Earl Williams, who at 22 was named 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, died today after a bout with acute leukemia. He was 64.
Williams was one of five Atlanta Braves — along with Kimbrel, Fukey, Justice and Horner — to win ROY. Although Justice and Horner had better overall seasons, and fewer AB’s, Williams’ 33 HR and 87 are tops among Atlanta Braves rookies.
Remarkably, Williams’ rookie season also marked his debut as a catcher. The former corner infielder started 71 games behind the plate, and though he had 15 passed balls he threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal.
The Society for American Baseball Research has an interesting overview of Williams’s career.
Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harris came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”
Williams told Sport Magazine in 1972, “My favorite position is batter,” and he played it well in 1971. On April 16 against the Phillies, Earl hit a two-run single for an 8-7 Braves victory, and the next day had the first of his five two-home run games of the season. On June 13, Williams had two three-run homers against the Astros, and on July 7 Earl pounded the Phillies again, this time with two home runs off of Barry Lersch. He won August player of the month honors in a media poll. For the year Earl had 33 homers and 87 RBI (fifth best in the NL), along with a respectable .260 average.
His fielding as a novice catcher was seen as remarkable at the time. Phil Niekro marveled at Earl’s ability to catch his knuckler, saying he caught as if he’d been “playing it for ten years.” Honey Russell said that Earl “isn’t far behind Johnny Bench as a catcher defensively.” In the Braves report in The Sporting News on July 24, Braves pitchers were quoted as saying Earl is “smart and calls a good game.” Also, his strong arm from his schoolboy pitching days served Williams well behind the plate. Earl himself would only offer that he had “plenty of room for improvement.”
He followed up his rookie season with 28 HR and 87 RBI but was traded, along with the Braves’ first round draft pick in ’71, Taylor Duncan, for Pat Dobson, Davey Johnson, Johnny Oates and Roric Harrison.
He was traded back to the Braves in ’75 but wasn’t the same. Williams’ big league career was over at age 29.
Earl Williams, 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, had a life and career of dramatic swings. His power numbers for his first three years were first rate, but his pugnacious nature and willingness to speak out were constant trouble during his career. After 1980 he never played professional ball again. As he said in a Braves publication in 1976, “unusual things happen to me.”
NPR’s “All Things Considered” also has an interesting feature on Williams, from 2011.
- Earl Williams: 1948-2013 (hardballtalk.nbcsports.com)