Thursday, January 28, 2016

Walt "No Neck" Williams, 1943-2016

Walt Williams was a Yankee, but he was not a Yankee Legend. He wasn't even a Bronx Bomber -- not because of any lack of power, or any perception thereof, but because he never played a home game in The Bronx.

He's best known for a nickname. It wasn't a flattering one. But he should be remembered for more than that.

Walter Allen Williams was born on December 19, 1943 in Brownwood, in central Texas. Shortly thereafter, Brownwood was flooded. The federal government gave injections to prevent the spread of the disease typhus. But, even as a baby, Walter was so muscular that the only place where they could find a vein was in the back of his neck. As a result, he developed a crick in his neck, which stiffened and shrank. As a result, he grew to be only 5-foot-6, and 165 pounds, and received the nickname "No Neck."

The family moved west, and he graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco. This is the same school that produced the DiMaggio brothers, late 1940s-early 1950s Yankee Bobby Brown, former Levi Strauss & Company and Oakland Athletics owner Walter Haas, basketball pioneer Hank Luisetti, and football legend turned American disgrace O.J. Simpson and his best friend, former teammate, and driver Al Cowlings.

The Houston Colt .45's, forerunners of the Astros, signed him as a free agent in 1963. An expansion team, they tended to move players up quickly -- fielding the youngest lineup in history for their 1963 finale, average age 19 -- and on April 21, 1964, just 20 years old, he made his major league debut, at Colt Stadium, the temporary structure they put up as the Astrodome was being built next door. Wearing Number 28, he was a defensive replacement for Jim Beauchamp in left field, and didn't come to bat. The Colts lost to the Cincinnati Reds 10-4.

After just 10 games in a Houston uniform, he was selected off waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals. But he would not play as they reached the 1964 World Series, since, unlike the Colts/Astros, they could afford to let talent develop in the minors. In 1965, with the Tulsa Oilers, he won the Texas League batting championship, with a .330 average. He hit .330 the next season as well. But with an outfield of Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Carl Warwick, with Roger Maris obtained for 1967, Walt wasn't going to see much action. So the Cards traded him to the Chicago White Sox.

Wearing Number 3 and playing both left and right field, he remained with the South Siders through their 1967 and 1972 Pennant races, and also through their awful season of 1969, though he batted .304. He struck out only 33 times, and grounded into only 5 double plays. (He struck out only 211 times in 10 seasons, despite being known as a free-swinger.) But that was to be his only major league season with at least 400 plate appearances.

Still, in a very inconsistent era for the Pale Hose, he became a fan favorite. He played the entire 1971 season without committing an error, put the ball in play, was renowned as a bunter, and hustled. According to The New York Times:

Like Pete Rose, he played with a caffeinated enthusiasm, running out every batted ball, hustling to his position for the start of an inning and even sprinting to first after receiving a base on balls, although that did not happen too often.

In addition, he reached out to the community, volunteering to talk to first-time drug offenders as part of Cook County's drug abuse prevention program. This helped to build the Sox up among young fans, at a time when the Cubs hardly had a hammerlock on the hearts and minds of Chicagoans and suburbanites.

After the 1972 season, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians. That off-season, he was playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, when his 2-year-old son died from spinal meningitis. His 1st marriage ended in divorce, and he later married a woman named Ester Lacy. He brought 2 sons to that marriage, Deron and Walter Jr., while she brought a son and a daughter, Gary and Sherry Barron.

Walt his career highs in 1973 with 8 home runs and 38 RBIs. With 1 out to go, he broke up a no-hitter by former Chicago teammate (and former Yankee) Stan Bahnsen on August 21 of that season.

On March 19, 1974, a complicated trade brought him to the Yankees. The Indians also sent the Yankees Rick Sawyer, the Detroit Tigers sent the Yankees Ed Farmer, the Tigers sent the Indians Jim Perry (where he was reunited with his brother Gaylord), and the Yankees sent the Tigers Jerry Moses.

The original Yankee Stadium was being renovated, so the Yankees played the 1974 and '75 seasons at Shea Stadium. Like Alex Rodriguez after him, Walt switched to Number 13 because hecouldn't wear Number 3, which had been retired for Babe Ruth. He was only the 5th Yankee to wear the number, known (perhaps unfairly) as being unlucky. (Spud Chandler had worn it in 1937, Lee Stine in 1938, Cliff Mapes after the 3 he was wearing was retired for Ruth in 1948, and Curt Blefary in 1970 and '71.)

Walt didn't hit well in 1974, but rebounded in '75, batting .281 as a part-time outfielder, filling in for Roy White and Lou Piniella in left field, Elliott Maddox in center and Bobby Bonds in right. The Yankees were in the American League Eastern Division race most of the way, but faded in September, finishing behind the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

The Yankees then traded Bonds for Mickey Rivers to play center (and Ed Figueroa to pitch), let Maddox go, and committed to White in left and Piniella in right. On January 27, 1976, 40 years ago yesterday, they released Walt Williams. Not only did he not get to play home games in the renovated Yankee Stadium, he never played in the major leagues again

He did go on to play professionally in Japan and Mexico, and played in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989, for the St. Lucie Legends, alongside his former Yankee teammate Graig Nettles -- ironically, at the spring training home of the Mets.

His career batting average was .270. He hit 33 home runs and had 173 RBIs in 10 seasons, and committed just 19 errors.

He worked as the Sports Director of the Brownwood Community Center in his hometown. He was brought back to the White Sox, was made their 1st base coach in 1988, and managed in their minor-league system. He occasionally appeared at Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers' Day.

His nephew, Derwin Williams, was a receiver for the New England Patriots, and played in Super Bowl XX (a Super Bowl the Patriots didn't have to cheat to reach). He is now a football official, working Conference USA games. Derwin's son, Mason Williams, debuted for the Yankees last year, as an outfielder, but hurt his shoulder and missed most of the season. He was the 1st player to wear Number 80 in a major league game.

Walt Williams died on January 23, 2016, in Abilene, Texas. He was 72 years old.

He was something of a "cult figure," popular among White Sox, Indians and Yankee fans of a certain generation, just before my own. Growing up, all I knew about him was that he had a weird nickname, and that he was one of the guys the Yankees got rid of before they started winning Pennants again -- a list that also included Bonds, Maddox, Fritz Peterson, Doc Medich and so on. This led me to believe that he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This was a bit unfair. Walt Williams, scrunched neck and all, was a good ballplayer. The Yankees could use a player with his good eye, good glove and hustle.

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