The Baseball Codes

RIP Stan Williams

Stan Williams passed away over the weekend at age 84. I became fully aware of his career while researching the Intimidation chapter of The Baseball Codes, after ex-players of a certain vintage kept talking about the scariest guy they’d ever faced: an enormous Dodgers right-hander who somehow wasn’t Don Drysdale. That was when I began to compile a dossier on Williams, and began to consider him as a vital interview for the book.

As it happened, connecting with the guy was easy. Williams was scouting for the Devil Rays at the time, and came to San Francisco on assignment. He was more than happy to chat.

By that point, the person who scared the bejeezus out of a generation of big league hitters was no longer evident. Instead, I found a jovial baseball lifer who embraced his reputation with levity. He described his approach to me as “tongue-in-cheek intimidation.”

“What really inspired me to throw at a batter was if he came up to home plate with a bat in his hand,” he grinned. “I never threw at anybody that wasn’t in my zone. All I wanted was one yard on each side of the plate. You get in my zone, you’re fair game.”

That was a joke, but it was also a learned trait, taught to Williams when he turned pro.

“It was pretty well known among the Dodgers that if you didn’t knock the hitters on their butts, you wouldn’t be around very long,” he said. “When I came out of high school, I didn’t know what a knockdown pitch was. I dropped a few people, but it was because I was wild. Finally, I learned the hard way. They told me that every time I went two strikes and no balls on a hitter, I had to throw high and inside. I guided the first two or three in there, and they got tattooed for home runs or long doubles. I got fed up with that, so I started throwing as hard as I could, right at their chin. And that became a very good knockdown pitch.”

As his reputation grew, Williams took to throwing breaking balls that started at hitters’ shoulders, and yelling “Watch out!” as the pitch left his hand. “The guy would lean back and the pitch would break over the plate,” he said.

It was a different era.

Williams left such an impression that I wrote an entire passage about him in the first draft of The Baseball Codes, only a small portion of which made it into the final copy. Today it seems appropriate day to share the whole thing. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

***

The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s employed one of the most intimidating pitching staffs in major-league history. Batters feared Sandy Koufax because he was better than them. They feared Don Drysdale because he was better than them, and he might also plant a fastball into their ribs.

But the guy they really feared was Stan Williams.

Williams was not nearly the equal of Koufax or Drysdale, although he had decent success over a 14-year, injury-marred big league career, winning as many as 15 games and making an All-Star team. That was not why hitters feared him.

They feared him because he was scary.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Williams was not only willing to throw baseballs at batters, but seemed to enjoy it. The right-hander was intimidating because he was big, he was intimidating because he threw extremely hard, and he was intimidating because, as far as hitters were concerned, he may well have been crazy.

“You try to get them out legitimately the first time around, and if that doesn’t work, then you drill them in the ribs and start over again,” Williams said, describing his pitching philosophy. “You try everything at your disposal first, and if a guy just keeps wearing you out—well, it’s either him or me, and I’m going to do my share to make it him. That’s what it was all about.”

Williams was wild when he first came up, itself an intimidating characteristic in a pitcher who threw as hard as he did. He was so wild, in fact, that the Dodgers tied his bonus money to walks allowed, giving him financial incentive to issue fewer free passes. The team’s mistake, at least according to hitters around the league, was failing to draft a similar clause for hit batsmen. His Dodgers teammate, Ron Fairly, described the situation like this: “Keep in mind, Stan Williams could throw the ball as hard as Sandy Koufax. Well, Stan would find himself in a particular game with a 3-0 count, we’re up by five runs, the pitcher’s coming up next. Whack—right in the ribs.”

Fairly said that he once saw Williams tack up a photo of Hank Aaron in the back of his locker and set to firing baseballs at it. When asked what he was doing, Williams’ answer was concise: “Practicing.”

Even after his playing career, the pitcher made little effort to alter his reputation, plying his unique brand of intimidation as pitching coach for the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Reds over a dozen seasons. He never felt much need to adjust people’s preconceptions about him.

Williams recalled a time while coaching with New York in 1979, when he was approached before batting practice by Yankees catcher Cliff Johnson—himself 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., and known as an intimidator in his own right. By way of conversation, Johnson mentioned that, had their career paths intersected, a knockdown from Williams would have resulted in a less-than-friendly visit to the pitcher’s mound.

“Let me tell you two things,” Williams said. “Number one, you wouldn’t have made it to the mound because I’d have met you halfway. And number two, number one isn’t going to change number two.”

This stopped Johnson cold, mainly because he had no idea what Williams was talking about. He asked what “number two” was.

“It didn’t matter whether you kicked my ass or I kicked yours,” Williams said. “The next time you came up, I’d have hit you right in the neck.”

The sentiment was partly bravado—although Williams hit 71 batters over the course of his career, he never once led his league in the category—but there was more to it than that. Williams threw batting practice that day, and when Johnson stepped into the cage, he found himself facing a succession of inside fastballs that eventually backed him up into the screen. It was good-natured intimidation between members of the same team, but it was intimidation nonetheless.

Williams’ most lasting legacy, however, might be the List.

The List was compiled in a small notebook that Williams carried with him everywhere, on and off the field. Inside was written the name of anyone who had ever offended Williams’ baseball sensibilities, through action or ability. Guys who hit him hard were noted next to those who showed him up. Accompanying the names were stars, added for ensuing transgressions. Should a player collect three stars, Williams explained, he effectively became a dental patient—due for a drilling.

There are countless List-inspired stories. The most interesting of them concerns the last man on it. His name was Barry Latman, and his name was inscribed into the book early in 1961.

At that point, Williams was 24 years old and a three-year vet, and was pitching for Los Angeles against Cleveland in a spring exhibition game in Las Vegas. Williams started, but because it was spring training, and because it was Las Vegas, and because he had stayed up until dawn, and because the first pitch was scheduled before noon, he wasn’t exactly in mid-season form. This is where his reputation proved to be counter-productive.

Williams ended up bouncing a pitch off the helmet of Cleveland’s Bubba Phillips, which might have pleased the pitcher greatly had that been his goal. As it was, not only was it a mistake, but Williams was throwing so softly, he said, that “I wouldn’t have hurt him if I’d hit him in the neck.”

Nonetheless, teammates are expected to protect each other, and the next time Williams stepped to the plate he was drilled in the ribs by Cleveland pitcher Barry Latman.

“Stan never moved,” said Fairly. “He didn’t even try to get out of the way of it. Didn’t flinch. The ball hit him and he stood there for three or four seconds.” Before Williams started toward first, he glared toward the mound and offered a concise warning: “Hey Barry, now it’s my turn.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston, wanting to avoid needless escalation in a meaningless game, promptly pulled Williams. “Stan was going to hit every batter that came up there,” recalled Fairly. “You don’t fool around with a guy like that.”

Denied immediate revenge, Williams added Latman’s name to the List. The problem was, the only time they faced each other over the coming years—in 1963, when Williams was pitching for the Yankees—the score was too close to exact revenge.

Things changed in 1965. Battling injuries, Williams found himself with the Triple-A Seattle Angels, where he shared a clubhouse with another veteran struggling to make it back to the big leagues: Barry Latman. When Williams realized who he’d be teaming with, he laughed out loud. The two talked, sharing war stories as the old men in a clubhouse full of kids, and quickly developed a tight bond.

One day, Williams was assigned to pitch batting practice, and didn’t offer a moment of hesitation when his old foe stepped in against him. The surprised Latman quickly found himself in the way of a fastball.

“That’s for Vegas!” Williams yelled toward the plate. “If you don’t like it, come on out.”

Latman stayed put. Mission finally accomplished, Williams retired the List on the spot.

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