It was his managerial record that earned Williams election by the Veterans Committee, but what type of manager he became was honed in part as a player coming under the influence of mentors like Bobby Bragan and Paul Richards.
Williams was seated on the dais not far from Peter O'Malley, son of former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who was inducted posthumously. Williams told the crowd he spent his first 10 seasons in that organization, where he learned from Bragan, now 90, among others.
"Along with Tommy Lasorda, I was an early member of Dodgertown U.S.A. in Vero Beach, Fla.," Williams said. "What an experience that was. We slept in old Navy barracks with spring mattresses. We were called at six o'clock in the morning. You put on your uniform and had to finish eating by 7:30. You looked at the board to see what your schedule was that day, and if you had the sliding pit at eight in the morning, you were in all kinds of trouble because you itched all day long. All their Minor League managers had been Major League players. They had Hall of Famers like George Sisler giving us instructions in every phase of the game. This is where I learned my baseball, which we called, 'Branch Rickey baseball.'"
2008 Induction Ceremony
Williams, 79, grew up in St. Louis and got hooked on baseball very early.
"It started with the Knot Hole Gang experience in 1936," he said. "You had to be 10 to belong. I was only 7, but my older brother Ellery, I used his pass and would go from the elementary school across Beaumont High School to Sportsman's Park and maybe get there by the last of the first inning or the top of the second. I didn't get much homework done, but I saw a lot of wonderful baseball with the Cardinals and the Browns."
Williams acknowledged that his playing career was little more than marginal, but that he kept his eyes and ears open.
"I played 13 years," he said. "I was an extra man; I couldn't throw a lick. I was lucky enough that I could play six or seven positions, and that helped me quite a bit staying in the Major Leagues. Paul Richards acquired me four different times. Come to think of it, he got rid of me four times, too."
Williams' managerial break came in the Minors, when the Red Sox changed their Triple-A affiliate from Seattle to Toronto, and the manager didn't want to move. Williams got the job, won two Governor Cup trophies and was hired by Red Sox general manager Dick O'Connell to come to Boston.
"I was the cockiest manager," Williams said. "I had a one-year contract and leased an apartment for three years, and Norma bought furniture on three-year terms."
Nevertheless, his first Major League season in the dugout was a rousing success, as the Red Sox won their first pennant in 21 years.
"We had the 'Impossible Dream' year in 1967," Williams said, pleasing Red Sox Nation fans in the crowd. "Then I got awfully dumb in two years, but I lost [pitchers] Jim Lonborg and Jose Santiago and [outfielder] Tony Conigliaro [to injuries]."
Williams had kind words for his next boss, Oakland's Charles O. Finley, and made mention of another inductee.
"I worked for Charles Oscar Finley, who was also a good friend of Bowie Kuhn," he said, tongue planted firmly in his cheek for the former Commissioner of Baseball. "They fought like cats and dogs."
So did the A's clubs of that era, among each other, but they won the World Series in 1972 and '73 before Williams quit over the owner's interference. Williams reached the World Series again with the San Diego Padres in 1984 and took note of the influence on that team of another inductee, Goose Gossage.
"Managers don't make players," Williams said. "I've got to believe players make managers. They played hard. I was strict on fundamentals, and I wasn't the easiest guy to work for. I go back to Tim Flannery, who I had in San Diego and who said, 'I love Dick as a manager, but I if I ever saw him when I'm through playing baseball, I'd run over him with my car.' Tim and I laugh about that now, but I still know what model car he drives and where he lives. Right now, he is with the San Francisco Giants as their third-base coach. I have scouts, also."
Other stops included Anaheim, working for "The Cowboy," Gene Autry; Montreal, in 1970 as third-base coach for manager Gene Mauch ("I learned more about running a ballclub from him than anybody"), then as manager from 1977-81; and Seattle in 1986.
Williams next paid homage to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had tried to hire him in 1974 and later had him under contract for 10 years as a scout and adviser.
"Whether you advise George or not, I don't know, but I at least gave my opinion," Williams said. "They were 10 wonderful years. I've heard a talk about George possibly going into the Hall of Fame. I'd like to be on that voting committee because I would vote right away for George."