Song for an Unsung Slugger

The Baker Bowl bleachers were packed in 1915, presumably to see Cy Williams. (via Bain News Service)

The Baker Bowl bleachers were packed in 1915, presumably to see Cy Williams. (via Bain News Service)

If I asked you to name the first player in American League history to reach 200 home runs, you’d probably respond with “Babe Ruth” before I’d even finished asking the question.

If I asked you to name the first player in National League history to reach 200 home runs, you might have to pause momentarily to ponder it. Upon reflection, you might come up with Rogers Hornsby. A perfectly reasonable response – but wrong!

The answer is Cy Williams, who reached the 200 mark in 1926 while toiling for the Phillies. On the baseball celeb scale, he is nowhere near the Bambino or Hornsby. His name may ring a bell, but certainly not a big Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame/Quasimodo-size bell.

Born Fred (apparently no middle name) Williams on Dec. 21, 1887, in minuscule Wadena, Ind., he was known as Cy, which, according to his SABR biography, was a common nickname for country boys (though Denton True “Cy” Young, also a farm boy, apparently derived his nickname from “Cyclone”). I’m guessing the popularity of Cy is due to Cyrus McCormick, who perfected the mechanical reaper and founded International Harvester. But that’s just a guess.

Williams debuted with the Chicago Cubs at the age of 24 in 1912. It was also his professional debut, as his primary experience to that point had been college ball at Notre Dame (the one in Indiana, not the one in Paris).

Williams was an outstanding all-around athlete (he also ran track and played football with Knute Rockne), so he was hardly a sleeper. The Fighting Irish baseball team frequently played exhibition games against pro teams, which was a pretty good way for a college kid to attract the attention of pro scouts.

Fighting off all offers before graduation, he finally signed with the Cubs in 1912 – which disqualified him from the Olympics in Stockholm that year. These were the games in which Jim Thorpe earned – and was later stripped of – numerous medals because he had played minor league baseball. One year later, Thorpe, as a member of the Giants, was playing against Williams.

Williams’ rookie year was a classic good-news/bad-news/really-bad-news situation. The good news was that the Cubs went 91-59. The bad news was that they finished in third place, 11.5 games behind the Giants (103-48). The really bad news was that Williams’ partial season (he did not premiere till July 18) in 1912 was as close as he ever got to a pennant race. In 19 seasons, he never played for a team that had a higher winning percentage (.607) than the 1912 Cubs.

Initially, Williams gave no indication that he would ever be a long ball threat, even by the standards of the dead-ball era. In his first three seasons with the Cubs, he had but four home runs in part-time duty (312 at bats). Coincidentally, his third season (1914) was the last one in which he played for a winning team.

In 1915, he went full-time and clubbed 13 home runs, good for second (albeit distant, behind 24 hit by Gavvy Cravath of the Phillies) in the NL. His frequency rate was one homer for every 39.8 at bats, no big deal today, but good enough for third place in the NL that season. Of note, six of his 13 four-baggers were inside-the-park, so his speed was as important as his power in placing him on the home run leaderboard.

In 1916, he hit 12 homers, which was good enough to tie the Giants’ Dave Robertson for the league lead, and his .831 OPS was also tops in the Senior Circuit. But he was back in single digits (five) the following season.

The Cubs had seen enough, as his power outage was part of an overall offensive decline. His 1917 batting average had dipped to a mere .241, and he led the league in strikeouts (78) at a time when contact hitting was all the rage.

A few days after Williams turned 30, the Cubs traded him to the Phillies for outfielder Dode Paskert. Williams would wear the Phillies uniform for the next 13 seasons. Paskert was 36 years old at the time. Initially, the trade might have appeared to be a wash, but as the seasons passed (Paskert retired in May of 1921), it was obvious that the Phillies got more than they had bargained for.

The Phillies doubtless figured that the left-handed hitting Williams – renowned as a dead-pull hitter — would enjoy the short right field fence (280 feet) and adjacent power alley (300 feet) at their home park, Baker Bowl. Williams’ proclivities were so well known that he inspired extreme infield and outfield shifts long before it became commonplace.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

At first, the results were indifferent. In 1918 he hit six home runs and batted .276; in 1919 he hit nine homers and hit .278. Good enough to stick around in the majors, but if the All-Star game had been around in those days, Williams would not have been named to it. The fleet, lean (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) Williams was an outstanding fly-chaser, which offered him an extra measure of job security.

Then, in 1920, at age 32 – in an era when many of his peers were on the way down if not washed up – Williams became a force to be reckoned with. Patrolling the Phillies outfield with Irish Meusel and Casey Stengel, Williams led the NL with 15 home runs. He would be in double figures the next eight seasons.

Since 1920 was Babe Ruth’s debut/breakthrough year (54 homers) with the Yankees, the NL home run crown winner was destined to be overlooked, but Williams’ teammates could hardly fail to take notice of his offensive achievements.

In 1920, Williams all but ran the table for the Phillies, leading the team not only in home runs, but also in games (148), at-bats (590), runs (88), hits (192), total bases (293), doubles (36), triples (10), runs batted in (72), stolen bases (18) and average (.325 – his first of five .300 seasons). Only Casey Stengel’s team-leading 38 walks kept Williams from a clean sweep of team offensive statistics.

Three more seasons deserve special mention. In 1923 Williams led the league in home runs with 41 (it was one short of the National League record of 42 set by Hornsby the year before) and drove home 114, at the time, a record for a center fielder. His home run rate of one every 13 at-bats was the best of his career, and would be impressive even in today’s game.

That total of 41 homers was also a Phillies team record till 1929, when Chuck Klein hit 43. His total of 15 home runs in May was a NL record for that month (now held by Barry Bonds with 17 in 2001). His 44 RBI in May is still the major league record for that month.

In 1926, there was no home run title for Williams (he hit 18), but he led the league in slugging with .568 and OPS with .986.

In 1927, at age 39, he tied the Cubs’ Hack Wilson for the NL crown in homers with 30. As was the case in 1920, Ruth’s achievements overshadowed NL sluggers, so Williams’ feat was barely a blip on the radar screen. Yet to this day, he remains the oldest man to win a league home run title.

That was his last notable season, but he lingered with the Phillies until 1930, retiring at age 42. At that point, he, Hornsby and Ruth were the only men in major league baseball with 250 career home runs. In addition to his 251 home runs, Williams accumulated 1,981 hits, drove home 1,005, and batted .292.

In 1931, Williams gained his only minor league experience, coming to bat 46 times as player-manager for the Richmond Byrds (presumably a salute to Virginia’s prominent Byrd family) of the Eastern League. And so ended Williams’ baseball career.

During the 1920s, Williams was one of the most feared sluggers in the NL, but he had the handicap of playing with teams that failed to contend, to put it politely.

The Cubs had been a dynasty in the first decade of the 20th century, but after their 1910 pennant, they finished lower and lower in the standings. Attendance was also in free fall until the Cubs took over the Federal League park, Weeghman (n/k/a Wrigley) Field, after the 1915 season.

During the war-shortened 1918 season, the Cubs captured a pennant, improving from fifth place and 24 games back the previous season. But Williams was not among the champagne-imbibers, as he had been traded to the Phillies before the season. At the time, it might have seemed like a step up. After all, the Phils had won the pennant in 1915, and had finished second the next two seasons.

But as it turned out, the Phillies were actually in the early stages of a 35-year pennant drought. During Williams’ tenure, they never finished above .500 and finished as high as fifth place only once. They finished last eight times from 1919 to 1930. During Williams’ time in the Quaker City, the team hit triple digits in losses five times. Only in 1918, 1925 and 1929 did the team lose fewer than 90 games.

For the most part, power-hitting was not a problem for the Phillies while Williams was on the squad. They led the league in home runs in 1919 with 42; in 1920 with 64; in 1921 with 88, in 1922 with 116, 112 in 1923, and 153 in 1929. Also in 1929, the Phillies had four players (Don Hurst, Pinky Whitney, Chuck Klein, and Lefty O’Doul) with 115 or more RBI, and the team led the league in hitting (.309) and slugging (.467).

One need not resort to any intricate number-crunching to prove that pitching was a problem for the Phillies. They were outscored every year Williams was with them – and it was never close. Twice the team gave up more than 1,000 runs. In 1923, the first season the Phillies hit quadruple digits (1,008) in runs allowed, their runs allowed total was 210 more than seventh-place Boston. In 1930, a season noted for offense, the Phillies were outscored 1,199 to 944. The smallest run differential was in the low-scoring deadball season of 1918, when the Phillies were outscored by 507 to 430.

Emerging from the deadball era, the Phillies’ team ERA of 3.63 was last in the NL in 1920. That figure grew bigger every year (other than 1924, when it actually went down almost half a run), reaching 6.13 in 1929. Throughout the decade, the team languished at the bottom of the league in team ERA. The following year, when the team batting average improved to .315, the pitchers’ ERA ballooned to 6.71. Easy to see why no shutouts were pitched at Baker Bowl in 1930. One suspects that contests at that park were lively affairs if not artistic triumphs.

From 1918 through 1930, Williams hit .301 for the Phillies. Normally, that would make people sit up and take notice, but the aging Baker Bowl (built in 1887) was not exactly Baseball Central in the post-World War I years. Few fans were present to witness Williams’ feats. During his tenure, average attendance at Baker Bowl varied from a low of 1,998 per game in 1918 to a “high” of 4,327 in 1920.

Given that he played for so many bad teams, it is no surprise that Williams played for 14 managers during his career – including the famed Tinker, Evers and Chance (though not in sequence) while with the Cubs.

What is surprising is that Williams never led the league in stolen bases, though he was renowned as a speed merchant. He was in double digits five times, but he never got more than 15 in 1921. One explanation is that with so much offensive firepower, the Phillies didn’t bother stealing bases. Another is that Williams played for so many bad teams, they were (presumably) only rarely in close games where a stolen base might actually make a difference.

Another oddity is Williams’ relative dearth of triples. Only twice was he in double figures (10 in 1920 and 11 in 1924), which was nothing to write home about in those days. His penchant for pull-hitting at Baker Bowl might have been responsible, as that hitting style was not conducive to triples. Had he hit to the opposite field more often, that facility’s more spacious left and center field might have found him on third base more often.

Williams’ obscurity is due in part to his career being split between the dead ball and live ball eras. During the former era, home run champs were sometimes in single digits – hopelessly meager by today’s standards. A natural athlete combining speed and power, Williams might have been a household word had he been born a few decades later and played for better teams.

Given that his deeds occurred decades before Ralph Kiner’s famous dictum about home run hitters driving Cadillacs, it is not likely that Williams drove a luxury car during his playing years. His post-baseball career as an architect (I can’t think of any other major league player who went that route) might have afforded him sufficient income to purchase a Cadillac.

If you’re wondering, Williams is not in the Hall of Fame. One possible reason is that with four other guys named Williams (Billy, Dick, Joe and Ted) in the Hall of Fame, voters figured that surname had already surpassed its quota.

More likely, Veterans Committee voters thought he was good but not great. Baseball-References’s similarity score links him with Bobby Murcer, a solid player but hardly the second coming of Mickey Mantle. Even so, had he played for better teams and had a chance to shine in a pennant race or a World Series, he might have garnered a few more Hall of Fame votes.

In a sense, Williams was the bridge between Gavvy Cravath, the Phillies’ dead ball slugger, and Chuck Klein, the Phillies’ lively ball slugger. I don’t think it would be out of order to say Williams was the face of the franchise for the 1920s Phillies. Unfortunately, given the team’s relentlessly dismal record, that could be considered damning with faint praise. Had Williams wanted to obscure the face of the franchise by putting a paper bag over his head, who would blame him?

While his absence from Cooperstown may be understandable, Williams deserves to be remembered for his contribution to baseball during the 1920s…even if they weren’t exactly the Roaring ’20s at Baker Bowl.


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Dead ball? Lively ball? Meh. It’s pretty easy to see the line there where everybody started taking steroids, innit?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

The Babe’s steroids appear to have come in a bottle!

Casey Bell
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Great article! Two things in particular struck me. The first was the low average attendence for games at the Baker Bowl. 1998 fans per game in 1918!!? Wow. The other thing that struck me is the 300 foot power alley at the Baker Bowl. No wonder Williams didn’t hit a lot of triples. In a park like that, the right fielder could probably get to virtually every ball hit in his direction within 1 or 2 bounces and his throws from right field to 3rd base would be relatively short, making it wiser for batters to settle for doubles than… Read more »

MATT JOHNSTON
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Thanks for a great article.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

The talk of the dead ball vs. live ball eras makes me wonder if taking some of the kick out of the ball wouldn’t be a good thing, bringing back contact hitting and more traffic on the bases. That would have to go together with lowering the mound, slowing down the grounds, a less stingy strike zone and fewer pitching changes. Cut down pitching staffs and make the pitchers take BP and NO DH! Bring baseball back into line with what it was historically, a better game with less down-time.

BobDD
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BobDD

Also obscured by contemporary Ken Williams of SL (AL) who had a very similar skill set.

Love these kind of articles!

JJ
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JJ

Is he in the Phillies Hall of Fame?

Cliff Blau
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Cliff Blau

114 RBIs wasn’t even the most for a centerfielder in 1923, let alone baseball history to that point. Tris Speaker had 130 RBIs the same year.

hysdavid
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hysdavid

The link to Williams in the HOF has the wrong Joe Williams. It should be A minor point in another fine Frank Jackson baseball history article.

Howard R
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Howard R

The main reason Williams did not steal a lot of bases is that he was an awful base stealer.