Move got Williams to Major Leagues
Reluctant to switch, catching position opened the door
Some guys will do anything for playing time in the Major Leagues. Take former Braves player Earl Williams.
"I wanted to get into the lineup, so that's how I became a catcher," said Williams, who was originally drafted as a pitcher by the Milwaukee Braves in the first round of the 1965 First-Year Player Draft, but was converted to a corner infielder to get his bat in the lineup every day.
"The Braves had approached me when I was in Triple-A in Richmond about going behind the plate. I was reluctant to do it because after having spent five years in the Minor Leagues already, I kind of felt like it would take me another two or three years to learn how to catch. But the way the fates would have it, that's how I broke into the lineup. I was fortunate enough to be successful from the outset, because you can go in the lineup and be in a slump and go back into the dugout."
He appeared in 10 games in 1970 and was used primarily as a pinch-hitter early in the '71 season. But with catchers Bob Didier and Hal King struggling at the plate, Braves manager Lum Harris experimented, moving him behind the plate.
On May 23, 1971, he made his catching debut in the bottom of the eighth inning against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, catching right-hander Ron Herbel. Williams made his first start behind the plate on June 20, in the second game of a doubleheader at Cincinnati, and became the regular catcher after that.
The change in positions did the trick for Williams and the Braves. The team, which was seven games under .500 starting play June 20, went 51-42 the rest of the way, while Williams, who was hitting only .247 with nine home runs and 27 RBIs at the time, finished the year with 33 home runs and 87 RBIs with a .260 average and took home National League Rookie of the Year honors.
"I always treasured [the Rookie of the Year] award, because you can only win it one time," he said. "I also felt it was kind of special because there was another ballplayer named Willie Montanez, who played for the Phillies. As a center fielder, he had an outstanding season [30 homers, 99 RBIs, .255 average], but I think the reason I won it was because the baseball people recognized that I was playing the most difficult position on the field and I hadn't played it in the Minor Leagues, so they gave me the nod."
Playing for the Braves in 1971 meant playing for an offensive powerhouse that featured future Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Orlando Cepeda, as well as Rico Carty, Darrell Evans, Ralph Garr and future managers Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa.
Being the primary catcher also meant catching future Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro and his knuckleball, which proved something of a mixed bag.
"It would be kind of hit or miss regarding the knuckleball," Williams said. "I can remember days when 'Knucksie' would be pitching and I would hardly drop a ball. Then I remember other games where I would say, 'Today I felt like a black labrador retriever,' because he would throw and I couldn't catch anything.
"I can remember diving to my right and having the ball jump over my left shoulder," he added with a laugh. "It was the makings of a nightmare that you know is coming tomorrow."
In 1971, Williams was a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
During the sixth inning of the Sept. 10, 1971, game against the San Francisco Giants, Williams made history against his nemesis Gaylord Perry, crushing a pitch into the upper deck at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"I believe that the ball that I hit was a high, inside fastball," he said. "Gaylord used to get me out pretty easily, so I had to guess. It was one of those instances where you're looking for a particular pitch, you got it, and everything just clicked right, because that is quite a poke."
That poke was the second and last ball to reach the stadium's upper deck. Aaron had hit the first.
"To be mentioned in the same breath as Hank is always memorable," Williams said. "I wasn't aware at the time. I learned later that Hank and I were the only two guys to do it. Of course, that caused me to be even more proud of it."
Williams played the 1972 season in Atlanta, then, after two years in Baltimore, he came back to the Braves for the '75 season and part of 1976. After playing in Montreal and Oakland, he retired after the 1977 season. He finished his eight-year career with a .247 average, 138 homers and 457 RBIs.
Today, Williams is a proud father and grandfather and lives with his wife in Somerset, N.J. He is a warehouse supervisor for a pharmaceutical and cosmetic manufacturer, a position he has had for more than 20 years. He admits that baseball is still in his blood, which makes being a casual observer difficult.
"I watch baseball games sparingly because what happens is, when I watch a baseball game, I have to call all the pitches," he said with a laugh. "I become the catcher and I have to call all of the pitches."
Williams keeps in contact with the Braves and the entire "baseball family," recently attending the annual Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis in New York, where he met up with former teammate Sonny Jackson.
"The Baseball Assistance Team is a wonderful organization," he raved. "What they do is provide assistance for anyone associated with the baseball family, because, unlike myself, sometimes people fall on hard times. B.A.T. provides assistance, primarily anonymously, to anyone who is a member of the baseball family. It's a very valuable program and makes me feel proud to be a part of the baseball family."
Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.