Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Oakland A's

1975: Sending a Message in One Easy Step (Beanball Not Included)

Dick WilliamsResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Manager Dick Williams tells a tale of running up the score while at the helm of the California Angels, as a means of sending a message to A’s owner Charlie Finley—who had spent three seasons trying to keep his boot heel firmly affixed on the manager’s neck when Williams worked for him. From Williams’ autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

In April 1975, my Angels were leading the A’s 9-1 in the sixth inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Anaheim, and Mickey Rivers was on first base. I decided, up yours, Charlie. I sent Rivers to second base on a hit-and-run attempt. Our batter got a hit and Rivers scored all the way from first. And of course the A’s were angry. When you’re leading by a big margin, running like that is considered crass. Not just because you’re openly challenging the other team or making a comment on their ability to throw you out. Mostly, it’s because you don’t need to run. You’re winning by eight runs, you just need to keep your mouth shut and finish the game. You don’t need to run, and the losing team doesn’t appreciate it. You realize that more baseball fights start because of a needless steal than because of a stupid beanball.

I should mention here that it’s also considered crass for a team leading 9-1 to shout obscenities about the opposing team’s owner from the dugout. Particularly when the owner’s real name is being used, as in “Take that, Charlie, you son of a bitch!” Or perhaps even, “Fuck you, Charlie!” I must admit, that night I let a few such things slip. Was I looking for a fight? You decide. Oakland reliever Jim Todd thought so. He was already mad because, after not allowing an earned run all season, we had touched him up for five. Immediately after Rivers’ steal, Todd’s next pitch was directed at, and collided with, the top of Bruce Bochte’s head.

The first thing I did was run to home plate to check on Bochte. Every manager does that. I leaned down and saw that he still had both eyes. My job was done. Now I did something that most managers would not do. I charged the mound of a team I’d spent three wonderful years managing. I charged the mound and lunged at their 6-foot-2 pitcher, who was about 20 years younger than me but obviously without a gut in his body. He tried to run. I grabbed him by his belt and dragged him to the ground and started pounding on him. That’s right, I took on Jim Todd, and — you guessed it — soon I was rolling around with what seemed like 50 of my former players.

Anybody who knows Dick Williams and saw this scene would think, he’s a dead man. He’s lying on a pitching mound and is fair game for former players who truly are looking for his nuts with their cleats. But I guess the A’s liked me as much as I like them — or at least some of them did. My world darkened underneath a green and gold uniform, but the voice was friendly. “It’s Reggie,” the voice whispered. “I’m just going to lie here on you until this thing ends.” I laughed and he laughed, and we just lay there like two kids playing King of the Mountain while all hell was breaking loose on top of us.

Oakland center fielder Angel Mangual, with whom Williams had consistently feuded, did eventually sneak some kicks in to his former manager’s ribs, but it seems that, for Williams at least, all ended relatively well.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Dick Williams, RIP

Dick Williams, who passed away yesterday at age 82. In addition to being a Hall of Fame manager, he was also a stickler for the Code, and never afraid to retaliate when he felt it appropriate. He was at the helm of the San Diego Padres for their one-game war with the Braves in 1984, which Kurt Bevaqua called “the Desert Storm of baseball fights.”

That episode is detailed in The Baseball Codes. The following passage, however, was cut from the final edition. It details Williams’ understanding of the unwritten rules, even if his use of it was not always by the book. In honor of Williams, we present it here.

Dick Williams took over the Red Sox in 1967 as a 38-year-old rookie skipper, and guided a club that was coming off of back-to-back ninth-place finishes to the World Series. Still, amid acrimony and injuries to two key starting pitchers, Williams was fired before he could complete his third season—something about which he harbored resentment for years. Once Williams assumed managerial duties for other teams, he didn’t just want to beat the Red Sox, he wanted to destroy them.

Williams bunted whenever he could to advance runners into scoring position, even when games were well in hand. His baserunners tagged up from second on fly balls, even when leads relegated such tactics as unnecessary. And he squeezed.

If stealing second base with a big lead is enough to make an opponent’s head spin, squeezing is enough to blow it clean off his neck. There is no surer statement of we’re-going-to-pull-out-every-last-calculated-measure-in-our-playbook-to-push-another-run-across.

Williams took over the Angels in 1974, and during a game against Boston the following season his club used a hit, a walk and an error to extend its lead to 6-2 in the eighth inning. The manager knew just what to do. With runners on second and third and second baseman Jerry Remy at the plate, Williams called for a squeeze that extended the Angels’ lead.

“You do what the manager says,” said Remy, “but I knew it was the wrong thing to do.”

The next day, Boston pitcher Roger Moret threw at Remy with his first pitch of every at-bat, a subtle message that the squeeze was not appreciated. Fortunately for Remy, he missed all four times. “After the game, (Williams) said to me, ‘I guess I got you thrown at,’ ” said Remy. “I said, ‘I guess you did.’ ”