05/01/08 6:48 PM ET
Williams walks through his past at Hall
Legendary skipper visits as prelude to Induction Weekend
By Jack O'Connell / MLB.com
"Are you having a good time?" Williams asked the youngsters, who nodded their heads.
"So am I," Williams said.
The joyfully satisfying experience of being elected to the Hall of Fame has not worn out one bit for Williams since he was notified of the Veterans Committee's decision at last December's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Thursday's excursion through the hallways of the museum was the latest step in Williams' climb to Induction Weekend, July 25-27, when he will be enshrined with relief pitcher Goose Gossage, fellow manager Billy Southworth, owners Walter O'Malley and Barney Dreyfuss, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
The tradition of bringing the year's inductees to the Hall in the quiet of the spring for a more casual visit dates back to Steve Carlton's appearance here in 1994. It allows them to experience the museum's unique pleasures away from the anxiety that awaits them on Induction Weekend.
"I'm trembling right now," Williams said after the two-hour expedition. "It's the pinnacle of our profession to get elected to the Hall of Fame. You can't help but think about it if your name has been mentioned, which mine was a few years ago. I was here five times for the Hall of Fame Game, but this is the first time I've been in the museum. I'll be 79 by the time of the induction. If I have 10 more years to live, I'll be back every year."
Williams' morning began in the Grandstand Theater, where he viewed the 20-minute film, "The Baseball Experience." It ended with Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.
"I remember when Harry pronounced Mark Grudzielanek's name three different ways in the same at-bat," he said.
Following the movie, Williams started his trip down his personal memory lane, guided by senior curator Tom Shieber, pinch-hitting for vice president and chief curator Ted Spencer, who is on vacation. It was poor timing for Spencer, a Boston native and avid Red Sox fan who well remembers Williams' rookie managerial season of 1967, steering them to their first World Series in 21 years.
Fittingly, the start of the tour is in the area devoted to the game's history and development over the years, with the various rules changes. That reminded Williams of some of the brainstorms he heard from Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley while managing the team in the early 1970s.
"I remember Charlie had us play an exhibition series with a Japanese team under the rules of three balls for a walk and two strikes for an out," he said. "Well, those Japanese pitchers threw strikes all the time, and they murdered us.
"It was during that same spring that we experimented with the orange ball," he added. "The color was stained, not dyed into the leather, so the ball was very slick. Catfish [Jim Hunter] couldn't get a proper grip. We had traded George Hendrick to Cleveland in the offseason, and he was playing for the Indians that day in Mesa, Ariz. First time up against Cat, Hendrick hit a home run. Second time up against Cat, Hendrick hit another home run. Third time, Cat was out of the game, but George homered again. Bowie Kuhn, who didn't like the orange ball, happened to be at the game and asked Hendrick about it. George said he didn't like it because he had trouble picking up the spin. Three home runs, but he couldn't pick up the spin."
The Babe Ruth exhibit, among the Hall's most popular since the Hall's opening in 1939, was the next stop.
"I was in San Antonio playing in the Texas League the day he died," Williams said. "The only time I saw him was in an exhibition with Jimmie Foxx and other retired sluggers. Even at that age, the Babe hit the ball out of sight."
A section on the Brooklyn Dodgers gave Williams time to pause on his early playing career. He was a prospect with the Dodgers, but his career was adversely affected by a separated shoulder in 1952. He looked closely at a photo of Gil Hodges crossing the plate as Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese coached him home.
"Jackie was like a big brother to me when I came to the Dodgers," Williams said. "We were both from Pasadena, and I played ball with his brother Matt. Jackie was a great athlete. He put 50,000 people in the seats of the Rose Bowl when he was playing football in junior college. He took me under his wing when I was starting out."
Another photo showed Don Newcombe completing his windup.
"I was on the bench in that playoff game in 1951," Williams recalled. "Newk struck out the side in the eighth inning."
"Yes, but that was the eighth inning," Shieber said.
The ninth, of course, was the inning the Dodgers could not get through before the Giants' Bobby Thompson broke Brooklyn's pennant dream with the three-run homer off Ralph Branca.
"For some reason, [Dodgers manager] Chuck Dressen had Gil holding Alvin Dark on at first base with a three-run lead, and a hit by Don Mueller went right past him," Williams said. "If Gil had been playing behind Dark, it might have been a double play. We just sat in the corner of the dugout and watched our [World Series] money fly away."
The World Series would finally come Williams' way in 1967, when the 100-1 underdog Red Sox lived "The Impossible Dream" behind left fielder Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown season, the most recent in the Majors.
"Yaz was one of my meal tickets," Williams said. "I never watched a player have a year like the one he had in '67. He won the Triple Crown and was the American League Most Valuable Player. Jim Lonborg won the Cy Young Award. Our general manager, Dick O'Connell, was elected Executive of the Year, and I was named Manager of the Year. We swept the awards but finished a game short of winning the World Series."
Williams called Bob Gibson, who won three games and the Series MVP Award that year for the Cardinals, "the best right-handed pitcher I've ever seen. He was mean."
Asked about the best left-handed pitcher he saw, Williams spoke highly of Sandy Koufax and his own Vida Blue, then said, "I'd have to say Whitey Ford."
The Oakland A's exhibit featured that team's Hall of Famers: Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. Williams credited another pitcher, Ken Holtzman, for helping Fingers settle in to become one of the top closing relievers back when they usually pitched more than one inning. Despite having a tumultuous clubhouse, the A's created an unusual kind of harmony in winning three consecutive World Series, two with Williams at the helm.
"It was an easy club to manage because all the players hated Charlie, and I was just one of the boys," he said. "Mike Epstein and Reggie Jackson had a fight in the clubhouse. The day we beat Detroit in the playoffs to clinch the pennant in 1972, Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue got into it because Blue Moon had to come out after five innings and I used Vida the final four [ruining Blue's chance to start Game 1 of the World Series]. That was the way it was on that club."
The section on ballparks allowed Williams to revisit Brooklyn's Ebbets Field in a computerized re-creation.
"All that's missing is the gas station behind the right-field scoreboard," he said.
Down in the Hall's catacombs, where thousands of archival items are stored, Williams viewed scores of old gloves and uniforms, season-pass badges for players, pennants, World Series pins and tickets for the 1972 Series between the A's and Reds, with face value of $10 to $15.
"And still we didn't fill the Coliseum," Williams noted.
Williams handled one of Ruth's old bats and said, "That thing's heavy."
Told that another bat had belonged to Sammy Sosa, he asked, "Is it corked?"
Shieber explained that when the corking incident occurred, the Hall X-rayed all the bats it had from Sosa, "and they were all clean."
One of the oldest items was a collection of copies of the "New York Clipper," a forerunner of "Variety," which covered popular culture of the 19th century. One edition from 1865, featuring a photograph of the actor John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, on the cover, contained an early example of box scores, with hands lost (outs) and runs next to the names of each player in the lineup.
Photos of Williams during his career awaited him in the library. He particularly liked one of him crying during a postgame celebration.
"The pictures with champagne in your eyes are good ones, because that means you won," he said.
Looking at photos of himself fielding reminded him of playing for the Orioles in 1958 the day Hoyt Wilhelm, then a starter, pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees.
"I was at third base and didn't have a ball hit to me for seven innings, and neither did our left fielder, Bob Nieman," he said. "In the eighth, our manager, Paul Richards, took Nieman out, moved me to left field and put a kid we just brought up at third. His name was Brooks Robinson. He made two great plays on a couple of rollers that with my bad shoulder I would never have pulled off to save that no-hitter."
Come late July, they can reminisce all about that when Robinson and his Hall of Fame colleagues get to welcome a new manager to the most exclusive club in the world.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.