Thanking Dick Williams…Finally

The late Dick Williams, doing what great leaders do

If you are not a baseball fan, or under the age of thirty, you probably never heard of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 84. I never met Williams myself, but I have been indebted to him for four decades. I never told him the immense difference he made in my life, just by doing his job.

In the winter of 1967, I was a devoted fan of my home town team, the Boston Red Sox, and had been since 1962.  Over that period I had listened to every single baseball game on my transistor radio when a game wasn’t on TV, which was most of the time, or when I wasn’t at the game, which was almost always the case. I was the only person I knew who followed the team, and for good reason: it was torture. The Red Sox were hopelessly mediocre on the way to awful, and hadn’t had a winning season in more than ten years.

It is a great character builder to follow the fortunes of a terrible baseball team. Almost every day, for six months, you are let down, and yet return to the scene of your despair the next, attempting to muster hope while steeling yourself against likely disappointment. You find yourself finding things to appreciate other than winning: the gallant veteran player who “plays the right way” (Eddie Bressoud, shortstop, 1962-1965); the exciting rookie who gives promise of a better future (Tony Conigliaro, right fielder—rest in peace, Tony); the unique talent who is worth watching for his own sake (Dick Radatz, relief pitcher, 1962-1966). These things help, but following a perennial losing team and caring about them is like being punched in the gut four or five days a week without knowing which day you’re getting it.

Since 1965, I had always reserved seats for the first day of the season and one of the last two home games, just in case those last games would be crucial to a (hahahaha!) Red Sox pennant drive. This was especially pathetic, since the team was getting worse. They had finished in a tie for 9th place in 1966, and as the 1967 season loomed, Vegas had them installed as 100-1 underdogs to win the American League pennant. In truth, the odds should have been longer. Nonetheless, I wrote the Red Sox and got my tickets, this time for the next to last day of the season.

The team was full of rookies and near rookies, and appropriately had hired a minor league manager, Dick Williams, to be the new skipper. Williams was something else, however: he was a gifted leader. One day, in the middle of Spring Training, a Boston scribe asked the new manager what the prospects were for the upcoming season. Would the team escape the cellar? Would there be forward progress? Williams’ answer was instant front page news:

“We’ll win more than we lose.”

What Dick Williams did with that short, direct statement was instantly accept responsibility for the performance of the team. He was defining a mission, which is what leaders must do, and he was setting an ambitious mission, which is what missions should be. But he was also putting his credibility on the line, and serving notice to the team that he had high expectations of them, and would accept nothing less than success.

The Red Sox season that followed was one like no other in baseball history, in a summer that nobody in Boston that year will ever forget. The team, with a starting line-up that averaged just 24 years old, played every baseball game like its life depended on it. They had plenty of weaknesses and often fell behind, but developed a habit of furious late inning comebacks. Soon the 1967 Red Sox were known as the Cardiac Kids; one of my father’s colleagues at work actually was a victim, dropping dead in the Fenway Park stands, of a heart attack, during a typical 9th inning rally.

By the purest luck, there were no dominant teams in the ten team (no divisions or play-offs) American League that year, and for the whole summer, the Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, and, briefly, Angels were tied or nearly tied for first place. All seemed to have more talent and assets than the Red Sox, except that Boston had two special weapons: left-fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who had been goaded by Dick Williams to finally achieve the superstar level of performance that had been expected of him when he took over left for Boston icon Ted Williams in 1961, and the manager himself. Dick Williams was prominent in every game, juggling line-ups, playing players in new positions, benching stars who didn’t hustle, trying risky strategies, often involving placing trust and responsibility in untested young players. And it worked.

Suddenly the Boston area, which had abandoned the team in boredom and disgust to such a degree that some felt that it would soon move to another city, was obsessed with this great, unexpected adventure. The summer of 1967 was marked across the country by anti-war demonstrations, civil rights protests and urban riots, but the mood in Boston was elevated and upbeat, because everybody cared about the Red Sox.

I know, I know. It was just a game. But being made to care about something, the essence of being a sports fan, is something to be treasured. Roger Angell in his essay “Agincourt and After,” expressed it perfectly:

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

Every day, that wonderful summer, I awoke to check the standings in the newspaper. By July my parents and friends had been drawn into my passion; when the Red Sox came back from an 8-run deficit to win the second game to sweep a doubleheader, I got seven phone calls of congratulations, as if I had done it myself. And when the season came down to its final weekend, three teams—the Twins, Tigers, and my Red Sox,  were within one game of first place. Two of them, the Twins and the Sox, were playing each other, with the Red Sox having to win both.

And I had those tickets.

History records that the Red Sox won the two games, and went to the World Series, where they ultimately lost in seven games to the clearly superior St. Louis Cardinals. Nobody, and I mean, nobody, gave a damn. The season had been so marvelous and thrilling, and the young heroes had performed so valiantly, that losing that Series was barely a disappointment. Everybody cared about baseball, either again, or for the first time.
And here’s the amazing thing: they never stopped. It is 2011, and the Red Sox have sold out over 500 straight games. The city, and New England, places the team and the players at the heart of their culture. That aspect of the culture didn’t develop in 2004, when the team finally won its long deferred World Series championship. It emerged in 1967.

Dick Williams made it happen.

I owe Dick Williams for giving me the best summer, and most vivid memories, of my life, but more than that, I owe him for the lessons that 1967 season taught me about life and leadership:

1. Do your job. Your performance will have unpredictable effects on others that will extend far beyond what you can possibly foresee. We are all linked in invisible, intangible ways, and when we renege on our duties and responsibilities, there is harm done that we may never realize or understand. When we do our job well, however, it can profoundly affect the lives of people we will never meet or know for the better. Dick Williams gave everything he had to managing a baseball team with low expectations, and changed lives, a franchise, a city and a culture.

2. Never give up. Determination does matter; perseverance does matter. So does loyalty, idealism and optimism. You never give up because events can swing your way when you least expect it. Miracles do happen, and human beings make them happen. Despair and resignation are fatal.

3. Leaders lead. Dick Williams put his head on the block when he made his Spring Training promise, and there were axes being sharpened to chop it off. But his statement was the kind of thing great leaders do, and sent a message. During the season, he repeatedly attempted risky, eccentric, bold tactics, and succeeded with them more often than not. When they worked, he let his players take the credit for confirming his faith in them. When they failed, he was accountable, and said so.

4. You have to be lucky sometimes. But by its very nature, luck can’t be predicted. Just make sure you do everything you can with the things you can control, and accept the fact that luck will often determine the rest.

5. Caring matters, and if you care about something, it is important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

6. The greatest accomplishment a leader can have is changing a culture for the better.

7. Hemingway was right: winning is wonderful, but what matters most is the character you display while engaging in the battle.

8. Heroes are real, essential, life-altering, and rare. Cherish them whenever and wherever you find them.

9.  Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t take losing too hard. Failure and losing are what makes winning and success feel so good. And winning and success only last until the next failure.

10. Finally, be grateful to the people who make a difference in your life, and pay your debts.

I should have written this to Dick Williams before he died, and I regret that now. Of course, he was a crusty old SOB—in 1967, he was a crusty young SOB—and might have thrown my letter in the toilet. Still, I owed him this. Now that he’s gone, this blog post is the best I can do.

Thank you, Dick Williams.

For doing your job.

6 thoughts on “Thanking Dick Williams…Finally

  1. Beautifully and thoughtfully done.

    Is there any way you can get this to his family? Or someone in your network?

  2. When the subject of sports comes up, and someone eventually asks me what I think, my invariable response has been that my indifference to sports is legendary, or would be, if only I were the stuff legends are made of. I intend humility by that reply, and hope it comes off that way, but it’s honest, just the same. Yet, by golly, here you had me reading a post, Jack, ostensibly about a baseball team (it was, of course more), and enjoying it. Now, that’s writing. Second Elizabeth’s motion.

  3. I still hate the Red Sux and always will but its nice to remember when the sucked. The way some Sux fans act you would think they were always the team they are today.

    • I agree. I don’t like those fans any more than you do. Red Sox fans are almost as spoiled as Yankee fans—the team has had just four losing seasons in 44 years. I endured more lousy teams in from 1962-1966 than Boston has had to follow since 1967, and they still wouldn’t stop bitching about the World Series. Tell it to the Cubs..

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