The man known as “Sweet Swinging Billy Williams” is one of the greatest Cubs ever. The Baseball Hall of Fame calls him one of the greatest players ever.
Williams drove in 100 or more runs in 10 straight seasons, hit 20 or more homers 12 years in a row, and was part of the 1969 team that should've won it all. He still lives and dies for the Cubs, and talked recently with WBEZ’s sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout about this year’s team, and what it would mean to all the past Cubs if this current crop could win it all.
Cheryl Raye-Stout: How does it feel watching this Cubs team playing playoff baseball in October?
Billy Williams: Normally this time of year, I’ll be sitting at home eating popcorn or peanuts and watching the game on TV.
Coming to the ballpark today, I remember coming down the Eisenhower and I saw a couple of guys with Cub uniforms … I’m coming down the Eisenhower and I told the driver, “Pull up beside them.” And I rolled down the window and I asked them [if they’re] Dodger fans … And he almost ran into a couple cars when he recognized who I was. His wife was taking pictures, he was trying to drive, he was trying to take pictures.
It’s a good feeling. That’s how it is this time of year. You’re playing championship baseball and I think the experience we got last year--we had a young ball club, and I often say we were playing with house money last year. We weren’t expected to win those games last year, but I think we’re expected to go all the way this year.
Raye-Stout: What’s been the biggest difference from the time you stepped on the field and Wrigley til now? What’s the biggest changes you’ve seen in how this year’s club emulates success?
Williams: We got a young ballclub here. And the guys came to the big league at a young age. But they didn’t come in looking at playing Major League Baseball saying “ooh” and “ahh.” [It’s] “I’m supposed to be here.” Take a guy like Baez. He came here to be a utility player. You know, he’d played in about 130 ballgames. I often tell him if there was a 10th man in baseball, you would be it.
This is the thing, we had veteran players [in the 1960s]. We had [Ron] Santo, [Ernie] Banks, myself, Fergie [Jenkins]--a lot of guys who had played in the major and minor leagues for several years. But here you’ve got guys that have only been in the minor leagues for two or three years. Now they’re playing Major League Baseball.
Raye-Stout: Back in 1969, when your team was expected to win, you knew what the pressures were like. How much more is it now? It has to be 10, 20, 30, 40 times more now than it ever was.
Williams: Because of media, because of the exposure that the team gets now, everybody’s looking at baseball. There’s only four teams playing now, and everyone’s zeroing in on those particular teams.
You want to do it right now, because three years from now some guys might leave the baseball team. The pressure of winning is now.
I think [Cubs Manager] Joe [Maddon] has eased that pressure by telling the guys, “Hey, you won 103 baseball games. Just go out and play the game of baseball, just like you’ve been doing.”
They’re going out and just enjoying themselves. Playing baseball. You come out here, the music is loud. Leo [Durocher, the Cubs’ manager from 1966-1972] would have went back in the clubhouse if he had been out here and the music that loud! But Joe, he’s right with him.
Raye-Stout: How much would it mean to you, and Fergie, and Ryne Sandberg, and Andre Dawson, and all the former Cubs who reached the pinnacle of the Hall of Fame but never got the championship. … How much would it mean to all of you collectively?
Williams: It would mean a lot if the team went all the way.
[When] I’m at the Hall of Fame, I see Cincinnati, I see Joe Morgan, I see Johnny Bench, I see the Cardinals, I see Bob Gibson, I see Stan Musial, I see Lou Brock. … They like to sport their red coats. So I’m looking forward to going to the Hall of Fame this year with a blue suit on. I would love that. Just to sport it.
Raye-Stout: And a nice big ring?
Williams: And a nice big ring. Of course that. It would be nice. It’d just give me a great thrill and I think all the players who performed through the years--not only the Hall of Fame players, but guys who’ve come here and gave all to try and have this ball club win a World Series. … I’m saying how much Ernie and Santo, what kind of thrill they would be having now. So that would be great.
Raye-Stout: What do you think it’s going to be like in Chicago when, at the end of the World Series, the Chicago Cubs are crowned World Series champions?
Williams: Well, we’ve had a long time to prepare for this. It’s going to be a big party. I think the celebration will be great. When was it, 2003? When we got five outs from the World Series. People were standing on the outside just getting ready to celebrate. You had 40,000 people in here and there were about 30,000 or 40,000 people on the outside getting ready to celebrate.
I think it will be a big celebration.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.
The Cubs must defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series in order to reach the World Series, which begins Tuesday, October 25 in Cleveland. As of Thursday morning, the NLCS is tied 2-2. Game 5 of the NLCS is tonight at 7:08 P.M. central time on Fox Sports 1.