Stan Williams, RIP: High, low, humane

Stan Williams, young and a Dodger.

One minute, you’re the man of the hour in a moment of incontrovertible triumph. The next, you’re the man who wants to find the deepest cave in which to hide in a moment of incontrovertible disaster. Few could tell you more profoundly than Stan Williams, who died Sunday at 84 of cardiopulmonary disease, a family friend announcing the passage on Twitter at the family’s request.

In 1959, when his Dodgers tied the Milwaukee Braves into a three-game pennant playoff, that was Williams entering Game Three tied at five and pitching three shutout relief innings, before old  Brooklyn favourite Carl Furillo won it with an RBI single in the bottom of the twelfth.

But in 1962, that was Williams in another pennant playoff, this time against the Giants, relieving Ed Roebuck in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded and a 4-2 Dodger advantage. And he may have been as much a victim of his manager’s momentary judgment lapse as his own wild tendency.

Williams threw an 0-1 pitch Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda lofted for a sacrifice fly, with Felipe Alou taking third on the play. He wild pitched Hall of Famer Willie Mays to second, turning Ed Bailey’s plate appearance into an intentional walk promptly—and walked Jim Davenport on 3-1 to send the tying Giant run home.

Ron Perranoski relieved Williams and was helpless when an infield error allowed Mays home with what proved to be the Giants’ pennant-winning run, as the Dodgers went in order on a ground out (Maury Wills), a fly out (Junior Gilliam), and a line out (Lee Walls) in the bottom of the ninth.

In one way, Williams was a designated fall guy. Dodger manager Walter Alston had him and Larry Sherry throwing in the pen, but Rob Neyer (in The Big Book of Baseball Blunders) notes Sherry had trouble loosening up so Williams it was, with lefty bat Bailey due up after righthanded-hitting Cepeda. “As Williams was leaving the bullpen,” Neyer wrote, “the lefty Perranoski said to him, ‘You get Cepeda and I’ll get Bailey’.”

“Alston decided to give Bailey the intentional walk,” catcher John Roseboro would remember, “to load the bases and set up the force play at any base. This was quite a burden to load on the wild Williams, and he got too careful pitching to Jimmy Davenport and walked him, forcing in the lead run. That was it.”

“It never bothered me that much because I gave it all I had and it didn’t work out,” Williams was quoted as saying later. “Had I let up and thrown a half-assed fastball and the guy had gotten a base hit I never would have forgiven myself. But I walked him at 100 mph, giving my best shot.”

The bad news was that the Dodgers decided Williams’s ability wasn’t always worth the wildness. They traded him to the Yankees for veteran first baseman Moose Skowron, who’d feel heartsick a year later about having helped beat the Yankees in the 1963 World Series sweep. (Skowron’s heart never left Yankee Stadium no matter where he’d play from there.)

Williams pitched for two Yankee pennant winners, then for the Indians, the Twins (for whom he had a career year—as a relief pitcher in 1970, with a striking 1.99 ERA), the Cardinals, and the Red Sox, before calling it a career to become a pitching coach and, by 1998, a scout. (Before his coaching days ended, Williams as the Mariner’s pitching coach once pulled Yankee right fielder Paul O’Neill right out of a bench-clearing brawl.)

He was rather a behemoth righthander for his time at 6’5″ and 230 pounds at prime playing weight. He wasn’t exactly a control master, which probably had as much as anything to do with batters trembling just a little at his presence, but he threw fast enough to finish second in the National League with 205 strikeouts in 1961.

The only reason Williams didn’t lead the league was a Hall of Fame teammate named Koufax choosing that year to smash Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson’s long-standing National League single-season strikeout record.

He looked like he was prepared to clunk you onto the ground with one arm swing, and he threw inside tight with frequency enough to hit 71 and knock at least that many more down, in a fourteen-season career interrupted by arm trouble provoked in 1964 when he slipped on the rubber while delivering.

There were those who thought Williams was a particularly enthusiastic head hunter; the first of Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo’s Baseball Hall of Shame book series claimed the righthander kept a little black book filled with those who were due for a drill.

Yet Williams was also a kind of baseball humanitarian who was known to go the extra ten miles to help a player he thought worthy. When the Indians traded both Williams and Luis Tiant to the Twins in 1970, Tiant ended up being released by the Twins. To Williams, who claimed Tiant his best friend in the game, that was nothing short of a human rights violation.

“I thought what was happening to Luis was a tragedy,” he told Mark Frost, author of Game Six about that surreal 1975 World Series game started by El Tiante. “I knew Luis when he was sound and I was so sure in my heart that he wasn’t finished. He’s the best friend I ever had in baseball; I respected him as an athlete and I loved him as a person. I also knew how much this game means to him, which has nothing to do with cheers and headlines.”

So Williams did something about it, Frost recorded: he worked the phones with every Show team until the Braves handed Tiant a thirty-day contract to try making that team. The Braves let Tiant go on behalf of a youth movement, but the Red Sox snapped him up. “Luis doesn’t want to impress them,” said Williams, by then Tiant’s and the Red Sox’s pitching coach. “He just wants to beat them.”

A native Coloradan who’d be elected to that state’s Hall of Fame for his high school exploits in Denver, Williams told the audience, “I would still want to pitch every day.”

Williams was also something of a practical joker during his playing days, though once in awhile it backfired. On one fine day, then-Dodger behemoth Frank Howard had the day off and decided he wanted to see the game from the bullpen. Williams decided it’d be a kick to grab a rope and make sure Howard couldn’t leave the pen.

“Williams comes around a dirt pile with a noose, and Howard just picked him up and threw him over the dirt pile in the bullpen,” said Sherry to Pen Men author Bob Cairns. “Howard didn’t even get mad.” If the gentle giant had gotten mad, he could have swung an arm and clunked Williams into the ground. Bet they would have had a few belly laughs over it.

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