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A baseball story now, about a former National League Rookie of the Year. Earl Williams was the first Atlanta Braves player to win the award. He did it 40 years ago back in 1971, but by the end of that decade, Williams was a baseball footnote, though an interesting one, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: At a glance, the New York Times of June 12th, 1978 doesn't seem like a collector's item. If anything, stories of Jimmy Carter and the Soviets and a letter to the editor decrying skewers of uneaten beef from the Puerto Rican Day Parade seem utterly familiar.
But in the sports section that day, there was a bit of baseball history. It's not a story. It's a classified ad: Employment wanted by baseball player. Eight years in the majors. Salary very reasonable. No police record. Have bat, will travel. Noted on the player's resume was the Rookie of the Year Award and it was won only seven years prior.
Here was Earl Williams, still a bright young man, relying on the services of the old gray lady.
EARL WILLIAMS: And at the top is a picture that was taken after I was Rookie of the Year in 1971 and Jackie Robinson was a guest speaker. Go and get close. There's nothing breakable down there.
PESCA: Today, Earl Williams is a retired business executive living in New Jersey. He's in his basement pointing out an impressive memorabilia collection made more notable that it's all of him.
WILLIAMS: The cover of Baseball Digest, "Can't Miss Players of the '70s."
PESCA: Williams, an all-state player out of Montclair, New Jersey, was signed by the Braves after a brief stint in college. The northerner went south, got over the culture shock, and flourished.
WILLIAMS: I was very loved in that organization.
PESCA: And the organization loved him or at least saw that it had in the athletic Williams a great hitter and versatile fielder, so versatile, in fact, that when Williams was a late season call-up with the big league team in 1970, he was surprised when the manager said, Williams, go in and catch.
WILLIAMS: And the next day, I was a catcher, never having caught in the minor leagues or anyplace else.
PESCA: And in 1971, he outslugged every catcher in baseball, belting 33 home runs. He connected for 28 homers in his next season, behind only Johnny Bench.
The sport took notice and the irascible Oriole, Earl Weaver, was quoted as saying, give me Earl Williams, I'll win the pennant. Baltimore's manager got his man after giving up four starters.
WILLIAMS: The pressure was on in a lot of places. I was naive enough to think that all I had to do in order to be successful was play baseball.
PESCA: Baltimore Sun, April 18, 1973, 10 games into the season, quote, "bridled by an embarrassing 185 average and only two extra base hits, Williams mused, I guess everybody has been waiting for me to do something."
Baltimore Sun, June 26, 1973: "Williams still smarting from rebuke and suspension by manager Weaver." July 3rd headline: "Williams, Weaver clash again."
WILLIAMS: If certain words go out about you, they stick. You can be labeled. I've even read about myself being described as militant, controversial, argumentative. I read that I was called into the office for cursing at the fans. That did happen, but what I really took umbrage with was the fans that were calling me everything but a child of God, N-word included, were sitting right in front of the owner and the general manager, yet - and still I was called into the office for harassing the fans. So it was basically a train wreck from the beginning.
DELORES REILLY: Life is not a dress rehearsal and you don't get any curtain calls.
PESCA: Delores Reilly, Williams' 82 year old mother, remembers the injustices, like the time pitchers complained they couldn't see Earl's black fingers when he signaled for a pitch. That Earl, one of the few African-American catchers of the time, would point out that his uniform pants were white didn't seem to matter. The mother was suffering through the son.
REILLY: They were complaining because Weaver had said, if you give me Earl Williams, I'll get the pennant, you know. And Earl said, Weaver said that. I didn't say that. You know, that's what Weaver said. And he was very unhappy down there.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name of the pitcher is Phil Niekro.]
PESCA: It was clear that Baltimore could accommodate only a single Earl. Williams was dealt back to Atlanta, where teammates like Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Niekro were glad to have him.
JOE NIEKRO: Earl was as good in the clubhouse and on the bench as I think any teammate I've had. He enjoyed the game. I think he had a lot of respect for being able to play the game. A good ball player, he was strong like a bull, that guy.
PESCA: But Williams had a down year and was sent from Atlanta to Montreal and then onto Oakland, where he was productive, but battled injuries. And the next year, nothing, no calls, no interest, just a reputation. So with little to lose, Williams placed the ad.
WILLIAMS: I didn't think that this was going to get me a job. I just thought it would highlight the fact that - how could I possibly not have one?
PESCA: Williams was right. No letters of interest arrived. If anything, some clubs may have been scared away. Williams, too, was if not scared off, then a little scarred.
WILLIAMS: It took me a long time to forgive myself. What if, what if, what if? You go through a period of adjustment with that.
PESCA: Today, Williams calls himself blessed to have even played professionally. He told me a month ago that he'll be rooting for Atlanta this post-season. The only problem is the Braves have played so poorly down the stretch, they might miss out on the playoffs, though in baseball, it ain't over 'til it's over or 'til the final out or 'til the classified ad goes unanswered.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
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