Earl Williams' Odd Baseball Career
At a glance, The New York Times of June 12, 1978, doesn't seem like a collector's item.
If anything, stories of Jimmy Carter and the Soviets and a letter to the editor decrying "skewers of uneaten beef" from the Puerto Rican Day parade seem utterly familiar.
But in the sports section that day there's a bit of baseball history. It's not a story: It's a classified ad. "Employment Wanted By Baseball Player ... 8 yrs. in the major leagues ... SALARY: Very Reasonable, Excellent Health — No Police Record ... HAVE BAT — WILL TRAVEL ..."
Noted on the player's resume was the Rookie of the Year award, won only seven years prior. Here was Earl Williams, still a bright young man, relying on the services of the old Gray Lady.
Today, Earl Williams is a retired business executive, living in New Jersey. He shows off an impressive memorabilia collection, made more notable by the fact that it's all of him.
There are photos of him on the cover of Baseball Digest, shaking hands with Bill Clinton at Hank Aaron's birthday party, alongside Curt Flood and Larry Doby. Williams points out a picture of the man for whom the Rookie of the Year Award is now named.
"After I was rookie of the year in 1971, Jackie Robinson was a guest speaker," Williams says as he points to a photo of Robinson.
Williams, an all-state player out of Montclair, N.J., was signed by the Braves after a brief stint in college. The Northerner went south, got over the culture shock and flourished.
"I was very loved by the organization," Williams says.
And the organization loved him, or at least saw that it had in the athletic Williams a great hitter and versatile fielder. So versatile in fact that when Williams was a late season call-up with the big-league team in 1970, he was surprised when the manager said, "Williams, go in and catch."
"And the next day I was a catcher — never having caught in minor leagues or anyplace else," Williams says.
In 1971, he outslugged every catcher in baseball, belting 33 home runs. He connected for 28 homers in his next season, behind only Cincinnati's Johnny Bench. The sport took notice, and the irascible Oriole Earl Weaver was quoted as saying, "Give me Earl Williams, I'll win the pennant." Baltimore's manager got his man, after giving up four starters.
"Pressure was on in a lot of places; I was naive enough to think that all I had to do in order to be successful was play baseball," Williams says.
Williams was about to find out the difference between playing for the nurturing if hapless Braves and the intense but winning Orioles. Ten games into the season, fans were questioning where Williams' power had gone. Then he went on a tear, homering in five of six games in mid-April. But when he slumped, as players inevitably do, Williams for the first time felt under assault from his own manager.
Soon Williams and Weaver were clashing. Williams was suspended for a game in June, with Weaver citing "a reluctance on Williams' part to listen without interruption." Less than a month later a headline in The Baltimore Sun read, "Williams, Weaver Clash Again."
"If certain words go out about you they stick. You can be labeled," Williams says. "I even read about myself being described as militant, controversial, argumentative. I read that I was called into the office for cursing at the fans. That did happen. But what I really took umbrage with was fans that were calling me everything but a child of God, N-word included. We're sitting right in front of the owner and the general manager and yet I was called into the office for harassing fans. So it was a train wreck from the beginning."
Delores Reilly, Williams' 82-year-old mother, remembers the injustices suffered, such as the time pitchers complained they couldn't see Williams' black fingers when he signaled for a pitch. That Williams, one of the few African-American catchers at the time, would point out that his uniform pants were white didn't seem to matter. The mother was suffering through her son.
"Life is not a dress rehearsal and you don't get any curtain calls," Reilly says. "They were complaining because Weaver had said, 'If you get me Earl Williams, I'll win the pennant.' Earl said, 'I didn't say that; that's what Weaver said.' He was unhappy down there."
After the 1974 season it became clear that Baltimore could only accommodate one Earl. Williams was dealt back to Atlanta, where teammates like Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Niekro were glad to have him.
"Earl was as good in the clubhouse and on the bench as I think any teammate I ever had," Niekro says. "He enjoyed the game, had a lot of respect for being able to play the game. He was a good ballplayer — strong like a bull, that guy."
But Williams had a down year and was sent from Atlanta to Montreal and then on to Oakland, where he was productive but battled injuries. And the next year — nothing. No calls. No interest. Just a reputation. So, with little to lose, Williams placed the ad.
"I didn't think this would get me a job," Williams says. "I thought it would highlight the fact that how could I possibly not have one."
Williams was right. No letters of interest arrived to the address given, which happened to belong to the house in which his mother still lives. If anything, some clubs may have been scared away. Williams, too, was — if not scared off — a little scarred. Reilly remembers, "For many years he used to get morose around spring training and the World Series, but now he can watch baseball."
"It took me a long time to forgive myself," Williams says. "What if, what if, what if ... you go through a period of adjustment."
Today Williams calls himself blessed to have even played professionally. He told me a month ago that he'll be rooting for Atlanta this post-season. The only problem is, the Braves have played so poorly down the stretch, they might miss out on the playoffs. Though in baseball it ain't over till its over, or till the final out or till the classified ad goes unanswered.