The Yankees’ three-game sweep of the Division Series has me feeling so good that I’d thought I’d profile one of my favorite ex-Yankees and one of my most cherished cards in this week’s feature.
As you can see, the player featured on this 1973 Topps card has almost no neck. That’s not an example of skillful Topps airbrushing at work; he simply doesn’t have much of a neck—at all. Hence the nickname Walt “No Neck” Williams, a journeyman outfielder who would make a brief pitstop in New York. While there’s little neck, there’s plenty of sideburn, a staple of players in the early 1970s.
Then there’s the uniform worn by Williams, who was traded from the White Sox to the Indians during the winter of 1972. Williams is actually wearing the colors of the White Sox—in fact, you can see the “S” from “SOX” along his chest—but the Sox cap logo has been whitewashed and replaced with the Indians’ “C,” thereby creating the illusion that he is donning the uniform of his new team. (It helps that Chicago and Cleveland both used red as a primary color in their uniforms back then.)
Finally, you might notice that the Sox’ uniform doesn’t have any buttons on the front, nor is it one of those pullover polyester monstrosities that became all the rage in the early 1970s. Instead, the jersey features a zipper running from the base of the shirt all the way to the neck. The White Sox, in a highly questionable maneuver, brought back the zippered look that a few major league teams had tried unsuccessfully during the 1940s. The zipper failed because players sometimes found the top of the zipper embedded into the skin of their neck after a headfirst slide. Just consider the torn flesh and the blood that resulted from such accidents. Then again, maybe the Sox figured that wouldn’t be a problem for Williams because, once again, he doesn’t really have much of a neck.
Williams earned his memorable nickname during his first major league stint. Signed by the Houston Colt .45s in the early 1960s, Williams made his debut with the Colts in 1964. It didn’t take long for his teammates to take note of his unusual physique. At five-feet, six-inches, Williams had unusually short stature for an outfielder. Built like a fireplug—he made Kirby Puckett look lean and angular by comparison—Williams was extraordinarily well developed in the chest, with muscles in his upper torso seemingly obscuring the length of his neck. Colt .45s catcher John Bateman, after observing his teammate for only a short time, dubbed him “No Neck.”
After Williams appeared in only ten games for Houston, the Colts tried to sneak him through waivers. The effort failed. The Cardinals snapped him up, but immediately demoted him to the minors. Williams would never appear in a game for St. Louis. After the 1966 season, the Cards sent him packing to the White Sox as part of a deal for veteran catcher Johnny Romano. It was with the White Sox that No Neck would find his niche.
Displaying outfield skills that belied his blocky, bulky appearance, Williams overcame a weak arm and became an adept fielder, best suited for the corners but also capable of filling in occasionally in center field. Thought not a particularly strong or powerful hitter, the free-swinging Williams rarely struck out (and rarely walked) and used his contact-hitting skills to bat .304 in 1969, putting him in the top ten in the American League batting race.
Almost as importantly, Williams became a cult figure and fan favorite at Comiskey Park. Always smiling and seemingly thrilled to be playing games at the major league level, Williams drew the favor of both the White Sox’ faithful and his teammates. They loved his upbeat attitude and his willingness to hustle. Not surprisingly, more than a few Sox diehards reacted with anger on October 19, 1972, when the White Sox traded No Neck to the Indians for infielder Eddie Leon (another future Yankee). Williams’ sporadic hitting had rendered him expendable, and the Sox needed help at shortstop, but those realities did little to comfort enraged members of the Williams fan club.
Williams batted .289 in his one year with the Tribe, but the Indians couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use him as part of the bait in a three-team spring training trade that brought veteran right-hander Jim Perry to Cleveland. The trade united Perry with his brother Gaylord, while finally fitting No Neck for the pinstripes of the Yankees.
During his two-year sojourn in New York, which coincided with the Yankees’ brief tenure at Shea Stadium. Williams made some light-hearted news with his Ruthian appetite. Williams, first baseman-DH Ron Blomberg, and shortstop Gene Michael often made trips to the local branch of Burger King, downing multiple hamburgers at the 1970s price tag of 39 cents a burger. Somehow the burgers didn’t add too much fat to Williams’ stocky 185-pound frame.
No-Neck spent two mostly non-descript seasons with the Yankees, filling in as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter, and making cameo appearances at second base, a position that he had never before played in the major leagues. He did hit fairly well in a bench role in 1975, but the Yankees released him during the spring of 1976. The release essentially ended his big league career, while denying him an opportunity at postseason play, as the Yankees went on to win the Eastern Division and the American League pennant.
So there were no playoffs or World Series for Walt Williams. He just had to settle for ten happy-go-lucky big league seasons filled with smiles, zippers, and hamburgers. And he’ll always be remembered for being No Neck. In a game where so many are forgotten so quickly, that’s not a bad legacy to have.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.