Imagine that upon your arrival to the big leagues that your manager sat you down and explained that, despite having never played the position before in your life, you would be the team’s catcher. It seems like a daunting task, does it not? Let’s make it tougher. Imagine that your team’s best starting pitcher, a guy who takes the mound every fourth game, doesn’t just throw a knuckleball, but is perhaps the greatest knuckleballer in the history of the game. This was the reality for Earl Williams in 1971. On the strength of his bat alone, Williams made the team. He opened the season splitting time as a starter at third and first along with pinch hitting on those rare occasions where he didn’t start. On the 23rd of May, his career began to change.
The New York Mets were shutting out the Braves at Shea Stadium that day. Down by four runs, Braves manager Lum Harris lifted starter Mike McQueen for a pinch hitter in the eighth. Earl Williams was that pinch hitter and he popped up to first base. The Braves had been getting little to no offense out of their catching tandem of Bob Didier and Hal King to that point in the season. That Sunday afternoon at Shea, Lum Harris moved Williams behind the plate for the first time in his life. He caught Ron Herbel in the bottom of the eighth. The Braves lost the game and Williams returned to splitting his playing time between first and third base. It might have just been one of those blips that occasionally occur in a player’s career. Instead, it was the start of an experiment that worked out great for the Atlanta Braves and for Earl Williams.
The Braves traveled to Cincinnati for a doubleheader on June 20. In the second game, Lum Harris listed Earl Williams as the starting catcher on his lineup card. He was hitting in the cleanup spot where he was sandwiched by former MVP winners Hank Aaron and Zolio Versalles. The day was mostly uneventful for Williams. In the second, George Foster singled and attempted to steal second. Williams first throw to second as a catcher sailed so he racked up an error in his first game as the starter. He would get a single in the sixth, but he was stranded. The Braves were shutout by the Reds and found themselves nine games below .500. The decision to put Earl Williams behind the plate proved to be a fruitful one for Harris though.
Williams blossomed in his new role and he had many offensive highlights throughout the season. There were three multiple home run games for the rookie catcher. He drove in six runs in a single game. He also received a lot of praise for his defense behind the plate. When considering the numbers, they don’t look great. He did, after all, commit eight errors and give up fifteen passed balls. Still, he managed to throw out 27% of would be base stealers and received praise from Phil Niekro for his work behind the plate. Niekro knew better than most that it was a chore to be his receiver.
When the season was over, the Braves finished a modest two games over .500. Earl Williams put up an impressive .260/.324/.491 slash line and belted 33 homers and drive in 87. He captured the Rookie of the Year award with an impressive 75% of the vote. It remains one of the best and most interesting rookie seasons in Atlanta Braves history.
His career was a mixed bag from that point forward. He put up impressive numbers again in 1972. They were impressive enough to get the attention of Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver who wanted Williams bat in his lineup. The Orioles wanted Williams so bad that they gave up four players to get him on the team. While Williams was a solid power hitter for his two seasons in Baltimore, his time with the Orioles is better remembered for the constant butting of heads between himself and Weaver. He returned to Atlanta in 1975 and would finish up his big league career with Montreal in 1976 and Oakland in 1977. Over this time, he developed a reputation as being outspoken and a problem child. Despite showing decent power and playing solid, he found himself out of baseball.
In 1978, frustrated by his inability to get a contract despite being in what he considered the best shape of his life, Williams took out an ad in the New York Times looking for a job in baseball. Unfortunately, there were no takers and his career came to an end. In the end, he considered himself fortunate to have played professional baseball and looked back on his time in baseball, especially that with the Braves, fondly. Phil Niekro, for one, considered Williams nothing short of a great teammate. "Earl was as good in the clubhouse and on the bench as I think any teammate I ever had,“ Niekro says. ”He enjoyed the game, had a lot of respect for being able to play the game. He was a good ballplayer …"
That doesn’t sound like a problem case, does it? Truth is, Earl Williams had been branded a militant during his time in Baltimore and that branding carried with it a snide borderline racist intent. Truth is, in 1977, Williams was still more productive than the majority of backup catchers across the major leagues. He could have kept playing. In the long run, it’s no matter since he would eventually find peace with it. In the end, he played alongside men like Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Phil Niekro. He played for the great Eddie Mathews. He won a Rookie of the Year award and turned himself into a competent big league backstop, despite no experience at that position at any previous point of his career. That’s a success.
Last year, Earl Williams was diagnosed with acute leukemia. He passed away Wednesday at his home in New Jersey with his wife Linda by his side. He was 64 years old.
For more about Earl Williams, check out the following: