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Williams signed to play in the Dodger organization two days after he graduated from high school, in 1947. He spent 13 years in the majors with five different teams, playing the outfield and three infield positions and batting .260. As a Baltimore Oriole he once played six different positions in a doubleheader.
"I was influenced by three different managers who wouldn't agree on much if you put them in a room," Williams says. "There was my minor league manager, Bobby Bragan, a Branch Rickey man who believed in fundamentals and total team effort. Then there was Paul Richards, who kept me in the majors four different times—three times with Baltimore and once, on paper, with Houston. Richards was a stickler for pitching and defense. And finally there was Charley Dressen, who managed me in Brooklyn. He was always first-person singular: I did this. I did that.' He taught me what not to do."
Williams' big-league playing career ended with the 1964 Red Sox, and he was immediately hired as player-coach of Boston's Triple A team in Seattle. In 1965 the club moved to Toronto, and Williams moved with it—as manager. Two years later the Red Sox job opened up, and Williams, who had guided Toronto to third-and second-place finishes, was hired. He summarily established himself as a disciplinarian and fundamentalist. Williams shocked the Boston "country club" by benching the overweight George Scott during the 1967 pennant race, and made a Cy Young Award winner of Jim Lonborg by teaching him to throw strikes. A ninth-place team in 1966, Boston went to the seventh game of the 1967 World Series before finally losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.
In a pattern that would repeat itself, Williams was fired two years later amid accusations from his players of aloofness and sarcasm. After a year coaching for Gene Mauch in Montreal he went to Oakland and seemed to mellow with that scruffy bunch, most of whom admired Williams and despised owner Charles O. Finley. Under Williams the A's won three divisional titles and two world championships.
When the miserable Angels came knocking midway through the 1974 season, Williams moved on, languishing until July of 1976, when he was fired. "We didn't have any talent and didn't spend any money," says Williams.
The experience rapidly unmellowed him. "Dick was exceptionally smart but a little difficult to close the door and have a heart-to-heart with," says Seattle's Bruce Bochte, who broke in with the Angels in 1974. In 1977 Williams took over an Expo team that had lost 107 games the previous season. Under Williams, Montreal finished fifth, fourth, second and second, losing the 1979 and 1980 races on the last weekend of the season. With the Expos in second place, 1½ games back last Sept. 8, Williams was replaced by Jim Fanning amid the usual charges. Williams was becoming known as a manager who built winners with youth but couldn't handle the veterans.
"In Montreal he supposedly couldn't communicate with the players and front office," says San Diego President Ballard Smith, "but I decided I'd make my own judgment. There must be some other Dick Williams around. We liked him because he had an excellent track record and because we felt he could get the respect of his players."
As ever, Williams-watchers are waiting for him to outlive his welcome. They say the players will turn on him, either when the Padres start losing or when the players age a year or two and aren't as easily intimidated. But Williams' fifth major league managing job is different from his other four in one important respect: For the first time in his career he has the virtually unwavering support of the front office. Not to mention a three-year contract at approximately $200,000 per season. "If you cross him," says Tolan, "you'll probably only cross him once."
No second-guesser could ask for anything more.