Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2011

Dick Williams Never Thought The Dream Was Impossible

Late Thursday afternoon came the sad news of Dick Williams passing at the age of 82. Williams played parts of thirteen seasons with five different major league teams. Like a lot of outstanding managers, his career as a player was largely forgettable. He hit just .260 lifetime as a part-time utility player, making appearances at all three infield base positions as well as in the outfield.

His last two years as a player were in a Red Sox uniform, and when he retired after the 1964 season Boston offered him a coaching job with its AAA affiliate in Seattle. Shortly after accepting the post, the big league affiliations of several International League clubs were shuffled, with Boston’s moving from Seattle to Toronto. Seattle manager Edo Vanni was a local native who resigned rather than move to the Midwest. Williams was offered the post, and promptly led Toronto to back-to-back International League championships. That was enough to earn him a one year contract to manage the Red Sox, despite his limited resume and the fact that he was just 37 years old.

Boston would be but the first stop for Williams on what would eventually be a well-traveled Hall of Fame career as a major league skipper. In Oakland he led Charlie Finley’s A’s to consecutive World Championships. In Montreal he took the lowly Expos to their one and only appearance in the post-season. Back on the west coast, Williams turned the Padres around and managed San Diego to an appearance in the 1984 World Series. Along the way he also made stops in Anaheim and Seattle.

A tough taskmaster and something of an authoritarian, Williams possessed a style that virtually guaranteed he wouldn’t be in any one job for very long. But it was a style that could also bring out the best in his players, and as he ran up some 1,571 regular season wins, he made some historically bad teams play decidedly better.

Nowhere was that more true than in his very first major league stop at Fenway Park. In 1966 the Red Sox had suffered their eighth consecutive losing season. They had lost 90 games and finished just one-half game out of last place in the American League, some 26 games back of the Baltimore Orioles. With attendance at Fenway sometimes failing to crack 10,000, owner Tom Yawkey was making noises about moving the franchise. Certainly no one had much reason to think that 1967 would be any different, especially with a green manager at the helm.

But Williams arrived with the bold prediction that “we will win more games than we will lose.” He also promised a hustling, hard-working effort, assuring skeptics that his players “won’t quit on me. They didn’t quit in Toronto and they won’t quit here.”

Riding his players hard, benching those whose effort he felt was lacking, and charging out of the dugout to argue with any umpire who had made a questionable call, the first year big league manager began to get some utterly unexpected results. At the All-Star break, the Red Sox were above .500 and within striking distance of the Tigers, Twins, and White Sox, the three clubs that had been expected to vie for the league title. Carl Yastrzemski was having a breakout year at the plate, and would go on to win the American League Triple Crown. On the mound, 25-year old Jim Lonborg was on his way to leading the league in wins with 22.

In late July, the Red Sox inserted themselves firmly into the midst of the pennant race with a ten game winning streak. As summer turned to fall and sport’s longest season wound down, Chicago became the first of the four teams to fall out of the picture. When the final weekend of play arrived, Minnesota led by a game and arrived in Boston for a decisive two-game series, while Detroit faced Los Angeles.

A Boston victory on September 30th created a two-way tie at the top of the American League, while the Tigers were a half-game back, and needed to sweep a doubleheader from the Angels to force a playoff against the winner of the contest at Fenway Park.

On that final Sunday Detroit bested Los Angeles in the first game, but the Tigers’ bullpen was unable to hold on in the second. Meanwhile in Boston the Red Sox broke through for five runs in the fifth inning, and Lonborg prevailed over the Twins’ own 20-game winner Dean Chance. Led by a first-year manager, the Boston Red Sox, losers of 90 games in 1966, won their 92nd game of 1967 and with it earned their first American League championship in more than two decades.

In the end of course, the Red Sox were not quite able to finish the journey in 1967. But they took the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the Fall Classic, and now more than four decades later that final shortfall is mostly forgotten. The very idea of the Sox playing for a championship that year seemed laughable when the early spring call for pitchers and catchers went out. But that was before Dick Williams proved for the first time, though certainly not for the last, that he had a unique ability to make players believe in themselves; and a managerial gift for turning losers into winners.

Williams had an old school style that would be a tough fit in modern clubhouses filled with millionaire players. Late in his life he acknowledged as much, telling an interviewer “I wouldn’t last a week.” But he remains one of just two managers to take three different teams to the World Series. And if he might have been out of place in the 21st century, Boston fans are eternally grateful that Williams was around some four decades ago. In New England that magical season is still known as the Impossible Dream. For making that dream come true the late Dick Williams will always have a special place in the hearts of Red Sox Nation.

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