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Dick Williams; Sox skipper for Impossible Dream season

In 1967, Dick Williams led the Red Sox into contention and brought baseball back to life in New England. The team clinched the pennant on the final day of the season. In 1967, Dick Williams led the Red Sox into contention and brought baseball back to life in New England. The team clinched the pennant on the final day of the season. (Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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The Red Sox had suffered through eight straight losing seasons before Dick Williams took over as manager before the 1967 season. Opening Day that season drew only 8,324 fans to Fenway Park, such was the lack of interest in the team.

Mr. Williams and the “Impossible Dream’’ Sox changed that, advancing to the World Series and capturing the sporting heart of an entire region.

One of the architects of a phenomenon that continues to this day, Mr. Williams died yesterday at 82. A member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, Mr. Williams died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at a hospital near his home in Henderson, Nev.

“Players had great respect for him,’’ said Carl Yastrzemski, the star of the 1967 Sox. “He worked hard, and he wanted everybody to work hard. He was the right guy at the right time.’’

Born May 7, 1929, Mr. Williams was raised in St. Louis and in Southern California. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and went on to play parts of 13 seasons in the major leagues with five teams. He hit .260 with 70 home runs as an outfielder, first baseman, third baseman, and second baseman.

Mr. Williams ended his playing career with the Red Sox in 1964 and accepted a position as a player-coach with the organization’s Triple A team in Seattle.

Days later, manager Edo Vanni resigned when the Red Sox moved their affiliate to Toronto, and Mr. Williams was named manager despite his lack of experience. Mr. Williams led the team to consecutive International League championships and earned a one-year contract to manage the Red Sox.

In Boston, he inherited a team of young players who had finished 72-90 the season before. Mr. Williams famously predicted, “We will win more ballgames than we lose’’ during spring training. That seemed like a fanciful notion, given the state of the team.

Mr. Williams changed what was thought of as a “country club’’ atmosphere around the Red Sox by emphasizing discipline and fundamental play. His no-nonsense style got results.

“I’m glad I was a starter and not a utility player; he was tough on those guys,’’ Yastrzemski said. “That proved to be a big thing in our success that year. They all came through.’’

The team was 42-40 with the season just past the halfway mark. A 10-game winning streak vaulted the Sox into contention and brought baseball back to life in New England.

Second baseman Mike Andrews played for Mr. Williams in Toronto and joined him in Boston in 1967.

“Dick probably had more influence on my career than anybody,’’ Andrews said. “I don’t think I knew anyone in baseball who knew more than he did.’’

The Sox, who had not won a pennant since 1946, clinched on the final day of the season. Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, hitting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBIs and was named Most Valuable Player.

The Red Sox were heavy underdogs against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series but pushed the National League champions to seven games before falling.

Mr. Williams was named the manager of the year by The Sporting News and was rewarded with a three-year contract. He managed only two more seasons in Boston, however, getting fired by owner Tom Yawkey with nine games remaining in the 1969 season.

“He was a tough guy, but a smart guy,’’ said Ken Harrelson, who played for Mr. Williams in 1968 and ’69. “He wasn’t a good manager; he was a great manager. He had great instincts on and off the baseball field, and you always knew where you stood.’’

Angered by his dismissal, Mr. Williams had a distant relationship with the Sox until later in his life. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2006.

“Dick was an outstanding leader who demanded excellence and accountability from all his players,’’ Red Sox owner John Henry said. “We will dearly miss Dick Williams.’’

After leaving Boston, Mr. Williams managed the Oakland Athletics, California Angels, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Mariners. Oakland won the World Series twice in his three seasons there.

Under Mr. Williams, the “Swingin’ A’s’’ were one of baseball’s most colorful and accomplished teams, winning 288 games during his tenure. Those Oakland teams included such stars as Jim “Catfish’’ Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, and Sal Bando.

Mr. Williams resigned in 1973, aggravated by the antics of meddling owner Charley Finley.

He also led the Padres to the 1984 World Series. As was the case in Boston, Mr. Williams turned a perennial loser into a contender. His final season was in 1988 with Seattle. Mr. Williams also spent time as a special consultant to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

It was with Montreal in 1981 that Mr. Williams managed a rookie named Terry Francona.

“He was rough, to say the least,’’ said Francona, now the manager of the Red Sox. “He was a brilliant manager, also, and everybody knew it. He was way ahead of the game. You knew when you were going to hit, why you were going to hit, who you were going to hit off of. . . . He was good.’’

Francona made his debut Aug. 19 in Houston, arriving in the fifth inning after being called up from the minors.

“I found my way into the dugout and he said, ‘Kid, you’re leading off next inning.’ No hello, no nothing. That was Dick,’’ said Francona.

“I remember my third game, I didn’t get a bunt down, and he met me at the dugout and reminded me I better get the bunt down or I’d be doing it in Denver.’’

Francona’s father, Tito, played with Mr. Williams in 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles. Terry Francona and Rick Williams, Dick Williams’s son, were teammates with the Double A Memphis Chicks in 1980.

Francona has heard the stories of what Mr. Williams did for the Red Sox in 1967.

“It seems like they recaptured this region that year,’’ he said. “It sure seems like people fell in love with the team that year.’’

The Red Sox had a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Williams before last night’s game against Baltimore.

Mr. Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. He leaves his wife, Norma, three children, and five grandchildren.

Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy contributed to this report. Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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