Obituary: Stan Williams (1936-2021)

RIP to Stan Williams, an intimidating All-Star pitcher and a long-time pitching coach. He died on February 20 at his home in Laughlin, Nev., at the age of 84. According to his son, Stan Jr., he was hospitalized on Feb. 11 and was in hospice care for cardio-pulmonary illness. Williams played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1958-62), New York Yankees (1963-64), Cleveland Indians (1965, 1967-69), Minnesota Twins (1971), St. Louis Cardinals (1971) and Boston Red Sox (1972).

Stanley Wilson Williams was born on September 14, 1936 in Enfield, N.H. The family moved to Colorado when he was 2 years old, and he grew up on the east side of Denver. He would eventually reach a height of 6’5″, but he was known as “Big” Stan Williams even in East Denver High School, where he played baseball, basketball and football. He gained a reputation as a strikeout pitcher, thanks to performances like his 1-hit, 20-strikeout game against York, Neb., in an American Legion game in 1953. Newspapers were calling him the fastest Legion pitcher since Rex Barney.

Williams signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization after graduation, and the 17-year-old started his pro ball with the Shawnee Hawks of the Sooner State League. He made his presence known the following season with the Class-B Newport News Dodgers of the Piedmont League. He went 18-7 with a 2.42 ERA and struck out 301 batters in 242 innings. He tied a Piedmont League record set by Johnny Vander Meer when he struck out 20 Lynchburg batters in a game and broke his record for most strikeouts in a season. The only question about the teenager’s ability was his control. In one game, he threw a 1-hitter against the York White Roses (the leadoff hitter bunted for a base hit), but he walked 7 in the process. He ended the year with 158 walks, or an average of 5.9 per 9 innings.

Williams chats with Herb Olson, his catcher on the Fort Worth Cats. Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 13, 1956.

Now that he was a top Dodgers pitching prospect, Williams was moved to the higher levels of the minors for 1956. However, he didn’t fare particularly well with the AAA St. Paul Saints or the AA Fort Worth Cats, with a combined 11-9 record and 4.71 ERA. He got back to his winning ways in 1957, when he won 19 games with the Saints of the American Association. He struck out 223 batters in 246 innings and walked 148 — a slight improvement in his control. He was named to the AA All-Star Team and allowed 1 run in 3 innings of work against the league-leading Wichita Braves in the All-Star Game.

The relocated Los Angeles Dodgers invited Williams to their spring training camp in 1958. He started the season in St. Paul but was promoted to the majors in late May. His debut wasn’t a memorable one, as he pitched 3 innings of relief against the Cardinals on May 17 and gave up 3 runs, including a 2-run homer to Joe Cunningham. Dodgers manager Walt Alston gave Williams a start on June 1 in Chicago, and he shut out the Cubs 1-0 on a 2-hitter. It was a cold day in Chicago with the wind blowing in at 20 mph, which only aided Williams’ fastball. He threw another shutout, this time against the Phillies, on June 18, and Williams cemented his spot in the starting rotation.. Alston never showed much patience with him, as Williams was still prone to giving up too many walks. Of his 21 starts for the Dodgers, he worked 2 innings or less in 7 of them. In one instance, Alston pulled the rookie pitcher after he walked the first two batters of the game. Williams finished with a 9-7 record, 4.01 ERA, 80 strikeouts and 65 walks.

The Dodgers found themselves competing for the NL pennant in 1959, and Williams was given relatively few opportunities to contribute. He started 15 games and relieved in 20 others, with a 5-5 record and 3.97 ERA. He walked almost as many batters as he struck out (86 walks, 89 strikeouts) and became the odd man out in the pitching staff. He saved one of his best performances for his last appearance of the year, working 3 shutout innings in relief against the Milwaukee Braves, coming away with a 6-5 win in 12 innings. He walked the bases loaded in the eleventh inning but averted disaster by getting Joe Adcock to bounce into a force play. When the Dodgers scored in the bottom of the twelfth inning, it sent them to the World Series against the White Sox.

“I knew I owed the club this win and I wanted to go out there and get it,” he said. “This was the very biggest thrill of my life.” Catcher Joe Pignitano added that Williams only threw one curveball in the game, and everything else was a fastball. “So they were all looking for the fast one. But they had to find it first,” he said.

The Dodgers beat the “Go-Go” Sox in the Series, and Williams threw 2 scoreless innings in Game 5, a 1-0 loss. The Dodgers won the Series in six games.

Williams became part of the Dodgers starting rotation from 1960 onward. He was part of a brilliant and young pitching staff that included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres. Williams had a lot in common with Drysdale in particular. Both men were tall right-handers who racked up plenty of strikeouts and didn’t mind throwing an inside fastball or three to intimidate a hitter. Williams’ nickname eventually transitioned from just “Big” to “Big Daddy” or “The Big Hurt” on account of his tendency to hit batters. Williams had that nickname several decades ahead of Frank Thomas.

Members of the Dodgers pitching staff in 1962: Don Drysdale, Pete Richert, Williams, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres.

Williams started 30 of his 38 appearances in 1960 and turned in a 14-10 record, with an even 3.00 ERA Five of those defeats were shutouts, so he pitched better than his record would indicate. He topped 200 innings pitched and struck out 175 batters, putting him 6th in the NL. Williams was selected to both of the All-Star Games that were held that year. He worked 2 scoreless innings in the July 13 game, striking out Pete Runnels and Mickey Mantle. He combined with Vern Law, Podres, Larry Jackson, Bill Henry and Lindy McDaniel to shut out the AL 6-0.

Williams credited his success to his improved control, because he had another pitch to work with besides his fastball. “The big difference is my curveball. I’m getting it over and I’m throwing it faster so it breaks sharper,” he explained. “{Dodgers pitching coach] Joe Becker has been working on it with me for four years, but it’s only in the last games that it’s really come around.”

Williams walked 72 in 207-1/3 innings in 1960 for an average of 3.1 walks per 9 innings. His control problems returned in 1961, with 108 bases on balls in 235-1/3 innings. Williams was able to overcome his wildness and won 15 games anyway, with 205 strikeouts. He was one of only two NL pitchers to top 200 strikeouts, as teammate Koufax led the league with 269 K’s.

The extra walks forced Williams into working harder than he should have. He won an 11-inning complete game against the Milwaukee Braves on May 17, striking out 11… and walking 12. The news reports stated that he threw 205 pitches in the game. “Williams is the strongest man I’ve ever worked on,” commented Wayne Anderson, Dodgers trainer. “How can I tell? By the length of the muscles. Only a guy like Williams, with long muscles, could have done what Stan did tonight.”

The ’61 Dodgers hit 48 batters with pitches, more than any National League team. Drysdale hit 20 all by himself, but Williams added 6 to the team total. One of those was Cincinnati’s Vada Pinson, who was drilled in the helmet in an August 16 game and knocked unconscious. While it was never officially called payback, Pinson had broken Dodgers pitcher Roger Craig’s collarbone in a home plate collision in 1960. Since that incident, Pinson was routinely pegged by Dodgers pitchers.

Williams’ ERA crept upwards since his All-Star season in 1960. In 1961, it rose to 3.90, and it increased further to 4.46 in 1962. Williams had a 13-12 record by mid-September, with the final loss (retiring 1 batter against the Cubs while giving up 4 runs) knocking him out of the rotation entirely., The Dodgers and Giants had identical 101-61 records at the end of the season and headed to a 3-game playoff series (that was still part of the regular season). Alston had thoughts of having Williams start one of the games, but he elected to keep the big right-hander in the bullpen. It ended up being a great decision, as Williams threw 1-2/3 innings of hitless ball in the second game, picking up his 14th win in relief when Ron Fairly hit a game-winning sacrifice fly off Mike McCormick. Unfortunately, he was part of a ninth-inning meltdown the very next day, October 3. The Dodgers were leading 4-2 going into the top of the ninth inning when reliever Ed Roebuck gave up a run and loaded the bases with one out. Williams entered into the game, gave up a sacrifice fly to Orlando Cepeda and walked Ed Bailey intentionally to load the bases. He then walked Jim Davenport, letting the go-ahead run score. Ron Perranoski relieved Williams and allowed another run when rookie second baseman Larry Burright fumbled a grounder, giving the Giants a sixth run. Roebuck took the loss and Williams a blown save as the Giants advanced to the World Series.

It took Williams a long time to get over the bases-loaded walk to Davenport, and he remarked in a 2018 interview that the Dodgers had blacklisted him from most alumni events, possibly because of that walk. The Dodgers management in 2018 wasn’t aware of any intentional snubs and vowed to talk to Williams. I couldn’t find out if the two sides ever resolved their differences or not.

Williams works on his slide in spring training. Source: Asbury Park Press, March 13, 1964.

When the season ended, Williams was traded to the New York Yankees for first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron. The Yankees were in need of pitching help, while the Dodgers needed a good right-handed hitter. Both teams got what they want and won their respective pennants in 1963. Williams went from one impressive pitching staff to another, as the ’63 Yankees featured two 20-game winners with Whitey Ford and Jim Bouton. Ralph Terry also won 17 games and Al Downing 13. By comparison, Williams started the season off strong with a 5-hitter against Baltimore but faltered enough to be taken out of the rotation at one point. He finished the season with a 9-8 record, but he appeared in 29 games and threw 146 innings. His best game of the season came when he threw a 1-hit shutout against Washington, with Williams adopting Don Drysdale’s pitching motion to try and turn around his fortunes. The Dodgers swept the Yankees in the World Series, but Williams threw three scoreless innings in Game One in relief of Ford. He allowed 1 hit and fanned 5 in his only appearance in the Series.

Williams went through a rough period of several years, thanks to a sore arm. He won just one game for the Yankees in 1964 and was purchased by the Cleveland Indians in 1965. He made 3 appearances for Cleveland in relief in 1965, allowing runs in all of them. He spent most of that year and all of the next in the minors and was put on the inactive list in April of 1966. It looked like his career was over.

And then, in the middle of 1967, he came back to the majors and looked just as unhittable as he was in his prime with the Dodgers. What happened? Williams’ downfall actually started back in 1960, when he faced the Milwaukee Braves and starter Lew Burdette. Burdette kept digging a hole in front of the pitcher’s rubber, and Williams eventually stepped in it and slipped mid-pitch. He felt a pop and a pain in his shoulder. Even though he had some excellent seasons with the Dodgers, that pain never went away and eventually cut into his effectiveness as a major-league pitcher.

Source: The Tampa Tribune, May 12, 1965.

Fast forward to 1967, and Williams was fielding batting practice grounders at shortstop as a member of the Portland Beavers. He tossed a ball to first, and “I could feel something pop, and there was a sharp pain and it scared me,” he said. And then, no pain. The fastball was still there, but he could throw without pain for the first time in about seven years. Within weeks, he was back in the majors.

Baltimore thought that his comeback might have involved more than a miraculously healed shoulder. After striking out 14 Orioles in a 13-inning, 2-1 win, Frank Robinson accused Williams of using a spitball. “Is that what Frank said?” Williams asked, smiling. “I call it my straight-down slider. It’s like a regular slider, but you increase the thumb pressure, like you do if you were throwing a spitter. Notice I said if.”

Williams and whatever his pitch repertoire was won 13 games for Cleveland in 1968. His record fell to 6-14 in 1969, though he also picked up 12 saves. He was traded to Minnesota, along with Luis Tiant, for Dean Chance, Bob Miller, Graig Nettles and Ted Uhlander. The Twins kept him in the bullpen in 1970, and he was brilliant, with a 10-1 record, 1.99 ERA and 15 saves. He was part of a dominating bullpen duo with his former Dodgers teammate Perranoski. The Twins won 98 games to finish first in the AL West. They lost to the Orioles in the AL Championship Series in three games, and Williams appeared in two of them. He had 6 scoreless innings to end his postseason record with 11 innings pitched over four games, with 8 strikeouts and 3 hits allowed.

Williams was a little less effective in 1971, as his ERA rose to 4.15 with the Twins, and he wasn’t used in save situations as much. He was traded to the Cardinals late in the season and went on a final dominant run. In 10 relief appearances, Williams won 3 games and had a 1.42 ERA. The Cardinals released him at the end of the season, and he played in the Angels and Red Sox organizations before pitching his final MLB games in the summer of 1972. After three appearances with the Red Sox and a 6.23 ERA, he was released.

In 14 seasons in the majors, Williams had a 109-94 record with a 3.48 ERA. He appeared in 482 games, 208 of which were starts. He threw 42 complete games and 11 shutouts and picked up 42 saves. He also had 1,305 strikeouts and was worth 22.2 Wins Above Replacement in his career, per Baseball Reference.

Williams, left, and fellow reliever Ron Perranoski work on a crossword puzzle. Source: The Spokesman Review, May 28, 1970.

Williams pitched a couple of games for the AA Bristol Red Sox in 1974, when he was 37 years old. He was working as the team’s manager, and he was forced to activate himself after a series of injuries to his pitchers. One of those starts was a no-hitter — his first in professional baseball. Williams rejoined the Red Sox in 1975 — this time as a pitching coach. He held that role off and on with the Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, Reds and Mariners through the 1999 season. After that, he remained in the game as a scout for Tampa Bay and Washington until retiring from the game. Between his time as a player and a coach, he made six trips to the World Series and won two championships (the Dodgers in 1959 and the Reds in 1990).

Williams was the pitching coach for the Reds in the “Nasty Boys” era, and stories of his playing days helped remind people he was one of the original Nasty Boys. “In all the years I played, he was the only guy who scared me, and he was on my team!” recalled Fairly. Several veterans also remembered Williams’ black book, which contained the names of all the batters in the league. Whenever a player did something that irked Williams, they got a star next to their name. After five stars, Williams drew a skull and crossbones — that player was due to get hit the next time he faced Williams. “You could be out for a cocktail and never buy a round. That would get you a star,” Fairly said. “You could hit a home run and stand up there and look at it, like guys do today. Stan might give you two stars for that.”

“It was a different era,” Williams said in 1990. “It was a game of intimidation in those days. I was never a headhunter. I never pitched with the idea of hurting anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been mean.” (Williams hit 71 batters with pitches in his career. Some of them might argue otherwise.)

Williams was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

For more information: Los Angeles Times

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