07/27/08 9:03 PM ET
Williams mellowed by cherished honor
Hall of Fame induction proves touching for no-nonense skipper
I remember Williams as being so tough his players would walk the other way when they saw him. He didn't talk, he glared.
Once, I asked him a question and thought I should duck. He had no patience for reporters who asked dumb questions. To say he was an ogre is an understatement.
But since Williams was elected to baseball's most cherished fraternity, he's been Mr. Milquetoast -- friendly, accommodating, low-key.
Either Williams has mellowed at 79 or the greatest honor anybody who's worn a baseball uniform can achieve has disarmed him.
Heck, I even saw him fight off a tear or two Sunday in the midst of his acceptance speech when he was thanking his wife, Norma, and his family for all they did for him during his storybook career.
"I have not been on a ballfield other than managing against Earl Weaver in the Senior League for the last 20 years," Williams said. "I have to mellow or else some of my former teammates will beat the hell out of me."
This was an hour after Williams and reliever Goose Gossage were inducted during an especially long ceremony on a sunny afternoon in Cooperstown.
Williams said, "If I were to manage now, I'd manage the same way, but I know I wouldn't get the same results. It's totally different now compared to the era I grew up in.
"Talk to my wife. She won't say I've mellowed. She's the one who's mellowed. She's treating me civilly. And I love her to death."
Gossage quickly interrupts.
"He's mellowed a lot," says Goose, who played under Williams for two years (1984-85) in San Diego. "I never used to talk to him. We'd see him and go the other way. That's how it was with Dick. He was a no-nonsense guy. If you made a mistake out on the field, you didn't want to return to the dugout and take Dick's wrath."
It was Gossage who went against Williams' wishes and pitched to Detroit's Kirk Gibson in the fifth game of the 1984 World Series. Williams had wanted to walk Gibson, but Goose talked him out of the decision. Gibson blasted a three-run homer that sealed the Tigers' victory -- and their championship.
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During this feel-good moment, Williams jumped in and said: "We wouldn't have been in that position anyway without you. We don't win [the National League pennant] if you're not on that ballclub."
"Thank you, Dick," Gossage says quietly. "It was all business on Dick's side, and that's what I loved about him. What you saw is what you got. But believe me, he's mellowed a lot. He's not managing now, but if you put him in a dugout, I bet he'd get his game face on real quick."
"I wouldn't last a week," Williams blurts.
I agree. In an era of $3 million average salaries, most players would gag on iron-fisted managers with Williams' style.
Yet during the days leading to Sunday's induction, it's been rewarding to see this side of Williams.
Sunday night, at the annual members-only Hall of Fame dinner, Williams says he expects his emotions to be running high. The stress of the induction speech is behind him, but he knows he'll think back to an incident that happened in 1974.
"Goose and I are going to receive a ring tonight, and it will be very important," he explains.
After Williams won back-to-back (1972-73) World Series titles with Oakland, he was poised to sign a three-year contract to manage the Yankees for $100,000 a year -- an unheard-of salary for managers then. However, Oakland's maverick owner, Charlie Finley, demanded compensation, George Steinbrenner and the Yankees balked, and Williams was out of work.
That gave him a chance to play in the '74 Jackie Gleason Golf Classic. After it was over, Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, NFL coach Don Shula and Williams were together in the club's restaurant.
Williams was putting on his Oakland championship ring when DiMaggio looked at him and said, "I know you're proud of that ring, but this is the ring that you should hope you can get."
Williams says, "He showed me his Hall of Fame ring -- and now I'm getting one tonight. And you are too, Goose!"
I believe it was fitting both Williams and Gossage went out of their way to say Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame. The next selection by the Veterans Committee is two years from now. Steinbrenner, one of the most important owners in the history of baseball, should get strong support for election.
Mention of Steinbrenner drew a ripple of applause of the crowd estimated at 14,000.
"To me, there's no greater owner in baseball than George Steinbrenner," said Gossage. "He was committed to putting the best players on the field and has kept the Yankees the Yankees. He has made everybody in baseball better, because to compete with George Steinbrenner, they had to up the ante and level of play."
Williams worked 10 years with the Boss as an adviser after retiring from managing.
"I had those years with George and, yes, he was very demanding," said Williams, who knows first-hand what that's all about.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.