By Art Martone
Dick Williams, the man who took over as Red Sox manager in 1967 and was the catalyst for a baseball revitalization that reverberates to this day, died Thursday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 82.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal, which reported the news, said Williams died of "what was believed to be a brain aneurysm."
Williams, elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2008, is best known nationally for guiding the Oakland A's to back-to-back World Series titles in 1972-73 (he resigned, due to conflicts with owner Charles O. Finley, prior to the A's third consecutive championship in 1974), and for leading two other teams (Boston and San Diego) to the World Series. He is one of only seven managers to qualify for the World Series with both A.L. and N.L. teams.
But locally, he'll forever be remembered as the crew-cutted, hard-driving taskmasker who changed the culture of the Red Sox.
As a utility player with the Sox at the end of his career in 1963 and '64, he was disgusted by the players' casual approach to their jobs and management's inability (or unwillingness) to impose accountability or discipline on them . . . which had been the case almost from the day Tom Yawkey bought the team in 1932. Upon his retirement he was appointed manager of the team's Triple-A affiliate in Toronto, where he worked in 1965 and '66 while the parent club lost a combined total of 190 games.
Williams was promoted to Boston at the end of the '66 season and he promised things would be different in 1967.
Were they ever.
The 1967 Red Sox were coming off eight consecutive losing seasons, and three straight years of 90 or more defeats. (They lost 100 on the nose in 1965.) They hadn't been in a pennant race since 1955, hadn't been a serious contender since 1951, and hadn't won a pennant since 1946. Ted Williams' retirement at the end of the 1960 season had almost extinguished interest in the team; the average attendance for a game at Fenway Park during the post-Ted era of 1961-66 was 10,026.
"You couldn't give tickets away -- no one wanted them," remembered Rico Petrocelli, the shortstop of the '67 team, in a book he wrote about the team in 2007.
But in this wasteland, Williams saw opportunity.
I thought we hada good ballclub, he remembered in a 1984 television interview. Wewere short on pitching, but we had guys that could play . .. A lot ofthem were going through the motions.
Not anymore, they wouldn't.
Two of the greatest managers in Red Sox history -- Dick
Williams (left) and Terry Francona -- chat prior to a game
at Fenway in 2008.
Williams took charge with a forcefulness unseen in previous Red Sox managers. He stripped Carl Yastrzemski of the ceremonial title of captain, saying (in those pre-politically correct times) "I'm the chief and the players are Indians." He ran meticulous drills, pounding the fundamentals of baseball into the players. He laid down laws and (more importantly) he enforced them . . . consequences be damned. For instance: He put a weight limit on first baseman George Scott and benched Scott, one of his best hitters, for three straight games in Anaheim when he was overweight. The Sox lost all three games by one run, and Angels shortstop Jim Fregosi cracked, "We've got nine managers in this then-10-team league and one dietitian."
But it worked. The Red Sox stayed in contention through the first half of the season, caught fire with a 10-game winning streak in July that propelled them to the top of the standings, and scratched through a four-team pennant race that was one of the tightest in baseball history. And when they beat the Twins -- and the Tigers lost to the Angels -- on Sunday, Oct. 1, the last day of the season, Boston had its first pennant in 21 years.
"Tell Fregosi the dietitian won," Williams said in the postgame celebration.
It was more than just one team winning one championship. 1967 came to be known as the Summer of Love, but in New England it had a different meaning. This region's affection for its baseball team, numbed by years of mediocrity, was reborn. When the Sox returned home after the 10th consecutive win in July, 15,000 people were waiting to greet them at Logan Airport. A man caused a huge traffic tieup on the Southeast Expressway when he refused to enter the tunnel until he'd heard the result of a crucial at-bat on his car radio. It's said you could walk along any New England beach that summer and never miss a pitch of a game, as transistor radios blared from every blanket.
"John Lennon hadonce said that The Beatles were more popular than God," wrote Petrocelli. "In 1967, theRed Sox were more popular than The Beatles!"
Around here, they were. It was the year that the seeds of the fanaticism we see today -- Red Sox Nation, to coin a phrase -- were planted.
And Dick Williams was the gardener.
Williams would only manage the Sox for two more years. Unable to dial down his pedal-to-the-metal approach, he eventually alienated a vast number of the players and was fired just before the end of the 1969 season. He would go on to manage five other teams -- the A's, Angels, Expos, Padres and Mariners -- and finished his 21-year career with a record of 1,571 wins and 1,451 losses. His teams won four pennants and two World Series.
He remained active until the end of his life. Just two weeks ago he was at a Hall of Fame event in Cooperstown, mourning the recent deaths of Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Harmon Killebrew, Duke Snider and Sparky Anderson, and talking about the "rough" road ahead for one of his ex-players, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer.
"I guess there are 53, 54 of us Hall of Famers left now," Williams said. "It's sobering."
Two weeks later, he himself was gone.
But his legacy in Boston will never be forgotten.
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.