Sweet-swinging Billy Williams quietly carved out a Hall of Fame career. Often overshadowed by flashier players during his heyday, he was a dependable star for 14 full seasons as a Cub. From September 22, 1963 to September 2, 1970, he established a National League record of 1,117 consecutive games played that stood until Steve Garvey broke it in 1983. He also set NL marks for games played by an outfielder in one season (164 in 1965) and consecutive years with 600 or more at-bats (nine, from 1962 to ’70, broken by Pete Rose). He tied major league records with five homers in two consecutive games (September 8 and 10, 1968), and four consecutive doubles in a game (April 9, 1969).
The Alabama native, inspired by the feats of Hank Aaron, signed with the Cubs in 1956. A lefthanded hitter, he batted better than .300 at every minor league level and had brief trials in Chicago in 1959 and 1960. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby worked with him at Houston (American Association) in ’60 as a roving instructor, and told the Cubs front office that Williams belonged in the majors. Hornsby proved correct. Williams batted .278 with 25 HR and 86 RBI in 1961 to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, but received little publicity in light of Mickey Mantle‘s and Roger Maris‘s accomplishments that year. That was the first of 13 straight seasons in which Williams delivered at least 20 HR and 84 RBI.
Two of Williams’s greatest games came in 1968; he hit for the cycle on July 17, and hit three homers on September 10. But he was stuck on a losing club, and overshadowed by the jovial Ernie Banks and the outspoken Ron Santo. The arrival of Leo Durocher, another flamboyant figure, brought winning back to the Cubs, with Williams leading the way. June 29, 1969 was designated Billy Williams Day at Wrigley Field; the man of honor broke Stan Musial‘s NL record of 896 consecutive games played, and went 5-for-9 as the Cubs took two from the Cardinals. Chicago seemed pennant-bound that year, but fell before the late-season charge of the “Amazing” Mets. While many of the Cubs slumped, Williams hit .304 in September.
Williams had his most productive season in 1970, leading the NL in hits and in runs scored, and finished second to Johnny Bench in HR (42) and RBI (129). In 1972, he hit .333 to win the NL batting crown. That July 11, he went 8-for-8 in a doubleheader. He finished second to Bench in the RBI race and in NL MVP voting, but was named TSN ML Player of the Year.
Williams never played in a World Series. His best chance came after he was traded to Oakland for Darold Knowles, Bob Locker, and Manny Trillo after the 1974 season. Williams was, by then, perfect for the DH role, and helped the A’s to a fifth straight divisional title. But the Red Sox kept Williams and the A’s from the WS with a sweep in the LCS.
Williams retired after batting .211 in 1976 and returned to the Cubs as a coach and batting instructor. He served Oakland in the same capacity in 1983-85, then went back to the Cubs. On his sixth try, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987. The following year, he moved into Chicago’s front office.