of the best all around shortstops I’ve ever seen, and I played with Ernie (Banks),” Williams said, as Larkin jogged away. “He’ll be in the Hall of Fame. You can count on it. I don’t know if folks fully appreciate how good he really is, not just yet. Now, what we were talking about?”
The topic had been the Cubs and their chances of making it to the World Series.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Well, I figure they got a good a chance as any body else. See…”
But, again, there was another visitor. This time it was Reds radio broadcaster Joe Nuxhall, “The Ol’ Left Hander”.
“Well, look who it is,” Nuxy said, “Sweet Swinging Billy Williams. How are you, you SOB?”
They shook hands. They laughed. Two friends linked by wars on a battlefield consisting of 60-feet, six-inches.
“I could not get this guy out,” Nuxhall said. “Throw him a breaking ball, he stays back, gaps its. Pitch him in, he gets around on it, goes down the line. Go outside, the left fielder is chasing it down the line. And make a mistake, he’s going deep on ya. Damn guy drove me crazy. Lots of other guys too. How’s everything, Billy? Great to see you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Williams said. “You got me a few times, too. Always trying to drive me off the plate.”
They talked of old times, old friends. They talked of their current teams. On that subject, Williams had more to talk about than Nuxhall.
“Not a good year for these guys,” Nuxy said. “Nope, my Redlegs aren’t going anywhere. Not this year.”
They said their goodbyes, promised to stay in touch. The batting cage had been rolled away, the foul lines were being set for the game, the mound prepared and tamped. My time with Billy Williams was growing short.
“Anything else I can do for you?” Williams asked.
Players were loading their “gamers” into the bat rack and pitchers wearing windbreakers made their way to the bullpen. Fans, many wearing Cubs blue, were finding their seats.
“I watched you play when I was growing up, Billy,” I said, “and I’ve always wondered about one thing. Did you ever feel—even though you’re in the Hall of Fame now—that you never quite got the recognition you deserved when you were playing, that you were, well, over-shadowed by Mays and Aaron and Clemente?”
“And Frank Robinson, and don’t forget Vada Pinson,” Williams said. “Now there was a man who was overlooked. Vada should be in the Hall, too. Weren’t any better than Vada in center, maybe Willie, and Vada could flat rake.
“No, no,” he said. “I never felt that way, seriously. Those were some of the finest players this game has ever seen, ever will see. Willie and Roberto were just special human beings, and Gawd, how Henry could hit. Wasn’t much he couldn’t do, really.
“And Frank didn’t get his due ’til he went to the other league, Everybody knows that.
“Me, no,” he said, and there was that smile again. “Hell, no. It may sound like so much bull…, but I was honored to be on the same field with those guys, even mentioned in the same breath.
“Tell you the truth, every year when we go to Cooperstown and we’re all sitting up there on that stage, I can’t believe it’s me up there with ’em. It don’t seem real, kinda like a dream. You got to remember where you came from.”
Billy Williams came from Whistler, Alabama.
With that, we went our separate ways: he off to the Cubs’ clubhouse, me to the press box.
From someone else, his words might have seemed like so much false humility. From Billy Williams, the idea didn’t stand. They rang with truth.
I think it was something about that smile. Some just say more than others.