Cubs 101 - Pt. 9 - Sweet Swingin' Billy
David Claerbaut wrote his book about “Durocher’s Cubs – The Greatest Team That Never Won Anything”. This is the Cubs team of my extreme youth, and of course, Claerbaut’s presumption that they were the greatest team that did not win anything is obviously flawed, but we suppose it helped sell his books. There have been better teams over the wide array of human sporting endeavors, in the long history of human existence, who failed to win a championship. We’re unsure, however, if any non-winning team was more famous, or revered by their fans, as if they actually had won something. Part of the reason why stems from the talent that did exist - three bonafide Hall-of-Famers, and a fourth on the bubble.
We’ve already discussed Mr. Cub, one Earnest Banks at some length. For good reason, he was and remains the Face of the Franchise. But it can be argued that Billy Williams was the better player of the two, and the best player on the 1969-era Cubs.
Billy Williams was money, kids. In fact, I cannot recall a single good thing that happened to the Cubs in those days that didn’t involve him, and with good reason. Between September 1963 and September 1970, Sweet Swingin’ Billy didn’t miss a game. But mere participation doesn’t seal the deal. Billy did it all. He was one of those left-handed hitting guys who looked sooo smooth at the plate – hence the moniker. He hit for average, leading the league with a .333 in 1972. He hit for power – 426 homers and a mess of doubles. Even though he wasn’t known for his fielding, he is perhaps best well known for one play – the catch he made in the “well” on Hank Aaron’s wind-blown drive, which preserved Ken Holtzman’s 1969 no-hitter, which incidentally was the first game I ever watched on TV. Billy didn't make errors, he threw guys out on the paths, not like Alfonso Soriano does today, but he did it all.
The team won far more often than they lost between 1968-1972, and as Williams drove in 98, 95, 129, 93, and 122 RBI, respectively during that five-year period, it stands to figure even to those who didn’t get to see him, that he was involved in most of the good stuff. He was not a spectacular player, with other-worldly talent, like a Bo Jackson or even Sammy Sosa. He was not a gimmicky guy, he didn’t click his heels like Ron Santo. He didn’t reach any major milestones, no 500 homers or 3000 hits, like Banks. He won the Rookie of the Year, but that was his last major individual award until his 1972 batting crown. I can’t really conjure up one particular game where he truly stood out, save perhaps the day the Cubs set aside for him in 1969, where he went 5-for-9 in a doubleheader against the Cardinals.
The one prevailing memory I have of Billy Williams is that, day after day for several years, in a time of my life where consistency and structure meant everything to me, when Jack Brickhouse read off the lineups before the game, Billy Williams batted third and played left field. Nearly everything else in life was variable, except in the “three hole” – B. Williams, LF. He was solid, you could always count on him, and if it seems like I am repeating the same thing over and over again, that is entirely intentional.
In these days of free agency and DL trips for hangnails, I cannot come up with a suitable modern-day analogy. He had the longetivity of Cal Ripken, the performance of, probably, a Jeff Bagwell in his prime, and the lack of controversy and total class both men exhibited. Just simply somebody you could count on, and take for granted. In fact, many of us were worried that he was SO taken for granted, that he would be bypassed for induction into the Hall. It was one of the big ups for the Hall that they remembered him. As Leo Durocher said, "Sugar and spice. Billy Williams was a classall to himself." I can't write enough, and feel I have paid proper homage to the man.
Feel free to pile on if you're my age, if you wish.
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