Dick Williams on Hall of Fame Day

It was a most pleasing sight watching Richard Hirschfield Williams, past master of the caustic school of baseball management, dissolve into weepy sentimental mush as he gratefully accepted canonization in the Hall of Fame. A generation of baseball men who have long been obliged to absorb the sting of the legendary wit and wisdom of old “Iron Britches” had to be beside themselves at the wonder of it all. Talk of the dish running away with the spoon.

But then in the end, even the staunchest, crustiest, most unforgiving of characters surrender to the overpowering nostalgia of it all. And we love them much the more for it. The sight of a snow white, grandfatherly and 79-year-old Dick Williams turning mellow on us as he waxed tearfully on the front lawn of the pantheon at Cooperstown was perfectly charming.

He was a driven fellow who spent much of his life striving to overcome the limits of a post-Depression upbringing. He brought his greatest zeal to the task of convincing richer, more privileged, more talented men that he could bend them to his will with his brains and guts. No Marine worshipped discipline more. No religious had more faith in his convictions. No statesman strutted more brazen belief in his own manifest destiny.

He was an horrific competitor. He’d cut your heart out in a bridge game. But to Dick, it was not winning that meant everything but winning his way, and only his way. No other sporting character I ever met was more intense. To him, indifference was the cardinal offense. He wrote off no less than Ted Williams because he considered him insufficiently committed. He did not know the meaning of the term ‘‘compromise.’’ He was not easy to like because he refused to curry favor; not even with his players or bosses, let alone the media. But I liked him enormously because he was interesting, original and genuine. He didn’t have a political bone in his body.

Which is too bad, because if he had he would have had even better managing gigs with more stable franchises and less flighty owners and that would have resulted in even more dazzling achievements and his enshrinement years ago. Like a lot of hard guys he was his own worst enemy. But he was far and away the best manager of his times; superior to more popular contemporaries such as Brothers Weaver, Anderson, and LaSorda. They all made the Hall well before him, while still young enough to enjoy it. But none was his equal.

It doesn’t happen as much as it should in the fun and games world, but some things simply tickle you. It was a delight to see Williams exult in his lyric moment at Cooperstown and he handled it well. He was gracious about spreading credit for the magic carpet ride of the ‘‘Impossible Dream’’ with Carl Yastrzemski, Neil Mahoney, Ed Kenney and, most of all, Dick O’Connell. The glorious Red Sox season of 1967 remains the finest sports story New England has ever experienced and while Yaz was the archduke and Lonnie the crown prince, Williams and O’Connell were the architects.

It won’t happen because the irascible O’Connell of tender memory will never make it, but what a joy it would be to have the two of them linked forever together at Cooperstown. It would be fitting. Williams was the smartest baseball manager I ever had the pleasure of dealing with, edging out the too neurotic Billy Martin. And O’Connell was the best general manager, having--for my money--no serious competition.

Overall, it was a nice moment for Cooperstown. Like Williams, Rich Gossage was both deserving and equal to the occasion. And like Dick the big old Goose, still sporting his Fu Manchu and baleful glare, he succumbed to the surpassing emotions of the occasion barely avoiding a total meltdown while intoning the roll call of his old diamond comrades who have gone on to the big hall of fame in the sky. As old buddy Bill Veeck liked to puckishly observe, the sweet sentiment that binds the grand old game to the national culture is laced with necrophilia.

Indeed, Williams and Gossage dominated the proceedings because they had the pleasure of still being alive for this year’s regal anointing at bucolic Cooperstown. Four other chaps got elevated posthumously although in the case of one of them--Bowie Kuhn--that seems to have been fairly needless. Still, after years of contrived efforts by various neigh-sayers to restrict the growth of the Hall’s membership, it was great to witness the induction of the largest class in recent memory with six of the new “immortals” making the grade courtesy of the ever controversial Veteran’s Committee.

Ex-Commissioner Kuhn was the most hotly disputed choice. It’s widely held that he deserves it less than his classic adversary, labor guru Marvin Miller. Fay Vincent who, along with his pal Bart Giamatti was the most thoughtful of Kuhn’s successors as czar, took the extraordinary step of protesting Kuhn’s election vigorously in an op-ed piece in the New York Times; still more elegant evidence of how seriously Hall of Fame honors are regarded in this mossy old pastime.

Vincent was right about Marvin but Kuhn’s elevation bugs me rather less. Personally, I’d exalt all but two of the game’s commissioners such is the importance of that indisputably unique role. My exceptions would be Bill Eckert, ‘‘the unknown General,’’ who was a total joke, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the hanging judge, who was a total disgrace. Unfortunately, Landis, the racist mountebank and petty tyrant, was immortalized upon his death some six decades ago. Alas, the gods can not be recalled from Olympus.

The debate over Kuhn’s worthiness is reasonable. Unreasonable is the fact that they didn’t elect him until he had been dead a couple of months. Why can’t this nonsense be avoided? But one of the present electors has told me it’s deliberate. If a candidate is potentially controversial, the electors hold back until the bloke is gone and can’t become the center of a contretemps when he’s elected.

It explains why both Bill Veeck and Tom Yawkey didn’t make it until just after they’d departed this mortal coil and it probably guarantees that for Marvin Miller--already in his nineties--it will be quite the same. Only in baseball! It is so very coy, to be sure. But frankly, I think it stinks.

As for the other inductees, one has complained enough already about the selection of that scoundrel, Walter O’Malley. It was Pete Hamill, the noted New York essayist and wit, who once wrote: “The three most evil men of the 20th century are Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley.” It’s been 51 years since O’Malley treacherously transplanted the Dodgers to the West Coast and the legion of the betrayed remains as furious as they were the day it happened. Only in baseball!

On the other hand, the gracious acknowledgements of Barney Dreyfuss and Billy Southworth were also quintessential baseball gestures. Long forgotten by the masses, both were special. The joy of baseball is that you are never truly forgotten.

It’s insufficiently appreciated that Dreyfuss, as the Pirates’ progressive owner, attempted to integrate baseball in the early 1930s by signing several stars of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, a fabulous crop that included Satch Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Martin Dihigo, among others. And who thwarted him, forcefully and fiercely? Why Judge Landis, of course. If it were up to me, he’d be booted out of the Hall tomorrow morning.

As for Southworth, a gentle baseball man, he’ll be forever remembered here for having led the beloved old Boston Braves to the promised land in 1948. It was the second best of our sporting summers. But then on this day we celebrate them all and the men who were--in Larry Ritter’s imperishable phrase--“the Glory of their Times.” Only in baseball!

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