It's All About R-E-S-P-E-C-T for 'Sweet Swinging' Billy Williams
Ask most Cubs fans to name the other player who could have laid claim to the title Mr. Cub and the first name to enter most minds will be that of a mechanical, methodically consistent outfielder whose career also took to him to Cooperstown.
If Ernie Banks had never donned the uniform, “Sweet Swinging” Billy Williams might well have earned that very honor for himself. For thirteen of his eighteen major league seasons he played in the shadow of the hugely popular Banks and although he got it from opposing pitchers, Williams never got the respect he deserved from the fans or the media in Chicago or the rest of the country.
His 147 hits, 25 home runs, 86 RBI’s and .277 batting average were enough to earn him the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1961, but the media’s attention was focused on Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris who were dueling to surpass Babe Ruth’s legendary season-high home run total and in 1972 he finished a distant second behind Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench and forced to take the proverbial back seat again.
After more than a decade of great accomplishments and keeping silent about the lack of respect he received for them, it was clear the usually tight-lipped Alabaman was beginning to resent being taken for granted when he told the Sporting News he was very unhappy with the voting results. Williams hit 37 home runs with 122 RBIs while maintaining a .333 average while Bench, who topped Williams’ home run and RBI total by three, had batted a whopping 63 points lower but got the award because the Reds won the pennant that year. A year earlier Willie Stargell, who had led the Pittsburgh Pirates the National League pennant, lost out to Joe Torre who was giving the award because of his better statistics.
The 1972 voting wasn’t even close. Bench had easily captured the award and Williams, who had been baseball’s most consistent hitter over the past five years, was angry in his own soft-spoken way.
“Every year there seems to be a different set of rules. Look at the figures. I was ahead in average and almost even in home runs and RBIs. You have to feel you weren’t awarded something you deserved and it a feeling that sticks with you.”
“Well after 13 years in the big leagues I’m going to let the other guy be the nice guy. I’m going to speak out if I see something. You get tired of people saying it’s easy for you to hit .300. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work.
For his entire career, other, more colorful Cubs overshadowed him in his own ballpark. If he wasn’t competing for attention with Ernie Banks Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, he was doing so with his own manager Leo Durocher whose “lip” was legendary for drawing the attention of fans and the media as well as the ire of his own players; now Williams’ lack of nation-wide media attention had possibly cost him the hard earned MVP award. Williams’ career was drawing to a close at the end of the 1972 campaign and he was only two years away from leaving the Cubs. He had spent the peak years of his career quietly building a Hall of Fame resume while trying to earn the respect he was so deserving of in Chicago.
When the following season rolled around the Cubs had made it clear that he did not fit into their plans for the future when they tried to convert him to first base during spring training. He was doomed to failure in that position so the Cubs grudgingly moved him back to left field, but the writing was on the wall.
Williams was traded to the World Champion Oakland Athletics after the 1974 season where he hoped to finally get the respect he deserved by winning a World Series ring.
The ring never came, but the respect did when the writers who had ignored him during his playing days recognized his incredible career by electing him to the Hall of Fame in 1987. Only ten days later he returned to Wrigley Field where his number 26 was raised to fly with Mr. Cub’s.