At long last, Williams gets his Hall tour

At long last, Williams gets his tour

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The doors to baseball's Hall of Fame have finally opened for Dick Williams, and to say it's about time is an understatement.

To me, Williams was the best manager of his era and the fact he was shut out of the game's premier honor for so long is an injustice. It doesn't say much for the movers and shakers who do the voting for such honors.

But that has all changed, and to see the former manager walk through the hollowed building on Thursday made it all worthwhile for me.

I say the doors opened, and they really did. Williams, elected by the revamped Veterans Committee in December, got a firsthand look at what it's going to be like joining this exclusive, distinguished fraternity.

The Hall of Fame conducts these orientation tours for newcomers before the sleepy little village wakes up for the summer and thousands arrive for induction ceremonies -- this year on July 27.

Relief ace Goose Gossage, the only other living person who'll be inducted with Williams, will walk through the museum on May 12.

It's probably a good thing Williams arrived first, because had Goose led off, there's a chance he'd have planted some type of booby trap for his former manager. Just kidding, but they've been taking good-natured pot shots at each other for years.

Watching Williams, who turns 79 on Wednesday, stroll through the Hall of Fame with a few friends tagging along was moving.

When he managed, he had the reputation of being a hard-driving, sharp-tongued skipper who did things his way or else. He took no prisoners. Maybe it was that persona that prolonged his trip to Cooperstown.

Thursday, he was emotional. "You just can't fathom how great a thing this is," he said, his glistening white hair a striking contrast to blue blazer and argyle sweater. "In your profession, to reach the pinnacle it's the ultimate. For me, it's being elected to the Hall of Fame. It took me a few years to get here, but I'm still alive and if I can last 10 years, I'll be back every year."

It always troubled me that anyone with his credentials wouldn't be a slam-dunk choice. Between 1967 and 1988, he led teams to three American League pennants, one NL pennant and two World Series titles. He's one of only seven managers to win pennants in both leagues. Only he and Bill McKechnie led three different franchises to the World Series.

Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda and Earl Weaver, peers from Williams' era, are already in the Hall. Take nothing away from these great skippers, but I believe Williams was better.

Enough of that for now.

The tour was moving along at a good pace until Williams approached an exhibit of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Williams, who as a player batted .260 with 70 home runs during 13 years with five teams, started with Brooklyn.

"Jackie and I were both from Pasadena [Calif.]," said Williams. "When I got to the Dodgers [in 1951], he took me under his wing. He was like a big brother."

The stop at the ballpark exhibit which featured old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn almost brought tears, as Williams described intricacies and nuances of the stadium, which opened 1913 at a cost of $700,000 and was razed soon after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Along the way Dick posed for pictures with a sports marketing class from a high school in Whitesboro, N.Y.

"Are you enjoying this?" he asked as heads nodded. "So am I. I just hope you're having as much fun as I am."

Williams was most successful as manager of the very talented, but maverick Oakland A's. He won the World Series in 1972 and 1973 and insists there wasn't as much feuding and fighting in the clubhouse among players as reported.

Reggie Jackson was like a son, he said, before taking off on Oakland owner Charlie Finley, who tried to make drastic changes to the game, such as using orange baseballs, multi-colored uniforms and even suggesting baseball adopt a two-strikes-and-you're-out rule, as well as reduce the number to three balls for a walk.

"He'd sometimes call from his office in Chicago and tell us what uniform combinations we were to wear," said Dick. "At times we felt like softball players with all that yellow, green and white."

The Boston Red Sox have a special place in Williams' heart because it was there in his rookie managerial season of 1967 he pulled off what is known as "The Impossible Dream."

He took over a team that had finished ninth in 1966 and guided the Red Sox to the AL pennant. They pushed St. Louis to a seventh game in the World Series before losing.

"Too much Bob Gibson," muttered Williams.

Then, looking at a picture of Carl Yastrzemski, he blurted. "He was one of my meal tickets."

Yaz, the last player to win the Triple Crown, is in the Hall of Fame. Williams was quick to point out that Yastrzemski won the MVP that season, Jim Lonborg the Cy Young Award "and I was manager of the year. I honestly believe that was the birth of Red Sox Nation," he said.

There was even a visit to the catacombs below the Hall of Fame, where the off-limits, climate-controlled vaults of memorabilia exist. Here, thousands of items including boxes of signed baseballs of every Hall of Famer, uniforms, gloves, bats, trophies, books and pictures are stored.

Before Williams was allowed to pick up a bat or even Rollie Fingers' jersey, senior curator Tom Shieber ordered the new Hall of Famer to slip on white cotton gloves.

These items are not on display, but are meticulously cared for and maintained by the Hall of Fame -- a promise to the player, person, team or organization which donated them.

Now, the records, memories and memorabilia of one of baseball's greatest managerial careers will be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Which is where they should have been all along.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.