Asked to describe his managerial style, Dick Williams once said: “I have never been a sit-still, conservative manager. I will have basically the same rules for all players. Some have to be patted, some have to be kicked.” Williams did a lot of kicking in his 21 years as a big league manager, but it paid off: he won four pennants and two World Series titles.
Raised in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization that produced several future managers, Williams was for the most part a traditional old school manager who liked to prevent runs through pitching and defense as much as scoring.
“I intend to have a club very well-versed in fundamentals, until it’s coming out of their ears,” he said upon accepting one of his managerial jobs, “defense is very big in baseball, as it is in every sport. There are two things I insist on – 100% hustle … and avoiding mistakes.”
As the skipper of the Oakland A’s from 1971-1973, Williams fielded a team in that mold, and he guided the colorful club to three division titles and two World Series championships. He was a very good tactical in-game manager: his “Swinging’ A’s” were 9-4 in one-run games in the 1972 and 1973 post-seasons. He melded together a bunch of players who often hated each others guts and took them to the top of the mountain. After the ’73 World Series triumph, however, even Williams couldn’t handle owner Charlie Finley any longer and he bolted, eventually landing in California with the Angels.
In Williams’ first major league managerial stop, with the Red Sox, he proved how great he was with young players, as he steered Boston to the pennant in what was called “The Impossible Dream.” The Sox hadn’t won a flag in 21 seasons but the 38-year old Williams captured one in his very first try as a big league manager. The Sox fired him late in the ’69 season after they struggled to regain their magic and Williams clashed with star Carl Yastrzemski. But his success in Oakland vindicated him in many ways.
After parting ways with Finley, Williams briefly signed with the New York Yankees in December of ’73, but Finley successfully challenged the move arguing that he still had the manager under contract for two seasons. Eventually, Finley received compensation from the Angels and Williams was free to manage them during the ’74 campaign. His tenure with the Halos was his least successful, and he was gone after parts of three seasons after he lost the respect of many of his players.
But he was too good of a manger to stay unemployed long, and Williams inked a lucrative deal with the Montreal Expos, a team that had never had a winning record in their eight-years in the NL. Williams arrived in Canada at the right time, as the Expos farm system produced talents like Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, Ellis Valentine, and Warren Cromartie in the late 1970s. He steadily improved the team and had the club in first place much of the ’79 season before they lost the division to the Pirates in the last week. Their 95 victories were by far the best in franchise history. The following season the Expos started slow but pushed into first place in June. They were tied for first place with Philadelphia entering the last weekend of the season when the ‘Spos and Phils met at Olympic Stadium for a three-game series. Montreal lost a squeaker on Friday and then were eliminated on Saturday when they blew a ninth-inning lead and lost in extra-innings. The team had won 90 games again, but fell one game short.
In 1981, Williams had another talented player in his lineup – young speedster Tim Raines. When the season was halted by a player’s strike, Williams and the Expos were four games behind the Phillies, who were declared “first-half division winners.” When the talented Expos got off to a 14-12 record after play resumed, Williams was axed. The veteran skipper has experienced run-ins with several of his stars, especially ace Steve Rogers and closer Jeff Reardon. The Expos went on to advance to the playoffs under Williams’ replacement (Jim Fanning) but did not get to the World Series.
Having shown that he could turn a losing franchise into a winner in Montreal with Les Expos, Williams was tabbed by Ray Kroc to manage his San Diego Padres in 1982. The Padres had garnered only one winning season in their 13 years in the NL, and never finished higher than fourth place. Unlike in Montreal, however, Williams did not have a talented core of young players in sunny San Diego, and he was charged with motivating a team that was accustomed to being out of the race by July every year.
Williams did some of his finest managing in San Diego, leading the club to break-even 81-81 marks in his first two seasons. Then, in 1984, armed with a good young pitching staff and three great young outfielders (Tony Gwynn, Carmelo Martinez, and Kevin McReynolds), Williams guided the Padres to their first division crown. The team got off to a hot 8-1 start and then battled with Atlanta for the division lead until June when Williams’ team ran away from the pack, helped also by veterans Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles, and Goose Gossage, all of whom had winning pedigrees. The Padres won 19 games in both June and July and cruised to the playoffs. In the NLCS the Padres faced the Chicago Cubs, who were favored. When the Cubs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series, it looked like the experts were right, but Williams’ team fought back to win the final three games – each in comeback fashion – thanks largely to the effective bullpen and timely hitting. The ’84 World Series pitted Williams against an old foe – Sparky Anderson – a manager he’d defeated in the ;72 Fall Classic. The winner would become the first skipper to win titles in the AL and NL. Dick’s team was no match for Sparky’s team however, and the Tigers won in five games.
Williams, by this time 56 years old, managed one more season in San Diego, producing another winning record in 1985. But a few weeks before spring training in ’86, Williams was suddenly and unexpectedly fired. Team management, in a power struggle over the future of the franchise as Kroc’s health waned, didn’t want the strong-willed Williams any longer. It was a sad exit for the only San Diego manager to post four winning season, but it was the nature of the business and Williams moved on.
Williams waited on the sidelines for the first two months of the ’86 season before his phone rang again. This time an AL team known for losing wanted Williams to turn them around – the Seattle Mariners. Like his previous tours in Montreal and San Diego, Williams was taking over an expansion franchise which had never finished higher than fourth place. Taking over a very young team, Williams improved the M’s record that first season and then did the unthinkable the following year – had them winning. At the All-Star break in ’87 the Mariners were 45-43 and even though they were in fifth place, they were only 3 1/2 games behind the Minnesota Twins the AL West. With young players Alvin Davis, Phil Bradley, Harold Reynolds, Jim Presley, and a talented pitching corps led by Mark Langston and Mike Moore, the Mariners eventually came in at a respectable 78-84, their best win total in franchise history. The following season, when his offense sagged, Williams was fired in June with the team record at 23-33. It was his final job as a major league manager.
His final big league record was 1571-1451, a .520 winning percentage. He guided four different teams to the post-season and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.