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Observations From Cooperstown: Dick Williams and the Yankees

This has not been a good year for baseball, at least from an historical standpoint. Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider have died. Notable players like Jim Northrup and Paul Splittorff have also left us. Gary Carter is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. And now we have lost one of the most brilliant managerial minds of the expansion era, the great Dick Williams, who died on Thursday at the age of 82.

Dick Williams led three different franchises to the World Series. He might have led a fourth, the New York Yankees, if only Charlie Finley had been a more reasonable man.

Fed up with Finley’s endless meddling and his detestable “firing” of Mike Andrews during the 1973 World Series, Williams announced that he was stepping down as Oakland’s managers only moments after the A’s beat the Mets in the World Series. A few days later, Williams said he would consider any offers from other major league teams, but he clearly had one club in mind. “Sure I’d love to be with the Yankees,” Williams told famed sportswriter Red Foley. “Anyone who says he wouldn’t is crazy.”

As Williams discussed his resignation during the A’s’ victory celebration, Charlie Finley told his manager that he wished he would return. Speaking on national television, Finley added that he would not stand in Williams’ way should he not change his mind about returning to Oakland.

Two days later, Finley decided to change his mind regarding Williams’ future. Oakland farm director John Claiborne had suggested to Finley that he exact some form of compensation in exchange for Williams’ services, since Williams was still officially under contract to the A‘s. Any major league team wishing to hire Williams as manager would have to compensate the A’s—with players and/or cash, but preferably players. When George Steinbrenner asked Finley for permission to contact Williams, he received a blunt response. “Absolutely not,” Finley told the Associated Press. “They [the Yankees] seemed stunned and wanted to know why.” Finley explained that he had recently given Williams a two-year contract extension. If the Yankees did not properly compensate the A’s, “there will be court action,” Finley vowed.

Though Finley was technically correct, Williams felt that Finley’s failure to live up to his initial vow was the larger issue. Williams expressed surprise at Finley’s turnabout in an interview with The Sporting News. “It’s not like Mr. Finley to go back on his word,” said Williams, his words dripping with sarcasm. “But this is an about-face.” In subsequent interviews, Williams went further, stopping just short of directly calling his former boss a liar. “Charlie says one thing and does another.”

Finley responded to Williams’ claims by trying to clarify his initial remarks during the A’s’ post-game celebration. When he said he would not “stand in the way,” he was referring to Williams’ options in the business world, not in the baseball community. Finley said he never intended to allow Williams to walk off to another managerial job, without some sort of compensation coming his way. This was Finley at his best–or his worst, depending on your perspective–playing semantic gymnastics in an effort to stick it to Williams and the Yankees.

Although Finley also claimed that he preferred Williams return as his manager in Oakland, he really did not. In fact, he had already sent out feelers to the Orioles about the availability of their manager, Earl Weaver, during the World Series. Weaver working for Finley, now that would have been interesting. Not surprisingly, Orioles general manager Frank Cashen refused to give Finley permission to talk to Weaver.

Contract legalities prevented the Yankees, or any other team, from negotiating with Williams. Yet, the Yankees made it clear they wanted Williams. Prior to the winter meetings in Houston, the Yankees finally agreed to compensate Finley, offering veteran second baseman Horace Clarke. Finley said no to Clarke, a fair hitter, speedy runner, and a mediocre fielder, but counter-offered by asking for one of three other players: Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, or Mel Stottlemyre. In other words, Finley wanted one of the three best players on the New York roster, while the Yankees were offering about their 15th best player.

In stage two of negotiations, Finley met with Yankee general manager Gabe Paul at the winter meetings. Finley backed off on his request for established stars like Munson, Murcer, or Stottlemyre. Instead, he asked for two of the Yankees’ best minor league prospects: first baseman-outfielder Otto Velez and left-handed pitcher Scott McGregor. “Both?” an incredulous Gabe Paul exclaimed to Finley, according to a story by Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “You can’t have either.”

Finley talked further with Paul, asking for either one of the two, Velez or McGregor, plus a sum of cash. Finley then offered to eliminate the cash part of his request, but wanted the Yankees to include one of the following lower-level prospects—outfielders Kerry Dineen and Terry Whitfield, first baseman John Shupe, or third baseman Steve Coulson—along with either McGregor or Velez. Paul’s response was the same as before—no deal. The two sides had reached a stalemate, ending their meeting in Houston.

Finley’s stubborn posture on ample compensation left Williams furious and frustrated. The former A’s’ manager told reporters that he was considering filing a lawsuit against Finley on the grounds that his former employer was running interference on his legitimate efforts to find new work. Williams also mentioned his disappointment with the American League’s failure to intervene in the matter. Why didn’t league president Joe Cronin step in and determine which players the Yankees should surrender to the A’s in a trade for Williams?

“The problem is between New York and Oakland,” claimed a neutral Cronin in an interview with The Sporting News. Perhaps Cronin wanted to steer away from any involvement in the case as he prepared for his own retirement from the American League office.

Williams wanted the Yankees, the Yankees wanted him, Cronin wanted no part of the dispute, and Finley insisted that he wanted Williams to continue managing the A’s. Since Williams still had a signed contract with the A’s for the 1974 season, Finley reasoned, he still considered Williams his manager. In fact, he continued mailing Williams paychecks on the first and 15th day of each month through the end of the calendar year. Williams later revealed that he had received the checks on a timely basis from Finley, but had neglected to cash any of them after his resignation. Williams did not want to feel beholden to Finley, at least not in any financial way.

On December 13, the Yankees, exasperated in their negotiations with Finley and with Cronin’s refusal to intercede, decided to force the issue by making a bold move that was typical Steinbrenner. The Boss announced that he had reached a contractual agreement with Williams to manage in the Bronx. General manager Gabe Paul introduced Williams to the media at a Yankee Stadium press conference. Williams donned a Yankee cap and uniform jersey and smiled widely for reporters. Photographs of Williams wearing Yankee paraphernalia would eventually become collector’s items.

The Yankees’ press conference unveiling Williams infuriated Finley. He placed an immediate protest with Cronin, who was now forced to make a decision. Finley wasted little time in expressing his contempt for the Yankees, who had essentially tried to steal one of his contracted employees. “What if I tried to sign Bobby Murcer?” Finley told a reporter. “Wouldn’t the Yankees be furious with me for trying to sign one of their best players, one who was already under contract to New York?”

On December 20, just one week after the Yankees had signed Williams, Cronin ruled that Finley still held rights to the veteran manager. Without Finley’s approval, the Yankees would not be allowed to employ Williams as their manager in 1974. Given the letter of the law, Finley was clearly in the right–and the Yankees had no argument.

“Dick Williams was my manager yesterday, he’s my manager today, and he’ll be my manager tomorrow,” Finley emphatically told the New York Daily News. He now refused to even negotiate the compensation issue with the hated Yankees. After several last-ditch legal efforts to secure Williams, the Yankees finally surrendered in their pursuit of the World Championship manager. On January 3, 1974, the Yankees introduced former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Bill Virdon as their new manager. He would remain on the job until midway through the 1975 season, when Billy Martin came on to the scene.

If Williams had been allowed to manage the Yankees, it would have been interesting to observe the managerial machinations. A far more accomplished skipper than Virdon, Williams might have lasted until the 1976 season, when the Yankees won the American League pennant. Though known as a disciplinarian and general hardass, Williams had a better grasp on his personal life than Martin, and might have avoided the kind of behavior that would have given The Boss a reason to fire him. Who knows, Dick Williams might have been the man to lead the Yankees to their two world championships of the late 1970s.

As it turned out, Williams would eventually join the Yankees as a front office advisor, a position that kept him safe from Steinbrenner’s second guesses. He also wouldn’t need those extra championships to make the Hall of Fame. The Hall’s Veterans’ Committee elected Williams to the Cooperstown shrine in 2008, giving him nearly three years to bask in the glory of the game’s highest achievement.

Williams deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. On a personal note, I had the privilege to meet him and interview him several times, and always came away impressed with his amiable nature, his sense of humor, and his love of the Yankee organization. But part of me still wishes that Dick Williams would have had one shot working the Yankee dugout, right under the thumb of The Boss.

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--Earl Weaver